Increasingly in trail running films we see sponsor involvement with multiple crew, cameras and larger budgets. The subjects of these films are the elite, the professional athletes who compete for podium honors and to smash course records.
Ethan Newberry flips this paradigm on its head, turning out visually striking and anthemically scored films from the perspective of the everyman.
Ethan employs a strict DIY ethos (his films are shot with a boom mounted GoPro camera as he runs) strong narrative focus and emotional heft, courtesy of his honest chronicling of the challenges and triumphs of a non professional athlete who competes in trail ultra marathons. Adding to the narrative strength and weight of Newberry’s films is the music that accompanies the visuals; Each original score being composed and performed by the man himself specifically for the accompanying film.
Ethan, or The Ginger Runner as he is known by his many fans, is a Los Angeles based actor, improvisational comedian and designer. No slouch himself, Ethan has completed twelve ultra marathons, several marathons and numerous sub marathon distance races. Ethan was generous enough to provide Reel Wild with both his film documenting his 2014 Gorge 50k experience and his time for this interview.
Ethan, thank you for speaking with us. To start, can you tell us what came first: your love of running or your love of film making?
I would have to say my love of filmmaking came first. I remember skipping class to hide out in the video lab in school. I would take VHS movies and edit together scenes from my favorite films and put them to different music. We couldn’t afford a video camera growing up, but I remember my brother would make fun Kung Fu films with his friends and their camera. I’d do everything I could to be in them and help direct the sweet action scenes. That evolved into my passion for filmmaking and the creative process involved. When I was in high school, I remember creating films and presentations for class assignments. In University, I managed to string together independent study classes in order to teach myself professional editing software. This blossomed into real world work and eventually my home on YouTube creating regular creative content of my choosing. Now on the running side of things, I have been running since I was in middle school, but I always hated it. It was the bane of my existence in sports because I wasn’t that fast. My main sport was soccer, which I loved endlessly. I would use cross country and track to stay in shape for soccer season, but dreaded all of the long runs and focus on long-term speed. It wasn’t until college where regular team sports weren’t as readily accessible to the non-elite that I found running again, but as a form of escapism and health improvement. This gradually turned into challenging myself to longer and harder runs, marathons, and eventually ultras. Now I can’t live without running in my life.
As Reel Wild is a film festival specifically about running trails, I have to get in one question about being in the trees. What is your favourite type of race to run, both in terms of distance and terrain? The nastier the better? Or buffed out, rolling, sweeping trail? Or road? (it’s okay, we can talk about road running)
Oh man, just reading your question about trees made me instantly daydream about running through the dense, lush woods of the Pacific Northwest in the US! I grew up in one of the most beautiful places in this country and try to get back to those trees regularly. It’s almost a spiritual experience now that I have the strength and endurance to run through, up and around those mountains! But back to your question, I’d say my favorite distance at this time is the 50k distance. I feel like I have enough solid training and base building thus far to really enjoy my 50k experiences and recover fairly quickly. That being said, the distance is inevitably difficult. Go too hard too early and you’re finished before mile 20. But balance it just right and you can have an incredible day! Add to that some serious technical or elevation challenges and I’m all in. I love hard and physically demanding races. I don’t want to feel like I’m getting away with anything, I want to be challenged, pushed and really earn that finish. Granted, 50 milers and 100k races do that to you on a whole other level!
I will say that a rolling singletrack or scenic road race has its place for sure. Those can have their own challenges and rewards. I definitely feel that a well rounded runner makes for a happy runner. The more variety, the better the experiences!
When I’ve tried to document any of my running adventures, the results have been more Blair Witch Project than The African Attachment. What are some tips that you would give for the beginner DIY trail filmmaker?
Haha, nothing wrong with the occasional Blair Witch handheld camera look! But really, there’s little secret to the technical aspect of what I do. I’m on a strict budget so I managed to save up and buy a GoPro and an appropriate handheld pole that I could telescope short or long depending on the shots that I needed. That’s pretty much it. With plenty of solid practice getting the angles and shots how you like, it’s pretty easy to replicate. Now honestly, I’d LOVE to have a budget like the bigger production companies have. I’m sure there’s a ton that I could do with that in this realm of film, but for the time being, I am focusing all of my energy on telling compelling stories. The storytelling is the crucial step in the process that most new filmmakers forget. It’s not all about pretty shots and fancy angles. It will come down to the story you are showing me or the viewer. That will engage me every time.
