Interview by: Jake Waller Interview with: Alex Rankin Photo Credit: www.aspectmedia.tv
Alex Rankin is one of the best known mountain bike filmmakers out there. About 20 years ago he made his mark on the mountain bike scene with various films including the classic Sprung series. He continued working with some of the best riders from around the world to create five of these timeless films. He hit the scene like nobody’s business and got everyone talking. He then went onto start the Earthed series with 5 DVD’s which had a more modern touch. Alex made an Earthed DVD annually from 2003 to 2007. Alex then went on to doing a lot of freelance filming work and is making amazing edit’s for us to enjoy today. Alex Rankin is certainly my favourite filmmaker ever since I lobbed my brother’s Earthed 3 disc in the DVD player. I have definitely watched them too many times and I still regularly watch them to this day.
A couple of year’s ago I was having a cake and some Irn Bru with Enduro World Series boss Chris Ball and World Cup downhiller Ruaridh Cunningham and they asked me in a scottish accent, “so Jake, what’s your favourite bike video of all time?” I replied with an obvious “the Earthed films”. They said something along the lines of ‘'that’s what we wanted to hear”. Little thing’s like that show the impact Alex has left on the mountain bike, bmx and skate scene.
I caught up with Alex recently so I’m going to stop rambling on about him and let him do some talking.
Firstly, how’s it going? Good thanks, I just got back from Switzerland filming a Cyclo Cross event.
You’ve been filming mountain bikes for a long time now, are you still filming these days? Yeah, I’m still a full time director, shooter and editor. I’m freelance.
What filming projects have you been on with recently? Most of my work for the last two years has been with Charge Bikes and the new parts brand from the Charge team called Fabric. They design really great saddles based on the popular Charge Scoop. Our branding videos for Fabric have started to roll out and its great because I can work on such a variety of projects any one time; from a Chris Akrigg mini documentary to a track bike rider on a Col in the Alps to a CX race in a city. Variety is the best for keeping things fresh and I really enjoy it.
You released the Adam Brayton and Nico Vink Ultimate Hucker Sender edit up the road in Keswick on Christmas day. 170,000 views on Pinkbike is something special. Did you expect the amazing reaction it got? I don’t know really, definitely pleased with all the positive reactions. Basically Adam had been saving all his best spots since Earthed 5 and it really shows through. For my part I just kept it old school with loads of handled footage and quick pans to show the speed. To see him hit the sections in person was unreal, like a scalextric car after the tyres have warmed up and you can just hold the trigger down full, he was just railing everything and being a perfectionist. Then Nico on the jumps was effortless, but raw and not glamorous because we shot in November. Those are two riders that I really liked to work with on shoots for earthed and to watch at the races, I was so pleased when Hope asked me work with them again.
You started off with the Sprung series and then went onto do the Earthed series and also a fundamentals bike tutorial DVD. Are DVD’s going to be a thing of the past in a few years to come or are they immortal? DVD is just a format for content, the format is not really that relevant, but having a hard copy of something is nice. I guess that’s why people like to have collections, I suppose old records are immortal and published things do live on and become immortal or put on pedestal for a few years, but I don’t think it matters to much how its published. It’s just internet content is more fleeting and we take it for granted now, but even with the internet’s flaw’s if it lives on in someone’s memory then I guess it’s immortal in its own way.
Charge bikes @ Red Bull Velodux from Charge Bikes on Vimeo.
