Nov 02

Only weeks before the first day of Ragbrai, I learned that I was not allowed to use motorized vehicles to shoot bikers along the route. This restriction was a significant hurdle. I realized that the actual bike riding and the conversations along the route were key of the movie and had to be captured, so we had to find a solution.

Ragbrai is not a race it’s a “ride”. The riders actually socialize along the route. They stop and eat snacks along the way.dsc03634 They eat pies and pork chops and pancakes. They drink home made lemonade and relish hand churned ice-cream. When they get hot, they go swimming in natural pools on the side of the road. Recovering party goers take naps along the route. Couples laugh and joke and needle each other.

We had to capture this key aspect of the ride! But how do we keep up and track of all our subject when they’re in constant motion, if we cannot drive along the route??? The producers questioned my determination to film along the route, but on this one, I would not budge. So we started exploring options:

modified cargo trailers
tandem bikes with backwards seats
motorized bicycles
bikes with side cars

Finally, our line producer Bernie, discovered a cargo trailer that was solid enough to tow a refrigerator. He spoke with our key DP Steve Cambell and together with my approval, they decided to modify the cargo trailer so that it could accommodate a camera operator. And it would be towed by a tandem bike. This seemed like a pretty good option until Talia, one of our producers, showed the trailer to her father who designs satellites. After a quick appraisal, he determined that the modified cargo trailer that we were banking on would not hold up for the whole ride. Worse, it would be super uncomfortable, unstable and unsafe for our camera operator. He offered up his design skills which we readily accepted.

image001The trailer Talia’s Dad designed and which was built by locals in Iowa was functional. It was dual axel, with aluminum railing and a boat captain’s seat mounted in its center (we had to change the location of the seat, because putting the operator in the center tipped the trailer off balance). Ultimately, our trailer worked pretty well.

We’re talking about close to 500 miles, 7 days along hilly roads, windy roads, rainy roads, and sun soaked roads. This was not an easy assignment for a camera operator, but Mario Signore embraced this challenge with gusto and the footage that he captured from the trailer is priceless!

It was tough finding what we called “mules” to ride the tandem bike that pulled the trailer. I must say, there were some real hero’s on that ride who stepped up to assist us. The “mules” physical prowess combined with our selective use of roads (we only selected flat and smooth parts of the route to travel the trailer on) made it possible for us to capture a high percentage of usable footage. There was a huge amount of huffing and puffing involved and I really appreciate the effort put forth to tow that trailer. And I know that Mario does too!

A big thanks also goes out to Joe Stearns, the “B” Camera unit production sound maestro. He managed to achieve some awesome sound using remote mics that worked better than I ever imagined.

Oct 05

poppiesRagbrai is so vast, how on earth do we capture it? To tackle this dilemma, I adopted a notion I have always embraced–every moment is like a piece of a hologram containing within it the whole–meant that, we could cover a “piece” of each key element and it would reflect the whole. With this approach, things started looking somewhat more manageable. We would choose those “pieces of the hologram” or in some cases, they would choose us.

blowfish-riderProducers Susie Gorrell and Talia Shakur-Rodriguez focused on narrowing down the list of riders. Steph Cambell, our head DP along with consultant Chris Blanch worked with me to narrow down sections of the 400 mile route that we would focus on based on beauty, clear passage, diversity of “look”, and unique interest (animals, barn, etc.). And I narrowed down what town elements and town people we would cover along with who we would cover to set the groundwork of the ride.

Here a list of the hologram pieces we collectively chose to focus on:

10 primary riders (5 of them where part of a team called Team Gnarley–we felt it was important to cover a team as well as individuals)
8 secondary secondary riders
20+ sections of road
9 various town “elements” including pie making, cement pouring, ballooning, light weight airplanes flyers, safety preparations, trains passing, hometown bands, etc.
5 or so towns’ spokes people
John Karras, co-founder Ragbrai
T.J. Juskiewicz, coordinator of Ragbrai
Unique & quirky people “catch as you can”
Vast Landscapes
Tiny moments: a bird flying by, an insect landing on a flower

I conferred with our head DP Stephen Cambell who is stationed in Florida and was shooting on a feature during our 0a2v3893prep. We determined that we would need and array of cameras strategically assigned. We would have three fully equipped camera units with camera crew, sound and a PA. We would have lipstick camera mounted on helmets, handle bars, and various other moving pieces. I thought it would be cool to give some of our subjects consumer cameras to document their own stories when we couldn’t be with them.

