From Theory to Practice
It’s May 2011 and I am taking a class called “Film and Race”, which deals with the connection between filmmakers, their films and racial tensions / racial questions that were and are omni-present in the very diverse United States. The class is interesting, engaging, introduces me to films and directors that I would have not watched on my own (like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”). Most of the classes at SMC that deal with film are theoretical or analytical – and so is this. It’s more about what kind of plot point triggered a certain development in the film than what kind of lighting they suspended from a crane to simulate moonlight in a night scene: we talk about storytelling, not equipment.
Similar is the crowd of the class: More film gourmets, less production-oriented students.
While I am gone protesting in Sacramento, one of the students makes an announcement that they are looking for a camera guy to help them film a documentary, and they will be shooting it on a RED Scarlet prototype. Nobody responds – again, these people are about story, not cameras.
Weeks later, coincidentally, I am at Cinegear – a huge event at the Paramount Pictures Backlot, where I meet – once again – an old friend from Austria, Stefan. We know each other since about five years through 3D graphics; as he is working for a company called Wunderwerk, he is also involved in filmmaking, building camera robots and taking care of Austria’s first RED Epic. As mentioned in a previous post, he lets me try out the camera – finally I’ve lost my EPIC virginity. After the event is over, I’m on the crosswalk on my way back to the parking lot, when I see a familiar face from my Film&Race class; another student that talks a lot about New Orleans, named Weland. About my age, beard, and always wears some sort of comic shirt. He’s together with two others, Odin and Hawk, and we get to chat about what we’re both doing. I mention that I’m doing increasingly more cinematography, and he mentions to me that they’re shooting a documentary.
Of course I’m completely oblivious since I was marching hundreds of miles up north when he made the class announcement, but all of a sudden I find out about this once-in-a-college-time opportunity … to come on board of a documentary production shot on a RED Scarlet Prototype. I ask them how the hell they got their hands on a Scarlet prototype, and they tell me “We met some of the leading people from RED at NAB [National Association of Broadcasters Show, one of the biggest film equipment conventions in the world] in Las Vegas, and we told them about the project, they liked it, and offered to give us Scarlet prototypes for the production, for free!”
I am speechless – must have been a bit more difficult than that, but what does it matter, I need to be part of this! I promise them to send them my reel – they should see what I am capable of – and we part. A week later we meet at a close Jack in the Box, talk about the production, and I am on board as a second unit Cinematographer. The production is scheduled for ten days in my summer break, before my OPT starts.
Sorry, the Bentley Prototype is not ready yet…
We do a few test shoots with our DSLRs (by now I own a 7D) on the beach, mount it on our arms and bike through the crowds of Venice Beach. The 7D and T2i will serve as backup units or additional cameras to the two REDs. I install Cinestyle on the other DSLRs [a must!] and everything seems to be going good.
A week before our shooting date, I get an email. RED wrote to Odin and Hawk that their SCARLET prototype is not ready yet for a real-life test for ten full days far away from the engineers of the RED Studios, and that they won’t be able to give them the cameras.
But then there’s another sentence, which I initially overlooked: “Sorry that we can’t offer you the Scarlets. We will provide you with two RED EPICs instead.”
Whaaaaaaaaaaaatttt! “Sorry, the Bentley Prototype is not ready yet, I hope two Lamborghinis will do the job.”
Oh hell yeah! The best freaking digital cinema cameras on the world, and I’ll have my hands on them for ten days! SUPER AWESOME!
I am stoked to death, pack a little sports bag a week later with some clothing and sunscreen – enough for double-use on ten days, and out the door I am. San Diego, here we come!