Would you agree with the statement? The internet has ruined the moving image side of Bmx, Skateboarding and Mountain Biking. The scene has changed in a big way. I don’t think the net has ruined creativity, you could argue all the edits are more creative than ever and there are more fantastic free edits than ever before, but is something? Do people feel that? I don’t know, maybe it’s just less of an event when you get a release, you can’t unwrap a web edit on Christmas day, it just "blows up your feed”. With progression being a strong force of nature the riding and filming is better than ever and there is so much choice. However I’m proud to have been part of the tradition of the Skate and BMX scenes for which it was possible to self publish a VHS or DVD like we did. It was a special way to make a mark in a scene or to build a brand. With Sprung 1 we funded Sprung 2 from selling VHS’s. And now if producers didn’t have brands like Monster or Red bull funding projects then film makers options are limited. iTunes is a good option and people maybe want to pay for the big budget bike film’s, but smaller core scene stuff they expect it for free. I don’t mourn the demise of DVD’s or anything it’s just a format as I said before, but it’s interesting to see Vimeo doing a box office type thing which is possibly more accessible than iTunes for smaller producers and hopefully producers can still make projects worthwhile without having to be so bland and mainstream. In the last 5 years internet start up’s like Freecaster, Mpora or EpicTV are a good way for a producer to hit the road and make a project. They have pumped lot’s of cash into film makers pockets by trying the get market share, that can’t be a bad thing just different.
Things have changed a little from when you were filming Earthed etc. now it’s all big production movies with fancy helicopters and rain machines (Brandon Semenuk’s Rad Company). Is that a style that you enjoy watching or is it too arty farty for Mr Rankin? Ha ha, yeah I’ve never been big on anything over produced, be it music, food or films. Its like Hollywood v’s punk, big budget has always been around it’s not a new thing and always has it’s place and I don’t not like watching well produced video’s, I have jibs, sliders and gliders now, but back in the Sprung, Earthed and BMX days handheld filming just seemed right for the vibe and accessibility to the sport we wanted to portray. The handheld zoom equipped camcorder went hand in hand with the Skate and BMX scenes and it still has its place. They’re some of my favourite video’s today that have that same style, however there is no point being a snob either way, but I do think a lot of edits and movies seem a little bland now. Like a crappy guitar solo, a lot of overproduced edits can feel the same like gazing over the viewer with gadgets and gimmicks; lets just see the action from the best angle and move on. The best angle may well be a sick drone shot or POV so go for it, but just because you film something in a tech way doesn’t make it great.
Your style of filming seemed to catch people’s eyes with the Sprung and Earthed series; your very own timeless style. Did this style rise out of no-where or was it always your objective to make things look very…very…fast? Yeah filming with a natural feeling to show the speed and terrain was important, but the way we cut the films to be super tight and strict was just a key. No baggy editing or repeated shots, which makes for a watchable section. Also all the Downhill Riders are trying to push the speed of DH that’s the thing you want to capture. We spent our time learning camera moves what worked on Sprung and kept it going with Earthed, but that Skate, BMX style is the feel I loved to watch myself.
How did you go about advertising everything when there was very little internet? To start we advertised in the mag’s to build the Sprung name, small 1/4 page ad’s which I spent too much money on, but they were essential for our first sales at ‘ Bike98' and then once we had distribution from Sprung 3 the Dristro's paid for full page ad’s and we also did direct sales with mag’s, the Mag’s were central to our success and it seemed really natural to start working at the Dirt publisher’s ‘4130' when Sprung ended.
Fabric x Chris Akrigg - The Man Behind The Lens from Charge Bikes on Vimeo.
What are you doing these days then? I’m doing lot’s of riding, lot’s of filming. I’ve also got a wife and two kid’s.
Do you ride yourself then? I like bikes a lot. Track building for the BMX and MTB’s goes on where I live in Dorset.I’ve been doing some single speed MTB, some road and CX lately. I like flat pedals and 26”, I also think dropper seat posts are great and I run a 27.2 Xfusion with just a leaver under the seat. My road bike is steel and I also like to ride the occasional 200km+ Audax style where you stop for cake, enjoy the views and over keen Sportive riders can do one.
