Filming a Master: Gymnast Aly Raisman

It was 7am in pouring rain and I'm sitting outside of Brestyan's gym in my Jeep with 1st assistant Anthony Tulliani. About a week earlier I received a call from my friends over at Reebok about filming an olympic gold medalist gymnast. As is typical with my documentary style work, the instructions were simple. Go to Brestyan's Gym with your cameras, film Aly Raisman's morning workout, stay out of the way as if you were not even there and capture bad ass footage. While sitting in the car talking gymnastics with Anthony, who has a great gymnastics background, adrenaline started to seep in as is common with these shoots. I had visited a week earlier to watch Aly's workout for an hour and scout the gym but now that the shoot had become a reality my heart was rapidly beating and mind racing with shot ideas. I can only compare this high to standing in the on-deck circle waiting to face a 90mph fastball for the first time. I had a great idea and vision of how the shoot would go but I hadn't fully experienced this exact type or sport yet. 

For the past 4 years I have shot some of the most elite athletes in the world. It all started when I was a temp at Reebok and they sent me to shoot an interview and b roll of a photoshoot with Justin Verlander in Detroit, which was a more controlled environment. Now, 3.5 years into my independent career my clients call me and say "hey aren't you that nimble photographer and filmmaker? Yea, I need you tomorrow at a Celtics playoff game to capture a ton of photos for our library all around the Garden throughout the game" or they call me with 2 days notice and I fly to Milwaukee to shoot JJ Watt's workout for 45 minutes, once again "as if I'm not there." It's become an interesting reputation that I'm fully embracing. To be honest, It's an adrenaline addiction that I lost following my high school years playing baseball and have now recaptured in my photography and film career. 

Back to Aly...

Anthony and I brought our equipment into the gym and set up. As is normal in this situation we over packed, bringing lighting kits, boom mics, countless lenses and a few camera bodies. I'm a little neurotic with over preparing but I feel it's a must in this business. After set up, Aly had arrived instantly focused and locked in. Right away, I could tell this was going to be intense. From a technical end, I try to keep it as simple as possible. I shot this almost all on a shoulder rig with a Canon 7D mkiii at 60fps. Why the canon 7d? It shoots 1080p at 60fps. My go to camera is still the 5Dmkiii but slow motion was the key to capturing these movements. With the shoulder rig, I am able to stay mobile, quick and creative. It paid off. Aly would spend about a minute at each routine from stretching to climbing rope with just her arms to hitting every gymnastics event. She was quiet but courteous. There were a few times where she would tell me to move, the worst thing to happen would be an injury ending her career and most likely my reputation, but by the end of the 3 hour workout we had gained a trust. 

There's something majestic and personal about filming this close to a master of their craft, especially for that amount of time. The massive gym was empty. Young girls would enter periodically in preparation for their own workouts but for most of the time it was just Aly and me. We had to figure each other out and gain some sort of trust in the middle of a workout without really being able to speak to each other beforehand. Sometimes I do get real close so she would tell me when it was too close. Once we got through a few routines it seemed she became more comfortable and I was able to get as creative as I wanted.

The trick to this shoot was making the most out of a simple set up. I try to shoot every frame as if it was a photograph standing on its own. My video composition is actually not very different from my stills. The only difference is covering close, medium and wide shots for the edit. Following the workout, which lasted a strenuous 3 hours that I would later find out she would do again later that day...and at least 3 more times that week, we sat down for an interview. This is not always the most glamours part of the job but easily up there as my favorite. I am very lucky to have the gift of being personable and maybe even sometimes too talkative and honest. I usually crack a joke while placing the mic on the talent and try to get them as comfortable as possible. In this case, since it was a commercial piece, Reebok was asking pretty standard questions that was receiving standard pro answers that you may hear at a New England Patriot's post game press conference. Once the representative from Reebok finished her questions I asked to jump in and was given permission. I asked questions that brought out stories, stuff that humanizes her and brought out a reaction. My experience interviewing government officials in Rwanda after no sleep and a pretty questionable bowel movement, gave me confidence in situations like these. No matter how big the celebrity, amount of instagram followers, number of gold medals or speed of their fastball, the person in front of that camera is just that, a person. As with the workout routine the key to a great interview is comfort, respect and a little joke here and there. The interview went very well and we got everything we needed and more.

I learned so much from this shoot. Not just about myself and abilities in such a hectic environment but more about mastery. Aly worked non stop mostly alone for 3 hours straight, sometimes with her coach watching nearby. She went all out on each event and perfected every aspect of her technique over and over. She was focused like no one I have ever witnessed before.

I was lucky enough to go back a week later and get some pick up shots during another workout. This time a major newspaper was filming a piece at the same time so there was another filmmaker with a camera filming the same thing, which was honestly a little frustrating. During one of the routines Aly did something that I never really expected. She stopped her routine, turned to me and asked if I was getting what I needed. She wanted to make sure the other guy was not in my shot. That's when I knew I had gained her respect and she had most definitely gained mine. 

Following the shoot, I have deliberately tried to take on the same amount of dedication and time in my own craft. It's something I have always heard about from reading and listening to interviews of other masters but never really understood until experiencing it first hand that day.