Croissants, Coffees and Cameras

Back in May 2016, I began working for Equine Productions and after only a few weeks was given the opportunity to go to Chantilly, France, to help them film a promotional film for France Galop. I wrote a blog post about my trip there but never got round to publishing it! I’d now like to share this with everyone as people are always asking me about what goes on behind-the-scenes at shoots and I think this sums it up quite well! (It’s not as glamorous as you may think!)

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As first month’s go, this has got to be one of the best I’ll ever have.  When I was first asked if I’d like to to join the filming team in Chantilly, to help produce a promotional video for France Galop, I leapt at the opportunity…..and this is my account of how our week went!

Day 1 – Travelling Day

I had packed my bags the night before and had slept as little as I did the night before my first trip to Disneyland, but when I woke up I felt fresh and wide awake.  I did one last little check before leaving and made sure I had the call sheets and shot lists at the ready! Dave picked me up just outside of Bristol and we set off for Nathan’s house in the centre of Lambourn. We had a long journey ahead of us but since I had started in the office, both Nathan and Dave had been away for most of it so we had a lot to catch up on! When we arrived in Chantilly, the sun was setting and the race-day goers were all flooding out of Chantilly racecourse in their top hats and floor-length dresses – a great scene to witness on our first night there. We unloaded the kit and settled down for our first nights sleep….as it turns out – the only full nights sleep for the rest of the week!

Day 2 – Exploring

We woke up to rain on the Monday, which wasn’t how we’d envisioned the week to begin, but stayed optimistic as we drove to the France Galop offices, just a few miles south of where we were staying. We met Matthew and Marin, the director and deputy director for France Galop respectively, and made a master plan with them of how we would execute our filming ideas. A few hours, croissants and coffees later, we decided to go out and explore the France Galop training ground for ourselves. 1900 hectares in total, 145km of sand gallops and 120 hectares of turf gallops, the training ground was like nothing any of us had witnessed before. Standing in the middle of the tracks, you could look both ways and not see the end, the sand was perfectly harrowed at all times and the lines of trees following the tracks were thick and lush, full of wildlife. It was just amazing. Having never been to a racehorse-training centre, I was blown away, but even for our former jockey crewmember, Nathan, the place was heaven. We explored the whole centre, making decisions that would make the rest of the week flow smoother such as where to fly the drone, where to place the cameras as to not disrupt the jockeys and horses etc., and generally used the day as a recce day. Sometimes when you go to a new location to film, it can be difficult to imagine the shots in your head, or how you’re going to make it look beautiful on camera, but this place was the opposite. The leading lines created by the trees and tracks, the sunlight flooding into the forest floor, even the sound of the horses galloping past – it was all a filmmaker’s dream. We literally couldn’t wait to get up the following day and press record.

Day 3 – Dollycam

Our optimism was running out. We had all woken up at 4:30am ready to begin filming at 5am, expecting a ‘booming’ sunrise, but instead woke up to more rain and grey, dingy clouds. It wasn’t what we’d hoped for. But still, we made our way to the training ground and set up the cameras on the turf gallop. This was only one of two mornings that the jockeys would be using this track so we had to go for it, just in case the weather for the rest of the week had also been forecasted wrong! Dave went on the FS7 and got close –up, high speed shots of the horses galloping at speed around the corner and I set up the A7S on a low, wide-angle shot so that we had two different viewpoints. The shots we got looked great as there was a slight mist rising from the ground and the horses came around in strings of about 4 or 5 at a time, meaning that we could have up to 16 legs all moving in slow motion together. However, the footage still didn’t have the look we’d hoped for and we decided to call the morning early again as we were filling up the memory cards, knowing full well that it may all get scrapped if the sun appeared.

