Starting out mountain biking in the late 90's, Stu's passion and love for the sport has grown as much as it has evolved and changed over the years. Beginning his racing career as a privateer with support from his family's development team, The Clan, Stu went on to be hand-picked by MTB legend Steve Peat to ride for Royal Racing.
After racing on the international World Cup scene, Stu's stint at the at the top gave him plenty of valuable experience to help him adapt and change as his passion for racing slowed down. Determined to put his University studies to good use, Stu had lady luck on his side just as the internet was embracing live streams and high-quality video. Forming MTBcut, a site dedicated to video, Stu focussed on making films and continuing to promote MTB in Scotland with his own racing team.
Fast-forward a few more years and Stu was introduced to Danny MacAskill and the two of them hit it off right away. Read on to discover Stu's legendary story about how he's become the man who makes Danny MacAskill's videos come to life.
What's your background in bikes, Stu?
It makes me feel old talking about this! I guess it started when I was really young and my dad was a motorbike trials rider. I got my first motorbike when I was 12 or 13 and then I rode that for quite a few years, did the school boy nationals. And then when I was about 15 or 16 I did my first mountain bike race with a bunch of friends.
Was it by accident that you decided to take up mountain biking or were you into MTBs?
No, I was into the scene. I was always riding moto trials but I relied on my dad to transport me around. I’d get home from school and my dad would be working so I couldn’t go and ride and I didn’t live somewhere where I could ride my motorbike from the door. I ended up getting really into mountain biking after school with friends. The whole thing was booming then, MBUK was in its heyday and JMC was big on the scene. I loved videos like Dirt and Mud Cows and I was just mad for it, I absolutely loved everything about the scene.
I decided to have a go at racing downhill back in 1996. JMC had just passed away and there was a memorial race for him at Hamsterley Forest. I ended up going there with a bunch of friends from school. I think I raced the juvenile category. The one thing I remember about it was that I was 5th and Jamie Tomkins (of Crud Catcher fame) was fourth and he was this kid that was always in the magazines – it was an awesome feeling. I also remember seeing Dave Hemming – it was a bit of a who’s who of MTB at that race. I really enjoyed being there and had an amazing time.
At the end of that year, I wanted to do more racing and I remember my dad said to me, “well, you’re doing either trials or mtb. It’s one or other!” So the next season I ended up selling my motorbike and going mountain bike racing.
So where and when did you first properly start racing?
I ended up starting racing with Crawford Carrick-Anderson. We’d been riding trials at the same time and had met each other on the trials scene. He crossed over to MTB at the same time as me and we both went downhill racing together with a load of other Scottish riders. And by ’97 I got really into the scene, which was the first time there was a national downhill race at Innerleithen (in Scotland). I remember camping there with my parents, pitched next to Nigel Page. He was there for one of his first races, too. There were other people there like Si Paton and all of those old-skool guys. Obviously downhill had been going on before but it was pretty early days for the whole thing. It was cool, such an awesome time!
So that first Innerleithen race was when Peaty and Warner were just breaking into the top level at World Cups. Steve had just signed for GT from MBUK and was riding the first Lobo and Warner was on a prototype ATX-1. I remember Longden beat them both at that race! I always considered this National to be my first proper race because it was in Scotland and I was actually trying to do well. I was in youth category then, too. So that was kinda the start of it.
Then you went on to create The Clan – a sort of privateer race team?
My dad was always really supportive. He wasn’t a pushy parent but was always there and he was always really into bikes too because of the trials. So, skipping forward a year, we’d met a load of Scottish riders whilst racing. A lot of them were travelling individually and didn’t have much support. Back then, there was no MTB coverage on the internet and most of the UK magazines were based in the South of the UK, so Scotland didn’t get much racing coverage.
My dad ended up putting a team together which was known as ‘The Clan’ where we got a load of riders together who wanted to race, between '98 to the mid-2000’s. There was the likes of me, Crawford, Paul Angus (now owner of Vertigo Bikes in QT, NZ), and then later on Chris Ball (Director of the EWS), Andy Barlow (the man behind Dirt School in Scotland) and loads of others. It was such a cool time – I raced as a junior for the team and it just an awesome group of mates that road tripped together. We ended up doing really well which was a bonus, like Crawford who was racing in Elite and riding for Giant on the World Cups. When I rode for The Clan I was British Junior Downhill Champion and then I came 11th at the Junior World Champs.
We had support, though. Originally, we were sponsored by a shop and then it graduated to Giant supporting us with trade deals and my parents helped to organise peoples’ travel and entry. It was a pretty amazing time for quite a few people and is awesome to look back at. Everyone that was involved in the team has moved on to do things within the MTB scene.
After those results you kind of broke through, right?
2000 was my final year in Junior which was when I won the National DH series and the British National Champs. I raced the World Champs, too. And then that off-season I got a phone call from Steve Peat asking if I wanted to race for Royal Racing. I’d met Steve at the Euro Champs and got chatting to him in the bar. It was cool, I’d gone to university and was studying sports marketing. I remember coming back to my flat one day and my flatmate was like “some guy phoned for you, he said it was Steve Peat.” I kinda assumed it was a riding mate taking the piss! I obviously phoned him back and got invited to ride for Royal Racing.
The next 5 or 6 years were spent racing World Cups and doing National DH races. I was trying my hardest to be a pro rider but wasn’t making much money at it. But I was having an amazing time, did alright and had quite a few good results but never did as well as I felt I could have! I did alright though, especially nationally, with a few bronze medals at the National Champs and quite a few podiums at National DH races. I was still working in the winter and was going to uni too. I never really got to the level where I could have made big money, which is fine. I had a few highs in terms of results but wasn’t a regular top 10 rider that could have made decent money or a living from it.
You and Crawford had your own section in Sprung 5 back in 2001 – Did that sew the seed for becoming a filmmaker?
I always loved the videos – the Sprung videos are absolutely amazing and to this day are my favourites. They just captured a time, a scene and vibe that was really special. I remember Alex Rankin coming up to film mine and Crawford’s segment in Sprung 5 at Innerleithen. I was super nervous. It was such a big thing for me and the videos he and Milan Spasic had done were so good.
At the same time, I got quite into dirt jumping and one of the boys on the team and I used to go dirt jumping quite a bit and we were always into photography more than video. We did a few crappy video edits, but we were more into photos. We’d only be taking pics of each other riding dirt jumps. It was nothing, I barely even considered it a hobby. It was never a plan to become a filmmaker!
So what happened next?
It all kind of happened by accident really. During Christmas of 2005 I rolled my ankle playing basketball and what seemed like quite an innocuous injury ended up getting infected. I was in the hospital for a month and nearly lost my foot. I ended up having loads of skin grafts and major surgery on it. I obviously took quite a while to come back from it, and when I did come back I’d been racing for quite a few years by this point and I was growing a bit tired of it. My progression had stopped, and it would be easy to make excuses about the injury, and although it did affect me, I think it made me re-evaluate things a little bit.
I went back racing and did okay but I’d been struggling a bit with my ankle. At the same time, I realised I didn’t have the same hunger for the win.
I felt like I was always racing for a top 25-30 place at a world cup. I did have one podium but I had a bit of luck at that race. I was just a bit tired of it all and I kinda lost a bit of the drive. I was just looking for something else. I remember the point when I was racing and I’d had enough. I was at Mont-Sainte-Anne and it was during practice. It was a beautiful day and I was sat at the top of the track and I couldn’t help thinking to myself that I bet the boys are having a good old time on the dirt jumps at home. That’s when I thought: “What am I doing?”
Someone from my family was aware of this company that had been working on an online video platform when online streaming and online videos were first taking off. I’d got into shooting video and had a camera. Then, this opportunity came along to work with this company. It was super early days and the quality was ropey but I did shoot some films and hosted them on my site using their video platform. There was also this potential to do live streams and the internet meant that all of these niche audiences could come together. That’s basically what it has done, it’s allowed a load of smaller niche sports to open themselves up to an audience and community that can interact with each other. So this site was the really early days of it.
What was your first project?
