ESPN's 'Ultimate X' Brings Depth and Dazzle to the Giant Screen


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ESPN's 'Ultimate X' Brings Depth and Dazzle to the Giant Screen

"Every generation is looking for something that defines them," says Bruce Hendricks, director of ESPN's Ultimate X, the Movie, from Touchstone Pictures. Bruce is convinced that for this generation, that something is action sports. "We're going to look back on [the athletes in this film] and say that these were the pioneers of action sports, and I feel privileged . . . to capture them now." And capture them he did, in a big, big way.
For Bruce, though, the aim was to show depth and dazzle. "The real story comes about through the eyes of the athletes," says the director. "It's one thing to show great tricks and stunts, but we wanted [Ultimate X] to be more than just a highlight reel."

Indeed, the X Games, the "set" for the film, is highlight heaven, thanks to the world's top competitors in skateboarding, street luge, wakeboarding, downhill BMX, BMX stunt, aggressive in-line skating, moto X, and speed climbing. For Ultimate X, multiple film crew units covered all the practices and competitive events with large-format and 35mm cameras, and they orchestrated point-of-view (POV) shots through special camera mounts on bikes, skateboards and street luges — all to bring viewers the rush of these extreme sports.

Speed thrills, to be sure, but the filmmakers wanted the audience "to know [the athletes] both in and out of competition," says Producer Art Repola. So Bruce and Art decided they would not only cover all the events, but also follow a few particular athletes more closely.

To document everything, they enlisted three stellar directors of photography — "the dream team," notes Art — and gave them a mandate: stretch the boundaries of the format and attempt things that had not yet been seen in large format. "We present a view of the stunts that you wouldn't have been able to see, even if you had been there in person," says Bruce.

With the intense viewing experience that is possible with large format, however, "you actually have to be careful that you don't get an audience sick or dizzy," adds the director. "But we wanted to really rock and roll the format."

The combination of high-tech filmmaking and the unpredictability of live sports events posed some serious challenges. It also made the shoot vital, says Bruce. "The biggest surprise for me . . . was [realizing] that I never could have scripted anything as exciting and dramatic as the spontaneous action we captured."

And the crew had to capture everything — the competitions, the interviews and the in-your-face special shots — in less than two weeks. Choking was not an option. They were not about to blow an opportunity to, as Director of Photography Reed Smoot says, "to put the audience in the middle of things."

To immerse viewers in the experience, the athletes conspired with the filmmakers. Thanks to the athletes' flexibility, the Ultimate X crew could orchestrate POV shots through special camera mounts on everything from bikes and skateboards to motorcycles and the luge. They even placed cameras in the middle of ramps and racecourses. The result, says Smoot, is the type of intimacy that, frankly, can make some folks a little queasy.

In fact, the crew had to occassionally embrace a bit of what makes these sports extreme. Like when moto X rider Brian Deegan crashed into one of the camera units. Camera operator Kim Marks and a production assistant were knocked down, but fortunately, only a dolly track received serious injury. It's all just part of the life, according to 17-year-old Moto X phenomenon Travis Pastrana, who points out that "the greatest part about any extreme sport is that all the athletes are 'touchable."' Sometimes, perhaps, too touchable.

Extreme Tunes
Currently on sale, ESPN's Ultimate X, The Movie soundtrack from Hollywood Records contains a blistering cover of Black Sabbath's classic "Paranoid," as well as the adrenaline-pumping "No Light" from Hollywood Records' own 3rd Strike. Other artists include Fat Boy Slim, Foo Fighters and Pennywise. -

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