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After an early-afternoon nap, we eagerly awaited the arrival of the aerial team, Paul and Karim from Construct Creatives. They were coming with the DJI Inspire 1 drone and the cable dolly equipment, which was very exciting for both us as the filmmakers, but also the clients, as they had never worked with equipment like it before. We met them at our hotel and took them to the training grounds to show them the locations for both the drone and cable dolly filming. On this evening we wanted to set up the cable dolly so that we could begin filming with it early the next morning. Once everybody was on board with the plans, we set to work.

This is where I really saw equine productions come into their own. Nathan, being a jockey himself, knows what it’s like to be on 1000+ pound animal, galloping at 40mph and knows how easily horses can be distracted. Dave, having been a cameraman around horses for years, knows that the camera cannot be in the eye line of the horse and needs to make as little sound as possible. As a team, they can assess and analyse a filming situation, weigh up the risks and safety measures, and then reassure the clients that a 50m cable running over the top of a gallop track, isn’t going to affect neither the jockey, nor the horse when they are galloping underneath it.  It would seem like an impossible task to most but with their knowledge and experience of working around horses and cameras, they really know what is best for the jockeys, but also for themselves, to get the best footage possible. 

Whilst setting up, Paul received some news from home, which meant that he had to leave immediately, but his assistant Karim really stepped up to the plate and got the job done. It took around 2 hours to get all of the wires up in the trees, which included using 6 pairs of hands, 2 stepladders, 1 chainsaw and 100 slaps to the limbs (the midges were out due to the wet, warm weather!). Once it was up and running we were happy to leave it there overnight, ready for filming with in the morning and all went for a well-deserved cold beverage!

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The Dollycam with an FS7 attached

Day 4 – Race Day

The sun came out! Waking up to an orange-tinged, cloudless sky was such a great feeling. We knew that we were running out of time for filming days and that the weather may not last, so this day was all about being as efficient with our time as possible. We decided to split up into two teams. Team one was Dave, Nathan, Karim, Marin and Matthew, who would all be filming and helping with the cable dolly and drone, and team two was William, an intern at France Galop, and myself, who would be filming footage on the ground. As daunting as this was for me, filming alone on my first shoot with EP, I had done a lot of filming myself and was more than happy to be able to get behind the camera again! Whilst I was walking around with the FS7 collecting high speed, ground shots and getting creative with angles and foregrounds, the aerial team, meanwhile, were creating a bit of hype in the woods…Not one horse had flinched at the wire or the camera, I’m not even sure some of the jockeys had even guessed that there was something going on! The whole shoot went very smoothly and the results were epic. One of the horse trainers came to see what we were doing and uploaded a behind-the-scenes video of the camera running alongside the horses. It went down so well on France Galop’s social media sites that they had phone calls from other media companies asking who we were!

After a spot of breakfast (croissants were on the menu again much to everybody’s delight) we then set up the drone. Karim was the pilot and Dave was the camera controller. Working with the drone is quite fun for the client too, as we were able to set up an external monitor for them to watch. This meant that whilst the drone was in the air, they could watch the footage live as it was being recorded into camera. Up until this point they hadn’t been able to see much of what we had been capturing, so this was a great start to the afternoon and got everybody involved. 

From around 11am all of the horses and jockeys had finished their training for the day so we packed up at the training ground and headed over to Chantilly racecourse where there was a race day taking place. Marin was able to get us access into the middle of the racecourse so that we could film with the ‘grande ecuries’ in the background of our shots. Whilst waiting for the races to start we filmed a couple of timelapses and also set up the microphone. With us being so close to where the horses would be galloping, we wanted to take the opportunity to get the sound of dozens of hooves thundering past. Once we were happy with the set-up, we had to leave the equipment next to the fencing and move ourselves away so that we wouldn’t distract the horses during their race. The footage we got from the first race was spot on, but we decided to stay for two more, just to be certain we had the perfect shot (Or absolutely booming shot in Nathan’s words!).

Shortly after this we were invited to have lunch in the pavilion with our clients, which was amazing and extremely kind of them. We were all very grateful for a three course meal and it set us up nicely for the rest of the afternoon’s filming.