We decided to go to the World Champs in Fort William in 2007 to do the first ever live stream of a downhill mountain bike event. The hosting company provided the player and the infrastructure to do the live stream and we hosted the stream on the website. I remember during that first live stream people in Australia were stoked they could watch the racing live on the other side of the world. A few things fell into place and the bottom line is we started up this website called MTB Cut which was good and we had the opportunity to do live streams as well.
It was weird because it was super stressful trying to do the live streams because it kept crashing and to top it off, Freecaster started at the same time. They started pretty much just after we did and were our competition. It became apparent really quickly that we’d have no chance competing with them without some serious financial backing. I'd also started to film events like the Scottish Downhill Association (SDA) races and NPS events and I'd just decided to take a break from racing when all of this came along.
The initial aim was to shoot videos and get some advertising revenue for the site to get a bit of money to drive it forwards. We did get some support from brands such as Chain Reaction Cycles and Mojo in the early days along with some Youtube style streaming adverts but the level of money wasn’t going to work as a business model. On the flip side though, brands had started asking me to shoot some films for them. Rather than making films for one website, we made films and put them on all the websites. Obviously, Pinkbike was the biggest with their video programme so rather than making films for my website I ended up making films for brands and widening my scope as much as possible. In my early days in 2008, 2009, companies like Orange, Mojo and CRC basically gave me a career.
Were you in the right place at the right time, then?
I think it was definitely the right place at the right time. It was the start of internet video, ya know. But I also think I was one of the first people to see an opportunity for shooting branded content and distributing it and get their content out there to the biggest number of people. There were quite a few guys shooting video but everyone was still making DVDs. I just tried to turn it on its head and work for brands. That seems super obvious now! It was a combination of right place right time and being at the start of something and doing it differently to everyone else.
It also helped that my brother in law had studied film at university and I learned a huge amount from him. I met my wife through bike racing, through him. I learnt a lot of technical stuff from him really early on. My sports marketing degree also helped me work with brands. I also knew all of the sponsored bigger named riders which really helped, too.
What do you consider to be your landmark film or production?
I remember early on doing a series for Mojo called the Trail Diaries, which were really cool. It was some of the first travel/lifestyle enduro content rather than race coverage. We took different Fox athletes and took them to some cool locations. The edits make me cringe watching them now but it was a turning point in terms of the stuff I shot and getting away from just racing.
In 2011, I did my first film with Danny MacAskill called Industrial Revolutions that was for a Channel 4 TV show. That was quite a big one for me personally. It was a big step, obviously with Danny’s profile and with it being on UK national TV, but also as a piece of work as a filmmaker that I’m super proud of. It’s still my favourite films I’ve ever made. I got to know the director of the TV show and ended up learning a lot from him. He finished up being the producer on Imaginate a few years later, too.
When did you first get to know Danny?
I got to know Danny in 2006-7 when we met at one of the Nissan Qashqai events. We had loads of mutual friends and I was there with a filmmaker Aaron Lutze who now works for Red Bull. He’d been talking to me about Danny, and said that Danny is unreal. When I was back in Edinburgh, we met up and just ended up being mates and riding a lot together. We hung out loads.
When did you start working together?
Danny and I had an absolutely wild trip to Morzine in 2008 with a bunch of Scottish lads such as Cathro, Hutchens, Ruraridh Cunningham and Dave Mackison. Danny had come out there with a really old Kona Coiler and I’d ridden with him a bit, but he really was more of a trials rider. We just ended up doing tons of DH riding and he was riding this ropey old bike wearing a Dianese pressure suit with no top on, looking like an absolute punter with his goggles all squint. We ripped the piss out of him the whole time. We were on downhill bikes and he was following us on his old bike hanging on to me and Cathro.
While we were there we filmed a little section of him riding in Morzine and we ended up doing a DVD at the end of the year. And then within the next 6 months, Danny and Dave Sowerby made the Inspired Bikes edit around Edinburgh which went massive. And Danny completely blew up in 2009.
So the first time Danny and I worked together on a bigger project was the Channel 4 film in 2011. It was the first one we both put some serious effort into. We shot in an old train yard near Ayr and we spent a week there living out of a Travel Lodge and went to the train yard every day to film. It was the good old days when it was just me, a tripod and a mini jib!
