Frames Per Second: Biker Movies

March 25, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Peter Sutherland

Peter Sutherland's films told the stories of people connected to bike culture, including Sal Barbier, a professional skateboarder turned avid BMX collector. You can watch two of the films Sutherland created for Thule at the bottom of this article.

Photographer and filmmaker Peter Sutherland made his 2002 documentary Pedal, about the fast-paced, sometimes reckless work of New York City’s bike messengers, on a shoestring budget with his own funding. Though the film was picked up by the Sundance Channel and aired on the TV network for two years, Sutherland says, “I made no money.” Last year, however, his work on the film landed him a lucrative assignment producing six short, documentary-style films for Thule, the Swedish company that makes handlebar bags, saddlebags and other bike accessories. Pedal had come to the attention of Marita Kuntonen, creative director at Jung, Thule’s ad agency. After reviewing Sutherland’s more recent work, she contacted Sutherland and hired him to produce some films in a similar style. Ten years after the release of Pedal, says Sutherland, the Thule assignment “was an unexpected way to get compensated for making the film.”

The six films, titled “The Way I Roll,” feature people who are enthusiastic about biking—including the owner of a bike shop in Brooklyn, New York; a BMX collector in Los Angeles; a biker who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and makes films of alley cat racing; and a former professional racer who is now a philanthropist in Guatemala. The subjects talk about their work and their love of biking and, as in Pedal, are shown on their bikes. A moment in each of the films shows a bike outfitted with a Thule bag, but the product placement is subtle—blink, and you’ll miss it. Sutherland’s assignment was to make the films look like documentaries. “They couldn’t be heavily branded,” Sutherland says. “The only brief was about getting [the subject’s] passion for riding on film, not showing the product with little drops of water on it and making it look sleek.”

In talking about the assignment with Jung creatives, Sutherland recalls, “I think the main thing they really liked about Pedal and that they wanted in these films was people talking while they’re rolling on the bicycle. It sounds simple and easy, but there aren’t a lot of films out there that have that.”

Both Pedal and the Thule films include interviews with the subjects about their work, and footage of them biking, but the films were made very differently. For Pedal, Sutherland worked mostly alone, usually using a single handheld camera and a shotgun mic with a windscreen while he followed his subjects on his skateboard. The budget for the Thule films, however, allowed the New York City-based production company that Jung worked with, ALLDAYEVERYDAY, to hire a crew, including a dedicated sound engineer, director of photography Kevin Phillips and producers Lucy Cooper and Nicola Westermann, who worked out scheduling, logistics, planning, and “a lot of wrangling” of subjects and locations, Sutherland says.

Good quality sound is essential, Sutherland says. “People will watch a fuzzy video tinted red but they won’t watch it if the sound is crunchy.” Recording sound in various settings, from an echo-y bike store to a bustling street where wind could have added noise, the sound engineer used a combination of a boom and a lavaliere on the subjects, and recorded audio to a sound recorder.

Each film has a slightly different look and pacing. The film about philanthropist Chris Van Dine in Guatemala, for example, features slow motion of him riding and doing jumps with lush green forests as the backdrop, while in the film featuring Salvador “Sal” Barbier, the BMX collector, Sutherland says, “it’s almost like he’s hosting a show about collecting bikes.” Sutherland says he doesn’t write down a shot list or a set of questions for interviews; he prefers to let his subject’s interests direct the film.

“I don’t try to control it too much. I feel that people like to talk about what they know about and what they are excited about.” He explains, “It’s the same for me if I’m going to shoot a still portrait. I’m not the type to say, ‘You’ll stand right here and you’ll look this way.’ I’ll say, ‘Where’s a place where you feel at home or inspired?’” Much of the audio from his interviews is used as voiceover that plays while the subjects are riding, a technique that gives viewers the impression “that you’re inside their brains,” Sutherland says.

He adds that working with a director of photography made interviewing easier. “Usually I’m thinking about composition, sound and listening to the interview answers,” he says. “I felt free having someone else thinking about the pictures.” One thing he was able to watch during the one-day shoots was the flagging energy of his subjects. “It’s a long day,” he says. Whenever they seemed to be tiring of talking, that’s when Sutherland would suggest either a break for lunch or another ride on their bikes, to add energy to the filming.

Sutherland had shot Pedal mostly with a wide fisheye lens to mask the camera shake. “The wider the lens, the smoother it appears,” he says. “In some of those interviews, the camera is two feet from the subject’s face.” Fisheyes are also popular in the making of skateboarding videos, and at the time, Sutherland, a former skateboarding enthusiast, liked recreating their sometimes-anarchic style. “It’s something I outgrew. Now I’m more excited about composition.” The Thule films include a variety of footage and compositions, from showing the Brooklyn, New York, bike shop where owner Gina Marie Scardino sells her wares to taking a long view down a dusty street in San Andrés, Guatemala, in the film about Van Dine. Sutherland notes that the DP, Kevin Phillips, used two Canon 5D Mark IIIs, typically with a 70-200mm lens. He also at times used a zoom while shooting from a distant vantage point.

Most of the biking was shot from a minivan with its side door open. Phillips “was good at stabilizing himself in some funny spots,” Sutherland says. To film Van Dine riding through forests on a narrow, dirt path, Sutherland used a GoPro mounted to his back, and rode ahead to get footage. “I’ve seen some creative mounts to record extreme sports stuff. I didn’t want to do that too much. I wanted it to be more about the people and the subjects themselves, not the biking.”

During post-production, Kuntonen flew to New York City to look at cuts with Sutherland and editor Ed Yonaitis, who was also hired by ALLDAYEVERYDAY. Sutherland gave Yonaitis notes and explained that the interviews were to provide “the spine” of the narrative; the footage would then be organized to illustrate the interviewees’ words. Sutherland says he’s particularly pleased with the way Yonaitis paced the films, finding a rhythm that was “ethereal,” he says, rather than focusing simply on the speed of the bikes or making frequent cuts to emphasize, as he puts it, “chop, chop, chop, action.” Sutherland says he is at work on a new film, and plans to hire Yonaitis as his editor again.

The resulting Thule films, Sutherland notes, were as personal as the films he’s made on his own, but the crew allowed him to realize an ambitious project without complications or delays. “That’s an upside of making branded content,” he says, adding, “A lot of my best adventures have come from being on a commercial shoot, being in situations I wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Related articles:

Still/Video Convergence: Soft Sell Documentaries for a Cycling Outfitter

Frames Per Second: Josh Goleman’s Hip Profiles for PF Flyers

Still/Video Convergence: Learning to Work with (and Appreciate) a Director of Photography

Watch two of Peter Sutherland’s “The Way I Roll” videos below: