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Feature: Layers of Sound and Vision

Inside the mind of filmmaker Clay Porter

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The following story first appeared in the fall 2021 print issue of Beta. To get print, sign up to be a Beta Pass or Outside+ member. Membership details HERE.

It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning and Clay Porter is sitting in his car in the parking lot of Mount Bachelor ski resort outside Bend, Oregon, waiting to lap his local bike park. He’s talking to me before he jumps on his secondhand 26-inch-wheeled Scott Voltage freeride bike—he loves this bike, which should already tell you a lot about the man.

Porter, 37, has been making mountain bike films for most of his life. He’s traveled the world, worked on dream projects with the biggest names in the sport, witnessed the highs and the lows, the heartbreak and the humor, and struggled with some of his own ups and downs along the way. He’s a multitasker, a documentary-maker, a storyteller of the highest order. In a world overloaded with ‘shreddits’ and quick-hit product-launch videos, he’s the go-to man for those in the know, whether that be for pure visual candy or for something a little different. He’s laid back, chilled, mellow and humble—but also driven, focused, determined and dynamic. It’s a mix of contradictions that has fueled his creativity and outside-the-box thinking for more than two decades.

Porter in his element at the 2007 World Cup race in Schladming, Austria. Photo: Sven Martin

Born and raised in San Francisco, California, in an artistic and supportive household, the young Porter wasn’t too keen on city life. He was obsessed with BMX racing and from an early age he took every chance available to escape to the nearest track. Soon, he mixed in skateboarding and rock climbing, then as a teenager came across mountain bikes purely by chance. At 13, he went to sum- mer camp in Lake Tahoe, California, and when one of his classes got cancelled, he and his buddies replaced it with mountain biking. Suddenly, everything else faded; life was 100-percent riding and over the next few years he honed his skills on the short punchy descents of the Presidio in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was around that time that he began to take an interest in documenting his scene, inspired by his earliest filmmaking experience, a school project that centered around Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Gondola viewing party with Sam Hill. Photo: Sven Martin

“I borrowed my parent’s VHS camcorder and de- cided to do a stop-motion animation film of a scene from the book using Star Wars figures as the charac- ters,” Porter says. “My parents must have taken note because a couple of years later they got me a mini DV camcorder for Christmas. It was a total surprise.”

Same Porter different World Cup venue—Maribor, Slovenia, circa 2010. Photo: Sven Martin

Early media influences came in the form of magazines, particularly the MBG World Cup guides and the downhill-heavy Dirt from the U.K.—a magazine I was the editor of for 16 years—both of which used the epic and era-defining photography of Malcolm Fearon. Fearon’s classic long-lens style made an impact. “I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a pretty big influence on me and my style of cinematography,” Porter says. “With him I really noticed the power of telephoto imagery.”

Duck and cover at the Andorra World Cup in 2007. Photo: Sven Martin

Porter devoured each and every image and word in those magazines; a superfan was born. Then came the films: “Chainsmoke,” “Transcontinental,” “The Circus,” “New World Disorder” and of course the “Sprung” series. A new world opened up. “Sprung,” and later “Earthed,” with their quick cuts and fly- on-the-wall style were highly influential. The way the filmers were part of the scene, mixing it up at the race track—and at the afterparty—resonated. On top of that, his love of skate culture was also deeply ingrained into his psyche.

“Skate films have consistently influenced me the most over the last 20 years, especially the work of Spike Jonze and Ty Evans and their films like, “Yeah Right” and “Fully Flared.” There’s so much depth in skate films, and the aesthetic is so much more than just skateboarding, there’s a whole culture behind it that influences it in so many ways. Watching skate videos taught me how to edit in a lot of ways. They’re really good at just showing the bare minimum. Here’s the trick, move on … they trim the fat really well.”

Shooting “3 Minute Gaps” with Andrew Neethling in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. Photo: Sven Martin

At 15, Porter made his first move. He started racing dual slalom, an unconventional choice but one that allowed him to film the downhill races instead of pin on a number plate. The 2001 Sea Otter Classic was a pivotal turning point.

“I’d just raced, I still had my kit and pads on, I had that camera that I got as a Christmas present, which was actually really unprofessional, and I jumped the fence. I pretended that I knew what I was doing when I didn’t. I was a kid, but I was in. ‘Fake it ‘til you make’ is still such a valid statement for me, even today.”

