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INTERVIEW: Brian MacKenzie, Unicyclying Glidecam Videographer
Posted Jul 1, 2008 - July 2008 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Brian MacKenzie is a partner in Balance Productions, a unique video production company located in London, Ontario, Canada. Brian is an accomplished Glidecam operator, a skill that on its own is very hard to master. What makes Brian so unique is that he is able to operate his Glidecam while driving a unicycle. You may have seen his videos on YouTube. Certainly they have attracted a lot of attention, so much so that he has managed to become sponsored by Glidecam.


Recently, Brian sat down for an interview for with EventDV. Here's what we learned about how Brian rolls.

How did you get into unicycling? How long have you been doing it?
About 7 years ago, I was really into mountain biking: flying through the woods, riding on wooden stunts people built in the woods. I happened to see an episode of Ripley’s Believe it or Not featuring Kris Holm (The Wayne Gretzky of unicycling) riding some of the most impossible stunts imaginable in the North Shore trails of British Columbia, and he was on a unicycle!

I bought a unicycle that day, just to see if I could ride it. I instantly got hooked and coming from a mountain biking background, as soon as I could ride, I wanted to ride in the woods. About 6 months after learning to unicycle, I realized how much I hated being hurt all the time, all the time that went into maintaining my bike, how much money was spent on broken components. I haven’t touched my mountain bike since!

Why did you start making movies?
There had only been a few "big" unicycling DVDs out by fall of 2004. As great as they were, they still did not touch on the aspect of unicycling that I was into: riding 36" wheels through the woods at top speeds. The hardest line I ever ran past my wife (already getting more annoyed by the day at the growing pile of unicycles at the house) was, "You know, honey, if I buy a video camera, I can make the unicycle movie I really want to see!"

After leaving the military and going back to college for web design, I knew I had to make my resume stand out from my competition who were all several years younger. I knew that having an extreme unicycling DVD on there was the way to go. After spending about 2,000 hours learning to film, edit, and author the DVD all on my own, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to be doing. It must have been fate, because during the preparation for filming the second movie, my giant package from Glidecam came the same week I was laid off from my job as a web designer. I have been doing freelance video work ever since, and am continually learning new ways to make my movies and filming techniques even cooler. The only downside to freelancing, as I can see, is that I seem to spend way more in equipment than I make in filming gigs!

What advantages does the unicycle provide on a shoot?
The first thing that is important to realize is this: To a unicyclist with as much experience as I have, if I am not out trying to do things like jumping off picnic tables or riding through the woods at 15MP/H, I find riding a unicycle to be even easier than walking. Picture what would be necessary to run down a slushy/icy sidewalk that is frozen solid with zig-zagging paths of hardened snow foot paths while trying to film someone at the same time. Riding my unicycle with a 36" wheel and wearing my Glidecam Smoothshooter, I am able to shoot a completely smooth shot over that terrain, even if it went on for blocks; all while paying very little attention to the ground I am speeding over (as the wheel easily rides over all that rough ground; the bigger the wheel, the nastier ground I can ride over smoothly), so I can pay more attention to Glidecam’s external L7 Monitor.

Typically the L7 Monitor is mounted to the bottom of the Glidecam, directly under the camera, so you can look down at while you walk with the camera. While planning for my first-0ever trip to New York City, I knew I was never going to be able to ride my unicycle with the Glidecam Smoothshooter while following the world’s most skillful 36" wheel unicycle rider, Adam Cohen, through the busy traffic of downtown Manhattan. So I designed a bracket that would mount to the handle, and then my L7 Monitor would screw into that. With the L7 being mounted to the handle of the Smoothshooter, I could look down with my peripheral vision at the monitor (thus being able to pay the most attention to New York’s car, SUV, bus, and pedestrian traffic while I continued to film Adam, at times being able to transition from following him with the camera seamlessly into riding in front of him while filming behind me.
figure 1

What made you decide to combine unicycling with a Glidecam?