Our line producer Bernie Cassar struggled to bring all these pieces together within our budget, but I really felt this was the bare minimum we needed to get the kind of coverage we needed and Steve and I did our best to come up with cameras that would serve our needs and fit within the budget. We ended up with four different type of cameras all to be used for very distinct and specific purposes. The camera units would also be assigned distinct and specific purposes. And as it turned out, this was a fantastic strategy.

Sep 24

0a2v6533After the location scouts, the investigations of the riders and intense research, including watching user clips on youtube, digging into the Ragbrai website, connecting with past riders on Facebook and reading a book called “Ragbrai: Everyone Pronounces It Wrong” written by John Karras one of the founders of Ragbrai, I started to envision what elements we need to capture to create a rounded and complete portrait of Ragbrai. Narrowed it down? Well sort of.

I decided that Ragbrai is an alchemical concoction–that the magic of the ride results from the combination of the rides unique aspects. So, in order to truly capture Ragbrai we would have to capture0a2v6517 these aspects combining to give our audience a taste of the magic.

It seemed to me that the elements of the magical potion that creates Ragbrai are:

Bicycles, up to 20,000 of them.
Iowa, the actual physical ride extending over 400 miles across the state of Iowa
Iowa, the small towns, 9 host towns and over 20 along the way
Iowa, the small town folk, 100’s of them
Bike riders from all parts of the country and world up for an getaway adventure, up to 20,000 of them
The support folk, vendors, bike shops, musical acts, volunteers, police, medics, etc., I don’t know… thousands?

I share my alchemical notion with my producers and with the documentary’s investor. Everyone agreed with this approach. Great. They like it. Phew. Now, back to earth. How do cover all of this? It’s pretty vast. And it’s a moving target. And it’s non-stop 24 hours a day. And there some insanely crazy challenges like:

No motorized vehicles on the road.
Insane sound hurdles (Have you ever been in a crowd of thousands, closed your eyes and listened?)
Multiple subjects, doing different things, in different places, simultaneously.
Long lines everywhere especially for everything including food and bathrooms.
Limited sleeping accommodations.
Crew size determined by modest documentary budget.
Equipment determined by modest documentary budget.

So how do we do this maximizing potential for success?


Sep 16

On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 6: Getting to know you

All Content, On the Road with Varda Comments Off on On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 6: Getting to know you

caleClose to 20,000 bike riders participate in Ragbrai. So how did we find our subjects? Before I was brought on board, Susie & Talia two of the producers on the project had already launched into the search for subjects . They were given access to the list of 10,000 “official” riders who had signed up with the Iowa Register for the ride. (Because of carla5certain legal restrictions due to safety, etc. only 10,000 riders are officially allowed to participate Ragbrai. The remainder of the riders participate “off the record”).

The producer’s sent an e-mail out to all the official riders asking them if chris3they would be willing to participate in the documentary. Those riders who expressed interest in being in the documentary were then sent a basic questionnaire and asked to complete it. From the questionnaire, Talia and Susie narrowed the thousand plus submissions down to 150. They sent me the list of their top 150 choices. I looked themeric-in-green-shirt-23 over and put in my two cents.

I had learnt that there were “types” of riders, so I wanted to make sure that we were “representing” the breadth of unique Ragbrai riders. The types we pinpointed were: people who ride in teams and participate for james-3_3the team dynamic, party goers who are into the party aspect of the ride, people riding for a cause and people riding for the athletic challenge.

Crazy as it sounds, for me, each of my productions is a search for knowledge and understanding. I enter into a shoot as much from a place ray7of “not knowing” as “knowing”. I’ve discovered there is always something to learn from the subjects of my films, whether they be a fictional character born of my or someone else’s imagination or whether they be real people like the subjects of this documentary. So in my selection, I made an effort to choose people who I thought would be engaging and angela_2compelling knowing that whoever we chose, we were to find that if we could capture “who they really are” their stories would be compelling and engaging.