Post-race screen time. Photo: Sven Martin

The next summer, Porter worked in a local bike shop and saved enough money for a Sony VX2000, which was the best ‘pro-sumer’ camcorder you could buy at that time. As soon as he graduated high school, he moved to southern California to chase his dreams. After an initial rejection from film school, he got accepted in 2005 to the Brooks Institute of Photography, and also somehow persuaded mountain bike photographer Sven Martin and his wife Anka to let him move in with them into their apartment in Laguna Beach.

I pretended that I knew what I was doing when I didn’t. I was a kid, but I was in. ‘Fake it ‘til you make’ is still such a valid statement for me, even today

He’d met pro racer Jill Kintner the year before, and through Kintner he expanded his network to other riders, journalists and photographers. Soon, a new kind of education took the place of a formal one. With real-world experience racking up—he’d already produced several of his own films by then, including “The Spectacle,” “The Second Spectacle,” “Synopsis,” and “Hypnosis”—film school started feeling pointless. “What I learned about film school is that you don’t need film school,” he said.

The film editor’s glow Photo: Ian Collins

After dropping out, Porter embedded himself in the riding scene full-time.
He landed an unpaid job with Yeti Cycles, Kintner’s then-sponsor, and traveled the world shooting for three years, before the Athertons and Red Bull approached him to work on a diary format of edits. That led to work with some of the biggest names in the sport: Brendan Fairclough, Aaron Gwin, Sam Hill, Cam Zink, Steve Peat, Brandon Semenuk and many more.

Those early days spent on the summertime ski slopes and mountainsides of the world perfected Porter’s filming technique and craft. In the raw environment of racing, where you have little or no control over what might happen, you learn fast.

Rigged and ready. Photo: Ian Collins

“Shooting racing was a huge benefit to my learning curve—riders coming toward you all day, you don’t know where or when the next one will be. You have to be ready, and you have no control over it. Hours and hours on the hill taught me the practical skills that gave me control.”

There was so much going on for Porter during that time that it’s hard to keep up. During an almost 10-year period on the road, Porter was producing his own films, alongside his commercial work, culminating in the feature-length “3 Minute Gaps” in 2011, documenting the world’s best downhill racers. Then came Steve Peat’s seminal biography in 2014 “Won’t Back Down,” Fairclough’s “Deathgrip” in 2017 and Aaron Gwin’s “Timeless” series in 2020.

Porter also branched out around this time, forming a production company, Metis Creative, with motocross photographer Cameron Baird and filmer John Reynolds. It was a meeting of minds and skillsets, and a fertile ground for new creative avenues.

Side-by-side with legendary World Cup photographer Gary Perkin, whose work was among Porter’s earliest inspirations. Photo: Sven Martin

Professionally, he was at the top of his game, but a dark cloud had been slowly starting to obscure his mental clarity. “Around 2010 I’d done a couple of films and I was traveling a lot, but started to feel that things weren’t right in my head. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t happier or more fulfilled. I was young and I’d gotten to a point pretty early in my life where I’d reached a lot of my goals, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Is this it?’ I was so focused on doing what I do that I almost lost sense of who I was as a person.”

He didn’t realize it at the time but he was suffering from depression and anxiety. Mental health was still pretty taboo back then, especially in the male-dominated world that Porter lived in, and he kept his struggles closely guarded. “I didn’t understand it so I didn’t talk about it, and it got worse. It only got better when I got to be more open about it.”

In 2012, he started seeing a therapist, something that continues to this day. “It took a long time but I learned that filmmaking and what I do doesn’t define me.” It’s now become a big part of his life, but his therapy, medication and a greater understanding all help. “I’m doing really well these days, I’ve learned how to teach myself a lot of coping skills, and really just learning who I am.”

His depression and anxiety is not something Porter has spoken openly about up until now, and as someone who’s known him for more than 15 years, I was stunned when he brought it up. I first met Porter in 2005 at the legendary Fort William World Cup downhill—an emotional weekend of racing where Peat and Tracy Moseley won on home soil. As the editor of Dirt magazine, I already knew of him through his films and many transatlantic emails. But in person, I quickly discovered on the damp Scottish mountainside, that Porter knew the score. Through the wind and the drizzle it was obvious that he had serious talent. There was always something special about Porter.

