Back at the beginning of 2017, Objekt Films got in contact to say that Vimeo and Charles Schwab had been in touch to see whether we would like to pitch some ideas for this year’s series of films, Why Not Now?
Last year, we had the pleasure of working on our first commission with Vimeo’s Brand Studio on Charles Schwab’s series, Why This Road? It was an awesome experience to make the film, about my friend Chris Yacoubian’s battle with cancer and his life-changing role with the RNLI. (Watch that film HERE)
Why This Road?
The brief this year was to find stories of individuals who regardless of age, have made a change in their life for the better. It was an incredibly open and wide brief that really encompassed anyone of any age who has done something incredible with their life.
To begin with when you receive a brief like that, the broadness is both simultaneously refreshing and daunting at the same time. Where to start looking? What sort of stories to try and chase? In all honesty, the infinite possibilities and angles to approach the project can be a bit intimidating to begin with.
What I’ve learnt over the years is that you should always seek out and pitch films that you want to make, rather than forcing yourself into pitching a story just because it fits the brief. I always now ask myself the question, “do I really want to make this film” before I engage with any project. That might seem like an obvious train of thought, but it’s taken me a while to come round to that way of thinking.
When I work on a project I throw everything I have into making it the best it can be and if my heart doesn’t believe in the story or agree with what it’s trying to achieve then I shouldn’t be making the film. These pieces of work take a great deal of dedication and time to put together, so committing to a project has become somewhat of a more thought provoking process over the last couple of years. This one though, was definitely something I wanted to be a part of.
Given the brief was to find stories spanning all ages in life, I decided to focus on finding someone from the older generation. I really wanted to find someone that would challenge people’s preconceptions of what being ‘old’ or ‘retired’ was. I think we live in a world where a classic way of thinking is that once we get to a certain stage in life, that we’re all ‘past our best’. For some, due to ill health that may be the case - but for many in my opinion, the best is yet to come. I for one (although it’s a long way off) certainly plan on spending my retirement travelling the world and going on as many adventures as I can.
When researching and unearthing stories, finding someone in their older years was surprisingly difficult. It was fairly easy to find characters who had broken the mould and done something incredible in their lives around the 20-50 year old age range, but it took a lot of digging around the internet to find the right story for this years film. Finding that film that jumped off the page and gave me that magic moment where I thought “Yes, that’s the film I want to make”.
I’d almost given up researching for the day – I had searched through endless articles on pensioners, who had started new businesses or embarked on remarkable feats of athletic endurance… but none had really given me that spark – so I changed tact. I decided to try an image search and see what results that would throw up. There on page 25 was what I had been looking for – Mardelle Peck, a seventy year-old woman who was sat on a hugely powerful superbike. That was what I had been looking for – a character who stopped me dead in my tracks with how out of place my mind thought it was… but why shouldn’t a seventy year-old lady ride a superbike I thought to myself?! Good on her!!!
I immediately typed the story up and sent it over to my producer (and cousin) Bart at Objekt. We agreed that this was a special find and a film that we’d really love to make. We sent the synopsis over to Vimeo and Charles Schwab with a few other ideas and waited with baited breath to find out if our excitement was shared with everyone over in the US. Thankfully, they picked Mardelle’s story and we went into production.
Being an independent British production company was definitely a challenge in the run up to the shoot for Objekt. We knew we would only have the budget and time to fly out to California for a few days to create the film. Planning was going to be key on this. Part of that planning process was for me to map out how Mardelle’s story could be translated across to a short online film. After writing my initial synopsis of the film, I researched visuals to give my production team and Director of Photography an idea of the type of shots and aesthetic I was hoping to achieve. These formed the storyboards that would be the building blocks the film would be based around.
From the finished film, the research and planning at this stage of the process is very apparent – it’s something that I think was very beneficial to the whole team and to me, it was very satisfying to see the development from ideas on paper through to the finished product.
Mardelle was a huge help in the pre-production process – her local knowledge was crucial to knowing what would be achievable and where would be the most suitable and spectacular locations to shoot our film. After all our visas were in order and everything was planned to perfection (well done Bart!) we set off across the Atlantic to San Francisco before driving the four hours up to Chico, CA.
We always work as part of a small self-sufficient team on location. I think that when filming with real characters, in my experience the less people you invade someone’s personal space with the more comfortable they feel. The more likely you are to bond with them and therefore, the more likely they are to let down the walls we all build around ourselves as our guard … and ultimately open up and share their experiences with you.
Day 1, arriving at Thunderhill for sunrise
Day one was an early start, heading out to Thunderhill Raceway Park to meet Mardelle. Up until this point, all our conversations and planning had been done over the phone or online so to finally meet the lady we had been talking about for so long … and had travelled halfway round the world to film with was great. She lived up to and exceeded everything we had hoped she would be. Both Mardelle and her husband, Ron, were some of the most welcoming people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I say this a lot… and maybe I’m just lucky, but you do get to meet some incredible people doing this job, who willingly welcome you into their homes and daily lives at the drop of a hat.
