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May 6th, 2009
Spark Blog: Larry Engel: Running Better in "Non-sneakers"

Larry Engel films Alan Alda with Dan Lieberman and a VERY old skull at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Photo by Maggie Villiger

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Can a Yalie survive a film shoot at Harvard?

What’s it like to film at Harvard or MIT, two of the most prestigious universities in the United States, if not the world? First of all, we know that there are a lot of really, really smart people here. Thinkers, researchers. So that’s a challenge in and of itself. But for a Yalie, it’s even harder. Okay, so I was at Yale way back in the late 60s and early 70s (during the Vietnam War protests and the Black Panthers in New Haven — interesting time — Google it!) so by now I should be over any sense of competition with Harvard, but alas I discover that The Game (keep Googling, but please come back) still compels me to be somewhat suspicious as we start production here.

Regardless of my slight unease, Cambridge is a beautiful city and Harvard’s campus a classic. Trees and green lawns — well-manicured of course — quads and ivy-covered buildings. Within these halls sit some really fascinating professors and investigators. Between Harvard and MIT, over the next few days Alan will sit down with eight researchers and their associates, and go for a “spin” in an fMRI machine (the big magnet!) Indeed the topics of conversations are far-ranging — from Stone Age tools to Theory of Mind to biomechanics — all in our continued effort to uncover the human spark.

Where to begin? Well, parking is always a challenge around any college campus and Harvard is no exception. It always takes an inordinate amount of time to unload gear, load into the building that we’re working in, and get the cars parked.

Larry sets up his shot to illustrate how human feet have evolved to withstand the impacts of running. Photo by Maggie Villiger

We start in the Peabody Museum and one of the first researchers we pay a visit to is Professor Dan Lieberman.  He looks at biomechanics — namely how we, and other animals, use our bodies to move through the world. He’s done research on running for many years. He argues that we humans evolved to become the best long-distance runners on earth. While we cannot out-sprint many animals, we can outlast them all — and that creates a real advantage for us.  Instead of attacking prey up close and personal (and thereby putting ourselves in peril), all we have to do is run our prey to exhaustion, then dispatch it. This change in hunting strategy may have been one of the “sparks” that we’re searching for. It may have pushed people toward more cooperative behavior, thus building closer bonds among us.

But what got me excited was that Dan has discovered that we’re really meant to run barefoot, not in soft cushy sneakers.  In fact, he tells Alan that running barefoot is around 15% more efficient than what we normally do. Dan takes to the treadmill to talk with Alan (Dan can run and talk at the same time frighteningly easily) and demonstrate how our bodies have evolved to support bipedal running, from the way our necks are connected to our heads to the way our hips are shaped differently than other primates’. The latter may have led to babies being born less developed (in order to pass from the womb through a narrower passage between the hips) and therefore in need of a longer growing cycle outside the womb.

But Dan also runs not quite barefoot. In fact, I’m intrigued with his non-sneakers. They have a rubber sole, but it’s very thin. No padding at all. A stretch fabric over the foot and a Velcro strap to hold it secure, really just protection for the skin on your soles. The coolest part is that it looks like a glove for your foot — each toe fits into its own little chamber.

Larry Engel outfitted in his new favorite shooting attire. Check out his feet.

I try one on and instantly like it. I like walking around barefoot anyway at home, and realize that these might come in handy, well “footy,” for filming. Here’s why: When you have the camera on your shoulder you usually want to minimize shakiness and create as smooth movement while walking as you can. One of my techniques is to use short steps and try to think of each joint in my body as a mini-gyroscope that helps separate my body’s movement from the camera’s. I also use sneakers with good soles and cushion. Now I wonder if maybe filming barefoot might not be better, at least for interiors. So in the next scene I take sneakers off and really like the way I can feel the floor and absorb the shocks of walking better!

Much to my wife’s chagrin (she knows I like gadgets), I order a pair.  I start training in them for outdoor and long-term use. Dan warned me that it takes some getting used to because you put different pressure on your joints and especially your calves. He recommends that I start with just two minutes of additional treadmill work a day in them. He also says that using them should help relieve knee pain and swelling, and back aches. Hmm. Well after a few days of taking them on the treadmill, I agree with him — my calves ache. On the other hand, my knees and back don’t.

I now shoot as often as I can with them. Maybe it’ll turn into a trend in the industry; who knows.

- Larry Engel
Director and Director of Photography

  • Tim Kenney

    Larry, what’s the actual name of the non-sneakers? Where can they be ordered? I’m a shooter at a PBS station in very humid southwest Florida. I’m the only person at the station that’s allowed to wear shorts. If I show up wearing a pair
    of non-sneakers too it will probably cause quite a stir to those that already have shorts envy!

  • Larry

    here’s the website: http://vibramfivefingers.com/

    they are great folks and eager to speak directly with customers. as an aside, i’ve had great difficulty using the five-fingers in my gym as the managers don’t acknowledge them as sneakers. They are worried that if I work on the treadmill with them, then others will come in in flats, high-heels and combat boots. So it’s outdoors exercise for me…. And I still love the five fingers. One note though, anyone first using them must take time in breaking in your calves and back to a new way of walking and running. Take your time! Only a few minutes a session to start.

    best,

    larry

  • amy schmitt

    thanks larry and Tim!

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