While I was making my first Extreme Unicycling DVD, Training Wheel Not Required, I found myself immediately seeking out new ways to film scenes. What I needed to do was create a whole new way to control camera movement. My first attempt, which luckily was successful, was suspending my camera in a box, hanging on a string that was pulled tight between two trees. I then reeled the camera towards me with a fishing reel, so I could match the speed of the action. While it made for a neat shot, it took two hours to set up, and I could only pull the camera in one direction. I only bothered to take one shot like that. As I was unicycling to the next filming location, I was carrying my camera attached to a tripod. As soon as I realized what I was holding, I flipped the tripod upside down, extended the legs, and rode my unicycle quickly down the road, with an inverted camera an inch or two off the ground. I then only had to flip the picture in production.

Picture how easily a hockey player would be able to "steer" a camera if the camera was secured to the blade of his stick. He would have complete control over the camera, be able to easily keep it smooth as he glides along the ice. Because cameras have flip-out LCD screens, the hockey player can now switch instantly to having the same cool filming abilities, but this time with the camera extended 3 or 4 feet above the player, filming down, while the player can simultaneously look at the LCD screen, and at the action all around him.

Now picture me being able to accomplish this over miles of city streets or off road locations, because I am riding my unicycle. What types of situations does this type or shooting work best with The unicycling technique is an incredible way to film; its biggest strengths are in the wide open areas filming action that is moving at a nice pace. Filming in amongst runners in a marathon, for example, and then instantly deciding to start going twice as fast as the runners (starting from in amongst them) to get a much cooler shot of a sprinter, filming him in a long, smooth, continual close up from his shoes up to his head, as you are pacing him at 10+ MPH would be a great example of what this is capable of.

A great use of the unicycle filming was at this year’s [London, Ontario] Santa Claus parade, where I was able to ride up and down the parade route with ease, matching/surpassing the speed of the floats, stretching my tripod out for a moving overhead shot of marching bands, you name it! Another great thing is that any time I want, I can step off the unicycle, let it land on the ground behind me, and kick it behind me at the same time I am setting the tripod up for a still shot. Strange how no one ever wants to ride away with your unicycle if you leave it on the ground and walk with your camera 50 feet away!

figure 1Tell us about some of the fame that this has brought you, through TV, YouTube, etc.
Someone leaked the last scene of my latest DVD (Inner Balance) to YouTube. (Search for "Unicycling in the streets of Manhattan.") Within a week or so after this was posted, I made it to the number one spot on YouTube’s featured video list on the front page. Four months later it has received 772,000 views! While that exposure resulted in surprisingly few additional DVD sales, the producer of The Tracey Ullman Show contacted me and arranged to use a clip from that in an upcoming show called Tracey Ullman: State of the Union.

The biggest honor came when I was contacted by the Banff Film Festival and was told my submission (A shortened version of Inner Balance) made it onto the Banff Film Festival world tour! My submission received such a great response in Peterborough, Ontario, that they played it again on the second night, the only movie to play both nights.

Ever have any trouble traveling with all of your gear? This is where being a unicyclist has its benefits. Because I am well-known in the global unicycling community, and riders are anxious to be filmed by me, all I have to do is email one of the riders I want to film, arrange for them to put me up for the weekend, and if I plan on flying there, I just ship my gear to them ahead of time, and am reunited with it when they pick me up from the airport.

Take the NYC scene, for example. That all started with a post in the forums saying "I want to film in NY, does anyone have any ideas?" A guy I'd never met replied, and a few emails later he was picking me up at LaGuardia airport and taking me all over New York! It took three different weekends to get all the shots I wanted.

An even cooler example of the bond we unicyclists share is not even having to travel. I had seen some videos done by a rider named Andrew Carter in Australia. There was no way my budget could fly me there, so I bought another HDR-HC1 (when they had just come out) and mailed it to this guy I had never met knowing he would send it back with incredible footage.

Don’t worry, every non-unicyclist I told about my plans made the same jaw-dropping face you're making right now! Inner Balance features some top Australia and New Zealand riders and makes for a great couple of scenes I could not have managed otherwise.

