I started mounting cameras on cars and aircraft back in the days when a motor-driven Canon weighed more than five pounds. The weight was a problem: one of my cameras was destroyed after it ripped loose from a car, and I was lucky to walk away after one of my hang gliders went into a spin thanks to all that weight out on the wings.
Those were my first clues that doing things for the sake of the camera was a bad idea. But now we live in the age of the Go-Pro, a video camera so small and light you can mount it almost anywhere without concern. (I own two of them.) These tiny image-making machines have changed the world by letting us ride along with a Formula One driver or see through the eyes of a wing-suit jumper as he skims down the stone ramparts of the Eiger.
As Marshall McLuhan predicted, mass media has created splintered new kinds of fame. And the action camera has created one its most unique subsets: the YouTube Hero. These are the performers that go bigger than we ever dreamed possible, and get it on camera for the rest of us.
If you've ever watched freestyle motocross riders like Travis Pastrana do double back flips off ramps that shoot them four storeys into the air, you'll know what I'm talking about. The camera has upped the ante. Maybe too far.
I thought about this the other day when Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died after a half pipe crash in Utah. Sarah was a brave, brilliantly skilled young woman, but her sport has been pushed out to limits that make injury inevitable. As much as I admired Sarah, I'm glad my kids didn't take up her sport.
Skiing half pipes was only one part of Sarah's repertoire. She appeared in productions like Seven Sunny Days, a 2007 film that shows skiers jumping off huge cliffs and ripping down near-vertical mountain walls after being dropped off at the top by helicopters.
You might think of Formula One racing as dangerous, but next to extreme skiing, it looks tame. And it is the camera that has dictated the terms of the adventure-sport game, selling ever-riskier stunts to an audience that has come to expect the extraordinary. Among Sarah's Seven Sunny Days co-stars in that film was Shane McConkey, a B.C. skier who was killed in 2009 when he was unable to deploy his parachute in time after launching himself off a mountain in Italy for a stunt.
I never met Shane, but I did make the acquaintance of his father Jim, an incredible skier who appeared in the legendary ski films of Warren Miller. I took a private lesson with Jim in the late 1970s at Whistler, and it was pretty scary (we went down a chute called Goats Gully at speeds that made me realize that I wasn't cut out for ski movies).
Jim was amazing, but his stunts were nothing compared to what Shane would do for the cameras in the years to come. Jim skied down mountains; Shane flew off them and opened a parachute. His tricks were so big they defy description. Look him up on YouTube and you'll see what I mean.
I am not averse to risk. I raced motorcycles for a while, and I've been flying hang gliders since the 1970s. Back then, the sport was truly dangerous, and I gave it up for a while after watching friends crash and die. When I came back to flying in the 1980s, things were better. The gliders were stronger, we flew with parachutes, and we had strict rules to minimize risk – one of the most important was never doing anything because people were watching. If you were scared, you backed off.
But this was before YouTube and the omnipresent Go-Pro that came to define the existence of athletes like Travis Pastrana and Shane McConkey.
To see what it means to risk your life for the camera, try watching onboard videos made by a young European known as Ghost Rider. I first encountered Ghost Rider a few years ago, when he posted footage of himself riding a high-powered motorcycle through traffic at speeds of more than 200 km/h.
I found the video almost too frightening to watch, but that first clip was small potatoes compared to what followed. As his online following grew, Ghost Rider went bigger, then bigger still. He did high-speed wheelies through freeway traffic. He jumped over flaming obstacles. He hit more than 300 km/h and missed oncoming trucks by inches.
What could Ghost Rider do to top that? I found out when he posted a YouTube video showing him speeding past a cop car, then leading it on a high-speed chase that went on for mile after mile. (The clip ends with the cop car spinning out, and Ghost Rider getting away.)
These were not minor productions. As well as multiple onboard cameras (including a rear-facing one that shows the police in chase), Ghost Rider was filmed by camera operators stationed along his routes, which were obviously pre-planned. For a YouTube Hero, the production values and the risks can only go one way – up.
Ghost Rider's identity has been a matter of considerable speculation. In his videos, he always wears a black motorcycle helmet with a heavily tinted visor that hides his face. Many believe that he's a member of a Swedish stunt-riding team, but nothing has been confirmed. A couple of years ago, the word went out that the Ghost Rider was dead after a high-speed crash. That made a lot of sense, but who knew?
And even if the original Ghost Rider was dead, it didn't make much difference to the franchise – the videos kept coming, each scarier than the last. The Ghost Rider was like Lassie (one dog, played by dozens of different collies). Anyone could be the Ghost Rider – all you need is a fast motorcycle, a black helmet, and a willingness to die for the camera.
Ah, the camera. Always the camera. My Go-Pros sit on the table, along with a large collection of mounting hardware – there are suction cups for the roof of a car, adhesive brackets for my racing helmet, and tiny clamps that I bolt on to my glider. In the age of the Youtube Hero, the photography is the easy part. The hard part is staying alive.
But there's a trade secret – be afraid.
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
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