Why downhill camera operators are winter sport’s true unsung heroes

There is a famous adage about 1930s tap dancing legend Ginger Rogers which talks about how she did everything Fred Astaire did “only backward and in high heels.” In the world of snow sports, the same could be said for downhill camera operators, who do everything pro athletes do but backward while holding (and skillfully operating) a camera.

From your home TV screen, they make it look effortless. But in reality, they fly downhill at the same breakneck speeds as Olympic athletes and navigate the same technical courses while taking the same jaw-dropping leaps through the air. Be it backward, frontward, or sideways, they execute their runs flawlessly while also carrying up to 20 pounds of bulky, awkward camera equipment and peering through a narrow pinhole.

Digital Trends caught up with world-renowned ski camera operators Corey Koniniec and Kirk Bereska while they were shooting footage for Red Bull TV’s broadcast of the 2018 Burton US Open in Vail, Colorado, to ask them what it takes to succeed at snow sports’ toughest job.

Red Bull

Like riding a bike but backward

To pull off stunts of this scale, they must possess a staggering degree of agility. Not only do they have to be expert snowboarders but their muscle memory must be so well-honed that they can essentially navigate the courses without looking.

“When [Kirk is] chasing skiers and snowboarders off jumps, they range anywhere from 30 to 90 feet, oftentimes flying over 20 feet from the deck.”

While doing this, they’re required to focus intently on the athlete and trust that when the ground escapes from underneath them, their bodies know what to do.

“Kirk does some crazy stuff,” said Motion State owner, Cory Koniniec, to Digital Trends. “When he’s chasing skiers and snowboarders off jumps, they range anywhere from 30 to 90 feet, oftentimes flying over 20 feet from the deck in the air. It’s pretty damn cool to see.”

Koniniec was referring to Kirk Bereska, one of his key follow-cam operators at Motion State and arguably one of the world’s most prominent ski videographers. The two men have been partnered up for roughly five years, ever since Koniniec discovered the MoVI Pro camera stabilizer, a piece of camera gear that forever changed the course of his life.

Meet MoVI

The odd-looking contraption — which sort of resembles an off-brand Mars rover — is a circular handheld device that cradles a camera, providing 3-axis pivoted support and full rotation. This allows users to move at high speeds or traverse bumpy terrain without the camera shaking or wobbling.

MoVI was created by a small Seattle-based company named Freefly that hadn’t even put it to market yet when Koniniec caught wind of it in 2013.

Being in the same city, he was able to get his hands on the device first and immediately recognized that it was going to be a colossal game changer. Excited by his enthusiasm and natural aptitude with the device, Freefly set him loose with a few of its new gimbals to spread the word about the technology and teach people how to use them.

“There were about three or four of us that went out and were teaching people how to use it as they were selling these things,” Koniniec added. “It changed our whole business. We went from being snowboard and ski bums to one of the top premiere commercial filmmaking crews out there. ”

Although Koniniec had been making ski films for 15 years at this time, his sudden authority on the MoVI propelled him and his crew to the forefront of the scene. He rapidly became a leading expert in the field amid what he called the “the perfect storm,” one that gave him access to some of Hollywood’s top movers that would have otherwise taken years of networking. Koniniec referred to it as a “straight line shot to the best people out there.”

Outline of how Motion State filmed "the best shot ever in snow action sports."
Illustration of how Motion State utilized the MoVI while filming “the best shot ever in snow action sports.” Red Bull

“The best shot ever”

By the very next year, he’d landed an opportunity to take some shots for NBC at the Sochi Olympics. Shortly thereafter, Red Bull hired him to shoot some footage of Olympic freestyle skier Nick Goepper. It was there that he met Bereska who also happened to be a rising star in the MōVI world. On that shoot, the pair captured what they still believe to this day as the “best shot ever in snow action sports.”

“Kirk’s mid-air in the air with him and it’s like, it looks like the guy is almost stopped in time,” said Koniniec. “It’s insane.”

