A former pro is helping figure skating look more authentic than ever
On TV, ice skating often looks like a sport stuck in time. Cameras aren’t hanging from wires above the action or placed close to the ice for a dynamic look at skaters zipping by. Instead, a few stationary cameras planted around a rink flip from one view to the next when a better angle is available. It can be dull to watch.
But far more exciting and intimate ways to shoot ice skating have been emerging on social media, and one person in particular has made a name synonymous with turning the sport into something spectacular to watch: Jordan Cowan, under the name On Ice Perspectives.
Plenty of others try to make videos similar to those Cowan uploads to his channels. What gives his content the edge is that he was a professional skater who represented Team USA at international competitions, competing six times at the US Figure Skating Championships.
Other professional skaters trust him on the ice because he’s one of them. Cowan’s ability to skate lets him stay in-step with skaters and keep them in his camera’s frame while speeding around a rink. Instead of following behind skaters, he’s usually along their path of flight, getting the best shot. In his videos, it’s easy to see a skater’s technique and exactly how they shift their weight with every move and transition. It’s pure fan service.
Cowan visits rinks around the world to shoot with up-and-coming skaters, and present and former Olympic-level skaters alike. He’s uploaded more than 900 videos since the channel launched in 2018, and altogether, they’ve gathered over 25 million views across all platforms. Notably, former first lady Michelle Obama recently tweeted a video he made that shows Starr Andrews, a Team USA senior medalist, dancing to “Black Like Me” by Mickey Guyton. Recently, he’s been tapped to help shoot CBC’s Battle of the Blades and ITV’s Dancing on Ice programs.
Cowan answered some questions over email to explain his technique, his tech, and his goals for On Ice Perspectives.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What made you want to start On Ice Perspectives?
Looking at skating content on social media, I felt there was a gap between what I was seeing, and the truly inspiring content being captured in, say, the dance or gymnastics world. I wondered if someone with insider access, but also film and social media knowledge, could do for skating what several great dance videographers have done for the quality of dance content that we’re accustomed to seeing on TV and social media.
What tech do you use and what’s your workflow like? Do you use any custom gear that you’ve constructed yourself? And what’s on the horizon in terms of what tech you could use?
The camera I use for the majority of the work you see on On Ice Perspectives is the Sony mirrorless A7III, on a DJI Ronin SC gimbal, with a Rode shotgun mic for sound. For editing I use Final Cut Pro X on a MacBook Pro.
I am constantly tinkering with and improving the equipment that makes up my workflow. I like to think that I’m the only person using some of the configurations I have evolved, but realistically, everything I use is standard and accessible by all.
When I film for network shows, I generally use a rig made for cinema cameras with large cinema lenses. At this point I can’t own a rig of that caliber, and since it is my goal to bring a cinematic edge to the videos I share, it is my eventual goal to own my own rig that I can use to produce that level of quality.
You’ve shared the tech that does work well for your rig, but what hasn’t worked as well as you’ve hoped? I’m sure in your early days there was some trial and error.
I think creativity is born out of necessity, and necessity comes from limitations. My first gimbals were very basic, so when skating around a curve, for example, the horizon would start to roll, and I had to monitor that and manually compensate as I was plotting my next move. My newer gimbals are more powerful and precise, but I’d be lying if I don’t miss that charm of a gimbal that’s constantly rolling into a Dutch angle.
From the viewer’s perspective, it seems like you really can have a connection with the skaters that you record. The footage feels almost eerily in-sync with their movements at times. Can you explain how you do this?
I am lucky that I was a Team USA ice dancer, and as such, I have the built-in sixth sense that all skaters develop when training daily on the ice with world and Olympic champions. I often can’t answer why I know, at the moment, where to go to get a good angle of a subject, but I know it’s thanks to my training, and I am grateful for that.
I think the camera work during televised ice skating competitions leaves a lot to be desired. It’s very flat, and it can feel tough to be connected with the skaters during their dances. Is this something you’re trying to change with your shooting style?
Absolutely. When you are on the ice with elite skaters, you can feel the speed they create. The shapes their bodies make only fully make sense when seen against the perspective of where on the ice they have traveled. It’s just not possible to portray this with the traditional filming from the boards audiences are used to seeing in the media. I hope to give viewers a window to the feeling that being on the ice or at a live show gives you, and that has entirely informed how I choose to shoot.
What sorts of trends have emerged from your content? Are you seeing fans clinging to certain kinds of content more so than others?
It tends to be a routine made to music that breaks the traditional expectation of skating, like an ice dance team skating to Metallica or burlesque. It proved that skating as an art and dance form is linked to popular music, like most trends on the internet. The fact that it’s a sport as well makes it exceptional.
At what point did you decide to build your channel into a business via Patreon?
I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to charge skaters in order to be able to focus on building On Ice Perspectives. What I love about Patreon is that it gives viewers the chance to support not only the very significant costs associated with running the channel, but also to have a stake in the mission of creating unique skating content. Unlike a traditional sponsor, my patrons can donate just a few dollars and access the extra content shared there, all while making a very real impact on my ability to continue sharing skating content with the world. In a sense, Patreon allows patrons a greater connection to what I do with On Ice Perspectives, but also with the sport itself.
What are your goals for On Ice Perspectives?
Honestly, I have so many. For the longest time I was focused on wanting to film the gala which follows the figure skating events at the Olympics, in a new and unique way. While I would still, of course, love to do this, my focus has shifted to wanting to produce livestreams and I hope, one day, a made-for-camera complete ice show.