I have been waiting to see the Life Cycles film since I caught wind of it when I was at Whistler mountain. My friend, Eric Peterson, who is also a filmmaker, lives near British Columbia Canada. We hit up Whistler last summer to ride the epic downhill trail system. While on the lift, Eric explained to me that two guys were making a bike film, but not an ordinary bike film. There are loads of those. These guys, Derek Frankowski and Ryan Gibb were shooting a film very carefully. With great purpose. Every shot, calculated. Some shots took an entire day to capture. And the crew would not quit until they got the exact shot they wanted to be in the film. These guys were looking to make a film about a bike, not a bike film. And they were going to do it right, and not follow the same bike movie formula as everyone else.
I love to ride. I have a great connection to the bike I use. I take really good care of it and it takes care of me. I enjoy the fitness, creativity, freedom and escape I get when I tear through the forest. I hate street cycling, the cars, the road kill, the zombie people staring at the ground as they walk. But mountain biking is like extreme backcountry exploration. Flying down the hill, through the mist, through the mud, no stress, just a feeling of being free.
So, if this feeling could all be captured in a film, would you buy it? Because Life Cycles is basically lightning in a bluray case. I want to convince you that this film is going to inspire you to fight for the best angle, find the best light, and preform the best camera move in your next project. You will be inspired by this film. The riders may be creative on a bike, but the guys making the film take it a step further.
In fact, my bike film project “Missing Link” was inspired by Life Cycles before the movie was even released.
View the official trailer for Life Cycles:
I am going to break down the film in the rest of this blog. There are a few spoilers in here, so if you have not seen it, perhaps you should stop reading. But if you stop reading, you MUST buy the film. Get the blu-ray, it costs $35 and you support the filmmakers directly by purchasing it using the banner below.
The opening shot is a long camera move, all one take, done with a dolly. The camera is floating over a muddy trail with standing water. The reflections of the tops of trees and blue skies pop off the screen. The narrator explains how “life is a river…and the river always runs forward”. This metaphor was used by “old Gran Dad”. This little bit of story is a common thread though out the film. The metaphor makes the connection of working hard in life (like a bike), getting the most out of it and growing old.
This is not really a “thinking” film, so lets not over analyze this! All I can tell you is that the limited writing and narration in the film did speak volumes to me, but again, I have a strong connection to my bike and the environment I ride in. You put cameras and mountain bikes together and that is a good day.
The next segment of the film takes us into the birth of the bicycle. We are welcomed with incredible sound design as parts of the bike are fired, molded, and machined. Very tight RED shots with shallow depth of field, superb lighting and subtle dolly moves really tell the story here. I love when the metal components were set in front of a backlit white sheet of silk.
All these parts are put together to create “our noblest invention” as the narrator explains. The Bicycle… all shiny and new. Now the story begins and the bond is formed between man and machine.
I enjoyed the opening title sequence. The riders are introduced as we see the bike tied down in the back of an old red GMC pickup truck. Loads of character. The truck moves through the city streets (looks like Vancouver) and the names of the athletes are superimposed on the screen. The camera angles are very creative and quite difficult to get in some cases. But I love that, it was so worth it.
The guys who ride in this film are big-name talented mountain bikers: Grahm Agassiz, Riley McIntosh, Mike Hopkins, Evan Schwartz, Matt Hunter, Brandon Semenuk, Cam McCaul, and Thomas Vanderham.
Eventually, the old red truck with the factory fresh bike in the back make it out of the city. The music dies out. It is replaced by natural sound of the forest. Again, the sound design is excellent in this film, so be sure to turn it up. They must have spent about the same amount of time with sound as they did with images.
The narrator picks up here and sets the stage for some insane riding. He says, “The Earth’s most efficient machine, creates its most efficient animal, The Bicycle”. The camera is on a jib, in a lush forest (Japan?), and booms upward revealing the single track and an approaching rider.
Over the span of this trail ride, we listen to an instrumental track with the folied audio of bike sounds. Rattling chains, the spinning free wheel, rubber on dirt. A lot of this is shot at 120 fps using the RED one. The light is even and flat. Almost all forested scenes do not have rays of sunlight to spoil the shot. The bright to dark contrast values stay consistent under illuminated overcast skies. A sky full of opal frost to diffuse a huge HMI fixture, the sun.