Mardelle being wired up with a walkie talkie so we could give her instructions as they rode along
At the track, we battled the 100oF heat to film Mardelle doing what she does best, ripping up the tarmac on her Yamaha R6 bike. Damn is she fast! I remember one of our first conversations with her, where I asked her how fast she goes round the track and her reply was “somewhere around 140mph into the corners”… “How on earth are we going to film that”, I thought!
Our solution, given our budget, was to use a piece of equipment called an Osmo Pro. Built by the Chinese company DJI, more commonly associated with drone tech, we used a miniaturized X5 camera gimbal to capture some the more exhilarating shots from the track. The small and lightweight size of this impressive camera allowed us to place it directly onto Mardelle’s bike as well as other motorbikes chasing and leading her around the track. From a distance, I knew it would be hard to convey the extreme speeds at which Mardelle flew around corners, so the ability to place the viewer in amongst the action was really important to me.
I was really impressed how the X5 performed in comparison to our main Sony FS7 camera. Even at 4k resolution, I think the quality from it’s micro 4/3 sensor was pretty astounding. The camera beams the image to an iPhone app which makes framing, controlling the camera and reviewing footage on the move very simple and quick. All round a brilliant bit of kit and a huge improvement on the original X3 Osmo.
For health and safety reasons, the only time we were allowed the crew and our main cameras on the track to film was during the midday lunch hour when all other riders were off. This ‘Power Hour’ as we nicknamed it, was very intense. Planning each shot and camera move to the minute so that we could capture everything I needed to create the edit I had imagined. We also had to shoot our drone shots within this hour-long period as well; after getting all our main shots from the ground, the drone had approximately fifteen minutes to get all the angles I’d requested. Drone cinematography is a technique I’m very fond of in films such as these. Used sparingly and at the right time, it gives a unique perspective and I feel lifts the production value to a higher and more cinematic level.
From the track, we made our way up into the hills surrounding Chico to film the road trip sequence that would form the ending of the film. I really wanted our story to finish on a high note, both literally and physically. To me, every good road trip and journey should end on a high and the surrounding landscape of California certainly delivered on that front. We had scoped out a viewpoint above the forest that had a ridgeway track leading up to it. It seemed like the perfect metaphorical ending to Mardelle and Ron’s story – I kept everything crossed for a good sunset and again, California did not disappoint. It was a very long, but incredibly successful first days filming and we all rested knowing that we had already captured a large proportion of what would be the finished film.
On day two we wanted to capture all of the archive sequence for the film. Whenever I use photographic archive in films, I try to incorporate it into the film in an organic and natural manner. I try to shoot whatever archive we need to tell the story 'in-camera' – last year in Chris’ film, I compiled a shortlist of all of Chris’ photos from moments throughout his life and created a photo album that he could look back through during our archive sequence. Given this year subject matter, I wanted to try something different and hint at the era from which Mardelle grew up in. I found an old slide projector here in the UK and with Mardelle’s help, had some of her key archive material printed onto 35mm slides.
There’s something magical about old slide projectors – to me they have an old-worldy quality to them – perhaps its something to do with the clunky moving parts of the internal mechanism - that’s something that has been lost in our modern day machines. Projecting the archive was a great way of incorporating the images into the film – I think Mardelle and Ron really enjoyed looking back at their past in a way they hadn’t for a long time.
In the afternoon we ventured off to another local beauty spot to capture some more footage of Mardelle and Ron for the roadtrip sequence. Before this project, I hadn’t appreciated how varied the landscape is in California. From the dry and barron flat plains near the racetrack the day before, we were now winding our way along beautiful river beds with mountainous forests rising above us. We captured so much beautiful material that afternoon that it ended up being one of the hardest sequences to cutdown and choose what to include in the edit.
Riding along river valley of highway 70
On our last day, we met Mardelle and the Peck family at her daughter’s house – on first glance it seemed like your average family home but Jeff, Mardelle’s son-in-law is a man of great skill. He creates amazing sculptures out of scrap metal and machine parts. He has transformed their outhouse into what can only be described as one of the world’s best ‘man caves’ - Elwoods Bar! It was awesome – a treasure trove full of old arcade machines, vintage memorabilia, retro computers and games. It was amazing – one day I hope to get the chance to go back and make a film about Jeff and his collection! It was the perfect location to shoot our master interview.
I always try and schedule the shoot to interview our contributors on the last day. Having spent a few days together, they have got a grasp of who you are and worked out that you’re not trying to make them out to be anything they are not. You in turn have got a grasp on the sort of questions you want to ask and how to tease out the answers you need... even if they aren’t forthcoming at first. The interview with Mardelle took just over an hour – it was like chatting to a friend by the end. She was so open and happy to tell us about herself and her story. She’s incredibly modest and humble about the fact she inspires people and especially young women – I hope us making the journey out from the UK to shoot a film about her makes her realise just how special she is.
Having captured our last few shots to tie the whole film together, we set off on the journey back to San Francisco, even managing to get a classic team shot in front of the Golden Gate Bridge… moment’s after this picture was taken, Gerry’s hat blew off in the wind disappearing out into the Bay!
All-in-all, it was an awesome shoot with some very hard working and talented people. Mardelle was so inspirational to spend some time with and get to know. I really hope to be as active and daring in my old age as she is.
Watch the finished film HERE