Director Nicholas Schrunk on How the Camera Crew Tracked Endurance Mountain Biker Rebecca Rusch on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Blood Road details the extraordinary journey of ultra-endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch as she and her Vietnamese riding partner Huyen Nguyen traverse the 1,200-mile Ho Chi Minh trail, which was the Viet Cong’s path for transporting weapons and supplies during the Vietnam War. The trail consists of dense jungle, rivers, boulders and caves weaving through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It’s also where Rusch’s father, a U.S. Air Force pilot, died after being shot down more than 40 years ago. Rusch’s initial impetus was to honor her father and bring some closure to a painful loss, but Blood Road reveals how the journey evolved into one of self-discovery.
Red Bull Media House has been telling stories on music, culture, action and adventure for distribution on different platforms since 2007. Rusch is a Red Bull athlete, so it was a natural decision for Red Bull to produce a documentary on her journey.
“Blood Road falls squarely into the adventure aspect we cover,” says Red Bull Media House Creative Director Nicholas Schrunk, who directed Blood Road. “She brought this idea to us three years ago and I said, ‘Let’s develop it.’” From the beginning, he realized that, just as the documentary would highlight the endurance athleticism of Rusch and Nguyen, so the camera crew would endure the same tough course.
Schrunk says that initially he wasn’t sure if Rusch’s idea was even logistically possible or how villagers along the trail would react to their presence. Thus began an intense — and very necessary — nine months of pre-production, during which Schrunk spent three months with a guide, scouting the Ho Chi Minh Trail via motorcycles with a Garmin GPS and iPhone apps to pre-plan locations and shots. “There were major constraints on the resources of what we could shoot,” he explains. “Here’s the world’s best endurance athlete moving an incredible distance each day, and the cinematographers following on motorcycles with their gear on their back. We had to make a lot of decisions of what we used the resources for.”
Getting permits for shooting in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was an easier hurdle to clear than anticipated. “That was the first thing we highlighted in pre-production, especially drones,” says Schrunk. “Nobody really loves drones. We spent a lot of time educating the government of Laos in particular, as well as Cambodia and Vietnam. We explained this wasn’t a sensationalized story about anything negative, but about a daughter going to find her father. Once we clearly communicated that, the governments were very accommodating.”
Schrunk notes that during pre-production, they also had to consider a range of questions that would determine how and what they shot. “What is the story? What are we shooting?” he enumerates. “How are we portraying Southeast Asia? What are the cornerstone shots of people and locations? What documentary style are we choosing? The look and aesthetic we were going for took a lot of development.”
Schrunk concluded that an observational style best suited the documentary. “Early on, I wanted to hide all the filmmaking the best I could,” he says. “I didn’t want to see cameramen, shadows or me. This was Rebecca’s story and I didn’t want to distract from that. But I also didn’t want to dictate what she was doing or provide her with any information.”
The observational style, he adds, only goes so far in the jungle, which is where the intensive scouting came in. All the key shots of the land, villages, trail, and people were pre-categorized and laid out, with details about the time of day and lens choice. “When we started rolling, the filmmaking team had a template,” he says. “I wanted the team to know the points of interest and where they could go and shoot. Pre-production tried to give us every chance to get high-end visuals of the place but also retain the handheld kinetic moments of self-discovery and the journey that happens in the moment.”
The cinematographers were also athletes — a requirement for biking over rough trails carrying heavy loads. Director of photography Ryan Young is a former professional motocross competitor; his cameramen, all athletes, were Sean Aaron, David Mavro and Robert J.D. Spaulding, who was also gimbal operator, AC, and assistant director. Neil Goss handled the drones on the trail, and cinematographer David G. Wilson shot interviews in the U.S.
The Red Epic 6K and Red Weapon 6K were the cameras of choice for the entire movie, supplemented occasionally by a few modified GoPros. “We used the Red Epic for almost all our shooting,” says Schrunk. “We shot in 6K and mastered to 4K, which allowed our conform artist Jeremy Hunt to pan and scan within the Red files quite a bit. We could push in about 22 percent without losing resolution in 4K.” For lenses, Schrunk chose Cooke anamorphics, including the 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, 100mm and 180mm.
