Oregon photographer Benji Wagner has traveled the country over the past year as a one-man video production crew, shooting mini documentaries of cyclists taking on tough, exhilarating rides through beautiful countryside. It’s run-and-gun work from the back of a sag wagon, but production values have be high because Wagner is doing it for advertorial pieces for Rapha, the very high end British cycling clothes and accessories outfitter.
Rapha has had an unconventional but highly successful marketing approach since its start in 2004. It runs almost no print advertising, and has few retail dealers. Instead, it mostly sells direct through the Web, and has built its brand by sponsoring events and by producing documentary stories and other editorial-style content for its Web site to stir the longings of desk-bound he-man riders of means. (As Rapha says in its manifesto, “More and more men are discovering that riding a road bike can be the perfect counterpoint to the cosseted and quick-fix nature of modern life.”)
“The Web is a great venue to come and get inspired, and video is very suitable for that [because] it’s a sport that’s about speed and motion and beauty,” explains Carey Schleicher-Haselhorst, marketing and events director (and photography and video van driver) for Rapha North America.
Cycling photographer Daniel Wakefield Pasley originally pitched the idea of documenting epic bike rides around the US, and creating an online library of those rides (with maps) as a way of promoting the Rapha brand. The company embraced the idea, and provided outfits to a group of cyclist that Pasley photographed on a big, freewheeling adventure.
The company continues to use still photography to document rides. “It is intended to be organic and raw,” Schleicher-Haselhorst says. “It gives the feeling that somebody on a bike is shooting.” And it’s all soft marketing through interaction of riders and engagement with customers; the clothing and logo are about as obtrusive as movie product placements.
Rapha began experimenting with video in 2008, and started using it to document the epic Continental rides in 2009, when Schleicher-Haselhorst hired Dave Christensen to shoot a ride that followed the grueling Tour of California course a month before that pro race took place in 2009. Since then, Rapha has posted short videos of all the Continental rides. There have been 46 in all. Along with videos, Rapha posts cue sheets so viewers can download them and do the rides on their own.
Christensen produced the videos during 2009. In 2010, The Rapha Continental project plan called not only for the short ride videos, but also a feature-length documentary about the culture of bike riding to show at film festivals. For that, Rapha needed one person to shoot all videography with a consistent vision and aesthetic. But Christensen was unavailable for the job this year, so Schleicher-Haselhorst turned to Wagner, who had shown his portfolio at Ampersand, a Portland gallery and ephemera shop.
“My husband owns Ampersand,” explains Schleicher-Haselhorst. “He’s sold some of Benji’s Polaroids.”
Wagner had also made a few skateboarding videos, and a video about a custom bike frame builder for ReadyMade magazine. He says he learned what he calls “no budget” video production primarily as an editor, working on corporate videos for other photographers. Rapha ended up giving him “a trial run, although they didn’t call it that,” he says. It was an assignment to document a camp re-staging of the amateur bike race from the movie Breaking Away, organized for Rapha dealers.
Wagner paid homage to the film in his own cinematic re-creation, and from there ended up getting the assignment to cover the 2010 Rapha Continental rides.
“The direction I gave Benji was to capture the small towns, amazing summits, rich landscapes, Americana, and characters that the Continental riders encounter while pedaling 100-plus miles. I asked him to make it beautiful and inspirational” says Schleicher-Haselhorst. She also wanted him to show the riders pushing themselves to a visceral level of fatigue, then relaxing and enjoying the accomplishment afterwards. (“From pain comes pleasure,” is another line from the Rapha manifesto.)
So that the rides looked improvised (with riders occasionally getting lost) and surprises along the way seemed genuine, nobody scouted the routes in advance. Wagner had to approach it like a journalist, figuring out how to tell each story as he went along.
“I'm usually just hanging out the back of van, doing the best I can to get beautiful imagery,” he says. He shot with a Canon 7D using a Redrock micro shoulder mount to help stabilize the camera. Wagner explains that the camera’s sensor can’t keep up with fast pans, the vibration of rough roads, or the fast-changing exposure requirements along a country road.
“All kinds of things can make it look crummy,” he laments.
And it was all one-camera, one-take work, with nothing staged or done over again for the sake of the camera. “It can be frustrating. You see something and then it’s gone,” he says.
To get the shots he needed, he had to pre-visualize them, looking along the way for as much variety as he could find. Still photography emphasizes highlights, but video narratives require a lot of utilitarian footage—B-roll—to set up the story, move the narrative and tie the highlight shots together in a logical way, Wagner explains.
His editing experience helped him in that regard: He was able to imagine which shots might lead to the next, and when to start and stop shooting each scene. He anticipated some shots by going up the road ahead of the cyclists, setting up to photograph them as they flew through curves or past striking backdrops.
From the van he shot close-ups of riders and their bikes that provided the transitional material between more epic scenes, and showed interaction between riders. He also used some cinematic tricks, such as photographing an empty road from the back of the van, then running the footage backwards to recreate the feel of a cyclist coasting down a country road.
At rest stops he captured the banter between riders, and sometimes interviewed people in small towns along the way.
Wagner says 95 percent of what he shot “got tossed,” much of it for technical reasons. “You can see the kinds of [rough] roads we were on, and I wasn’t in any special filming vehicle,” he says. The shorts he edited about each ride took several days each, and even longer if he ran into “one of these cul de sacs” where he didn’t have the footage he needed for the narrative to make sense. so he had to back up and figure out another way to do it.
“I'm still struggling to estimate [post-production] time on bids,” because post-production can be so unpredictable, he says. Client expectations also make it difficult to get reasonable compensation for video production, he says. That’s because they’re used to quick turnaround for digital stills, and often don’t understand how difficult and time-consuming high-quality video production is.
Having recently finished the last Rapha Continental video of the season, Wagner is starting to edit the long-form documentary. The film will be about the psychology and culture of cycling in America. “I didn't want it to be the short films strung together. I wanted it to be more than the sum of its parts,” he says. He was shooting the Continental events with that in mind, so he has footage and more in-depth interviews with riders that weren’t intended (and didn’t appear) in the short videos.
Schleicher-Haselhorst says Rapha expects to screen Wagner’s documentary on the independent film festival circuit next year, and release it for sale on DVD. Meanwhile, Rapha plans to revamp the Rapha Continental project for next season, although details are not final. But the rides will continue in some form, and Rapha will use video, photography, and text to document them, Schleicher-Haselhorst says.