If you’ve ever watched a competitive snowboarding event on TV, you’ve likely noticed that behind or beside the rider is someone following them, also on a snowboard or skis, with a camera. “Follow-cam operator” isn’t a position you’ll find posted on job boards and television networks don’t have any on staff, instead, contracting out work to the very small list of professional follow-cam riders in the world of snowboarding.
Spencer Whiting is one of those on the short-list, and he’s on the even shorter list of follow-cam riders for Slopestyle and Big Air events that hit the jumps with the riders. If that sounds incredibly dangerous to you — the idea of hitting an 80-foot jump next to someone while operating a camera — you are correct. Whiting holds one of the craziest, most dangerous jobs in sports broadcasting, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Whiting sat down with UPROXX Sports at the Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., where he was doing follow-cam work for the live broadcast on Red Bull TV, and explained his journey to becoming a follow-cam operator, the time he crashed into a rider off of a jump, challenges of the job and the craziest things he’s seen.
How did you get into follow-cam work? I know you were a snowboarder, what was the process like of getting into follow-cam work?
Yeah, I used to compete. Like, I used to do U.S. Opens back in the day. I was super into competitive snowboarding and then my buddy Brandon [Davis] and I started this little web series and it was all filmed on GoPro cause that was what we had at the time. Pretty much it would be me and him trading off and then after we did like two episodes they came out with a gimbal for GoPro, and we were some of the first people to buy the gimbal and start using it for this kind of stuff. Pretty much how it happened, we did one season, it was the last season I competed, and we did this web series going to all these different contests. The following year, I basically got burnt out on competitive snowboarding and I started just snowboarding for me and stopped doing contests. Brandon was doing the tour and all that, and I just kinda started getting in that role, like, just filming my buddies.
For me it was like, I looked at it like, I couldn’t really make it as a professional snowboarder, but I was just having so much fun filming my friends. We ended up starting this web series called the Mayhem Projects on ShredBox and we had a filmer for it and then I just started doing all the follow ups. One thing led to another and I just kept putting up content and people were really stoked on it. Last year was like the first time I started getting hired for it, and like Oakley hired me to do this follow-cam with Sebastien [Toutant], Sven [Thorgren] and Eero [Ettala] and it blew up. Everyone was hyped on it and it just kinda clicked for me, right, that I’m going to try and get some contracts and little random gigs with people and make it happen. I just kinda set some things up last summer and this was the first winter that I’ve fully been dedicated to just filming and creating content.
What were the biggest challenges in learning how to do the follow-cam and figuring out where to be and positioning with the riders?
I mean you want to be as close as possible. That’s the name of the game. The best shot is the fish eye when you’re right next to each other. I think the hardest thing is really knowing your rider. I don’t necessarily love to follow-cam anybody. Like, I follow-cam Brandon Davis, Nik Baden, Kyle Mack, Sage Kostenberg, Sven Thorgren, Seb Toots [Sebastien Toutant]. All those guys are very calculated riders. So, the hardest thing is communicating with the rider and knowing what tricks they’re going to do so you can be on the inside. The scary thing is when they drift they’re coming towards you. So, you’ve gotta play the balance of getting close, but not too close and really trusting their ability to stay straight on those tricks. Brandon, Sage, they never drift. So, you’ll see my closest follow-cams are with those guys, cause I’m comfortable being on an 80-foot jump with them side-by-side.
There’s a couple athletes I’ve filmed that drift, and unfortunately we hit each other once in the air. Basically, I just caught my heels, gimbal exploded, he got a concussion and my shoulder was a little tweaked. But that’s best case scenario, you know? If we hit at the beginning of the jump on an 80-foot jump, we could literally kill ourselves. I think that’s the kinda like, I wouldn’t say I’m an adrenaline junky, but I like to do what I love to do and I have a lot of fun to do it. I do it so at the end of the day we have that clip and I can say, ‘sick, we got it.’
What is that process of building that trust with a new rider?
I just stay back. I don’t get as close right away. It’s pretty easy. If they’re going to spin to the left, instead of being on the inside, I’ll be on the outside. So, I can still get pretty close, but I’ll just drift the other way. But, like, with Sven one time. The trick he was doing he should drift left, but he drifted the other way somehow and we were like three feet apart from each other in the air. I’m like, ‘oh my god,’ but luckily he landed and it was all good. There’s definitely been some close calls.
There’s one time filming Jamie Anderson, she said she wasn’t going to drift. I went on the inside, and she didn’t know it, but she fell, drifted into me and I was probably six inches from landing on her. She landslides out and I landed right where she was. She had no idea, but it’s definitely risky and I think the riders get a little nervous too, so it’s about building that trust with them. As a lot of the people in the industry have seen a lot more of my content recently, when I get hired to do a shoot with someone I’ve never worked with, they have a little more confidence because they know who I am. I’ve known a lot of these guys doing contests over the last 10 years and so they know I’m a strong snowboarder and know what I’m doing.
I think that’s the scariest thing for them is there’s going to be someone else right next to them in the air, I hope he knows what he’s doing. That’s why it’s a niche industry. No filmer can just do it. I’ve been snowboarding since I was three years old and I did the competitive circuit for 10 years. My goal was to go to the Olympics and I was on that path, and now it’s like, ‘all I have to do is a straight air jump? I don’t have to do a triple cork? Easy.’ I think it’s just building that confidence.
You mentioned the progression of the technology with the GoPro and the gimbal for it. How do you adapt to that and when new stuff comes out how often do you test it?
I test it [all the time]. Honestly, it’s really difficult. The first gimbal for the GoPro, it didn’t tilt up and down, so it was just level which means you can’t keep the rider in frame all the time. Cause on the jump you go up and down and they may be a little ahead of you and will go out of frame. Then the next version had the tilt and that was my favorite gimbal, because I could always keep the rider in frame no matter what and tilt depending on the slope. But unfortunately, these gimbals aren’t meant for this. They’re meant for filming not hitting 80-foot jumps [laughs]. I bought two gimbals in the last month and they’re terrible. Yeah they work for walking around, but I take it on the snow and it’s super shaky and it’s not working properly.
So it’s tough for me because I have a job to do and I’m trying to get the new equipment, but the new equipment isn’t up to par. I got lucky, I just got a new — in the past I did a lot of GoPro stuff — but I just got a new Sony A7S with a pilot-fly gimbal. I bought one gimbal for it and it was bad and I got this new gimbal last week and it’s the best gimbal I’ve ever used. It has all the controls, so I can go side-to-side to keep the horizon level, up-and-down, pan left to right and keep the rider in frame the whole time. But now it’s the difficulty of, ‘oh, I’m not hitting the jump with a half a pound GoPro, I’m hitting the jump with a six pound rig that’s worth six grand.’ So, I can’t fall [laughs].
How much do the elements play into the difficulty of the job?
I mean, these electronics aren’t meant to [be out there]. You’re taking six grand of camera gear to go film off a jump, and it can’t hit the snow. So if you fall, you’ve got to figure out how to keep the gimbal in the air, and really if you fall with those things, you’re done. They’re insured and stuff, but still. Obviously the best conditions is any day like this. Bluebird [sky], sunny, no wind. It make my life easy, cause even when wind’s involved, it’s hard enough to hit the jump in the wind. Add in trying to focus on the camera, cause when I’m hitting these jumps with my camera, I’m not even focused on my snowboarding at all. It’s completely second nature, and I’m only focusing on the rider. So, it’s definitely difficult. I know the risk and in doing it the last year I’ve definitely noticed improvement in myself and figuring out the ins and outs, like where to be on the jump and how to communicate with the rider that’s not going to scare them or freak them out.
What are your favorite moments you’ve gotten to film?
Honestly, any time I’ve gotten to film this crew of riders, like all the dudes in the finals [at the Burton U.S. Open]. Slopestyle is my favorite thing. I got hired to do the live follow-cams for the X Games Big Air. Unfortunately, there was an issue with the feed so they ended up not using it, but even though that didn’t work, Kyle and I, he was in Big Air and he’s one of my best friends. We were just filming for fun and just being able to hit a 150-foot jump with one of your best homies and he’s doing the gnarliest trick of his life and I’m like “holy shit” he’s flipping three times right now five feet away from me. It’s a crazy experience.
What kinds of opportunities do you get in doing this job, from TV to commercials or even movies?
My season is just buying plane tickets, sleeping on Brandon’s floor and people end up hitting me up. Like, I didn’t know I was going to Austria next week, but I guess I am now to film. It’s stuff like that. I would love to do something in the upper realm like filming with a red for an action movie or something. That’s definitely the route I want to go. I’m actually starting to do a lot of stuff outside of just filming snowboarding, as far as videography and photography goes. Honestly, if I can’t be the best snowboarder in the world I just want to be the best at what I do. Whether that’s follow-camming, taking photos or filming a commercial for a hotel. I just, I’m pretty passionate about film and being creative so I’m going to push myself as hard as I can.