As the rider continues down the track, things are changing and this is the best part of the entire film. The season is changing from summer to fall right before our eyes, while the rider is still in the shot! If you liked BBC’s Planet Earth, you will love this.
Using fixed camera mounts and some crafty post production, the filmmakers were able to preform organic wipes through the frame. As a result revealing the changes that occur in the forest as the season change. Snow forming on the bark of a tree, green leaves turning over to brown, snow forming on the ground. So epic. This alone is worth the price of admission!
There are a few birds-eye view shots from above with falling leaves. These are mesmerizing. I am certain the filmmakers set up the confetti shots, but they are so well executed. You don’t even think of it being staged as the bike whips past far below slightly out of focus.
The music score fits so well with the movement of the bike and the movement of the camera angles. Nothing was done by accident, these shots, edits and soundtracks where precisely placed on the computer time line in post. And they are perfect.
As the documentary about the bike and the rider moves forward, we are introduced to “old Gran Dad”. Tight shots of old farm equipment, work-worn and beat-up hands on a steering wheel. We finally see Gran Dad standing alone in the door way of his old barn, smack in the middle of vast wheat fields.
The next shot we see are these wheat fields. Like a camera just breaking the waters surface looking toward the horizon, the lens floats over the grasses. And then, out of nowhere a bike appears and launches off an unseen ramp. The rider pulls off a trick fifty feet in the air, remounts the bike and drops into the stems and seeds. We do not see the landing. Sick. That single shot is what I call a “retina burn in”. I was never in those fields, but in my mind I can see that shot play back over and over.
A little bit later in the wheat segment, while the sun is setting, I record my second “burn in”. This time, a back flip silhouetted against a big fireball red sun. So amazing and possibly my favorite shot in the entire film. The timing, angle, exposure, and athlete maneuver was spot on. I have tried to capture a sun setting like that and failed because mother nature does not wait. A sunset happens so fast. The glowing round ball is below the horizon before the tripod is even set up. These guys nailed it and the RED captured that moment.
Going from location to location, the creators used some neat techniques, both visual and audible. At the end of the wheat jump segment, a quiet peaceful wide shot of the darkened country was disrupted by a freight train ripping through the shot. Then we are tossed into a quiet forest location with a snap cut and second later a noisy logging truck rips past the frame. I love those type of transitions.
The narrator speaks more about the river metaphor and we see some creative dolly moves and wipes to reveal the power of fire and its affect on the forest. Change comes swiftly in any environment and that is just part of it. This film is about change, and how the little things in our riding environment migrate over time. One day of ripping single track is never the same.
For the next five minutes we experience a visual trail building experience. Again, artsy, tight camera shots of logs getting cut, nails getting smashed into wood. A lot of 120 fps Red footy here, but also some 300-600 fps high speed shots of the chainsaw teeth tearing through wood fibers, creating a particle cloud of dust. Bloody fingers, sweat, hard work. All captured with a great cut of music. As riders, we build. To make the perfect bit of track for the ultimate riding experience: a fast flowy trail.
And these guys enjoy the fruit of their labor taking a couple runs down these wooden bridges and perfectly packed berms. Some of the cable cam shots here are breathtaking. You got to remember, a RED camera is not the lightest thing in the world. It is also not the easiest camera to shoot with ergonomically. Now strap yourself into a body harness and connect to a pulley system. Clip in to a black wire pulled tight tree to tree with a come-along and go for a ride. You are basically tossing wings on the RED one and letting her fly. It is incredible to me how the camera can start so low to the ground, moving so fast with the riders down the cable and end up high in the forest canopy at the end of the long take. So smooth and so well executed.
Again, most of these forest exposures were taken in flat light. No rays of intense sunlight to burn the image. But there still needs to be enough light for the RED to properly shoot at high frame rates.
Listen closely to the sound. The audio sweetening with bike tires scraping the boards on the crudely built bridges is so perfect.
I know how hard it is to pull focus as a bike is approaching very fast down a dark trail with a prime lens wide open. These guys behind the camera made it look so easy. They were spot on with their focus and since they did it so perfectly, you never even think about it while watching this film. Well, I do!
The narration continues as we ride along in the back of a pickup truck. We are looking back at two bikes sitting in the bed of the truck with gear bags jamming them in place. This camera shot never changes for about five minutes. Same focal length, same bikes, same gear bags. But WHERE the truck is driving is constantly changing! Such a great idea. Jump cuts work here as a type of timelapse. At one time we are on an old country road, then in the city, then at golden hour on the coast. This camera shot, with some excellent narration, tells the story of how time goes by, exploring different locations. We remember our first bike and everything in between.