Have you got any favourite riders? Way back 20 years ago I liked Peaty, Jason McRoy and Warner for their attitudes. That inspired me to check out the World Cups and explore that scene, a little later in BMX I thought Brian Foster was neat and that east coast trails scene was a pretty big influence, but rather than Favourite riders I liked the films and mag’s, Hoffman films, the Bones Brigade, Crusty and Black Fly films which were on repeat through different eras. Plus mag’s like Snap, Dig and Dirt influenced my world and I guess certain films had a mystic value or magic powers that made you watch them a million times. Jon Dye’s 'Nails in the Coffin' the UK BMX film was my weakness, but back then it was what ever you could get your hands on. You couldn't just click and buy, you might only get a couple of films a year or copy them off your mates. We used to rent the rare US skate films from our local skate shop. That’s why I never got obsessed if people copied our VHS or DVD’s because that’s what we all did as kids, we sold about 2000 sprung 2’s, but dog knows how many people saw it at a mates house or shared it.
What’s your favourite bike product of all time? So many things, but i guess sticky rubber for shoes and tyres, or the Orange 5.
What’s your least favourite bike product of all time? It’s all evolution ain’t it. I don’t know anything that didn’t last like it should have.
I know everyone get’s sick of this question these days, but where do you stand on the wheel size debate? I’m easy going about it and really interested in the changes, I don’t have a 29”, but I do get it for some people, I have had a 650b single speed since 2011, but still ride 26” a lot, personally i don’t chop and change much. There is more choice now so that’s a good thing for people that want options and I made a mini documentary from Eurobike 2012 on my Youtube about wheel size which went down pretty well. I could see 650b would be big in 2011 and people laughed at me for saying it because 29” was taking hold, but look how quick it’s changed. When my 26" Orange Five dies I’ll see what’s about, but that Evil 26” is getting rave reviews.
Looking back at all of your past videos, I have enjoyed every one. Your 2007 Earthed The Law Of Fives stands out to me as my favourite as it captures one of downhill’s wildest years. Do you have a particular favourite? Sprung 3 because it had our first WC road trip which was so eventful and our first trip to California. Two weeks filming Peaty and friends as well. We packed so much in and it was very exciting for a 22 year old lad from Wiltshire.
What Camera were you using back int’ day and what camera’s are you using now? We bought some large format Sony DV cameras, I had a Sony VX9000, I paid £1600 second hand for it and had to borrow the money. It was perfect for the Sprung stuff, then by Sprung 5 I had a Sony PD100 a smaller pro DVCAM unit, it was great for Earthed and all the BMX stuff. Then I had a Sony HDV camera from Earthed 3 onwards, then from 2008 I used a Sony EX1 which I still have a version of now and the DSLR thing has been pretty big for a few years, with the 7d, 5d and now GH4. I like small cameras for adventure filming.
Do you think there’s still money in action sport’s filmmaking or is it just a little extra wonga for the regular 9 to 5er? The really committed folks can make a living, you see a lot come in thinking there is loads of cash to be made, but you have to pay your dues and it takes time, look at Stu Thomson and the MTB Cut Media crew. They have roots and total commitment and with some luck you can make it work. I take freelance work that suits me now and the Charge bikes/Fabric work suits my life right now, but who knows what I will end up doing next.
What made you enter the filmmaking world? Was it because of the lack of good MTB videos in the late 90’s or was it a hobby that got a lal’ out of hand? Not a hobby, I went to college to do media with the intention of getting a fun job, when I graduated after 5 years of study and being a student and riding lots, I couldn’t find that fun job straight away so I created it. With a fellow ex student and riding buddy, we found the niche and were accepted by the scene because they could tell we did a good job and brought something really new. Sprung was not the biggest or most epic but it was fun and inspired a scene to evolve, because like skateboarding it was good when we could see what the other skaters were doing. That was how everyone got better, even if it was some grom from a village in wiltshire building a fly out or learning a new curb trick.
Well Alex, thanks for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to say? Cheers, maybe check out www.wfomedia.com , follow @rancor on twitter or @alex_rankin on instagram. All the Sprung films are online for free at this link as well. Youtube.com/alexrankin https://www.youtube.com/user/sprungvid