The noise of a downhill ski race is overwhelming. The shrill beeps at the start gate, the rattle of the skis against snow, distant shouts from coaches and fans, a skier’s own grumblings of excitement, self-encouragement or anger, and the rush of air while speeding down the slope at 80 miles an hour. But for professionals, the commotion is calming. “There is a sound to going fast,” Norwegian alpine skier Kjetil Jansrud told The New York Times reporter Bill Pennington. “You seek the sound of the wind whistling through your helmet and whirring over your shoulders.”
Pennington’s article, “In Delicate Dance With Gravity, Downhill Racers Are Soothed by Cacophony,” was accompanied by “The Sounds of the Downhill,” a multimedia feature centered on a first-person view of a run down the slope. The footage, presented with a tunnel-vision effect, is accompanied by all the sounds racers hear when going fast. The New York Times team that conceived the piece knew that they wanted to make a video about sound; but from the outset, no one had any idea what the video would look like.
“The Sounds of the Downhill” was put together by editors and journalists at the Times, including sports graphics editors Bedel Saget and Joe Ward, graphics editors Wilson Andrews and Graham Roberts, and video journalist Catherine Spangler. They brought on Colorado-based documentarian Travis Rummel, who helped Spangler and Saget capture all the necessary audio and visuals, from the start gate to the finish line.
“We’re really visual people, first and foremost, and we really had to get out of that comfort zone and say it’s not about the visual,” Ward says. “Originally Cath did a video edit that was very lovely and had a lot of B-roll and things that were very interesting. But in the end, we took all that stuff out.” The pared down video kept the focus on the sound poem the team created.
Ward and Pennington came up with the idea for the multimedia project during a meeting with the United States Ski Team, who were making the media rounds ahead of the 2015 FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) Alpine World Ski Championships, which were being held in the United States for the first time. Mikaela Shiffrin—the reigning Olympic gold medalist in slalom—recalled hearing her coach yell while she raced. Ward and Pennington ran with the notion of sound and skiing.
Spangler, Saget and Pennington traveled to Beaver Creek, Colorado, to attend the Birds of Prey World Cup, a dry-run competition before the Championships; Rummel joined them there. Spangler admits that audio isn’t often first on filmmakers’ minds, but this time the team came equipped with a bevy of microphones.
Pennington conducted interviews with about eight skiers; Spangler filmed them and recorded audio using a wireless Sennheiser ew 112-p G3 lavalier mic. Spangler, Rummel and Saget divvied up other B-roll and audio duties, with Rummel gathering both at the start gate, and Saget and Spangler collecting audio and video, respectively, at the finish. Their goal was to capture as many emblematic elements as possible: Boots snapping into skis, the tense calm that proceeds the beeps at the start gate, the clunk of cowbells at the finish line. For video, Rummel rigged a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Røde VideoMic Pro; additional audio was captured on a Sennheiser MKH 8060 shotgun mic housed in a Rycote blimp connected to a Zoom H2 audio recorder.
For the skiing footage, they affixed GoPro Hero3+s to the boots and chests of a handful of team USA forerunners, non-competitors who test the track conditions before the race. Only footage from the chest cam was used, and it took some finagling—as well as gaffer’s tape—to find the perfect angle while accounting for the skier’s bent posture.
“It’s always safety first, and you’re strapping on extraneous gear to these guys that are literally risking their lives to capture it for you,” Rummel says. “It was also just a big unknown if any of the audio from the actual run would be intelligible.”
The forerunners were outfitted with two audio sources. Audio-Technica AT 8537 lavalier mics were stuffed under the skiers’ windproof suits and hooked up to flash recorders, but the best sound came from the Roland CS-10EM Binaural Microphones/Earphones, which were connected to the GoPros. These earbud mics, protected by the skiers’ helmets, recorded everything they heard while keeping the elements somewhat at bay.
Back in New York, the Times team began sifting through approximately three hours of footage—including 50 minutes from the GoPros—and firming up an idea of what the final video would look like. They exhausted numerous options, none of which seemed to do justice to the sound. “Finally, maybe a week before we ended up publishing,” Andrew Wilson recalls, “Joe said, ‘What if we just try it with the shot of the GoPro all the way down, and layer the interviews on top like a radio piece.’”
They selected a video of a run recorded by Tanner Farrow, and Graham Roberts set about mixing the audio—“A lot of sweetening, brightening the stereo, working on the levels, pulling out certain frequencies”—and experimenting with Adobe After Effects, where he came across a vignette abstraction that expands and contracts in relation to the noise level the skier is hearing. “I thought having the video react to the sound would encourage more focus on the sound as a result,” Roberts says, explaining he used a bit of coding to control and enhance the effect. “A lot of it is tweaking here and there, and choosing different frequency ranges to get the best effect,” he adds. “I also added some coloring and other things to make it as abstract as possible when the volume was low, and then give a pretty clear image when the volume was high.”
Meanwhile, Spangler compiled the interviews into a compelling commentary track that guides the viewer through each moment, alongside the field recordings of the ski run. The effect is “really interesting but terrifying,” she says. “So the pacing was really important—to let the audio breathe and drive certain points, basically like punctuation for what they were saying. “
Spangler admits that she was nervous when she and her colleagues did away with all their extra footage. But the result was exactly what they’d hoped for. The commentary from skiers in “The Sounds of the Downhill” touches on the sounds and sensations that keep them focused, but can also be foreboding, like the chilling silence before a crash. At the end of the clip, viewers are offered the option to watch the run without the commentary. Each turn is audible, the skis scrape against the snow, Tanner talks to himself over the coursing wind and, when he launches off a jump, there’s a tremendous hush and satisfying slap.
“I thought it was mesmerizing, but I was really afraid it wouldn’t have any impact,” Spangler says. “It’s not very often that we do something that’s so stripped down and simple and elegant in that way. I guess it was a little scary. It felt risky.”