How to Shoot a Flyball Event - A Primer on Specialized Documentary Filmmaking by Chris Weigl

Shooting a documentary is no easy task.  It takes lots of time in the field and lots of planning to execute your camera strategy effectively.  One of the challenges that we've faced is figuring out how to get the best angles, where to set up to get the shots we want to get without interfering with what's going on, and perhaps the most difficult task of all: how to think like the subject in what you're filming.

We've been working on This is Flyball for almost ten months now and it has been so much fun to be around the flyball community.  The one thing that has always stood out to us in flyball above all else is just how warm, friendly and gracious everyone is.  Dave Strauss is no exception.  Dave has been involved in flyball for eight years and has mastered the art of shooting a flyball tournament.  We are very excited to share with you a guest blog post by Dave Strauss, who will explain in detail and with video examples how to best shoot a flyball tournament below.

How to Shoot a Flyball Event

By: Dave Strauss

For any particular race I usually have to decide whether I'm going to take stills or video.  For videos I try to choose a race that's going to provide interesting instances of my "standard shots" (more about that later), which usually means a race that involves one of the faster teams in the tournament.  For certain types of shots I'll want teams or at least dogs that are evenly matched, and of course the faster the better.

There are certain types of shots that work well even with slow teams and/or dogs - for example some fairly slow dogs have really nice box turns that are fun to watch as long as it's edited properly.

I also try to take a few "novelty" or filler shots to be used for transitions in the video - for example the intro or the postscript - but those are fairly ad hoc.  I just need to remember to do them.

This all works because Flyball is very repetitive.  The dogs (and people) are trained to do the same thing over and over again with as much precision and repeatability as possible.  Then, each race consists of at least 3 heats so I can do three different shots during the race and be pretty sure that I didn't miss much of anything.  And finally, a tournament is usually a bunch of round robin competitions, so each team will race all of the other teams in its division several times over the course of a weekend.  If I miss a shot during one race I'll usually have a chance to get it later on in the tournament.

It also works because I'm not trying to tell a story.  I'm not trying to show how close a particular race was, or how well a particular team or dog did in the tournament.  That would be a very different thing and I'd probably have to change the way I did things to make that work.

If you have several cameras and photographers available you'll probably be able to set up several shots during one race and get everything covered all at once. 


2014 -
2013 -

The basic shots I use most are:

 1. Box turn (single dog)

    Box turn shots make great filler, because they look really
    impressive and because there's that visceral *chunk* when
    the dog hits the box.  Plus you *know* that the shot is
    going to be there.

    I do the single box turn shot as close as possible to the box,
    which is either at the end of the backstop or next to the box
    judge, depending on how the ring is set up.  Sometimes I'll be set
    up in the middle triangle of the backstops but not usually - it's
    too distracting to the dogs.  I might set up a tripod in that area
    instead if I'm filming my team.  If I'm next to the box loader
    I'll be sitting down with the camera fairly low; if I'm at the end
    of the backstop I might steady the camera on the backstop.  In any
    case I try to keep the backstop itself and any ring fencing out of
    the shot.  With the GoPro I've been known to set it up with the
    little tripod just inside the ring next to the backstop - it's
    small enough that the dogs don't seem to notice.

    The most interesting box turn shot is when the dog turns towards
    the camera, so if you're set up in the left lane you'll get dogs
    who turn left and if you're set up in the right lane you'll get
    dogs who turn right.  During a tournament I'll often do one lane
    for one heat and then switch to the other lane for the next heat.

       2014 @ 0:45
       2014 @ 1:31 (in tight)
       2014 @ 2:14 (from behind the box)  Camera is steadied
                           on the top of the backstop
       2014 @ 2:18 box turn approach and turn, tripod mounted camera

 2. Box turn (two dogs)

    To get two dogs in the shot I need to be farther away from the
    box - either on the start line side of the line judge or maybe
    even between the third and fourth jumps.  It depends on the camera.
    For this shot I'm looking for a situation where the two dogs
    hit the box pretty much at the same time.  This happens most often
    with the start dogs but also with evenly-matched teams.

    2014 @ 0:41
    2014 @ 1:29  this is a really nice one
    2014 @ 2:47  double box turn during one of the championship rounds.
                          Note how crowded it is.
    2013 @ 2:32

3.  Passes

    Passes are harder to get because the pass has to be close or it
    won't look very special.  I want to be close to the lane but if
    the pass is more than about 5 feet I'll get just the one dog in
    the shot.  Also passes are **fast** - it's hard to get enough to
    fill an entire shot, so to make sure I get more I usually set up
    away from the start line facing the start line.  I either shoot it
    very low or about chest high.  With the low shots the dog coming
    from behind the shot seems to just explode by the scene.  An
    alternative is to looking right across the start line from behind
    the line judge; these usually need to be done from above in order
    to get the line judge out of the shot.  Lining up the shot can
    be tricky because of the placement of the line judge.

    The simultaneous pass is one of the hardest shots to get but it's
    one of the most exciting to see.

    2013 @ 2:13
    2013 @ 3:15
    2014 @ 1:01
    2014 @ 1:17  This is an example of a wide pass with slow dogs, showing
                        how far from the start line you have to be to get the
    2014 @ 1:43  Almost simultaneous
    2014 @ 2:10
    2014 @ 2:31  low - through the picket fence

4.  Start dogs

    This is actually a variation on the pass, so the setup is similar.
    The difference with the start dogs is that usually they'll arrive
    at the start line at almost the same time, so it's very exciting
    to see.

