Insights and Observations

Running a Safe Set: Filming Mountain Biking


There’s nothing more exciting than filming a sport that you love. I grew up mountain biking here in Bellingham, WA, and started my filmmaking journey by creating edits on our local mountain bike hill. Over the years, Port Side has worked on a handful of mountain bike projects and filmed with a variety of athletes around the country. Over the years we’ve learned a few rules to live by on the trails and try to practice these on every shoot. Mountain biking is inherently risky and even the most seasoned pros understand they have to pay a tax on gravity. Unfortunately, when the cameras are rolling the risk increases, and having a standard operating procedure on set to minimize risk is necessary. Here’s a few rules we try to implement on every shoot:

Carson Storch reviews a shot with Christian Rigal. Photo by Riley Seebeck

1. Safety Meeting

Cameras inherently put pressure on your athletes to perform. They want to look good, we want them to look good, and this underlying pressure on a shoot can wreak havoc if not addressed. Before the rider drops gather the production team and athletes. Every single one of our shoots starts with a safety meeting. The goal of the meeting is to remind everyone that safety comes first and most importantly to remind the athletes to advocate for themselves. We tell them “Our job is to make you look good, we might suggest features that you aren’t comfortable with. We need you to tell us if you aren’t 100% confident in a feature.” Sometimes the athlete needs a reminder and it’s a good reminder for your production team to always put the rider's safety first. This is also a good time to discuss the schedule for the day, identify riskier features, and go over your shooting plan.

2. Let The Athlete Drive

A good rider knows what looks good on camera. Often your best bet is to bring your rider into the creative and pre-production conversations early. If they understand what the creative vision is, then they can help direct shots and guide camera placement. Giving riders ownership over the direction not only improves the quality of the filming but keeps them safer since they can use their own judgment to discern what trails/features will help achieve the creative vision.

3. Communication

Once while filming in Oregon, we were setting up a cable-cam rig over the trail. Four of us were setting up the cable and were in the process of pulling the cable taught over the trail. While we were working downhill, our photographer was shooting uphill with the athlete to make use of the downtime. As time went on, the photographer slowly worked his way down the trail and all of a sudden we looked up and the athlete was in the process of riding down the trail towards our cable slung at head height over the trail. We tried yelling but he couldn’t hear us. Fortunately, the three of us holding the cable all let go and dropped it just in time for the rider to jump over the cable. Looking back on this incident we should have established clear “film zones” vs “staging zones” and had better communication among the production team and athletes as to where we were setting up

A cable cam follows Carson Storch and Christian Rigal. Photo by Riley Seebeck

4. Signage

If you’re filming on a public trail (for which you should have permission from the landowner) place a sign at the beginning of the trail informing other riders that you’re down the trail. The last thing you want is someone dropping in above you while you’ve got people standing in the trail.

5. Organize Your Gear

This is a really simple piece of advice but one that goes a long way. Keep your gear off of the trail. Gear should be always kept off-trail and out of the way in the event, a rider drops before you’re ready.

Reviewing a shot with Hannah Bergmann and Tilly Melton. Photo by Eric Mickelson

6. Insurance

Accidents happen despite our best intentions.  The outcome of a feature a rider has hit a hundred times can change if something as small as the wind direction shifts. As a production company, it’s crucial to know what your insurance policy covers vs what it doesn’t. Generally, the liability for an athlete is held in the hands of the company that hired them. Are you paying the athlete or is the client? Also, some production insurance plans that cover actors won’t cover actors performing stunts.

*It should be noted I’m not an expert on insurance so please review this with your agent and client. This is merely what I’ve heard second-hand from other agents.

7. Release Form

Release forms and insurance go hand-in-hand. Every athlete should sign a release form that outlines their usage rights, pay, etc but also their relationship to liability with the project. There should be no surprises between the athlete, client, and production company should an accident happen.

8. Rest and Food

A simple practice to implement on your set is to have plenty of food and time to rest for your athletes. It’s tempting to push them to maximize your day but do so long enough and you’ll notice their focus and energy start to wane. Something I’ve tried to practice is letting the rider decide when they drop. It’s easy for the camera crew to get restless while waiting for an athlete to hike back up the trail. But giving them the space to decide when they drop ensures a safer run.

Peter Gustafson rides in Chisholm, Minnesota. Photo by Brett Rothmeyer

There’s nothing more fun than spending time in the woods running around with cameras as bikes whizz by. But as the production company, it’s your responsibility to ensure a safe set is in operation. Talk to your athlete, scout the trail together, and work together to create the desired outcome.

-Cole Heilborn, Founder and Producer