Every now and then I come up with an idea which I just don’t know how to pull off, but it captures my imagination so I have to at least give it ago. Back in the summer, I was out in the Alps training for my upcoming RidingGiants expedition and alongside my efforts to fine tune my flying, I wanted to create a film which concentrated on the nature of flying. This film would emphasise less the dance music and bad GoPro audio, and more the sounds of the birds, the sheer beauty of the landscape, and a more accurate representation of the air rushing past me as I hurdle down the hill under my trusty speedwing.
This is an entirely separate project, which was hard to pull off given I went to the Alps with other filming in mind, with specific maneuvers to practice and only a limited time to complete it all in; not least because the active thermals which plough through the Alps from around 2pm make flying relatively unsafe.
In order to pull off this project, I would need to capture some stunning cinematic footage with sunrises, sunsets and motion time-lapses. I also wanted to capture this type of high quality film whilst speed flying to keep a good continuity between scenes. Alongside the visual recording, I also wanted to capture high quality audio to overlay on top of the video scenes to really bring the audience into what was being filmed.
I had a problem though. For most people, not a big issue, but for cinema lovers everywhere, a situation they would never ever hope to be in. The issue I’m faced with? I had to shoot the entire project using a GoPro! I had travelled super light on this trip, so left the DSLR at home, and instead relied upon my GoPro, the fantastic SLICK stabiliser, my trusty drone and a small shotgun mic which I linked to the Voice Record Pro app on my iPhone.
My strategy was simply to use the SLICK to capture amazing B-roll footage, to use some creative GoPro positions to get as close as I could to nature, trying to ignore the obvious flaws in using such a camera for anything but action shots. I would then get close to some action with my mic, and then give a sense of scale with the drone. Putting all these clips together should, in theory at least, yield a relatively high quality film.
Fortunately, the light in the Alps is simply fantastic with clear air from sunrise until sunset, regular blue sky days and a vistas to really take the breath away. I set my GoPro to the narrowest possible field of view to try and give the illusion that I shot some footage with at least a low-grade DSLR, and then made sure I set up my SLICK to capture as many turning time-lapses as possible.
Capturing High Quality Audio
I will leave the discussion about my shooting tactics for you to see in the film below, as many of my better shots are included. Instead, I’d like to touch upon my findings of using external audio which I think is a key step in producing high quality cinematic footage. To capture much of the audio, I could simply use my microphone to record a much higher quality sound than I could hope to capture with my GoPro. There are however some sounds that even with the help of a shotgun mic, would be nearly impossible to capture in a regular fashion, so some more abstract thinking is required. To give an idea of this, there are three particular sounds in the film below which aren’t what they might appear to be. The first is at the start of the very first drone shot where if you use earphones, you will hear quite a dramatic sound. This is actually a bass drum laid on top of the sound of someone breathing into a gas mask – like I said, abstract! The second is when I pull the speed wing lines through my hands; this is actually a zip tie which is slowed down to give a very hyper-sensitive sound to the action. Finally, the sound of the air is very difficult to capture when flying at 60mph under the speedwing, particularly with a GoPro which tends to deliver a very blown out, distorted sound. Instead, I gently blew into my microphone which gave a sound quite similar to an arctic wind when edited. By overlaying this sound on top of my flying scenes, I think I managed to really enhanced what can traditionally be quite a dull moment in home video style action-cam footage; watching yet another flight (in albeit stunning scenery!).
So there you have it. I will be using a lot more high quality audio in the future, perhaps not with films dedicated exclusively to this type of video, but certainly with the intention of upping the quality of my usual content. And so without further ado, here is my Nature of Speed Flying film. If you have a further 5 minutes spare, I hope you enjoy. (And if you do, please comment and consider subscribing to my channel!).
The Insta360 ONE 360 Camera: A Comprehensive Review
Just as I was leaving for Les Deux Alpes for a week of training to further hone my speed flying (and avoid the UK summer…), a curious box arrived at work which spelled the arrival of my ONE 360 camera, direct from the Insta360 HQ in Shenzhen. Having just received some kit from Slick, and a bundle of memory cards, hard drives and a new Boya shotgun mic, I was a little reluctant to take yet another device with me which would require more settings to be memorised and another handful of files to process when I returned. This was perhaps a little sceptical, and since Insta360 had just sent me a £320 camera for free, in my bag it went along with a highly modified user manual (I tore out the 15 languages I didn’t need and just kept the English section to read on the short flight to Lyon).