Nick Goepper breaks down his winning slopestyle tricks for Red Bull. Red Bull

The image was a perfect parallel shot of Goepper in action captured with a Phantom High-Speed camera. That day solidified their relationship and two began working together immediately.

“We’ve gotten a couple of others that are great but that’s still in my mind,” Bereska told Digital Trends. “It just was beautiful. Since then, it’s been history for Cory and I — literally.”

The MoVI advantage

As they began working on projects together, the MoVI continued to provide them an edge over the rest of their competition thanks to the unique device’s incredible versatility. A well-rounded camera, users are able to fly it on a drone, put it on a cable, ski with it behind athletes, walk next to people and film them talking to you, or jog alongside professional runners. Plus, with the luxury of not having to focus on keeping the camera still, they have more room for creativity.

“Instead of getting shots that might take an entire film crew and tens of thousands of dollars of rental gear, we can go out and get a variety of beautiful, stabilized footage that doesn’t look like we’re holding a camcorder.”

“You know the technology is rock solid so you can take whatever’s in your brain or your goal creatively and accomplish it without failure,” Koniniec said. “We had the eye for this ten years ago but the technology wasn’t there, so we did what we could with our arms. Final Cut Pro had a feature called warp stabilizer, so you knew that if you shot it loose, you could stabilize it. We were always shooting wide angle and that’s all you could ever do. Now, we can do tight zoom lenses. I’m zooming in and out with people — stuff you could never do before we’re able to accomplish now.”

On top of the technical advantages, it has made filmmaking more accessible. Koniniec feels it gives the power back to the filmmaker.

“Instead of getting shots that might take an entire film crew and tens of thousands of dollars of rental gear, we can go out and get a variety of beautiful, stabilized footage that doesn’t look like we’re holding a camcorder,” he added. “Now, it’s attainable to make something really great and that’s what’s really cool. If you have a vision, you don’t need millions of dollars to go out and make a beautiful film.”

A different beast

Huge competitions like the Burton U.S. Open or the Olympics aren’t the only places they capture footage. They also do private shoots for ski and snowboarding films where they travel deep into the backcountry, often amid wild and stormy conditions. Koniniec said these shoots are the most fun but also the most consequential. Elements like avalanches and other weather factors make them high risk and the riding itself is far more challenging. This is all, of course, while holding a camera, along with their 80-pound packs.

“When it’s a helicopter trip, you have to bring everything you need if something fails. Not only are you worried about technology but you’re also worried about avalanches. You’re worrying about the snow conditions.”

“We’ve ridden 3,000-foot long peaks in Alaska to hit smaller 20-foot cliffs,” Koniniec said. “Riding big mountain terrain is the craziest stuff, for sure. The gear we use can get heavy quick, too. The MoVI Pro weighs about four and a half pounds (and) once you add your camera, Follow Focus, wireless video, lens, and monitor, it goes up another 15 to 18 pounds. That doesn’t sound like a lot but when you hold it all day and have to keep it away from your body, it gets very tiring, very quickly.”

Yet as tough and brutal as the backcountry shoots can be, Koniniec said they’re also incredibly rewarding. Unlike big events where there are other cameras involved and they’re working to execute someone else’s goals, out in the wild it’s just them. They do require extra preparation, however.

downhill camera operators interview kirk bereska and corey koniniec
Kirk Bereska and Corey Koniniec pose for a photo after providing live follow cams in the Halfpipe and the slopestyle course of the 2018 Burton US Open. Motion State

“It’s completely up to us creatively and freedom-wise,” he added. “At a competition, you’re at a ski resort. So, if I need something, we go down to the bottom and get it. When it’s a helicopter trip, you have to bring everything you need if something fails. Not only are you worried about technology but you’re also worried about avalanches. You’re worrying about the snow conditions. It’s just a different beast.

For skiing and snowboarding’s true unsung heroes, it’s not just about doing everything backward. It’s about doing everything backward and still coming away with jaw-dropping footage — no matter if it’s while battling the elements of the backcountry or sending kickers at the Olympics.-

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