The first couple elements I would need to make this documentary were, interesting and diverse cyclists, and locations. I had the advantage of working in a bike shop for many years, so to get things started I put the word out that I was looking for cyclist to ride in a documentary that would explore the many aspects of fixed gear cycling. Johnny Lee and Ryan Ressureccion from San Francisco were the first cyclist I was in contact with. We started discussing what they thought they each could add to the documentary, their style of riding and their experience. They were both willing to give up a weekend to film with us, wherever we wanted in the city. This meant it was time to scout locations that I felt best described San Francisco, but also visually demonstrated the difficulties and the obstacles the riders encountered in the city. I did two scouts in San Francisco, one by myself and the other one with the director of photography Justin Gamboa. The documentary would be about cycling, but I wanted each city represented as well. The cities are such a huge element of these cyclists’ stories; I wanted to make sure I captured the surrounding environment because San Francisco and Los Angeles provide different obstacles and objectives for the cyclists.
While on scouts for locations, I also started looking for bike shops that I could conduct interviews with the employees and could give me an insight as to what it meant to ride in the city and what business had been like in recent years. This is when I found American Cyclery. Turns out this is the oldest bike shop in San Francisco and a perfect place to conduct an interview about the history of the city and fixed gear cycling. Justin and I returned to LA with so many ideas on what to film, but we especially wanted to come up with creative shots to capture it all.
Once we started production, choosing the cameras wasn’t nearly as difficult as figuring out how to film cyclist in the different cities. None of us had ever done it before. We just assumed filming out of a car would be the best option only to find out that it was truly Not the case, cyclists move through cities much faster than most people realize and their ability to maneuver through traffic makes it almost impossible to stay next to them while filming. We learned quickly that the only way to cover cyclists riding, was on foot or on a motorcycle. The main camera selection was really limited to what we had available to us on a regular basis, also what we could take with us to San Francisco and San Jose. I owned a Canon 7D and Justin Gamboa owned a Canon T2i, which ended up being the main cameras we used for filming. It was extremely important that we have cameras at the ready, in case for example we had a cyclist that was only available for a short time, or if we needed to shoot during an unscheduled weekend. We used a Sony EX-1 when it was available for all the motorcycle shots and we even attempted to cover a bike polo event with the Red camera, but 90% of that footage was corrupted and we just ended up using what I captured on my 7D.
Day 1 of filming started off with a 5 hour drive from LA to San Jose, straight to a velodrome event. A team of 6 crew members; that had never been to a velodrome event before, never filmed cyclists before, and were about to make their very first documentary, stepped on the to the velodrome field not really knowing how it was going to turn out. The energy was palpable.
From the experience we all gained on that day, I couldn’t stress more, the importance of pre-production and camera tests. The 7D, 5D and T2i were not designed to film 20 cyclists going 40 mph around a velodrome track. Just taking 3 cameras and hoping to capture all the excitement is not a good strategy. As a director you need to be able to communicate with the camera operators and describe exactly how this footage is going to be used and cut together. There are many questions that come up, will this be filmed as a live sports event, a cinematic sports movies, or just a sizzle reel of all the action?
This is why hands on experience, and just giving something a shot, is the most valuable tool in film making. Every independent filmmaker should try and make a short film from beginning to end, irrelevant if its length or value. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t, what cuts together and why this industry has so many specific tools.
On that same note, arriving in San Francisco and coming to the realization that, historically people film cyclists on scooters, it was a bit of a heart breaker. We didn’t have a scooter nor did we have the ability to rent one. So, a convertible car was going to be our only option. With the hills, the streets lights, the potholes, and the traffic, it was extremely difficult to film Johnny and Ryan, and later on Marc Marino. They could move through traffic so much faster then we could. We would get left behind filming nothing but air because they were two blocks ahead of us breezing along. Luckily when we filmed in LA we had Jason Peel, who owned a motorcycle and our filming capabilities changed drastically. In a way, this only added to the documentary, without even knowing it. I wanted each city to have a different feel, have a different pacing and a different look. Having a car in San Francisco and a motorcycle in Los Angeles enhanced the direction in which I had originally intended the film to go. So, even when you think things are going wrong, you never know how it might turn out and work to your advantage.
Filming in L.A. is always described as being pretty hectic and having a lot of rules. Well, we didn’t have any permits and we filmed for four days through the busy streets on downtown L.A. and not once were we bothered. We weren’t stopping traffic, or causing a scene, so cops just looked at us and continued driving. Although, once while following Sean Martin, a cop actually looked at us, shook his head and carried on. I’m not saying every film shoot shouldn’t have permits, but when you’re just filming someone cycling and your not disturbing anyone, you are from our experience usually left alone. The entire L.A. portion of this film starts with Sean Martin. This is a guy that was willing to sit with me over coffee and describe what he thought L.A. cycling was all about, and the story he wanted to tell. Within 5 minutes, I knew I wanted his personality and opinion featured on Fixation. Sean, like the rest, gave up a weekend to work with us and do an interview as well as ride all day through L.A.. Sean also put me in contact with everyone else that I worked with in L.A., including John Gabriel, 5Fix2, and Jances Certeza. One of the biggest problems we had in L.A. was how hard it was to keep up with John Gabriel, who is arguably one of the fastest cyclist in L.A. (at the time this was not known to us, we thought he was just an avid cyclist). Watching a motorcycle being left in the dust by a cyclist, was one of the best things I got to see while making Fixation.
In the the next blog I will cover the final shoot days and how I prepared to watch and filter through 2 terabits of footage. When making a documentary like this, you never really know what your film is going to be like until you actually start cutting it and started sculpting the interviews together to tell the story. Please feel free to leave comments or questions and I'll respond to them as soon as possible.