Almost disappointingly, I finished the manual before the plane took off, so I sat looking out the window with an uncharged 360 camera and a tattered manual in a sort of Brexit dystopia fashion.
Anyway, I learned very quickly that there are four fundamental things to note with the Insta360 ONE:
Keep it charged (duh!) – I actually mention this because the battery life is amazing – much longer than my GoPro Hero 5
Clean the lenses before every use – this is a big one, because any smudges or dust seem to be amplified much more than they would on a normal camera
Check the SD card. They only take certain cards (UHS-I, exFAT (FAT64) format Micro SD card up to 128G), however I’ve also found that even if you have the right card, you probably need to use the phone app to format the SD card whilst it’s still in the ONE to ensure it works
Finally, remember the settings for the button. The LED will tell you which mode the camera is on, but make sure you know how to actually take a video (2 clicks).
Attachments and Mounting
The Insta360 ONE is designed to be connected to an iPhone, but I only use it as a standalone camera. It works perfectly for this role, and can be mounted just like a GoPro (it even comes with attachments which link directly to GoPro mounts). The only thing to note is that it’s tall and slim. Unlike GoPro’s which are shorter but fatter, the centre of gravity for the ONE is a little higher meaning you need to make sure the mounting is secure before doing any form of violent movements. As an example, I mounted the ONE as a knee cam, but the camera tore open the Velcro of the mount and the camera fell off as I was running. This was surprising as my Hero 5 Session which is much heavier stays on perfectly, but it’s just important to note the ONE has a slightly greater torque than the stubbier GoPro’s. Fortunately the mount fell off at the beginning of my run, and after adjustments, the camera didn’t come off again for the next 6 days of speed flying. One thing to note is that if you use a selfie stick, you need to mount the ONE in parallel with the pole (i.e. straight on top) If the camera is mounted at an angle, the selfie stick or any other mounting device will be visible, but if possible, take advantage of the fact that anything directly under the camera is invisible.
Filming with the Insta360 ONE
A top tip is to remember you’re actually wearing a 360 camera, which in reality means try to completely forget you’re wearing a camera. I often found when I mounted the ONE as a helmet camera that I was still pointing my head like I would with a GoPro just to get the shot, but in reality, you can look wherever you want an not miss a single moment, so try to forget about the filming. This ease of use is possible thanks to the fantastic Insta360 Studio which I think is a real step up from what competitors offer, and probably the main reason to get an Insta360 ONE above most other 360 cameras.
I think the obvious comparison here is to the GoPro Fusion. And unlike the GoPro Hero series vs. any other action camera, I don’t think the choice is as clear cut as ‘get a GoPro unless you can’t afford to’. In short, the Fusion gives a slightly better image quality (but don’t expect Hero 6 4k quality) and you don’t need an external waterproof case unlike the ONE, but I do think this is where the advantages start to peter out. On both cameras, the audio is terrible (when compared to film quality audio capture (you just can’t manufacture that quality of audio capture for these small cameras yet). Where I think the Insta360 one has an advantage though is that for the price (around half the price of a Fusion), you get a solid image quality which is perfectly adequate for action sports, particularly when in good lighting, and when you’ve finally finished filming, you either have the option of HD export directly via and iPhone, or, you have the option of the Insta360 Studio desktop programme which I think is where the ONE truly excels. The fatal flaw with the Fusion is the huge file sizes, to adequately edit Fusion files, you need terabytes of free hard drive space, and a processor speed provided by the latest computers such as the Gen 6 iMac to effectively edit the 5k image down to a traditional 16:9 image through Overcapture. Insta360’s Studio on the other hand works perfectly well on a low spec laptop. It’s output is a 4k image which can then be effectively taken down to a 16:9 image and made buttery smooth through FlowState stabilisation.
To summarise my thoughts on the comparison, with Insta360 ONE, you capture exactly the same image as the Fusion, at 90% of the quality, but you save 50 or 60% of the time in editing allowing you to spend more time behind the camera and less time behind a computer. GoPro’s offering is sure to improve and bring this time commitment down, but at the same time, I also see Insta360 really upping their quality game and retaining their ease of processing which is the real cost benefit when considering action sports cameras.