Pedaling and Pedaling, and two hundred miles later…
When I arrive at the house, the bikes are outside of the garage; two shiny&slick electric bicycles [also donated for the production], a few regular bicycles, the familiar faces of the other two riders including Julian, an european export, and a new face; Justin, a guy that works for RED and will be taking care of the cameras on the ride. Next to him are three large transport boxes that contain RED proprietary PL-mount lenses and two $60.000 RED Epic rigs. I am stunned. We choose who rides what, and I am assigned to ride the electric bicycle all the way down to San Diego; as part of the cycling gang and with nothing less than the EPIC and an 18-55 RED lens strapped to the back of my bicycle. Now the stokedness takes no more end, and we take off. It’s a long ride, two hundred miles feel shorter by car (2 hours) than by bicycle (3 days).
Not just that, we also have to cross a Marines military base – Camp Pendleton – which is this vast amount of land that could nearly pass as its own county (about an hour of biking through middle-of-nothing land with miliary camps, training bases, heliports, troop housing etc. eveywhere). Of course, we arrive late at night at Camp Pendleton; only orange streetlamp-halide lighting breaks the darkness in a few select spots, and we bike through the eerie, silent base. Suddenly, a flashlight, then some marines running.
We are lead up a hill for an ID check, they make copies, call our producer, call their camp boss, make another big deal, military police arrives, questions us … and eventually we’re let go – our biking through the base at night turned out to be not possible (the base only lets visitors pass until a certain time), so we need a new plan. We meet the rest of the crew on the outskirts of the base, put the bikes on top of the cars, build some jerry-rigged mounts for more bicycles, and get the hell out of there – the only other way through the camp is the freeway, and that’s not a bike-friendly route.
Now, an added challenge for me is that I have $60.000 worth of equipment in the back, and Weland likes to drive fast – faster than you’d imagine his semi-self-built machine would go before it disassembles in mid-drive. Of course, as a dedicated cameraman, I try to be a bit faster than him, so that the camera strapped to the back of my bicycle actually captures him on his insane downhill races. I see myself driving as fast as cars next to us – about thirty miles per hour or faster. And that feels incredibly fast when you have a big camera on the back of your humble bicycle, going down curves … I was facing daydreams of suddenly slipping and being run over by the heartless traffic next to us, next to me Weland with his military helmet and blown-up T-shirt, clenching his teeth in the speed.. it’s a wonder I never seriously wiped out and ruined either myself or the camera. The shots I got were worth all the risk and sweat though – as usual with extreme ideas.
What the whole thing is actually about
Before, I mentioned that this production is a documentary – but I never mentioned what the documentary is about. It’s about Weland’s quest to launch a comic superhero called “Bikeman”. Weland is a comic fan, a VFX geek, an animation gourmet and has a dream: To make his own comic book series. Or Animation series. Or live action series.
It doesn’t really matter what medium the series happens in, it’s about the character and content of the story. That’s why he’s going to Comic Con, where the world’s best comic artists, animators, producers and writers all meet and greet. He’s not going by himself, and not really as himself – he’s biking there, just like Bikeman would, and he’s biking with two companions, which represent bikegirl and bikewonder [the latter being the hyperactive, Eastern European descended Julian]. Since the start, I press for Weland to wear a cape and costume when he goes there, he decides to go incognito and just wears a WW2-type helmet on the bike.
His bicycle is the probably more unique part of his appearance – instead of two wheels, it has three, and is called a Tricycle. Why three? Balance issues – and proud of it. Along the way, he gets a lot of delightful comments about the three wheels, but doesn’t care: His goal is San Diego, Comic Con, Bikeman. And that’s why the documentary is entitled “Bikeman Begins”. Hawk and Odin, both experienced filmmakers and producers from New Orleans, put this film together – and apart from following the story of the Bikeman comic beginnings, they promote something important in the context to Comic Con: Physical fitness, in the form of cycling. The more we film, the more apparent these different goals of the production become; and as every documentary, the story and concept develops a lot during the actual filming.