Danny said to me at the start of the week, “what t-shirt do you want me to wear?” We picked this green one and it ended up being the only shirt he only had one of! He ended up riding in the same t-shirt every day all week which was absolutely disgusting! It was a rough setup.
I had the edit all planned out, though. I already had the music for it in my mind – I'd heard it before from a friend who worked for the record label and weirdly a few months later the artist (Ben Howard) ended up blowing up. The edit aired on TV and then we put it online straight after. Danny had a good profile after his first film and this started off our working relationship.
What was it like going from personal to a professional relationship?
It’s definitely a stretch to call it a professional relationship, haha! We’re still just really good friends and riding buddies… There are certain elements that were eye-openers in terms of the pressure Danny puts on himself and the mutual hunger for our videos to be the best possible thing we can make. Along with being an absolute insanely talented rider I think from the very start that’s what sets Danny apart from everyone else.
You work with other athletes and say something like, “we could have got that shot a bit better, can you do it again?” But, they won't necessarily be motivated to do it again and make it better. Whereas Danny is like it has to be the best thing, whether it’s the shot or his riding. If he’s balancing and takes a foot off or does a little correction hop or something like that, he’s like, “nah, we need to do it again.” I think probably from the professional standard, I realised how much of a perfectionist he is about his riding. I remember one of the guys from Red Bull said to me when we were working together on Imaginate that it really stood out how hungry we were to make it the best thing film it could possibly be.
Who’s more of a perfectionist you or him?
I think we compliment each other. That’s what makes the relationship work so well. There’s a brutal amount of honesty. If he does something and I don’t think it’s right or the other way around we’ll both say something. A lot of the time he puts pressure on himself, too. But, we’re friends first and he’s got a load of friends around him that keep him grounded that’s for sure. He gets a lot of abuse from his mates!
Understanding the riding is a really big thing, too. When Dave Sowerby worked on the Inspired edit he understood how to shoot it and how to make it look its best because he’s a BMXer. Even right up to now, the most important thing is making the riding look as good as possible. It comes before a cool shot, concept or story. We’ve always got to have the right shot to show off the riding or the scale of whatever he’s doing.
Do you help with development or feasibility of ideas?
Definitely, it’s a collaborative thing. It always starts with Danny’s riding ideas and then together we build the concept and/or narrative around that. Conversations around style and concept go on for months before filming to get to a place that everyone is happy and they are constantly tweaked or changed. I guess many people won’t really see the work that goes into the films, from the initial idea the concept will always develop loads; art direction, locations, props to be built, music and obviously an overall style for the shoot edit is always well planned.
To be honest, as time has gone on Danny has had a bit less input than he used to simply as he is so busy travelling or on sponsor commitments. Now it’s more about coming up with an initial vision and he then trusts us to run with it and plan/develop it.
It must be tough for Danny doing all of those big, hard moves. Do you build him back up when he’s hit a low?
Definitely. When it comes to it, there will be the whole team behind him helping him to carry on, which is why he’s so adamant he wants to work with people he trusts and is comfortable with. There have been weird situations where people haven’t realised how much he goes through to do what he does or how much time it actually takes to finish off a move. An agency or client will come along really excited to be on a shoot and then three hours later he’ll still be trying to land the same trick and everyone is completely bored. He goes through such ups and downs, especially on the big projects because he pushes himself so far to do the moves. So much psychology comes into it and you have to work with him and help him do the things he wants to do. I can barely think of anything we’ve had to walk away from and just not do. It might take days but we always end up getting there!
How soon can you tell that he will land a move?
It does vary sometimes – sometimes you’ll look at something and it feels like he’s got it but then he tries it and doesn’t think he has. It was like that with the log slide in Wee Day Out, he nearly had it and then for what seemed like no reason at all, suddenly it felt like he was miles away again. He went backwards. You just have to keep on telling him and assuring him that it’s going to work as everyone around him can see that he can do it. It can be a very tough process but we always get there. On the other hand I generally feel like I have a good handle on what he’s capable of but occasionally I’ve questioned if he can land something but he proves me completely wrong. Not many times but I would say the cable in Industrial Revolutions, fence flip in the Ridge and front flip in Graubunden being the 3 where he's proved me wrong.
