It has taken a while to write this. I could say that it has been a busy few months of working on multiple projects and so the time has not been there. But to be honest, ‘More Than A Race’ has well and truly lived up to its’ name and it has taken a while to recover from this journey both physically & emotionally. I simply have not had the will to collect my thoughts and write them down until recently. Like other film makers, I look to document people’s journeys and foster the narrative so that viewers can connect with the athletes or whoever might be in front of the camera. This is an insight into my journey and personal narrative behind the lens during the filming of More Than A Race.
The original brief from Steve & Janet [HK100 Race Directors] was to film and produce a promotional piece that would be 13 minutes long and showcase both the race and Hong Kong. As someone who calls Hong Kong home after spending most of my life here, this was a perfect opportunity to show another side to this place that is commonly misperceived as simply being a concrete jungle. This broader focus that went beyond just filming the HK100 as a race appealed to me as I have previously been reluctant to film live races and have turned down a number of offers to film such events in the past. To film an event such as an ultra race really needs a good-sized team that can vary depending on the length of the race, the terrain and accessibility. The filming logistics cannot be taken lightly.
I had little time in terms of preparation and started filming in December 2013. This was just a few weeks before the Hong Kong 100 race was due to take place and so I accepted that the level of narrative was going to be restricted to focusing on the more well-known runners as they flew in for the race. This is challenging as it only allows a certain depth to the content & insight into the main characters. A growing but modest event, there simply were no buckets full of cash for me to start working through a wish list of all the impressive array of equipment that are increasingly being used for adventure & trail films nowadays. The budget was tight and so filming the race was going to be down to good old fashioned grunt work of running between remote locations over hills and beaches on foot, carrying filming equipment in backpacks and whenever possible getting around on a motorbike.
There were to be no helicopters or drones for filming. I won’t lie, I would have loved to have captured some epic aerial shots and this was something that Steve, Janet & I discussed at some length before deciding not to invest in a drone. With such a small team there was the risk of being seduced by the technology or distracted by all that is involved with aerial shots at the expense of the narrative or action that can quickly unfold during a live event. I wanted to stay close to the race action and was confident we could do that on foot. I’m sure we made the right call when considering that there were just three of us filming on race day.
I focused on filming for the first half of More Than A Race by capturing the other side of Hong Kong that I know well and yet is rarely found on postcards that include the typical obligatory skyscraper, waterfront or other quintessential urban images. Hong Kong is not often considered to be a place that is rich in natural beauty & I wanted to show that off.
Pre-race filming consisted of two parts: firstly, filming local trail runners on the scenic routes that they would train on and secondly, filming the elite runners as they arrived in Hong Kong just days before the race. The local trail folk once again showed themselves to be generous with their time and energy and contributed to this project in amazing ways.
A glimpse behind the scenes while Rom films Jin Hwa & Sebastian on Dogs Teeth Ridge
This generousity was evident during early morning sunrise filming sessions with Stone Tsang, Ida Lee and Law Chor Kin where we would start climbing with equipment in the darkness to reach high ground before sunrise and during the hours on the trails with Jeremy Ritcey, Lizzy Hawker, Denvy Lo, Jacky Leung, Ying Ying, Andre Blumberg, Angel Ng, Jeanette Wang, Chiaki Fjelddahl, Sebastian Guevara & Jin Hwa to name a few among the many others who gave selflessly to this project. The filming session with Stone on Ma On Shan was particularly memorable as it was so cold that my fingers went numb and so Stone had to press the stop recording button on the camera after I finished recording him.
Another aspect that we wanted to capture was the altruism and charity connections that the Hong Kong 100 race maintains. Since it’s inception, the HK100 race has invested in local charities and I was aware of how Janet Ng [HK100 Race Director] and others have given countless hours to Blind Sports Hong Kong where they have acted as guides for blind runners competing in marathons and helped out at training sessions. I went along to a training event in Shek Kip Mei to film a training session that is included in the final cut.
