Doing my best Hunter S. Thompson impression, I attempt to cover an offroad desert race with an iPhone and naiveté.
By Dale Spangler
With the second round of the National Hare & Hound Series coming to Murphy, Idaho recently, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to snap some photos and film the entire experience—all with just an iPhone. I made it a personal challenge to shoot and edit an entire race video using only an iPhone 6 Plus. Piece of cake, right? Was I ever wrong, and wow! did I vastly underestimate how difficult it is to do either of the above at a desert race.
First off, it's a bit of a free-for-all. This is both good and bad. Good because, for someone like me attempting to cover the event, we have unlimited access to go wherever we want. Bad because I quickly realized that everyone is spread out all over the place in a willy-nilly fashion (often in unmarked vehicles) so it can be hard to find someone in particular. Racers and spectators alike can come and go, park wherever, and basically sprawl out in the main pit area as they please. Ultimately, what this means is that it's up to the person covering the event (me in this case) to make it what they want because there is no such thing as a media credential or media center; no haves or have nots here when it comes to access. This is both refreshing and intimidating at the same time, especially if (like me) you come in with little experience and no plan. I quickly realized how vastly unprepared I was for the large distances these events cover. I showed up in my Subaru Legacy (scraping sagebrush on the way in worried about getting a flat) with a backpack to carry my equipment. A total rookie. No motorcycle; no ATV; no UTV. Just a backpack, a wide brimmed hat to stave off sunburn, and a pair of hiking boots.
The pit area itself was sprawled over perhaps a half-mile area meaning, without an ATV or some other form of transportation to cruise around on, I was left to cover the distances on foot. So with my backpack loaded, I set out on the 15-minute hike to the start of the bomb run which was in the complete opposite direction of the finish area through a ravine and across a cow pasture. For the entire hike I was passed by people on ATVs and in UTVs, a constant reminder of my lack of preparedness. But there are advantages to being on foot. It has a way of slowing one down, makes you more aware of your surrounding environment. And with it being spring in Idaho the hike was absolutely gorgeous as I sweated my way towards the bomb start in 65-degree blue-sky weather. It was invigorating to breathe-in the sagebrush scented high-desert air with the snow-covered peaks of the Owyhee Mountains and Silver City as a backdrop.
I arrived at the bomb line-up before the 11 AM start with just enough time to shoot some B-roll footage before I scurried off into another ravine and up the other side to my vantage point where I would shoot the start. Mind you, all of this was off-trail bushwhacking with a few random cow paths here and there with the hike up the other side completely off trail through rocks and sagebrush. It was at this point that I thought to myself, "I bet this is an ideal place for snakes," when not 60 seconds later I almost stepped on one that was about three-foot long! I wasn’t sure if it was a rattlesnake or not, but I was freaked out enough that each time I stopped to shoot footage after that I made sure to scan my surroundings in a 360-degree manner. Oh the dangers of being an inexperienced field reporter.
The start of a desert race is an awe-inspiring event. Pure raw energy and mayhem as 200+ motorcycles break the dead engine silence and blitz across rocks and sage and random G-out sections with hell-bent reckless abandon in an attempt to be the one and only leader to be rewarded with a dust-free trail. There was plenty of mayhem during the bomb run and some riders went down after hitting rocks hidden behind sagebrush or simply lost their way in the blinding dust. Then the riders had to funnel through an approximately 15-foot wide cattle gate. To be sure, desert racing is not for the faint-of-heart; these mass starts require the rider to suspend his/her sense of fear in order to tackle the unknown terrain ahead while surrounded by 199 other riders doing the same.
After three separate waves of riders took off from the bomb, I hiked my way back to the finish area while shooting more B-roll footage and waited. And waited. And then I waited some more. The first loop was approximately 70 miles and it took the lead riders a little over two hours to make their way to the finish/pit area. At this point I was able to film a decent amount of action in a very limited space; whereas, if I would have had a vehicle I could have gotten out onto the course and shot more unique scenes. Which brings up the problem of knowing where to go in the first place, and even if I would have had a vehicle, I would have had no idea where to go. Come to find out pretty much everyone has the same problem, and no one really knows exactly where the full course goes except maybe the club that hosts the event. This led to a lot of speculation and anxiousness as to where the riders were on the course at any given moment.
After the first 70-mile loop, the riders went off on a second 30-mile loop on completely new trail. So after a 10-minute window of filming it was back to waiting for the opportunity to capture another 10 to 15 minutes at the finish of the race. Not wanting to miss my last chance to film action, I staked out my position near the finish and once again waited. In case you hadn't noticed by now, there is a pattern here: aggressively film as much as you can in a short period of time, wait an extended period of time. Repeat multiple times.
All-in-all it was a very chaotic experience. I got as much footage as I could with my limited locations. After the finish I was able to get what I thought was good footage of the podium ceremony and that was a wrap for my race day. I hopped in my dust covered Subaru and headed toward home not knowing whether I’d really gotten any decent footage or not. Only later after I had gone through all the footage did I relax a little knowing that I had something I could work with.
The following day (Monday) I spent the entire evening staring at my iPhone 6 Plus editing and compiling all the footage in iMovie. I know what you are thinking: iMovie, a pretty amateur way to put together a video, but it was part of my personal challenge to see what was possible with just an iPhone. I had dubbed this my "iExperiment," and in full disclosure, I did use a handheld gimbal that I purchased from B & H Photo made by ikan that allowed me to shoot smooth clips without the normal choppiness associated with shooting by hand. So that made me look a little better after putting all the footage together for the final 7+ minute edit. In the days leading up to the event I had built an intro and chosen the music I was going to use, so that saved a little bit of time and as a result I was able to complete the video and have it uploaded by Tuesday morning. The result is at the bottom of this blog.
So what are the conclusions I have drawn from my iExperiment? First off, you can make a pretty decent video with just an iPhone, a gimbal, and iMovie—though it kills your phone and the storage on mine was full after just this one shoot. Second, the entire process is not easy. From the Friday before the event through the Tuesday after I was completely focused on nothing else except the race and completing the video. Third, and the biggest lesson I learned, I have a new level of respect for anyone out there shooting video, taking photos, and/or doing race event coverage stories. These people are the warriors of the offroad motorcycle media world. There is no plush media center with Wi-Fi and air-conditioning and free drinks in the offroad event coverage world. This is hot, dusty, dirty, thirsty work that few tolerate on a week-to-week basis. Which elevates the likes of people like Mark Kariya, Ken Hill, Shan Moore, Cindi Fears, Daniel Engle, Rob Mitchell, Mason Rader, Beth Latham and all the others out there who spend their weekends in the desert or in the woods making videos, taking photos, and writing stories. These people have hero status for me now. And though for these dedicated individuals sometimes it may seem like a thankless job, they should know that there are those of us out there who appreciate and respect what you do. I for one commend you for all that you do for the sport of offroad motorcycle racing.
So will there be another iExperiment? Maybe. But regardless if there is or not, the next time I won’t be so naïve going in. I'll already know just how difficult and how much work it takes to be cover an event.