Comic Con, Interviews and a Hundred Thousand Fans, Freaks and Intellectuals
Only an hour after our arrival in San Diego, we take a shuttle bus to Comic Con. It’s the end of Day 0, where only awesome people like us [we all have a press badge] get in. We meet people that will camp outside the convention center overnight to see a presentation tomorrow morning, others to meet James Cameron or whatever other celebrity. A short night of sleep and lots of footage transferring – Odin set up a great editing bay in our hotel room – later, we’re back at “The Con”. For four more days, we’re at the Con, and we’re conventioning, and meeting people, and shopping, and interviewing, and observing, filming, laughing, exhausted, taking breaks in the press lounge and a ton of people that come up to us and say “Hey, is this the RED Epic? Wow, so cool man!” Everyone here is into something – comics, live-action Marvel franchises, Manga, Anime, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, independent comics, gay comics, Zombie Jesus comics, Physics comics, Tesla comics, dressing up as comic heroes, LEGO, Magic the Gathering, Warhammer, collecting, building, painting, drawing, talking, watching – in all degrees, in all shapes and forms.
It’s an interesting world, where one can be a freak in the eye of one beholder, and a welcome companion for role play games to another, where fandom and insanity are just questions of subjectivity, where judgment is left to cynics and largely replaced by compliments and high-fives for being awesome and individual. The absolute dream world for people with a strong drive to be individualistic and unique, which becomes a great spectacle for the less involved bystanders and watchers that come to The Con for a sort of sight-seeing tour of extravaganza.
I’ve never seen anything like it, especially not on that scale – and walking is probably what we do most at Comic Con. The EPICs get very heavy on the first day, as we just hand-hold them and have the RED Brick (a fat battery) hanging on our belts; a slight modification and mounting them on Monopods makes the production much easier on the following days at The Con. We record interviews and Comic Con footage in 5K RAW, with a compression ratio of 12:1, and transfer footage at night to our multi-Terabyte hard drives. We go through multiple RED SSD cards every day – good that we have five or so with us – and drain the RED bricks like pros. We meet real legends of comic and animation artistry, intellectuals and the super-smart elite of producing; we sleep in only two motel rooms (with a crew of nine), we eat handmade Sandwiches instead of fancy crafts services and a very family-like atmosphere makes the trip not work, but an adventure. I sleep in one bed with Julian – the man they call Bikewonder – which gives absolutely unlimited material for perverted references (having left our girlfriends in LA) and the laughter and inside jokes seem to take no end – as is his incredibly dense texting behavior, which makes him unavailable 75% of the time, because he’s updating his girlfriend about his adventure just about all five minutes with his absolutely ancient cell phone. There are even inside jokes inside inside jokes, that only Julian giggles about – absurd, I know.
Justin gets good opportunities to show off the EPICs at Comic Con and has a seemingly unlimited supply of business cards. The feeling is very much like a boyscout camp – just instead of hiking trails we have the endless isles of Comic Con, instead of a compass we have an interview and presentation schedule, and instead of hiking boots we have cameras that are worth fourty times more than my humble 7D… each.
Going back, a bit lighter than we came
We all probably lost some weight on that trip – no fast food, only handmade, healthy sandwiches, a ton of walking and biking – and also our equipment gets lighter; Justin needs to take off with the EPICs after seven days because they are needed on another shoot [this story is happening at a time where only Peter Jackson and James Cameron have spare EPICs], and we begin the trip back on our good old DSLRs.
The ride back felt more uphill, less downhill – but also somehow faster. We actually did cross Camp Pendleton this time, and were seemingly followed at times by Blackhawk helicopters, saw huge troop transporters with soldiers looking out the back roaring by and got a good impression of a microcosm within the explosively overpopulated U.S. Military – and these camps look much cooler than public healthcare or public education, too (that’s my opinion as an Austrian and pacifist, obviously)!
And now? Now is time for editing. Odin and Hawk moved up north to a sleepy winter town, together with Terabytes and Terabytes of Footage, 5k REDRAW mixed with 1080p H.264 – I’m stoked to see what the whole thing ends up being.
For those that want to do further research, just type in “Bikeman Begins” on google; the film is planned to be premiered at Comic Con.