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Day 5 – Goosebumps galore

Day 5 began with a timelapse, which means only one thing, a very early start. We headed out across the training ground so that we were facing the sun rising behind a well-placed group of trees in the centre of the gallops. For the sunrise we were using a Syrp genie attached to a slider, which gives a great effect of the camera moving slowly across, as the timelapse happens. Whilst I waited for the timelapse to finish, the boys were on the cablecam again, shooting more footage of the strings of horses cantering past. With the morning sun shining through the canopy, it was the perfect light for shooting down onto the track.

In the afternoon, France Galop had booked a group of jockeys from a nearby racing school, AFASEC, to come and help us film some shots that we needed actor horses for. Having actor horses means that we can direct the jockeys as to where to go and how fast they go so that we can get the shots that we need. We had already filmed footage going over the top of the horses with the cablecam and close up footage of riders on a long lens, so with this shoot, we wanted to take the chance to get up close and personal to the action, but on a wide lens, so we had the horses in full frame. We drove across the training ground to a 4km straight sand track and had the jockeys warm up the horses whilst we set up the cameras. We set it up so that we had Dave harnessed to the back of a Land Rover, with a stabilised camera, Nathan in the front with the driver so that he could direct both the riders and the driver as to what speed he wanted them to go, and myself in the back to communicate between them (and take behind-the-scenes photos!).  Personally this was my favourite part of the trip. To be sat in a car, at speed, 4 metres away from 3 galloping racehorses, is something that I’ll never forget. The best moment was when Nathan asked them to pick up the pace. I thought they were already going full speed but when the riders nudged for more, it was as if the horses went up to 6th gear. The power and strength you see when you’re travelling beside them, at that speed, is phenomenal and the fact that they weren’t distracted or frightened by us moving next to them, made me appreciate them even more. 

Day 6 – That’s a wrap!

Our last morning in Chantilly consisted of collecting any footage that we had not managed to get during the week.. We decided to go into several of the trainers’ yards, all magnificent and unique in their own way, to capture the jockeys coming in from their morning rides. It’s on the yards where you truly appreciate the work that the groomsmen and training jockeys do for each horse too. The stables were the equivalent to a 5* bedroom at the Ritz for the horses, thick with straw and buckets full of food and water. After each ride they are taken into a sand paddock where they can have a roll and wash down before heading back into their stalls. When the trolley of carrots went around, all eyeballs were focussed on it, including our cameraman Dave’s, who took one for himself!

After being more than satisfied with the footage we had from the yards, we then had one more round of filming in the forests. I was on the slider, hiding the camera in the trees and then pulling it out to reveal the long sand gallops or a string of horses trotting past. Willam was by my side again to advise on where I could go and what to look out for. Just across the track were Dave and Nathan with Mathieu, recording more high speed shots of horses galloping past. They wanted to capture the smaller details many people don’t get to see at the races, purely because of the speed they go. Seeing the horse’s muscles pumping or the focus in a jockey’s eyes at 160fps is a rare sight, and they spent the final few hours shooting these moments.

At 2pm it was time to say ‘That’s a wrap!’ and we headed back to the offices to pack up the equipment, back-up the footage and prepare for our journey home. Between naps in the car (except for the designated driver, Dave – sorry!) we had time to reflect on our trip. Considering the circumstances we had had to overcome at the beginning of the week, we were all very happy with the progress we’d made to make up for the lost time.  I also have to say that as an equine – lover, from a non-racing background, I have never put too much thought into how racehorses are trained, but after my visit to France Galop I have a whole new level of appreciation for the sport and staff that work behind-the-scenes. Every team member, from the grounds men to the jockeys, work extremely hard to make the life of the horses the best it can be. If every person put that amount of dedication and commitment into their work, the world would run as well as a racehorse!

Check out the final film here.

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The Chantilly Crew

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