The Wall in the Home of Trails edit is gnarly!
Yeah, there’s lots of risk as well. Danny always makes the call on the riding, there’s no debate there. When it comes to the dangerous stuff, like the wall in the latest film, Danny is super comfortable. He has no problem riding that stuff. I can just imagine the worst happening like he slips a pedal or the chain snaps or something. I obviously completely trust him and if he says he can do it, then you know he can. Danny’s obviously not crazy! He's really not. It was the same on The Ridge. I totally trust his judgement. At the same time when he does something, I need to be there and ready to get the shot and get him away from the danger as quickly as possible.
He’s phenomenally comfortable with his balance and on his feet. He’s like a cat! Even when he does crash he tends to land on his feet and walk away. As the person filming it and the person in charge of shooting the whole thing it’s more a case of Danny’s determined to do it and we want to film it so it needs to be right and have him exposed to the risk for as little time as possible.
Have there been any real 'holy shit' moments?
It’s just always a bit tense when you see your mate in that situation. When he was climbing up to the pinnacle in The Ridge it was pretty scary. We had it roped it up, so we were going to do this shot of him climbing up with his bike on his back but he had his GoPro on and with the GoPro you could see the rope. The shot we were taking further away was silhouetted so it wasn't a problem.
He climbed a third of the way up one-handed with his bike on his back and was like, “dude, this is fine, I can take the rope off.” And we were all saying to him not to and he was telling us it would be fine and great footage for the GoPro. He just unclipped the rope and threw it away and carried on climbing. We obviously kept on filming because there was nothing we could do – we were at the bottom with the cameras!
I guess that’s the only time when it was a bit hairy, but even still I totally trust him and his every judgement. There are so many situations where it’s just certain death if he fell so I’m never that comfortable. The Ridge was a good example because he was totally comfortable doing all of the stuff we’d consider crazy, but if you asked Danny about when he was most scared he'd say it was when he was doing the front flip over the fence! His perception of danger is totally different. I’m not nervous because he rehearses those moves with crash mats and you can see he’s got it, but he gets mega nervous.
The Home of Trails, how did that happen?
The Graubünden region approached Danny to do some work for them to show off the region. We ended up discussing what we could do as a concept that would work. After a while, Claudio’s name came up but he wasn’t the in our initial idea.
The challenge for Danny now is to how to make things different and mix it up from before. I think he is always trying to push his riding forwards, but we’ve done really well in the past by making it conceptually different. We did Industrial Revolutions in the train yard, then Imaginate, The Ridge and Wee Day Out – they’re all conceptually distinctly different films. The more people get used to seeing Danny’s riding, the more important the concept becomes to keep the entertainment level high.
We’re always asking the question, "what can we do differently?" Graubünden wanted a film to capture their amazing trails and use Danny’s unique skills. Claudio’s name came up because he’s local to the region. It seemed like a great fit.
So the concept of the two of them riding together seemed obvious?
The unique part of the film for me was the relationship between Danny and Claudio. Throwing Claudio into the mix opened up an opportunity for fun dialogue that made the film unique. If you imagine Danny riding all of those sections on his own then it wouldn’t have been anything different to other films he’s done. Although he brings those amazing tricks that wasn’t what makes it entertaining and stand out – it’s that relationship between the two of them. That was immediately obvious.
Everyone is used to seeing Claudio as the guy behind the World Cup GoPro course previews and that idea quickly became really important to the edit. From that point forward, the challenge was to film the most beautiful locations to show off the region, Danny’s riding and also Claudio’s personality and add in the GoPro perspective.
Was that tricky combining those things?
It was quite hard to hit the happy medium on everything. We’ve always got Danny’s riding so we pinned down the locations where he could do his thing but then finding that balance with the GoPro and landscape footage was harder. If you get some landscape shots its great but you have to make sure you’re getting the best one and you’re using it the best way possible. Injecting the pace, fun and energy with the GoPro footage was a perfect way to capture the dialogue between them.