A music change leads to a change in environment. Again, very visceral, the images are timeless. A cosmic soundtrack and excellent sound effects push the film forward and compliment the camera shots and riding. Macro shots of ice crystals forming and melting, timelapses of the mountains or snow melting on a muddy bike, snow falling, a chain rusting right before our eyes, the treads of a bike tire wearing away. So good. And man do these guys know how to make mud and dirt look sexy in slow motion. This is almost as much about the art in mountain biking, the dirt, the sounds, the environment, than it is about the actual riding. And some people might not like that.
There is one shot of a rider hitting a drop and falling with a cascading waterfall at 120 fps that was so visually motivating that I left the house to ride my bike five minutes later.
Again the music changes, this time it get gritty, aggressive, rough. We see more timelapses, riders in epic once-in-a-lifetime light. We are at golden hour in a very dusty location at this point in the film. There are a few high speed shots in this segment that are very well done and composed. I really like the tracking shot of the rider with the sun setting in the background. Derek and Ryan capture incredible light, motion and sound. They had the patience to wait for all three.
We now see signs of abuse on the bike. The daily use has taken its toll. Scratches, dents, chipped paint. The next segment shows the world of the bike mechanic and his shop. Time to tune up that bike and breath some new life into it. The mechanic is listening to a tune on the radio, which is filling our ears as the soundtrack. Very well shot and artsy. Tight shots, well lit components, excellent sound. The shots visually tell the story with no words.
This leads us near the end of the film where the narrator tells us how far a bike has come over 200 years and that the thing is really only circles pushing circles. Gears and metal components. The real part of the bike is the human component. The human motor is was makes the difference. And we still have not maxed out that part of it.
Some of the high speed shots in this documentary were shot on cameras similar to the Fastec Imaging camera I have used. It does not look as good as a Phantom and does not preform as well in low light situations. Plus, you have to tether a laptop with it to record and control it. The filmmakers battled with the “screen door effect” on a few of these shots where there is high contrast values. But the shots were so amazing in motion and composition, that the normal viewer will not even see the faint vertical and horizontal lines that tear through the shot. You can see it slightly in the image above. Look at the sky. The screen door is invisible to most people and they look right through the limits of the technology. The audience simply takes in the moment. I could learn from them, I suppose.
The film is almost over when we see the bike laying on the trail broken. Busted metal seams, dented frame, smashed components. The rider will ride another day, but the bike is a goner. The next few shots show the bike in a scrap yard, and being crushed in a landfill.
But even after death, the bike and rider have that bond that cannot be broken. You never forget about a bike, like you never forget about a dog growing up.
The film ends with a surreal night shoot that was captured on Whistler mountain. The filmmakers brought in a huge grip truck with tons of lights and a big generator. They shot on the mountain with big silk sheets lit from behind. They have a few shots where lights are turned off as a rider rips down the trail. I loved that idea and I am going to use that in my film. They used bits of cotton to make a high speed backlit particle explosion the riders would blast through.
At first I did not like this part of the film. But the second time I watched it, I realized what it symbolized (at least for me). It was riding a bike after death, or at least the filmmakers idea of it. Perhaps the last remaining memories in the twisted broken metal. Riding in a white limbo. A place with no color, just a rider and his bike. Nothing else to interfere.
In conclusion, I simply loved this film. It spoke to me and basically helps me explain my addiction to mountain biking, the environment, light, physics and the joy of riding. It was also so well shot and the sound design was very good. I have a great amount of respect for all involved for taking the time to tell the story about a bike correctly.
In this film, the creators somehow got a RED one to sprout wings and fly like a bird. I adore that aspect of this film. Everything was shot with purpose. These guys spent time, not money making the documentary. There was very limited filler in the movie. A lot of the shots in the movie are camera angles that are difficult to get. So why do that? Why not just shoot amazing athletes in an easy and simple way? The pro riders are the reason people buy the DVD anyway. But when you shoot amazing athletes riding their bikes in a way that requires great patience and effort, you end up with Life Cycles. The best of both worlds. Storytelling and riding.
I wonder how the “kids” on PinkBike took in this film. After all, they just want to see riding set to their favorite song.
Support the filmmakers directly and order this film: http://www.lifecyclesfilm.com
Behind the Scenes: