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Filming Parkour with Johnstone Macpherson-Stewart

Parkour and filmmaking have had a flirtatious relationship from the outset. Filming oneself for analysis, bragging rights, what have you, is central to parkour as a community and culture. It should be stated that despite watching countless hours of incredible movement, many of us who aspire to release our own video content simply aren’t filmmakers. To that end, I reached out to Motus’ cameraman extraordinaire Johnstone Macpherson-Stewart to get some tips for those of you who, like me, know very little about the art of filming parkour. 

Me: What is one aspect of filming that you think is underutilized or ignored in parkour and why? 

Johnstone: The thing with parkour is, there are no rules that are set in stone. I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way to film parkour. I think that most people make videos to either show the joy of doing the parkour or the joy of making the film. So in that sense, it depends on what your goals are. If you take Storror for example, their goal is to tell the story of a group of lads doing parkour on a day-to-day basis, and they’ve found that GoPros are the way to tell that story. GoPros are incredibly simple, it’s not a faff, you just press record and start talking to the camera. That is a beautiful way, and a simple way to record a story. The needs of parkour have changed in the last decade, and so has the way in which we film it. You don’t see as many abstract parkour projects out there at the moment; you have to be a certain type of person to appreciate that. I certainly am that person. When you put effort into something, I think it’s in our nature as humans to want to share that with others. An artist wants to share their work. I think unfortunately the filming of parkour lately is governed by how many people watch it. Or maybe not how many people, but the response it gets from more than just a couple of people. I miss the abstract, artistic parkour films. I have a couple of ideas myself that I’d like to do for the enjoyment of making the film, and the people watching it, but thinking they might get more than a couple thousand views is optimistic. Those aren’t on my priority list because I have to feed myself, and you can’t do that making abstract parkour films. 

Me: When training alone it can be difficult to film from more than one static angle. What can you do to make a single static angle look its best?

Johnstone: Well, I think we’re lucky in the sense that parkour takes us to a lot of interesting places architecturally. From a landscape perspective, there’s a lot going on, and I think there are ways that you can frame your shots. Ultimately, the most important thing that’s going on is your movement, but if you can frame that with the lines of the architecture, and using filmmaking rules like the rule of thirds, you can create a pretty interesting film. It’s a film I would love to see– a well framed parkour piece in the landscape, done from entirely static angles, something like that could be amazing. I think it’s about using or breaking the rules of filmmaking if you want to, and obviously movement has priority, but if you only have one static angle, then think about your frame. 

Me: How do you plan and prioritize tasks when filming content for a long-form piece? 

Johnstone: So the longform pieces I’ve done with Motus have been Sole Destroyer and S.O.L, and I’ve had a pretty similar role on both of them. I’m not sure it’s actually the most efficient way of doing things. When I go on a parkour trip, of course I’m designated cameraman for a lot of things, but at the same time I also want to be training and moving. That rubs sometimes; then I don’t get the most out of myself doing parkour, and I don’t get the most out of filming other people, because I have these conflicting emotions, like, “Shit, I have to go and find a line.” It takes me a bit longer to find and execute a line than say George or Robbie, who can arrive at a spot and within seconds they’ve found something and want to film it, and then I don’t have time. So what I do is pick a day and decide, “Okay, I’m getting a line this day,” and on the other days, my role is filming. So if you want to plan and prioritize tasks when filming content, make sure someone is filming and knows that is their role. It makes the whole process much more efficient if you can find someone willing to fill that role. I think Giles fills that space much more often than I do. I suppose he likely has the same feelings inside that I do, but he’s more willing to let that slide, prioritizing other people’s clips over his own training. Which I’m not quite so fond of doing, but that’s just me. 

Me: What are some things to avoid when filming parkour? Editing? 

Johnstone: I’ve realized after years of making the same mistake and wondering why the hell my videos didn’t look the way I wanted them to, was that the “180 rule” is seemingly important in helping the viewer to understand the space through which we do parkour. The rule is making sure you never go 180 degrees past this imaginary line you have created between two subjects in the shot. It is very jarring when you’re in a space that you don’t know very well, and the cuts are going all over the place. The easiest way to avoid that is not to cut, hahaha then you don’t have to worry about that. But that would be the number one thing I avoid myself, making sure I don’t cross that line where it gets messy in people’s heads and doesn’t cut smoothly. 

The 180 rule

The 180 Rule Illustrated

Me: When editing a video, if you feel that a particular clip of a line or challenge is better suited to a project, but the athlete who performed the line prefers a different shot, how do you approach that?

Johnstone: I mean ultimately, the athlete performing the line wins that argument. As much as I might be pulling my hair out thinking, “This shot is way nicer here,” it’s a lot easier for me to get the shot, than for him or her to do the line again in a “better” way. You just have to put the shot in and make it work. Or…. and this often works… people will forget the little intricacies of their own movement, so you just put in the shot that maybe they didn’t like as much, but your camera work is better, and you just don’t tell them. Hahaha that’s another way you can do it. 