15 years later after launching his career at the Sea Otter Classic, Porter was in Monterey premiering “Deathgrip”. Photo: Ian Collins

When I ask him to define his style, he describes it as “percussion-driven-editing-infused storytelling.”

I have no idea what he is talking about. He explains further, attempt- ing to articulate an abstract visual construct to a writer who thinks in linear sentence construction.

“Classical documentary storytelling but infused with a percussive-driven editing style by using music and sound design and really rapid-fire editing. I like projects when the audience watches it and feel like they’ve been hit over the head with so much amazing footage so quickly that they kind of don’t even remember it. That’s what I get a kick out of making.”

And it really is all in the edit where a film can be won or lost. Editing is the art of storytelling, forming and shaping the raw footage, giving it a narrative, spinning themes—that I completely understand. “When I go into the edit session I have to have specific goals, visualizing what I want to make. I start to see that sequence of shots before I begin. It’s building this sequence where every shot adds to the whole. Building up layers of sound and vision.” Editing is a process of constantly reassessing your work, critiquing what you have done. To be a good editor, you have to be hard on yourself.

The fact that Porter is both a filmer and editor may be part of his magic, even if they are quite different things. The filmer is trying to get as much footage as possible, but the editor is trying to do the opposite. “I only try to edit when I feel inspired, because with editing you need to have this ruthless stance. Is this shot good enough? Does it move the story forward? You’re just weeding out and weeding out until you think that you don’t need to take anything more away from it.” To do both well is a skill that not many possess, but there’s no getting away from the fact that editing is still work. “It is just a tedious, time-consuming process sometimes. No matter how much of a passion project it is, there is a lot of work involved.”

It’s funny how filming and editing fashions change as technology evolves. There’s no doubt that the lo-fi style of skate films that influenced Porter so much as a young kid still have an effect, and in truth that style never really went out of fashion. “I’m looking at all these amazing, perfect images that are being captured on modern-day cameras and I’m thinking, ‘How do we make that look like it looks but also make it look a little more handheld, or more gritty?’ Over the last few years I’ve been looking for the shaky stuff.”

He’s talking about the authentic ‘dad cam’ vibe. The beauty with Porter is that he sets out to juxtapose these shaky, ratty, VHS-style cuts with glorious wide-screen technicolor cinematic gems. These styles or genres, whether in the edit or the content, change meaning all the time. “I think the future of filmmaking is genre-less, or at least the merging of genres. I want to mix it all up, match- ing different styles.”

And that’s the thing about Porter—he hasn’t stagnated or stayed still in the last two decades, he’s kept pushing. Naturally, I ask about his future, wondering where someone who has always pushed creative boundaries will go next.

Behind the lens in Cape Town, South Africa, while filming “3 Minute Gaps” Photo: Sven Martin

“I want to do projects where I can put my definitive stamp on the work. Whether it’s a dog food commercial, a music video, a mountain bike film, or I would love to do a presidential campaign. I just want to be able to make it the way I want to make it, and as long as there is an opportunity for a lot of people to see it, I don’t really mind what I film. The subject is just the subject. I don’t care what I make as long as I am with the people I like and that I believe in.

I like projects when the audience watches it and feel like they’ve been hit over the head with so much amazing footage so quickly that they kind of don’t even remember it.

“That’s kind of what I live for. The biggest buzz that I get in life right now is working with creative professionals that I admire. Whenever you can combine creative forces and energy, that’s really when the magic starts to stack on top of each other.”

As for bikes, he’s still as much of a superfan as he ever was, but over the last few years they’ve taken on a different meaning.

“I started coming to Mount Bachelor in 2018 with Kyle Jameson, and I ended up totally falling back in love with riding. It has helped me massively with my depression and anxiety, calming my mind and allowing me to be in the moment. It’s not something that ever goes away, you just understand and accept it and get better at managing it. I can say that I’m probably the best I have ever been in my life, and I think right now that’s largely due to riding. I feel that I understand that balance of what I do for work and life … I’m just living.”

I hear a voice outside his car window as we speak from different continents—he’s getting hassled to go ride. Our time is up, Porter returns to the bike, the same thing that got him here.

From Fall 2021