Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Invention of the Helmet Cam - by Mark Schulze

John Tomac and Martha Kennedy, Rockhopper Sout...Image by cleopatra69 via Flickr

I became intimate with the term "Necessity is the Mother of Invention" when I was producing a video called "The Great Mountain Biking Video" back in 1987.

Let me just step back a year or two and give you a little background. My wife and business partner, Patty Mooney, and I spent almost a year galavanting around the United States and Canada back in 1986. While hiking and exploring the Yukon, we discovered the sport of mountain biking when we happened to see a guy riding his mountain bike through a river. He was up to his knees in water. Patty and I looked at each other and asked, "What sort of a bicycle is THAT?"

We later found out at the Whitehorse sporting goods shop that it was a mountain bike, and people rode these two-wheeled wonders out there in the MOUNTAINS! "See that mountain out there?" the clerk said. "That's a six header." A "header" as we would soon find out ourselves, was when you fly over the handlebars while on a descent, if you are sitting too far forward on your saddle. As soon as we returned home to San Diego about nine months later, we bought our first mountain bikes as a Christmas present to each other.

We became so involved in the sport that a few things occurred. We started racing mountain bikes at local venues like Big Bear, Riverside, Lake Morena and Anza Borrego. We got married on our mountain bikes in the Cleveland National Forest in the summer of 1987. We spent our honeymoon racing mountain bikes in Big Bear, and then Mammoth Mountain. As a woman with virtually little competition, Patty did very well in her race class, bringing home a few first place trophies and lots of mountain-bike swag. I did well, too, usually placing in the top three in my class.

The next logical step was to incorporate our business - video production, with our passion - mountain biking, and voila, we produced the first-ever instructional mountain-bike videos. The first one was called "The Great Mountain Biking Video" and contains clips of local trails along with tips and techniques from the top pros of their time, Ned Overend, Martha Kennedy, John Tomac, Julia Ingersoll, Kevin Norton and Tinker Juarez. This video won accolades, honors and a lot of press, as it was "The complete guide to one of the world's most exciting and fastest growing sports." It's pretty interesting to realize that it's been nearly 25 years since we produced the video and it's now considered "archival," "historical," "nostalgic." That's life, right?

While in production with "The Great Mountain Biking Video," I realized that we needed some way to capture POV (Point-of-View) footage that showed the viewer what the rider was seeing and experiencing. As a bona-fide packrat, it so happened that I had an old motorcycle helmet to which I affixed a VHS camera. I had to balance the camera which was on the front, with a weight on the rear of the helmet. Thus, this helmet was so heavy that anyone who ever wore it on a mountain-bike ride or Trials jaunt of any length would invariably complain, "This thing's HEAVY!"

In order to operate the camera, we needed to pad a VCR in a backpack and attach this by cable to the camera. This helmet-rig contraption was a far cry from today's lipstick and button cams. We only WISHED we had technology like that at the time, but there is something to be said about being a pioneer and an inventor. Today's technological advancements are based on the trials and errors of people like me, a guy who simply wanted to share my love of riding through the beauty of nature, with interested viewers. (If you are reading this, Sony, I would accept your thanks with the latest and greatest HD lipstick cam, no problem!)

Patty has been digitizing some of our old VHS masters before they turn to dust, and she unearthed this historical helmet cam footage from the 1988 Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze Downhill. Our friend, a San Diego mountain biker named Jeff Detweiler, wore the rig down the entire run, which as anyone who has ever ridden it knows that a rider could easily break their neck WITHOUT wearing a motorcycle-helmet-cam. Kudos to Jeff. You'll see me popping in and out of Jeff's POV, and Patty even makes an abbreviated appearance at 3:40 as Jeff blazes down. This is unedited, real-time footage, so it's as though you are riding down the Kamikaze yourself, in 1988. And don't forget, mountain bikes were also primitive at the time, without the luxury of shocks. Enjoy!

Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze Downhill, 1988 from Patty Mooney on Vimeo.

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