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Common Tread

Motocrosser to stunt rider to camera innovator in the movies

Jun 01, 2016

If you watched that “making of” video clip we put up, about filming a motorcycle chase scene for the movie "Deadpool," you probably had the same reaction I did: the villain escaping on the Ducati, meh — but what the heck was that camera bike?

And who did that bit of riding? Tracking the Duc while weaving in and out of traffic with 80 pounds of camera gear and batteries, mounted yards from the Zero’s center of mass… that looked hairier than the actual stunt.

The camera bike operator was Regis "Andy" Harrington. He’s an ex-pro Supercross rider who became a stuntman. A few years ago, he created a unique job for himself behind the camera. He doesn’t just operate that bike; he owns it, along with a small fleet of other silent, vibration-free electric vehicles. This is the story of how he turned a bright idea into a buzz-worthy niche business.

Back in the early 1980s, Harrington was another little kid growing up in the “El Cajon Zone” — a hotbed of motocross talent east of San Diego that’s home to guys like Rick Johnson and Broc Glover. He was raised by a single mom who, luckily, rode motorcycles. One day on the way back from pre-school, she bought him a Yamaha PW50.

Before long, Harrington was racing locally, then regionally. He raced at the AMA Amateur National Championships at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, then turned pro. His racing career peaked with a spot on KTM’s factory Supercross team in 2000. Racing as a pro, though, took its toll. Broken right arm, radius and ulna in 1996; right tib-fib in 1997; right wrist (again) in 1998. After two shoulder surgeries in 2000, a crash in 2001 resulted in another tib-fib.

Regis Harrington
Harrington rode for the KTM factory team in the 2000 Supercross season. He still gets any seat time he can, on this 250 four-stroke. Photo provided by Regis Harrington.
After that many ambulance rides, a regular nine-to-five job had some appeal. He got work at a body shop in San Diego. But in late 2000, he saw a sign on the door of a local motorcycle shop, “Be in a movie. $85 a day.” He called the number. The fact that all they wanted to see was a picture of his bike and gear bag should’ve been a tipoff that it was hardly a starring role.

It turned out to be a Disney Channel movie called "Motocrossed." Jeremy McGrath, Travis Pastrana, and Dave Castillo were on the set. That seemed cool. But when it was time to eat, he recalled, “My boss told me that I didn’t get to eat with those guys.”

That was when he learned the difference between being an extra and being "talent."

He wasn’t an extra for long. After lunch, the stunt guys wanted to blow off steam and ride for a bit. Somebody vouched for Regis — even though he was just an extra — and he cut some laps. It was his home track, and he’d just come off a pro season. When he pulled in, the producer and director were waiting for him. They asked him if he wanted to be in the movie.

For the next few years, he took occasional stunt assignments while working at the body shop. “The first 11 jobs I did, I doubled women, because I’m small. The scene in ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’ where Cameron Diaz goes over the handlebars? That was me,” he told me, adding “I’m still pretty proud of that, even though I was wearing a wig.”

As a pro racer, Harrington’s teams had often been frustrated with him, because he rode the bike he was given and rarely requested setup changes.

“I’d come in off the track and they’d say, ‘What kind of changes do you want to make? It looks like it’s kicking in that rut’,” he told me. “I’d be like, I just won’t use that rut.”

That attitude’s a disadvantage in high-level racing, but it’s welcome on a movie set. The last thing a producer wants to hear is that you need to make a bunch of changes to some prop bike, while a crew that costs a $1,000 a minute waits for you to get it feelin’ right.

Eventually, Regis realized two things: the body shop job wasn’t going to satisfy his performance drive, and he should embrace his motorcycle background and attempt to work full-time as a stunt man. His mentors in the business then gave him some counterintuitive advice: Get out of Southern California. Movie productions were leaving California in droves for states that offered financial incentives. Louisiana was the state offering the most production assistance, so he moved his family to a small town outside Baton Rouge.

The stunt work kept coming, including work on "The Bourne Legacy" — filmed on location in the Philippines — where he performed a seriously tricky gag as a rider.

Bourne Legacy stunt
Jumping a Kawasaki 250, disguised as a police bike, for The Bourne Legacy. The film’s effects team asked him to perform this stunt without a helmet, but in the end they digitally replaced his head with a villain’s! Author’s note: If they asked me to perform this stunt without a helmet, I’d say, “I’ll do it without a helmet when you can digitally replace my actual head.” Photo provided by Regis Harrington.
“They had this old Kawasaki 250F that they’d set up as a police bike, with bags and a windshield,” he recalled. “I had to ride it up a staircase, off a wooden ramp, then jump it about eight feet into traffic. The shot called for me to ‘wheel bump’ the hood of a taxicab, so another driver had to stop right on his mark and then I had to be perfect on a four-foot square. There were a lot of moving parts.”

His description sounded tricky enough, but after a couple of takes, the special effects guys then requested that he do it without a helmet! After all that, when the film was edited, they chose a camera angle that puts the jump way in the background (and they digitally "face replaced" his face with the villain’s!). You can see it if you watch carefully at the 2:45 mark in this clip.