If any of you are familiar with my work, you know that I am very curious lanceabout how people engage with their lives. I want to discover as the cliche goes, “what makes them tick”. So I knew I was going to have lots of fun getting to know these people. (The risk of course, was that they wouldn’t want to be revealed. And as it turns out, this was a challenge since they were in a sense trying to escape their lives during the ride.)

chau-and-charlieI made my recommendations, but the final decision on who would be in the documentary was in the producers’ hands.

Ultimately, we arrived at an interesting and diverse cast of riders and as it turns out they were full of surprises and I learned a lot from them!

Sep 04

On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 5

All Content, On the Road with Varda Comments Off on On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 5

imagedisp-94After discussions and interviews with past Ragbrai participants, it became clear that it would be important for us to capture the conversations and unique interactions that took place along the route between the town stops. But how do we shoot the fast moving bikers without using a motorized vehicle? We came up with all sorts of ideas: importing a rickshaw, backwards seat on a tandem bike, a modified child’s trailer, a modified bike cargo trailer, a modified bike trailer for the disabled, etc. For a short while, the vote was in for the modified cargo trailer, but ultimately we realized that riding on the cargo trailer for over 200 miles would be too harsh for the camera operator who would end up either injured or simply unable to endure the hardship of such a makeshift trailer. So our Producer, Talia Shakur-Rodriguez asked her father (who designs satellites) to design a trailer for us. He came through and a lightweight trailer to be towed by tandem bikers was custom built in Iowa.



I chose Cinematographer Mario Signore to shoot off the trailer. Chris Blanch had recommended Mario who was known for hanging off moving vehicles to get a great shot. Mario is also light and flexible so he as well suited to this kind of challenge. In addition to using the trailer to get shots on the route, we mounted lipstick cameras on our subject’s bike handles and helmets. We also got permission to shoot off of emergency vehicles which were allowed on the route, golf carts allowed on the route and even a gator or two.

All the effort to secure footage on along the route paid off. We’ve got loads of running footage, chats, dynamic visuals along the 400+ mile route and it’ll serve us well as we dive into our cut.




Aug 28

On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 4: Cameras in the Cornstalks

All Content, On the Road with Varda Comments Off on On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 4: Cameras in the Cornstalks

Another update from Varda!


Here they Come!

Here they Come!

Much of pre-production for me had to do with trying to figure out what Ragbrai is so that I could make sure that we had all the right people, equipment and resources to capture it. What I finally came to was that it was okay for there to be a mystery… and at the same time, I would have to theorize what made Ragbrai so meaningful, bounce this theory off of past participants, refine the theory then plan according to the theory that rang true. What I decided was that Ragbrai was an alchemical experience. What I meant by that was that it was the combination of the riders from around the world, the welcoming and trustful host towns, the Iowa landscapes and the common interest that bonds all the participants–bike riding!

Based on this assertion, I decided after conversations with Steve Cambell our head DP, that we needed three complete camera/sound units: two units would be Micro (small picture) B-cam to capture the riders “in process”, C-cam to capture the riders, their thoughts and perceptions via interviews, converstations etc, and one unit for the Macro perspective (big picture) A-cam to capture the “ride” and the towns. I decided to take this Macro, Micro approach even further, to get even more intimate with our subjects. So we purchased three HD consumer cameras that we planned to give our subjects so that they could make personal documentations of their journey which we could then integrate into the movie. Finally, we wanted to get a POV feel of the ride, so we rented some lipstick cameras with plans to mount them on bike handles, bike helmets, etc.

Varda in a Cornfield

Varda in a Cornfield

Ultimately, we ended up with 9 working cameras all focusing on different elements of the ride and three great Cinematographers: A-cam: Stephen Cambell, B-cam Mario Signore & C-cam: Daron Keet. They worked there asses off and I most appreciative of their contributions!

How did we solve the “no motorized vehicles on the ride”? How did we find compelling subjects from the 20,000 or so participants? So much more to talk about… 😉

Aug 28

On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 3: Searching for that “thing.”

All Content, On the Road with Varda Comments Off on On the Road with Varda Hardy PT. 3: Searching for that “thing.”

Hey Everyone, this is Nicole from Filmaka. Here is another tale of adventure from Varda’s feature documentary. Hope you guys are enjoying it as much as we are!


