|XCZONE’s Lise Meloche and David McMahon|
Part documentarians, part extreme sport enthusiasts, David McMahon and Lise Meloche have managed to combine their athletic and artistic talents into one successful company, the Ottawa-based XCZONE.
By putting cameras into the hands of athletes who are in the field skiing, rafting climbing and otherwise risking their lives for the love of sport, the XCZONE founders offer a first-person POV that they have lovingly dubbed “action-verité. The result is a company which allows everyone to experience the thrills of extreme sporting.
It’s no surprise that Meloche and McMahon are athletes themselves (the former an olympic skiier, the latter a figure skater-turned champion). In an interview with MM, McMahon discusses the company’s philosophy and how the advent of digital video has helped his company to bring the sporting experience to home viewers.
Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you and Lise first meet? And when and how did you decide to combine your love of sports with moviemaking?
David McMahon (DM): Lise and I met on the National Biathlon Team leading to the Olympics. We were frequently called upon by broadcasters to capture point-of-view shots on skis. I had come from a background of figure skating and choreography, so combining athleticism, artistry and the business of moviemaking was natural. I’d always had a great desire to share my amazing outdoor experiences with others. The camera offered the means.
MM: What were the specific needs in the sports/video community that you felt were not being addressed?
DM: Besides professional sports, there is little coverage of other [sporting] activities. Outdoor endurance and adventure sports are exceedingly difficult to film and many producers take the easy path—placing cameras only at the finish line and ignoring 99 percent of the experience. We wanted to bring the real thing to the audience’s doorstep.
MM: The company is referred to as a leader in “clean oxygen fed sports cinematography.” What exactly does this mean? Which sports are included in this description?
DM: Clean oxygen fed sports are outdoor adventure activities, natural fitness or nature aerobics. We wanted to show people what it’s really like to do an adventure race, ski a world cup race course, run extreme trails, swim in a triathlon, inline skate, run whitewater in a kayak or mountain bike single track, etc. A bit of story, good soundtracks and lots of eye candy.
MM: The company engages in a variety of different businesses—from full-service film and video production to instructional camps and Website design. What are all the areas of business your company addresses, and what are the areas you’re looking to concentrate on in the future?
DM: We produce a variety of products from our facility including commercials, product promotion, sports training DVDs, outdoor and environmental films. Our core competency remains nordic skiing and we produce most of the products on the market today for this sport (DVD, Video, CDRom). Some have called us the “Warren Miller” of cross-country skiing. XCZONE.TV sponsors a nordic skiing demo team and regularly provides instructional ski camps across Canada. Sports Canada recently engaged us to write the manual for skiing.
MM: You refer to your moviemaking style as “action-verité”—where the person engaged in the sporting experience is the same one shooting it. What type of viewer does your approach attract?
DM: Action-verité is a mixture of indie filmmaking, action sports and real TV. The central difference is mainstream TV has skewed the sense of “action” and “extreme” to just be dangerous. We are trying to return to the root meaning of the words—to show the human body set in motion to the limit of endurance, and to show extraordinary performances. Our POV work sets us apart with first and third person action shots.
MM: When it comes to this kind of “extreme moviemaking,” it seems that pre-production would be of the utmost importance—as it can be hard to determine exactly what will happen once the camera is turned on. What are some of the most important steps in planning for the kind of productions that you film?
DM: First we start with a vision that we articulate in storyboards and shot lists. The next most important thing to do is run through the action sequence a great many times before the talent shows up. Shoot some tests and revise the plan to accommodate all the contingencies. As a producer, I place bounds on what I want and what might be possible and plan to deal with a variety of outcomes. In the mountains, the weather can change in a heartbeat or you could get something brilliant and unexpected.
MM: What are the issues you seek to address with your clients before filming begins? What are the most important questions for you to ask ahead of time?
Managing client expectations is our primary concern. Everyone is used to seeing multimillion dollar films and habitually underestimate the level of effort required to meet their vision. Conversely, so few people have seen elite outdoor athletes in action and we can often show them things that they wouldn’t have dreamed of. There must be a formal project management process with clear milestones and review for the client. It is no good having a client suggesting a shot they really wanted two months after principal photography has closed.
MM: Who are some of the more important clients you’ve worked with?
DM: Some of our bigger clients have included Sports Canada, National Defence, Subaru, Imax, several ski manfacturers, Powerbar and broadcasters like CBC, TSN, SportsNet and RSN.
MM: Because of the nature of your shooting, I’d imagine you work mainly in digital? What are your cameras of choice for the work you do?
DM: We work primarily in digital video, using the Canon XL1 and GL1. We also shoot on 16mm Bolex and ARRI as reference material. The post-production is so powerful that we can make digital look like 35mm film when played back on DVD. The trick is to shoot high quality material in production by paying attention to light, focus, colors, composition and background.
MM: What other equipment do you find is necessary for a high-quality, sport cinematography production?
DM: Stability is a major issue. So we use Steadicams, gyros and cranes supported by a great deal of talent. Holding a camera steady and in focus while descending a mountain at 80 kph on skis requires some skills that technology can’t match.
MM: How have advancements in digital technology benefited your business? Not just with cameras, but in every other aspect—post-production, etc.?
DM: Digital technology provided us high-quality cameras that we could carry into extreme conditions and allowed us to get the superb POV shots. Post-production gear like Apple FCP, Commotion and DVD Studio Pro Tools empowered us to control every aspect of the production from concept to delivery. If a client can imagine it, we can pretty much do it. Storage is cheap and processors are getting faster all the time. But they are just tools in the hand of an artist. In a way, everyone can now make marginal movies.
MM: Can you talk a bit about some of the feature films you’ve produced, and your latest, Unlimited, in particular? What were the specific shooting details of the film: what kind of camera did you use, what was the budget, etc.?
DM: Our latest film, Unlimited Nordic Skiing, sought to define the outdoor athletic sub-culture from behind the lens of a camera. Filmed across North America in digital video and 16mm, we trekked where few have gone before. The central thread is bound around cross-country skiing and a lifestyle that transcends the seasons. We convinced 57 world-class athletes in 12 sports to participate and took two years to film and edit the project. The budget was $170,000 and is recouped through DVD sales. The Canon XL1, GL1 and my trusty Bolex 16mm with associated lenses and filters provided the main tools in production.
MM: How can the film be seen today?
DM: A shorter version of the film went on tour with the Best of the Banff Mountain Film Festival and played in every major city in North America. The DVDs are widely sold in specialty shops, Amazon.com and on the Internet.
For more information on XCZONE, visit www.xczone.com