On that Bourne shoot, they were using a two-stroke camera bike. At one point, Harrington heard one of the actors complaining about the smoke from that motorcycle, and he had a stroke of genius: Why not use an electric motorcycle? An EV would produce no fumes at all, and be silent and vibration-free to boot.

Back in his KTM days, Regis had worked with Scott Hardin. He knew that Hardin moved to an executive job with Zero Motorcycles. He wrote an email to Hardin that night, from his hotel room.

Harrington bought a 2012 Zero S as soon as he got back to the United States. Then, he took the bike — and, yes, a sketch on a napkin — to his friend Jeff Palhegyi (a San Diego-based custom builder who does a lot of work for Yamaha). Palhegyi (his name’s pronounced to rhyme with "apology") took one look at the napkin and told Regis, “Stick to riding, and let me do the design work.”

After a few months, Palhegyi delivered the bike, modified with mounts for cameras and batteries. Harrington and his friend worked together to tweak it with stronger fork springs and revised valving, a repurposed Öhlins shock and, especially, improved brakes.

Zero camera bike
The original Covert Camera Zero, with a rear-facing camera installed. The rig holds the camera level when the bike tilts to turn. Radio remote control allows an operator to pan, tilt, and zoom the camera while Regis concentrates on putting the bike exactly where it needs to be to get the shot. Photo provided by Regis Harrington.

“With the camera and battery attached, this thing’s grossly overweight. Working around cars and explosions, braking’s important,” he told me. [Author’s note: Really? I’d never have guessed.]

Last but not least, Harlan Flagg at Hollywood Electrics tweaked the Zero’s electronics to give it significantly more power.

At that point, Harrington was sitting around at home in Louisiana with a newly modified Zero S camera bike in his garage, waiting for the phone to ring. The problem was, film productions had never seen anything like it, so they didn’t know what they were missing.

Then he got his next big break. The football movie “When the Game Stands Tall” was set to film on a field with artificial turf, and the stadium’s owners were dead-set against using a gasoline-powered vehicle on their field. Cue: electric camera motorcycle.

The new camera bike’s capabilities stunned the director, who was delighted to have a camera that could follow a running back through a hole in the defensive line.

Even Regis was surprised at how effective it was. “I built it to shoot [stuff like] Fast & Furious,” he told me. “But suddenly I realized I could shoot all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with vehicles.” He did similar work on Jurassic World, putting the camera in the middle of some frantic and chaotic foot chases.

Those were shots that, before Harrington and his Zero camera bike came along, could only be captured by laying dolly track (which is time-consuming and not that flexible) or by having a Steadicam operator running with the camera (which is exhausting!). One of the coolest things about it, for Regis, was that he was suddenly a part of the creative process, helping the director and director of photography “block out” shots. “I wasn’t just some guy running out of the way anymore,” he told me.

Everyone loved the results, but Harrington still found that it was not that easy to market his business, which he calls Covert Camera Vehicles. He’s not really a stunt man, nor is he really part of the camera department, so he needs the buy-in of a film’s director, the second-unit director (a specialist director for stunts), the stunt coordinator (who is responsible for safety), and the key grip (who is responsible for any piece of equipment that carries a camera).

The critical piece of gear is a three-axis remote head that allows a nearby camera operator to remotely pan and tilt the camera. The head will also hold the horizon steady, so it doesn’t lean with the bike in turns.

Even though the modified Zero was more versatile than anyone expected, most of Harrington’s calls are still for car and bike chases. Besides working on “Deadpool,” he recently worked on “Fast & Furious 7” and “xXx.”

Of course, I was curious about any particularly tough shots he’d been asked to get.

Regis told me about one shot on Fast 7 that involved paralleling a car as it rounded a corner. Then he had to hop over a curb, thread between a hydrant and a pole, in order to be perfectly abreast of the car. “Then there was an explosion and what we call a ‘ratchet,’ so the car went tumbling down the road on fire,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Complex shots like that don’t allow him room for error — and he can’t exactly ask the director for a second take.

“I think my racing background helped to prepare me for that kind of pressure,” he told me. “After all, when you go to the gate, you don’t get a restart if you mess up.”

Harrington still has a motocross bike in his garage, but he doesn’t have much time to ride it anymore. Nowadays, Covert Camera Vehicles operates a nine-vehicle fleet, including an electric BMW i3 car and an electric Polaris Ranger quad, out of a 1,600-square-foot shop. Jeff Palhegyi is still a key member of the team, supervising all the vehicle mods. Dave Castillo and Joe Dryden — both highly experienced motorcycle stunt men — help out as camera bike operators, too.

It’s been a long, strange ride for a kid from the El Cajon Zone and it’s not over yet.

“If I’m dreaming, don’t pinch me,” he said at the end of our chat. “I don’t want to wake up.”

You can keep up with Regis by following Covert Camera Vehicles on Facebook.