Frames Per Second: Running with the World’s Fastest Man

October 2, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Josh Victor Rothstein

A still from a video Josh Rothstein shot of sprinter Usain Bolt for Puma. To see more images of Bolt from various Puma campaigns shot by Rothstein, click on the Photo Gallery link below. Go to the bottom of the article to watch the video.

Three and a half years ago, the Los Angeles production house Mob Scene hired photographer and director Josh Rothstein to create a Web video for Puma featuring one of their most famous spokespeople, Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt. Since then, Rothstein has shot Webisodes, commercials, publicity stills and ad campaigns featuring the Jamaican athlete. This spring, during the run up to the summer Olympic Games in London, Bolt was the focus of additional attention by Puma and the media. While he was in training at home in Kingston, Jamaica, he was photographed for Vogue by fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier. At a local school’s track, Rothstein shot a video, posted by Puma on its social media channels, that shows the sprinter meeting and running with some adoring schoolchildren, as well as Demarchelier and his crew in the background. He also had to make time to shoot other assets for Puma, including an interview with Bolt.  

Logistics: The shoot was challenging for both technical and logistical reasons. Rothstein needed a lightweight camera he could carry easily as he kept pace alongside Bolt and the kids as they ran around the track. He figured the GoPro HD was the most convenient. “It’s a fantastic HD small camera,” which has a super-wide-angle lens, he says. But he also wanted to capture, in both sound and motion, Bolt’s interactions with the kids at the start of their foot race. “I thought it was very touching that he wanted to run with the kids, and I like to think [about] what it will be like for them to watch the video in 20 years,” he says. But to capture their interaction and body language up close, Rothstein wanted to use the Panasonic HPX, a P2 camcorder system.

Rothstein had to anticipate when Bolt would start leading the kids around the track so he would know when to move from the big camera to the small one. And there was another challenge, he says. “In post, it was hard to match the look of both cameras and make it look like one seamless moment.”  

During the shoot, Demarchelier was photographing him photographing Bolt. “When I’m around Usain, that stuff is happening. There’s a media tornado around him,” Rothstein says. In his work with Bolt for Puma, he says, “Part of my job is capturing the frenzy that’s around him.”

In this relatively unscripted video, Bolt needed little direction. “He’s great with the kids,” Rothstein says. But herding several excited children was more challenging. “All they wanted to do was run around the track with him, so every time he started to run, we had to corral them back.” Rothstein had to do several takes of the kids and Bolt at the starting line, yet make it look like it was a spontaneous moment.

Cameras: Though Rothstein says he uses the Canon 5D or the Canon C300 for “more cinematic imagery,” he typically prefers shooting with the self-contained Panasonic HPX over HD-DSLRs if he wants to move around and capture action, as he was at the starting line of the track in Kingston. “I personally forego a DSLR when you’re running and sweating, and I’m not looking for super-sharp falloff,” he says. “The advantage of an HD-DSLR is that it lets you play with lenses, so you can get dramatic, shallow depth of field.” But, he adds, “The downside of an HD-DSLR is that it lets you play with lenses.” He explains that while he loves the look of digital SLRs, “they can be too slow and difficult to shoot with in the field. The critical focus changes so quickly when shooting documentary, run-and-gun style. I have found it’s a much safer bet to have a camera like the [HPX] P2 or Sony’s EX3.”  

When Bolt and the children began running around the track, he moved to the GoPro and had to keep pace and stay close to Bolt because of the GoPro’s nearly fisheye lens. “If you’re more than a couple of feet away, it looks like you’re 20 feet away.”

The shoot took place near midday, “probably the worst time to shoot,” he says, “but when you have an aggressive shooting schedule you make do with what you have.” He decided to convert the footage to black-and-white, which helped with the blown-out highlights. “I don’t like the way some digital color looks when it’s blown out and you’re shooting people with dark complexions and you’re exposing for their skin tones,” he explains. “Converting to black-and-white was an esthetic choice, and also a functional one, to avoid color space issues when matching footage from two cameras.”

Relying on the noonday sun as his light source, Rothstein decided to forego one component of nearly all his shoots: a gaffer. “In the still photography world, you have your camera assistants to help you manage the setups. [They] are multitasking, running lights, camera … In the film world, you divide the pie. You have a grip who handles the stands and rigging, an AC [assistant camera] who handles the camera and a gaffer’s job is focused solely on the lights—they source the lights typically and know how to use them better than you do. As I have shot more film over the years, I have started to adopt this model to my photo shoots when possible.”

Rothstein is often called on to shoot both stills and video in a single location, so rather than change light setups, he will use continuous light sources, such as large, daylight balanced tungstens, “or there are smaller daylight balanced lights that I really like too, like the Joker 400 and 800 and of course Kinos give a great soft and flattering light.”

He also tries to convince his clients to let him divide his shoot day in half, so he can focus either on stills or video exclusively for half the day. “I know there’s a tendency to think that shooting stills and motion at the same time creates efficiency but if the concept is not fleshed out and if workflow is too manic, then it often produces diminishing returns.”

Audio: “The HPX is a great run-and-gun camera because you can record audio directly through the XLR ports.” Though he had a sound person recording sound with a shotgun mic to an H4n zoom recorder throughout the shoot (including the run around the track, which was set to music in editing), Rothstein says that recording audio to the camera allowed him to get audio that was easily synched with the video footage—a useful guide during the editing process.  

Post Production: He shot about two hours of footage for the four-minute piece. Typically, Rothstein says, he isn’t credited as the editor on his videos. He often makes a rough cut and gives notes and suggestions to Mark Cantin, an editor at Mob Scene he collaborates with. However, he ended up editing the Chasing Bolt video that he shot in Kingston himself. “I did a quick edit on the plane,” he says, using Final Cut Pro 7 to see if an idea he had, to set the running sequence in slow motion and play it over an up-tempo song, would work. “That happened quickly,” Rothstein says. Figuring out how to transition smoothly from the documentary-style HPX footage to the slow-motion footage of running around the track was more difficult, however. “That took about two weeks,” he says. “I showed cuts to my producer Jason Rein at Mob Scene, and to editor friends who gave me notes.” Eventually, he says, he took out a long intro “that showed too much talking.” He adds, “The piece ended up working after I just stayed focusing on the heart of the piece—which was the running, and the kids.”

When he was done, he showed the video to Puma. “They loved it,” he says. Because it’s less scripted than the typical Webisodes he produces for, they decided to release it through social media channels. “I liked that idea,” he says. “I remember my Vimeo hits went from about 70 hits a day to 10,000 in one day when Bolt linked to it on his personal homepage and Facebook.”

Watch the Puma video shot in Kingston below: 


Related Article:

Usain Bolt Puma Photo Gallery