Me: What editing software do you use and why?

Johnstone: I use Final Cut Pro X, simply because that’s what I started on. I’ve tried to switch to Premier, and the things that Premiere does well are great, but the things that it does badly just put me off completely. I just can’t switch to Premiere. I’m looking into DaVinci Resolve at the moment, learning that a lot, and that seems much better suited to my workflow. Final Cut is quick and I think that’s really important for me to have editing software through which you can be creative. You can click stabilize on a clip and it only takes 10 seconds rather than 3 minutes. That’s a creative tool and allows me to get into a flow state of editing that I just can’t get into when I’m using Premiere Pro. I actually love Final Cut Pro X. There are a few things that I wish could be better, but for the price (which is a one off payment), and just how fast and efficient it is, I will continue to use Final Cut Pro X.

Me: How does your approach change when your goal is to show off a spot rather than the movement?

Johnstone: This is an interesting one. In Sole Destroyer our goal was to show off the movement in new spots. There were certain spots where we had more time to get b-roll shots of the spot itself rather than just the movement within it. One of those spots was the blue-wall spot, a lot of cascading stairs and stuff where Jordan took a lot of heavy drops. You’ll notice at the beginning of that, there’s an edit of all the walls, and Giles gets really creative with it. I think that was a really cool freshen up for the video. One of my favorite parts of the video was when we were just showing the cool angles of the environment. The only way you can do that is if you take the time to go shoot b-roll of spots. But I think that’s what Sole Destroyer was lacking in general, and I do wish we could have shot more of that stuff, but that wasn’t our goal at the time. 

Me: Can you name three parkour videos that you feel were filmed and/or edited really well, and why you chose them?

Johnstone: This should be a pretty easy question to answer, right? But I can’t really think of three that jump to my mind. There are so many, and I think that most parkour videos are filmed and edited pretty well. I think that’s partly because we, as parkour people, get it. We’re movement analysts, we’ve studied our own movement for years, trying to figure out how to do things better. That in itself lends to understanding movement with a camera. Understanding why a shot doesn’t look quite right, or seeing something and thinking, “Oh that was a bit jarring.” Our eyes are almost trained to pick that up. I think there are a million videos that are filmed and edited really well. If I had to choose one, it would be… and this isn’t biased at all, but the Motus video Origins. That may be my favorite video to date, because the shots in it are just so clean. I think Giles captures the landscape and environment really well. He uses the framing and the lines of the architecture so well. The edit is so clean, not over the top, the transitions aren’t jarring, they keep you there, and the video feels whole to me. I’ve watched it a million times, frame by frame to try and decipher how well Giles takes our eye through the whole video. Another parkour video I love is Chaps on Tour 2013. It’s like the ultimate blend of lifestyle mixed with parkour, mixed with cinematography. I actually just watched it just now to remind myself of three videos that I like, and it’s honestly such a banger. I wish people still made videos like those, or it was popular to make them, because those are the videos I like to make myself. Another video I would choose if I had to, one that gave me really good vibes when I started training was MUSHIN - Part One by Danee Marmolejo. It just has such a good vibe to me. There’s nothing specific about it that’s special, but it made me want to make videos after I watched it hahaha. 

Me: What is your favorite parkour shot that you’ve filmed to date?

Johnstone: I’m not sure if I have a favorite. One that springs to mind because of how I got it, is the opening shot of the New York City 2018 video, where Luke Stones does a plyo to front flip precision to dive kong out. But I was so happy with that shot because it isn’t on a stabilizer, I was walking with my camera, and I did a zoom on the lens at the same time, and it came out amazingly. Everything sort of went right, and that’s why it was the opening shot of the video, I just loved that shot so much. 


Johnstone’s Tips for Filming

1- If you’re using a song, edit your video to the beat of the song. Simple.

2- The parkour athlete’s movement in the frame is the most important thing, more important than your artistic seasoning.

3- If you can, take a step back and walk around the spot. You’ll often find different angles, or ways of seeing a line, or what the athlete is doing from a different perspective. 

4- Spend time on your title. There’s no point spending hours of your time on a beautiful parkour video if your title isn’t in the center of the shot. It’s just formatting. There’s nothing worse than seeing a title that’s off center, or written in Comic Sans. Take the time to put together a nice title and place it with thought. It gives an impression. 

5- Spend time finding the right song. It’s the underlying essence, energy, and flow of your video. I wish it wasn’t but it is. Find one that fits the movement, or find one that’s contrasting, but put thought into it. 

Filming and sharing parkour in video can be a significant, even anxiety inducing, milestone for many parkourists. It’s important to not only feel confident in your movement, but your ability to record in a way that is satisfying to yourself and other people. It can be remarkably tricky, but that confidence only comes with taking the plunge and filming yourself with the intent to share your practice. Grab whatever device you choose to film on, and get creative.