You are sponsored by Glidecam. How did they find about you?
During the filming of my first movie, I was blown away by the new capabilities I was able to achieve in filming, like the long smooth shots necessary to capture the particular type of riding I wanted to feature. Having never even thought about filming before making the movie, I was ignorant to all the technology that was out there. I don’t remember the first time I heard about camera stabilization devices, but as soon as I discovered it, I knew I could push it to new levels. I contacted Glidecam with an email indicating that I filmed from a unicycle, outlining my methods, and explaining that while their gear helps people walking to film smoothly, I have already accomplished that on my unicycle, and could not even begin to imagine what might be possible wearing their gear on a unicycle. I outlined a few possible scenarios. They were immediately receptive to the idea, and when I sent them a copy of Training Wheel Not Required with a list of timecodes saying, "Here is what I did, here is where the limitations are" (mainly the camera shake from my knees once I would start to pedal too fast, and the need to hold a shot in one position as I rode), Tom Howie from Glidecam Industries made sure I had everything I needed. There is no way Inner Balance would have been anywhere near what it became without his help.

What was the harder skill to learn, unicycle or glidecam?
While there is no doubt learning to unicycle was harder, they are similar in their learning curves. While it seems hard at first, anyone who keeps at it is sure to learn, and sees noticeable progress each time they try it. Learning to unicycle only takes about ten hours or so, and you notice yourself getting a little better each time. Just like learning to shoot with the Glidecam. You see your shots getting better each time you use it, and as your shots get better and better, you keep discovering new ways to use it. In my case, the new ways to use it included riding a unicycle with it, and making modifications to it to make it better and better suited to my needs. I already mentioned the L7 monitor modification I did; another was taking the Low-Mode adapter and converting it to a "high mode" adapter, having the camera about 2 to 3 feet above its usual place on the 4000 pro, allowing me an overhead view of pedestrians as I followed unicyclists across the Brooklyn Bridge.

What types of shoots do you operate the Glidecam by itself, without the unicycle?
I use the Glidecam any chance I get. As soon as I land a new filming gig, my first thought is always "How can I use my Glidecam for this?" My second is "Can I ride a unicycle at all for it?" We film a lot of weddings, and I could not imagine filming without a Glidecam. Dancing around the couples’ first dance makes even the most boring dance exciting.

Wedding filmers know the pain of looking at your first dance footage and seeing the couple holding arms and spinning slowly, clockwise the entire time, and thinking to yourself, "How do I make this watchable?" Glidecam to the rescue! Other great areas for the Glidecam are Bride/Groom prep, the bridal waiting room, the processional/recessional, introductions, the list keeps going.

Ever have any unfortunate accidents where you lost control of the unicycle while shooting?
The only time I had a major fall was the time I learned that I should not ride with my Glidecam down a steep grassy hill as fast as I could. I took a big header off the unicycle, flying through the air. (you can see the camera’s point of view of this in the YouTube video Balance Productions – Glidecam Demo) Luckily, due to the modular construction of the Glidecam, everything separated before (or when) I hit the ground, so all the pieces were intact, and I just had to put it back together. Had the arm of the Smoothshooter not separated in the air, I bet it would have hurt, as it would have been what my stomach landed on! It was then when I learned I wasn’t technically invincible, and to take it a lot easier on the unicycle when filming.

As crazy as it sounds, riding a unicycle zig zagging in and around Manhattan traffic with several thousand dollars in gear is indeed taking it easier! The scariest part of my NYC filming was going up between the rows of cabs at a red light. You can notice a side to side swaying of the camera as I ride through them, this is because I could not see where my Smoothshooter arm was, and I knew that if I hit one of the mirrors with it, I would have spun into the car, and been in big trouble!

figure 1Tell me about the Ride the lobster film project.
Ride the Lobster is the first race of its kind involving an 800KM unicycle race up the coast of Nova Scotia. I can’t imagine a cooler opening shot to that race than a group of uncyclists all bursting out of the starting gates--with me, my unicycle, and my Glidecam right in with the action! You would not believe how excited I am about this. The icing on the cake is that Glidecam is ready to help out with this movie as much as possible. At the moment, I am still undecided whether I will shoot the movie with Panasonic HVX200s or Sony EX1s, but it will be either of those.

For more information on Balance Productions, visit their website at www.balanceproductions.ca.

Joe McManus (joe at fvpro.com) is a 2005 EventDV 25 honoree, co-columnist for Cut Lines, and co-owner of Future Vision Productions in London, Ontario.

Learn more about the companies mentioned in this article in the EventDV Videographer's Guide:
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