What would recommend gear wise, for shooting and editing your own trail film?
A great starter camera is a GoPro. There are so many models available at different price points, almost anyone can afford one. Once a good camera is acquired, snag something to hold the camera further away from your body to minimize vibration from the running. It takes practice, but a lot of the jarring shake of a running body can be removed with a steady arm, pole and gravity. With software, that’s a bit trickier. I have friends that edit daily videos on their phones in free editing software that’s available. But I tend to stay closer to the Final Cut Pro/Adobe Premiere Pro CC realm. I try to stand out with decent title design, lighting effects and what I call “plus-ing” which is essentially taking the film one step further beyond just the edit. This could be color-grading, stylized editing effects, etc. A lot of this is only possible in heavier editing software.
A point of difference with your films is the score, which are your own compositions. When you set out to document a race, do you think in terms of the shots you are getting via your GoPro, or do you conceptualize the music first and edit the film to that composition? Or is this a simultaneous process?
I do compose all of my own music for my films. This was something I wanted to do very early on in my career. With my running films, the inspiration will always come first from the locations I run. As I run I try to absorb every moment that I can, every detail in the surrounding, every nuance on the trail or road. It all soaks in. I will film it the same way. If I see something I like, I pull the camera out. If it’s a moment I need to document, I’ll pull it out and start shooting. That process is easy because I can never shoot too much. I can always edit out the footage I don’t need. When it comes time to sit down and put it all together, I’ll review all of the footage, begin to piece a story in my mind, and then start playing with the music. Once the rough musical themes are created, I’ll put them to footage and begin to tell my story. That process is loose and I can always flip it around if the creative process needs it. It can be both frustrating at times and violently quick at others.
Are you a classically trained musician? and if so, do you have a primary instrument, or do you take the same DIY approach to your music as your film making?
I am fairly musically trained, yes. I grew up fiddling on my parents piano in the basement teaching myself chord progressions and emulating my favorite film composers. As I got older, I picked up first the trumpet, then the baritone and finally settled on the bass trombone for most of my high school career. I got really good at the instrument and gigged often around town playing with musicians four times my age. It was a pretty fun time – until I got tired of it. I continued dabbling on the piano through college and always had a keyboard nearby to throw ideas around. But this is the first time in my adult life where I’ve been able to compose freely with a purpose and its liberating. I love every moment of creating new music and challenging myself to compose new pieces for films. I absolutely love it.
What’s next for you in terms of your film making? It’s been a pleasure to watch the development of your films, both in terms of the visual aspect, the music and the emotional honesty and at times rawness that seems to encapsulate many of our experiences when competing ultramarathons as “non elite” runners. Are you planning on documenting any races that you won’t run? Will that involve an additional step up in gear or will you stick to your current set up?
The next step is to start telling stories that are not my own. There are too many incredible athletes with their own incredible stories out there to pass up sharing with the world. And yes, I plan on attending more races and documenting the craziness. Ironically, due to an unforeseen ankle sprain, I had to sit out my first 50k of the year (Orcas Island 50k). But the blessing is that I got to run around the course and document the different racers struggle through a brutally tough course on a terribly stormy day. It was awesome! There are a number of races like this that I plan on making films for this year, but I am excited to tell more individual stories as well. Stay tuned!
Lastly, what’s in store for you in the future, running wise? You’ve made public that you’ve entered the Cascade Crest 100 miler in August. Will you be documenting the lead up and your training? And can you speak to where you see yourself being beyond this?
My big racing goal for the year is indeed Cascade Crest 100. I have not raced that distance yet and it terrifies me. I absolutely plan on documenting the lead up and (hopeful) execution of the race so stay tuned for that film. If I want to document all of that, the piece will most likely be quite long so I anticipate the project taking up a lot of my creative time. That being said, my mind always loves to think 5 steps ahead! Travelling abroad is a goal and showcasing some global races is a huge step in that direction. Cannot wait to see where this all goes!
Matt Rayment is an Auckland-based trail runner and race director who spends most of his time listening to music you’ve never heard of. Will write for food.
Many thanks to Ethan for taking the time to speak to Matt and Reel Wild and for supplying the photos that accompany this interview. To attend the New Zealand premiere of Ethan Newberry’s Gorge 50K.