Mountain bike film ‘unReal’ features the longest camera shot in action sports history

Brandon Semenuk's unReal segment is above and away the most unique in recent mountain biking history. Photo courtesy of Sterling Lorence/unReal.

Brandon Semenuk’s unReal segment is the most unique in recent mountain-biking history. Photo: Courtesy of Sterling Lorence/unReal

When Teton Gravity Research and Anthill Production’s collaborative mountain biking film, unReal dropped this June, the film was packed eye-popping imagery of biking down glaciers and riding with herds of wild horses as expected. But while that in it of itself was perfectly enough to garner a standing ovation, when the curtain closed, it was another segment that had stolen the show: the longest camera shot in action sports.

It’s almost brilliantly simple — one course, one rider, one shot, one segment.

Professional mountain biker Brandon Semenuk’s segment was filmed on a grassy hillside just inland of San Luis Obispo, lasted two minutes and 30 seconds, and was captured without a single break in the action.

To our knowledge, it is the longest long shot — the cinematic term for a piece of footage shot continuously — in the history of action sports, an achievement both for rider and cinematographer.

Semenuk lands a flawless run complete with backflips, flatspins and even a bike transfer, then rides out of frame and into the proverbial sunset.

In honor of unReal’s release on iTunes, GrindTV decided to catch up with Semenuk to learn just what it took to pull off movie history.

For those who don't know, why is this segment like this so unique?
Brandon Semenuk: When you film a segment, you have 30 to 40 shots just to create a couple of minutes so you can mess up and try things over. But no one has really ever done an action sports segment in one take.

For a [cameraman] to keep you in frame for that long, it's quite a surreal shot. At times I was within 30 feet of the camera, at other times I was hundreds of feet away, so for the guys to hit that shot while tracking me, that is the impressive part.

Where did the single shot idea come from?
It was Anthill’s idea. They came to me with the concept and we took it from there.

How did you guys decide where to shoot?
I was already in California and we didn't have a huge timeline. We needed somewhere that was nice in the wintertime, so that was basically California or New Zealand. We met a few people with some land, and just started asking around for ideas. We knew we needed to create a long ass slope, something we could fill an entire segment with, in one go.

What went into making this course?
We found this massive grassy hill and picked the longest line down it. There was nothing there before, so we picked out a couple of natural features then dug it out ourselves to connect the dots. It was a solid two to three weeks of building before we even started shooting.

The toughest part was actually building the road for the camera guys to follow with the custom GSS [camera] system. Basically, we ended up building two tracks.

Were there any hitches in production?
The build itself was kind of a nightmare. We were on a cattle field. We thought the big grassy hill would have sick dirt, but it was mostly just cattle poop. It made this really weird dirt that didn't pack and was super dry and hard to work with. Eventually we got it, but the track was really slow at points.

Another issue with the cattle around was that we’d finish building for the day, then they’d walk on the track and mess it up. We had to fence around the entire track so that cattle wouldn't walk on it … imagine how much fencing that is.

We heard you were injured during the shoot. How did that affect things?
Yeah, I hurt my hand. I crashed a week before we headed up there, messed up some ligaments, but I wasn't sure what it was so I kept riding. I didn't get to practice as much as I wanted, my hand just got to a point where I couldn't hold the handlebars any more, so I had to use the time wisely.

Brandon Semenuk's 'dream' track was actually a  difficult mixture of dry dirt and cow dung. Photo courtesy of Sterling Lorence/unReal.

Brandon Semenuk’s “dream” track was actually a difficult mixture of dry dirt and cow dung. Photo: Courtesy of Sterling Lorence/unReal

How did the moving camera affect your riding?
I had to kind of work with them a bit because there were some sections where they would be driving on a flat section and then drop in on a steep section. So in order to keep them from catching too much speed and jostling the camera, I’d have to hit a feature a different way, maybe pop a little more or speed through it, so that we were on our point with our markers. It took a lot of practice.

How many tries did it take to get this shot?
Once we had it figured out with the camera and I had ridden the track for a while, we tried [the whole track] one day around noon, but it was really windy since we were near the ocean, and I kept getting blown around.

We tried really early the next day, and got it before the wind was crazy. That was on the third try.

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