    2014 @ 2:00

5.  Starting

    In this shot I focus on a dog about to be released and hold the
    shot until the dog runs out of the frame.  I usually do these shots
    in the left lane because the other dogs will be lined up to that
    dog's right, leaving an unobstructed view; however these shots can
    sometimes be done in the right lane depending on how the team lines

    2014 @ 1:47
    2014 @ 1:56  in the right lane
    2014 @ 2:02  this is actually a double start shot and its
                          interesting because the handlers follow the dogs
                          out of the frame.
    2014 @ 2:29  in the right lane - this was possible because on this
                          team the start dog lines up ahead of the other dogs.
    2014 @ 2:50
    2014 @ 3:16  this was shot with the Canon 7D with a 17-55mm lens, while
                         I was sitting under the scoring table.  It shows how hard
                         it is to get one of this shots in the right lane.

6.  Starting with pan

    This is similar to the starting shot but I pan to follow the dog.
    I don't do many of these because it's hard for me to do a smooth
    pan and my camera tends to lose focus during the pan because of
    low light. 

    2014 @ 1:57
    2014 @ 3:12

7.  Tug Swing

    This is where the dogs get their reward - they get to swing!
    It's also a very tough shot to get.  It's in the runback area,
    and the runback area is very busy during a heat.  You can have
    a shot all lined up and then another handler runs between you
    and the handler.  Or the handler and the dog just run out of your

    2013 @ 1:30
    2014 @ 1:20

8.  Everything else

    Looking up the lanes, looking down the lanes, novelty shots
    (milestones, unusual and/or cute dogs, kids and babies,
    unusual behaviors, non-racing shots).

You can see more of Dave's photography at:

You can see more of Dave's video work here:

Thanks so much Dave for sharing your wisdom!  We hope everyone finds this as rich and resourceful as we did.

The Problem & The Solution by Chris Weigl

The problem, at least as we see it, with entertainment today isn’t that there is too much commercialization or not enough artistry, but that no one likes the current relationship that TV, film and entertainment have with businesses and mainly advertisers.  At it’s most basic level, the problem in entertainment is that the people who write the script, direct the film and produce the movie are at odds with distributors and businesses that want to partner with creative enterprises to help build their brand.  Let there be no doubt films are brands.

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Mobility in Independent Filmmaking by Chris Weigl

The one thing that we stress more than any other aspect of our production strategy is the importance of mobility in filmmaking.  This is an incredibly important facet of what we do especially for our upcoming project: This is Flyball.  This is Flyball is a documentary.  We have to fit cameras in some pretty tight spaces and we need the flexibility to move quickly and adapt to what is going on not only in front of us but next to us and behind us as well.  Mobility it turns out is the most important component when it comes to our camera strategy and production design.

Our next shoot is at a small, warehouse-like building where most of the flyball ring is off-limits to us.  Therefore we have accommodated our camera strategy accordingly.  We’ll be using 100mm, 250mm, and even 400 mm lenses.  The longer lenses allow us to shoot from greater distances.  They also require greater stability than wider lenses.  This isn’t your typical documentary shoot.  There’s no room for a steadicam.  In fact, space is so tight at this event that we don’t even have room for a tripod.  We’ll be shooting with monopods so that we can adapt to changing conditions on the ground during the flyball tournament.  Basically, we want to give ourselves as much flexibility to adapt to changing conditions as possible. 

Greater flexibility helps us in adapting to lighting and sound as well conditions on the ground.  The lighting at these events cannot be altered because it would distract the dogs.  The challenge of shooting these events is to get as good of a shot as possible and as clear audio as we can get without interfering with the event itself.  This proves to be challenging in many respects.  For one thing the dogs are all extremely loud.  The majority of the dogs waiting around the flyball ring are eager to get their turn and barking profusely.  We thus have to find a place near the flyball team that has the lowest decibel sound level possible, which is difficult because we don’t want to interfere with the event itself.  Lighting is something that we have no control over so we have to adapt our cameras to make the most effective use of the existing lighting as we can.

The most important attribute required for documentary shoots is awareness.  We need to be situationally aware, but also aware of the tendencies or aspects of certain dogs and their owners.  Joey, for example, is known for intimidating dogs on the other team.  This is something that not only is amusing to observe, but can alter the outcome of a race as well.  It is important therefore to be aware of all of the different things going on around us.  Individual performance plays a big part in the sport of flyball, but that individual performance only matter insofar as their performance impacts the team.  It’s very important to be both situationally aware and aware of the dog, the owner and their tendencies.  We also need to be aware of the general climate around us.  If there is another major race coming up afterwards involving two other teams then we may need to move our cameras just so that the next two teams can fit in the room – it’s that tight.

We are in a good position to deal with the challenges we face in shooting This is Flyball because we have embraced greater mobility in our camera strategy and with our production staff.  It is becoming more and more important to be as flexible as possible in how we shoot independent films.  Not only does flexibility and mobility allow us to shoot different concepts and ideas, but it puts us in the best possible position to capture our subjects and this is what should be the most important aspect to independent filmmakers.