Good crop this year.

Good crop this year.

So, where were we…. Oh yes, my heavy hitting producing friend Scott told me that there was no way to successful shoot a bike tour without the use of motorcycles and the sponsor’s of the bike tour insisted that we were not allowed to shoot off of motorized vehicles anywhere along the ride.  This was a “rub” that haunted us throughout the shoot and we found numerous strategies to get our much needed running shots.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I discovered from multiple conversations with Ragbrai participants, sponsors, hosts and people whose friends and/or family members participated in Ragbrai is that it’s “impossible to describe, you must experience it”.  Yet, Ragbrai is real, tangible and compelling enough that it has grown to close to 20,000 participants (10,000 of whom are “un-official) and that more than a hand full of the riders come back year after year… making the treck twice, three times, ten times, even thirty-seven times!  So I knew that there was something worthwhile and meaningful happening on the roads of Iowa every summer.

But what was that “thing”? And how could I capture it without knowing the answer to that question?

Aug 18

Filmaka asked Varda Hardy to write a blog about her experience shooting her upcoming feature documentary. Here’s her second entry:

Endless Roads

Endless Roads

By the time we actually started shooting, I had traversed the state of Iowa six times. And mostly along small country roads. The first time I traveled the state in a cushy bus like the ones that big bands tour in. Joining me was the production team, producers Talia Rodriguez-Shakur and Susan Gorrell, line producer Bernie Cassar and our music supervisor Mopreme Shakur. That journey had a real “magical mystery tour” feel to it. I was discovering Iowa for the first time. Some of the landscapes reminded me of French Countryside. And of course there were acres and acres of cornfields. Several weeks later, I scouted the state with key crew members in a traditional passenger van with a local Iowa PA, Joel, at the wheel.

The actual shoot took me across the state for the seventh time in less than eight weeks. That comes to about 3,150 miles. Scouting a whole state was an insanely fun challenge! My producers would have to drag me from edges of country roads where I was immersed in conversations with town folk whose curiosity was piqued by this wild haired woman dashing around taking still photos of their community buildings, churches, post offices and front porches. Of course, I would ask them about Ragbrai and they all had stories to tell. I was just soaking it all in.

In response to a Facebook post I put out there, a producer friend who had shot the Tour de France and other bike rides told me that I must use motorcycles to shoot the ride. He said I absolutely could not cover a bike tour without motorcycles. This was an absolute must. So I called my producers and asked for two motorcycles. That’s when I learned that we would not be allowed to use any motorized vehicles on the route

Uh, now what

(This is Jason from Filmaka again. If you would like to contribute to our blog, we would like to hear from you. Just e-mail us at Looking forward to hearing from you.)

Aug 18

On The Road with Varda Hardy Pt 1: A New Blog Series

All Content, On the Road with Varda Comments Off on On The Road with Varda Hardy Pt 1: A New Blog Series

This is Jason from Filmaka.   We have been a bit busy with the DIRECTV competition and have neglected our blog.   So, thanks to Varda Hardy, multiple winner of Filmaka competitions, for writing the blog entry below.  She recently landed a very exciting assignment but, rather than explaining it to you, here’s Varda – in her own words:

Three weeks ago, I returned from directing a feature documentary on the longest, largest, oldest bike tour in the world.  This annual tour (not a race) called RAGBRAI can include as many as 20,000 participants and spans the state of Iowa. Two months ago, I had never even heard of Ragbrai now I have over 120 hours of footage covering this year’s tour.

Mopreme Shakur our Music Supervisor

Mopreme Shakur our Music Supervisor

Although I’ve mostly directed scripted movies, I am always up for a challenge. I’m totally into bike riding, so when Monica Daniel, an editor I often work with, sent me an e-mail from a producer looking for a director who would be interested in directing a feature documentary about a bike tour, I decided to check it out.  I interviewed with producer Talia Rodriguez-Shakur and her husband Mopremeat the Urth Cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica. During our meeting, I mentioned quite randomly that I often ride my bike to the Urth Cafe. Talia’s eye’s lit up. Turns out the other two directors don’t ride bikes. Perhaps that off handed remark did not get me the job, but I think it cinched it.

To be continued . . .