As mentioned, filming with the ONE is easy; you press the only button on the camera twice, then forget it’s on. Once you’re sitting back at your computer, you’ll need a programme called Insta360 Studio (download here) which can edit any 360 video files. My work flow is to stabilise the footage, then edit the viewpoints, then edit that final video in DaVinci Resolve for audio, colour and timeline correction.
To breakdown the post processing steps further, here is my workflow:
Open Insta360 Studio and load the 360 cam .inst file
*Important*, open Free Capture (the editing suite in Insta360 Studio) check ‘FlowState Stabilisation’, set the render quality to ‘Superb’, then export the file
Now you’ll have an mp4 which you can work on. Import the .mp4 you just created and start editing the view points. The screen shot above is my attempt at doing exactly that – adding view points to the footage which are shown as key frame points (yellow and grey diamonds) with the parameters for each key frame shown in the bottom left of the screen.
Once happy, simply export the final output
It really is as easy as the above 4 steps. The longest part is step 2, where you need to wait for the programme to export the raw files as stabilised .mp4’s. Here, I like to batch-load all my raw files and then process them overnight.
I work with videos of around 5 minutes in length and find the file sizes very manageable (always less than 2GB for a raw 360 file which makes editing so easy).
In Insta360 Studio, editing the video viewpoints is incredibly easy. There are only a few buttons to use and no need for any shortcuts to remember. You simply set the start point, add in keyframe points (as you would in a video editor), and then set the view point (either sphere, tiny planet, perspective or traditional). The edit settings for all these viewpoints are all very fluid and easy to change by simply scrolling or changing the angle/zoom values. Once you’re happy with the view point, you add a keyframe. That locks the view for that particular frame, and allows you to move forward in the video. After watching some more footage, you may want to change the view. Simply add a new keyframe and set the view point. When you now watch the video back, your viewpoints will automatically change as you move past each keyframe. It’s all very intuitive and crucially, very fast. I can now edit a video in a matter of minutes as opposed to spending hours getting the right shot. Finally, you can change the way each change of viewpoint happens by clicking the lines between each keyframe and using the edit options to fade or jump to the next viewpoint.
It really is as easy as a single paragraph to explain the entire operation of Insta360 Studio. Once your happy with the edit, you can simply export and do as you wish with the final output. I typically colour correct in DaVinci Resolve, and since I’m flying and the audio is generally unusable, I either try to stabilise it as best I can or add a typical action sport soundtrack to really enhance the experience. And experience is really the key with 360 cameras – making a moment as experiential as possible for everyone watching the finished piece.
From what I know about the GoPro app equivalent for Fusion, Insta360 Studio is super impressive thanks to its ease of use. That’s the thing that really stands out for me. The software knows you’re not going to use it for anything other than processing a 360 video, so there are no useless colour editing functions, just a very minimalistic package for the time conscious editor. And after all, the less time you have to spend editing, the more content you can make, the more you can be out there capturing footage and the more fun you can have, particularly if you happen to own a speed wing and be next to a 3,000m mountain!
The end of winter 2017-18 presented the perfect opportunity to fly some incredibly marginal and storm conditions with the 11m speed wing. On the world’s highest mountains, the conditions for flying are rarely perfect, so in training for the Riding Giants expedition we took to the stormy skies via the path rarely travelled. I say rarely travelled as I doubt anyone has ascended Watson’s Dodd in quite the same way. Gearing up in moderate snow conditions, we started the Lake District run up to Stybarrow Dodd via Sticks Pass, however the weather was quickly deteriorating. With only thin slivers of sunshine, the snow really started coming down, and turned into a full whiteout by the time we reached the sheepfold. Dressed in thin running clothes, shorts and compression socks was possibly not the most appropriate choice of clothing, but running up the steep hill in shelter from the wind with a speed wing and harness on the back still pained the lungs and we were well warm by the time the weather truly descended.
We quickly realised the weather wouldn’t hold out for long, if at all, so we took a detour straight for Watson’s Dodd. We crossed Stanah Gill just above the sheepfold and started plodding up the increasingly deep snow pack. Out of the wind shadow of Stybarrow’s western flank, the breeze picked up until at around 700m, onward progress became futile. The higher we went, the windier it became, and with every step upwards the visibility reduced a few hundred metres. So there we stood, at 700m, standing in shin deep snow, in running shoes, compression socks and shorts. One sweaty base layer, an ultra thin running jacket and my winter saviour, a Rab Generator jacket. I was cosy on the top, but becoming positively chilly on the legs, particularly the exposed knee caps which were receiving the full brunt of the wind when trying to peer through the horizontal snow towards Thirlmere. Every so often I could see Thirlmere through the gloom and swirling snow as the wind periodically dropped, but after no more than a minute, it was back to storm conditions. Flying would be relatively treacherous, but we’d been standing on the hill for over 10 minutes, and the thought of descending by foot was becoming decidedly less appetising. So the head calculations commence; can I fly away safely? Can I see the landing zone? What is the cloud base? Is it too turbulent?
It took long enough to come to the realisation that I could probably fly, so long as I was prepared for a bumpy ride. The main difficulty would probably be the launch, which is always tough in strong winds, particularly on the more gentle slopes. I took out the wing, anchored it with snow, but almost immediately, a squall came through. The wing was almost blown away, but I quickly dived on the trailing edge and regretted undoing my neatly folded wing which I had packed only an hour before. Another 10 minutes was spent agonising over the decision to fly, but the squall soon blew out, and we were back to light snow, and a (very hazy) view all the way down to Thirlmere and the landing zone.
It was on.
I clipped in, checked the lines, brought the wing up, turned, and started running as fast through the snowy heather as I could. The take-off was fast, I must have launched in a lull, but then all of a sudden I was rising on a pillow of air, soaring, which is always unnerving under 11m of cloth and a few strands of Dyneema. As soon as that gust had come, it was racing up the hill behind me, and I quickly sank back into the channel leading to a particularly spiky barbed wire fence. With the feet brushing along the top of the snow, I just scraped over the edge and into the river gully. This is where the flight got truly rough and active piloting was required all the way to stop the fast surging and easing the fast collisions with the intense gusts. As I descended though, the visibility improved and the landing was clear. I just had to get above the road to St John’s in the Vale, then I could put in some turns and get down to the landing field.
With the feet skimming the grass, I was truly happy to be down. I love the flying, but turbulence, particularly with a speed wing is rarely a pleasant experience. In the UK we rarely get the type of thermals which halt late afternoon Alpine flying, but we sure make up for it with days of endless gusts. No laminar breeze, no smooth airflow from the sea, just pure tempestuous gusts formed over the wild North Atlantic and raging Irish Sea. It was a horrible flight, particularly in the latter stages where this unstable air mass throws the wing up and down like an overzealous puppet master, the pilot continuously fighting to remain in control. But flights like this, whilst not good for the stomach, are good experience, they help you to understand the limits of the wing, or at least of the pilot, and to fine tune the active inputs needed for good flying.
With summer finally poking its head round the corner, I’m now more ready than ever for some smooth flying under blue skies and over green fields with the occasional flock of sheep or marmot..
Waking up early on a crisp April morning, we headed to Mungrisdale. The weather was calm, the wind was good. There were 4 Wainwrights to tick off and a flight of Bannerdale Crags’ easterly ridge, awaiting us through the unusual calm of a crisp spring morning. But would the weather hold for the 4 hour trip? The Lake District is notorious, both for its poor, generally non-flyable weather, and for it’s changeable conditions. You might wake up to glorious sunshine, but by the time you’ve packed your bags and spent an hour walking up the hill, the conditions change and you spend an impatient late morning sitting on the summit cairn in cloud waiting for the arrival of some blue sky and a hazy view of the landing zone. This is Lake District flying to me, countless days of carrying the wing to the top of the mountain only to carry it right back down again; too few days of airtime. Thank god for Swing’s light speed wings, and viva la Chamonix!
So having used Ordnance Survey’s handy mapping programme (where you can virtually agonise over your route before actually agonising over it), we set off for our first Wainwright, Souther Fell, swiftly followed by Mungrisdale Common, then an even shorter hop across to Bannerdale Crags. I spied the easterly ridge which I was aiming to cruise down with the speed wing, but then we saw Bowscale fell on the horizon, another one to tick off the seemingly endless list. 139 down, 75 to go, we grumbled.
The weather was set to be good all day, but I always remain sceptical until I’m running down the hill with my wing overhead, surrounded by blue skies. But amazingly, the weather had held. As those local to the Lake District know, this simply doesn’t happen. There must always be a period in Cumbria during each 24 hours where precipitation must be seen to fall, where the waters must be topped up, but not this day it seemed. Today was one of those rare days where the weather just got better, the wind got lighter, and on standing at the top of Bannerdale Crags in the early afternoon having essentially summited it twice within the hour, I was left with only the descent.
It’s quite hard to sum up what it feels like, having spent hours wandering round the fells, getting higher and higher until you’re finally in a position to fly. When you eventually get to the launch site, a small sense of euphoria comes over you, the sense that you made it to the good part, that it’s now time to say goodbye to the mountain tops and speed down with the long grass brushing against your legs as you hurdle past knolls and rocky intersections at well over 50mph.
So the flight itself? Well it wasn’t fully mind blowing, just a do-or-die launch, a rapid descent to cruise the ridge, followed by some carving turns down the face. The Lake District isn’t big, but when it delivers, you can’t fail to land amongst the sheep and heather with a big smile and a heart of adrenaline.
Almost six years ago, I stood on the lofty shoulders of the worlds tallest giant. That giant is Everest, which unlike your average run of the mill giant, offers no gentle lift to the top.
As anyone who followed that expedition will recall, things for the most part went without a hitch. I had a micro-disaster on Pik Lenin, but then wiped clean my slate by climbing a couple of Himalayan peaks with relative grace and only a modicum of climbers anxiety. Everest followed suit and aside from the usual aches and scrapes, came back home in possession of all the fingers and toes I had left with 10 weeks after setting sail from Terminal 4. I then spent a good 5 years living with the Everest halo, generally being the only guy in the room to have ventured higher than the Aiguille du Midi, as is customary for most fellow summiters.
Aside from carving a new career in a business far removed from expedition life, once 2012 came and left I had no further mountain plans, I was simply flat. It’s very difficult to rekindle a flame once the original spark has died, however as luck would have it, I have spent the past 6 years stumbling towards my next goal, often blissfully unaware of how everything would link together.
It started in Chamonix where a break in the weather meant I could venture into the clouds with a local paragliding instructor on my first tandem flight. That experience added much fuel to an already burning desire and a couple of months later, I was booked onto a paragliding taster course, a one day course in Scotland designed to get the very basic manoeuvres learnt, mainly how to launch and land a paraglider. There wasn’t much time for anything else in that day, and despite starting the day in many tangles, I ended the day with my first solo flight of almost 5 seconds on an almost flat slope.
Reading is the next stage, reading about wings, venues, hills, possibilities, and then, after performing a minor miracle with my bank, I purchased my first paraglider. For my first solo flight, I walked to a remote valley in Scotland, and climbed an even more remote hill. Standing at the top, the conditions were perfect, and I knew exactly what I had to do. Still, that didn’t stop the nerves as I launched off the edge and into the heather clad abyss. I survived that flight, and many more mountain hops and wind soaring sessions at the beach.
I traded that 20 square metre wing for something a little more sporty at 16 metres, where I headed back to Chamonix and through a twist of fate, met Scott, my occasional climbing and flying partner, who’s original flying partner had launched unceremoniously into a tree requiring a helicopter rescue from the side of Chamonix’s Brevent. On that trip, I rapidly increased my flight count, along with making some relatively daring flights from the Aiguille du Midi north face and the Grands Montets.
Coming back from that trip full of ideas, I traded my wing in for something even smaller, known as a speed wing, at 11 square metres. With Scott and ski guide Ewan, I embarked on a speed riding trip (skiing with a speed wing) to the French and Italian alps, and further pushed the conditions I was able to fly.
The concept of RidingGiants hit me relatively late on in the process, despite it being simple. No one has ever taken a speed wing above 7,010m, a record which belongs to my friend Scott after his recent descent from the summit of Khan Tengri. Certainly no one has taken a speed wing into the death zone (above 8,000m), let alone with a pair of skis.
This is the dream of the RidingGiants team; to make the first ever speed riding descent of an 8,000m peak in autumn 2018.
The peak in question is Cho Oyu, an 8,000m peak reached via Tibet. Cho Oyu is a perfect big mountain to ski, however some minor obstacles such as a bergschrund and an ice cliff half way down mean this peak is suited even more to speed riding, where the wing is used merely to clear obstacles which couldn’t ordinarily be bypassed by the majority of human skiers.
RidingGiants will aim to be a journey of exploration, taking the small wings to the extremes faced on the world’s highest mountains; the Cho Oyu expedition will be that first step.