“Shooting anamorphics is a strong aesthetic choice,” says Schrunk. “Sometimes the limitations are helpful to make you move the body to compose the shot instead of relying on the equipment, but once a scene is happening, you just roll. So recomposing in post was a major creative tool to tell the story that we could only do with the higher resolution Red files.” He also wanted anamorphics that would bring visual warmth to Rusch’s emotional story and, unlike vintage anamorphics, wouldn’t immediately go out of calibration in the Southeast Asian heat and humidity.
Blood Road features some spectacular aerials that were made possible with the extensive use of drones. Goss operated the DJI Phantom 2 with an anamorphic-modified GoPro, and drone pilot Nick Wolcott used a FreeFly CineStar with a MoVI M10 gimbal holding the Red Epic 6K with Cooke lens.
Another specialty shot was captured when Rusch and Nguyen paddle through a huge pitch-dark cave. “Going through the cave was incredibly challenging,” says Schrunk, who reports it was the only scene that used spherical lenses. “To light it, we had to come up with innovative solutions.” The crew affixed Light & Motion cinema-quality submersible LED lights just under the boat and attached them underneath drones to illuminate from above while the crew traversed the cave with Rusch and Nguyen. “It was asking a lot of the crew,” admits Schrunk.
Young spearheaded the logistical challenges of backing up media, charging batteries and safely transporting equipment. To do so, he engineered a DIT station that was machined into a 1510 water-sealed Pelican case housing Maxx Digital 24 TB RAIDs. “We used a military-grade foam rubber to absorb all the impact,” he says. Imagine Products ShotPut Pro for Mac was used for offloading.
Every two or three days, the production team would meet up with the support trucks, which allowed for backup and recharging. The truck carried two Goal Zero Yetis, portable solar power stations that Schrunk describes as “a giant battery with 110v outputs and multiple USB outputs.” The team would charge the Yetis via solar power and from the truck’s alternator. Then, the production team could use the Yetis to charge the cameras as well as download all the cards.
Throughout the journey, the toughest technical aspect was making sure the camera, and lenses in particular, didn’t heat up too much. “With the insane humidity, the lenses fogged really easily,” says Schrunk. “We had so much silica gel packed with everything, and everything was sticky and wet with humidity and heat. The lenses cooled down more slowly at night. We would try to cool them in a car, when a car was available, but otherwise had to continually wipe the lens until it acclimated. It was really hard on the equipment, which is why we chose Red and Cooke. They were resilient.”
The extreme humidity wasn’t just hard on gear but on the cameramen on motorcycles. “They’re covered head-to-toe in safety riding armor, so they’re really sweating,” says Schrunk. “We had to move so far every day. A lot of times in a production like this, you want to go back to the hotel to reset or center the gear room in one location, but we never slept in the same place twice. At night, we slept in tents or with people in their huts in villages. Every day, the crew shut up the Pelican case and put their gear back into the backpacks. You had to choose what to carry with you, because there’s a limit to what you can carry safely.”
“Our team went on this journey with Rebecca and Huyen,” says Schrunk. “So we were suffering alongside her.” Rusch did find where her father died, and was able to complete that most important part of her journey. But she also discovered how much the area is plagued with a vast amount of unexploded wartime ordnance that still kills people.
“I went there searching for my dad and pieces of myself but came home with the understanding that I can use my bike for a bigger purpose than just winning races,” she says. “I feel a deep responsibility to be part of the solution by using my bike to facilitate change and recovery.” To that end, she is donating proceeds from select screenings to the Mines Advisory Group, a non-governmental organization that works to clear unexploded ordnance and landmines while assisting people affected by them.
Blood Road debuted at the Sun Valley Film Festival, winning that festival, and also at the Bentonville International Film Festival, and will play in major cities across the U.S. throughout the summer. www.BloodRoadfilm.com.
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