We sent Danny off with Claudio to go riding with the GoPro and made sure that they spoke to each other, which Claudio finds a lot easier than Danny! Danny’s words don’t make much sense when he’s riding – he just makes random noises! We used the best footage from those shots to really bring out the fun and energy between them. And then it all comes down to the edit to make it flow together as one story.
What was that the hardest bit of making the film?
We were on a real schedule to get everything done. We only had a certain amount of time in each area to shoot, so we were working hard to make sure we got the most from each location and still find a balance between them all. Where Danny did the front flip, which was in Scuol, we spent a day there and weren't able to find much time do anything else. It was the time management that was the trickiest thing.
Danny would hate me saying this, but when the sun starts to set at the end of the day he definitely ups his game! There are times when he’s like, "I’m not going to get this" all day long and then the sun starts going down and he changes his tune to "I need to get this!"
What is your favourite bit from the film?
We had an amazing time filming the opening scene by the big ibex. We got to the top of the mountain on the last lift up and slept in the gondola station. We shot a sunset and sunrise on a clear night with amazing stars and views. We had an awesome time, it was like a lock-in. We had a great time with everyone and had a few drinks and some food. That was probably a highlight of the shoot, to be honest.
The front flip is pretty wild. Now and again Danny surprises me, you know. And he was looking at that and I was thinking, shit, that’s big and risky. We brought crash mats for him to practise on but when you take them away it’s a big jump! There’ve been a few times in the past when he’s looked at something and I’ve been like, “what, really?” I'm not doubting his ability to do it but more whether it’s feasible to do it in the time we've got or whether he would actually do it. He really confidently upped his game on this particular move, we took the mats away and he landed it. That was seriously impressive stuff. He’s got front flips dialled!
We were in Saint Moritz and riding the flow trail. It doesn’t matter what level of rider you are, you just look at the trail and can see that it's going to be so much fun. We had our bikes to get about on and at the end of the day, Danny told me to give him all of my camera kit so I managed to do a full run with Claudio behind me doing the commentary which was awesome! A real personal highlight. The shots from that trail are awesome, everyone can look at it and be stoked on it.
It's a really relatable film. Is that important?
Yeah, we always like to make films that are relatable. Although that sounds weird when we do things like Wee Day Out, but being relatable was a big mission of that film. In this one, you can imagine what it would be like riding with Danny or Claudio, but in Wee Day Out we picked props for him to ride on that everyone knows. When we did the puddle, we just imagined there’d be a group of riders out together riding through a puddle and say, “can you remember what happened to Danny?” In that kinda fun way.
Wee Day Out was actually born from the comments on The Ridge. People went crazy for the front flip on the fence and what I took from that was people understand the fence, even though they can’t relate to the trick the rest of it means people can understand.
Are you going to be working with Danny for the foreseeable future?
Yeah I think so. At the moment we’ve got two projects going on. One is for one of his sponsors, the other is a personal project. We’ve shot loads of it last year, but it’ll be out when we’ve got time to finish it. It doesn’t have a sponsor or brand or anything. It’s going to be a bit of a laugh that project!
What does future hold for Cut Media?
I think as a whole it’s a pretty exciting time. The company has grown loads from just me to eight of us. It’s an amazing little creative hub and we’re always chucking around ideas for films and working with brands to come up with ideas. We’re trying to keep breaking ground in the MTB world. We just want to keep pushing it with not only the technology and filming techniques we’re using but also conceptually too, like Matt Jones' film.
We’re also doing other work outside of MTB for brands like Adidas, Red Bull and other people. We’re driven by new things. With or without Danny, it’s all about coming up with new ideas. We’re driven about what we can do that’s more fun or slightly different. I love watching really good riders shredding, but its so important to do things that are a little different to other people.
Is anything you’d like to add?
I just want to say thanks to the team at Cut Media. It’s not all me! As much as I started the ball rolling and shot the early stuff myself, now what’s cool is that we’ve got such a group of awesome talent from film makers to editors and post production people to continually push boundaries. I’d just like to thank them for the work they do! Also big thanks to all our clients for believing in us, my awesome wife for her patience and also my parents for enabling to get into this whole bike riding world!