How I Filmed a Feature Length Cross Country Cycling Documentary on $2500 With No Assistants
Last spring, I met a group of 4 cyclists planning a 35 day epic adventure from coast to coast across the US. Their goal was to cycle over 100 miles a day, resting only one day a week, in order to raise awareness and funds for the poor and needy in Burundi, Africa. I decided it would be awesome to tag along and film their journey.
Simon Guillebaud, the leader of the team, has given most of his life to serving the needy in Burundi, Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world. The nation has gone through a great amount of hardship, including genocide, crime, corruption, conflict over land, and food shortages. In 2011, the country recorded it’s per capita GDP at $200, which is less than I make for a 1 hour photo shoot. Over the course of his work, Simon has established a non-profit organization, Great Lakes Outreach, which has done tremendous things for the people of Burundi. Much of the work focuses on leadership training and equipping the people with tools to become self-sufficient through education and business opportunity.
As part of an awareness and fund raising campaign, Simon and a teammate began to organize a cross country cycling trip with the goal of raising $500,000. The money was to be put toward a school, farming and food methodology training, and an orphanage. The trip started in San Diego, California and ended in Charleston, South Carolina, over 3000 miles of cycling.
I’ve always had a heart for Africa. When I heard about the cycling trip, I felt like I could make a contribution to the team and its ultimate work for the people of Burundi. My normal job is shooting weddings and working with pictures. Although I had never worked with video much, I felt I could challenge myself to create a documentary about the cycling experience.
My first and biggest hurdle was expense. Including gas and equipment, I decided to keep costs at $2,500 for the whole trip. I worked largely with the wedding equipment I already owned and used two Canon 60D bodies with an assortment of lenses.
My vision was to tell the story of Burundi alongside the cyclists’ journey. I didn’t want to make this another heart throb story that focuses in on a crusty-eyed, fly-ridden, starving little African boy. I wanted to show how average people, like the cyclists, can contribute to need around the world. To do this, I decided I wanted 4 major types of shots through the film.
I wanted the journey to be told through the cyclists’ words and needed a basic interview set up. I used natural backgrounds and natural light throughout the whole trip. For sound, I attached a sennheiser ew100 g2 mic to my 60D and filmed with a b roll for most talking segments. As the trip progressed, I decided having both cameras on tripods produced the best looking interviews. I also incorporated slider shots into some of the interviews.
The second and third kind of shots were to track the cyclists while they were on their bikes. I used a Manfrotto video head on for basic pan and tilt shots. This came in handy not only for side of the road shots, but also for an in car video option in case of rain. Yes, this does mean that I was driving and videoing at the same time for some segments. I do not recommend this as the optimal or safest filming method. These shots were only taken when we were traveling on unpopulated side roads with very little or no traffic present.
Since basic pan and tilt shots were far too limiting in variety, I got adventurous with my equipment and used my car as a tracking option for my third kind of shot. For the trip, my car was equipped with a roof rack and a rear bike rack. These came in handy for attaching and stabilizing a camera. I secured a camera to the bike racks using a Manfrotto magic arm clamp but found that the magic arm alone did not provide much steadiness to the shots. In order to stabilize the camera a little more, I used bungee cords to hold the camera firmly to the side or top of the car. Honestly, the bungee cords really were the only way this shot was possible. Even with bumpy roads, I was able to get a smooth 100mm shot with the camera on the top of the car.
Since I had multiple spots on the car to attach the camera, I was able to get a good variety of POV’s while driving beside, behind or in front of the cyclists.
Since I was unable to man the camera for most of the time, most of my shots had to be pre-set. To keep the cyclists in focus the majority of the time, I used a light stand on the side of the road to sub in for the cyclists. Once I mounted the camera on the car, I gauged how far back or to the side of the car I wanted the cyclists and used the light stand to set my focus. I then used my rear view and side mirrors to “place” where the cyclists needed to be to have them in the shot correctly.
The final shots I wanted include in the film were to capture the beauty of the countryside we passed through. Although I used some basic panning shots, I wanted to include some time lapse segments as well. To stick to my low budget, I purchased the least expensive aluminum slider I could find and built a motor system for it to track. I used a Dynamic Perception MX2 Dolly Engine to synchronize the motor and shutter release. The slider ended up coming in handy to bring some movement to some of the interview shots as well.
Though the time lapse segments probably could have been a little smoother, I was happy how they turned out considering the limited budget.
Once the filming was done, everything was cut in Adobe Premiere Pro. I was fortunate enough to have a contact to write a soundtrack for the film.
The work behind this project, both mine and the broader work of the cyclists and Great Lake Outreach was done for the sake of people who are in desperate need of help. Below is the full feature length film. If you have the time to watch it and share it, I thank you. If you want to learn more about the trip or would like to donate toward the projects going on in Burundi, check out the Bike for Burundi website.
Bike For Burundi Documentary from David Strauss Photography on Vimeo.