It was during the filming of one of these training sessions that I made such a naive and rookie error. I forgot to bring any additional lights thinking that I would not need any for what was bound to be a typically well lit athletic track. However, when I arrived at the track, I found that it was in complete darkness. Of course, why would blind runners need lights! I felt such an idiot and made me realise how these sort of assumptions are what blind members of our community face all the time. That evening made a lasting impact upon me and I was thankful that the Sony FS100 camera that I had recently invested in was reliable and delivered in spite of my ignorance when faced with this low light environment.
Fortunately, Lizzy Hawker was in town during December so we spent an afternoon filming on the streets of Causeway Bay and on the windy hill tops by Violet Hill as she recollected her past experience of running the HK100.
The days before the race were full of back to back filming sessions with elite runners who had just flown in to Hong Kong. It was pretty relentless as I filmed interviews with Jez Braggs, Dave Mackey, Vajin Armstrong, Scott Hawker, Francesca Canepa, Cyril Cointre, Antoine Guillon, Christophe Le Saux and Vincent Delebarre. I am always struck by how down to earth these folk are. No egos. Just individuals who love their sport. When I look back, some of the highlights of these filming sessions are off camera including the hours spent talking and joking with Jez Bragg waiting for a taxi on East Point Reservoir to take us back to the hostel.
Race Day Filming
The race day film team was made up of: Romain Riche [Camera], Robin Lee [camera], Martijn Doekes [Logistics] and myself [camera]. We had planned the filming logistics for covering the 100 km course route like a military operation. This was the first project where I had hired additional camera operators and asked Martijn to come on board to handle the logistics and communication for the day as he knew the route well. A project is not only defined by how [skill] and what you shoot [concept/narrative] but also by who you work with. When working long hours under pressure then stress is inevitable and so the people you work with are important and can make a massive difference. Working closely with Romain, Robin & Martijn allowed this project to reach it’s potential.
Romain and I worked together as a pair for the whole race while Robin paired up with Martijn as he was not so familiar with the route. Romain is an accomplished mountain runner and is pretty nifty with the motorbike and so we covered a lot of ground quickly on foot and on wheels. We also were able to film a number of sequences when runners hit road sections from the back of the motorbike which involved me facing backwards and filming runners [à la Tour de France] while Romain kept a smooth line for the bike. Much to the amusement of onlookers.
One of the most difficult aspects of filming the race was running between the more remote locations while carrying filming equipment [about 12kg] on our backs. Trying to stay ahead of the front runners as they made their way to Ham Tin beach was particularly tough. There were instances during the race where we barely had time to catch our breath and keep the sweat from dripping onto the lenses before setting up and start filming as the front runners appeared. However, it was worth the effort and when reflecting on the race footage, I was really pleased that we had captured most of the key parts and turning points of the race as runners at the front battled for the lead. Romain worked really hard running up and down Needle Hill and Rooster Hill to film key turning points and Robin Lee did a top notch job of filming under pressure [where there is no take two] to capture the action in an engaging way.
There were parts of the filming that did not go to plan such as when I was waiting waist high in water with a camera to film runners crossing a bridge on Ham Tin beach only to watch the front runners run in another direction along the beach due to a last minute detour by race officials. These things happen during live races and it’s when you think on your feet and get on with it that the unplanned magic can happen.
It was a long day of filming and after the race had finished and we packed away our filming equipment, I headed home and began going through the raw footage. I did this until about 4am. This has become a habit after filming & photography assignments as the adrenaline is still pumping away. It became apparent while going through the rushes that the footage was lacking a depth in narrative during certain parts. First thing in the morning I contacted Dave Mackey, Vajin Armstrong, Vlad Ixel & Shunsuke Okunomiya to see if I could meet with them and record some voice overs so that their thoughts about how the race was going for them during key sections could be included. The next few days after the race were busy with trips to the airport to record their thoughts on an audio recording device before they caught their flights back home. I also wanted to include voice overs from Tirtha Tamang [the HK100 winner] and Bed Sunuwar [2nd place] but they had returned to Nepal. This was when an extra mile needed to be traveled. A huge thanks to Richard Bull [organiser of trail events in Nepal] who tracked the runners down and ended up recording their voice overs in the back of a car on the streets of Kathmandu.
The trailer was released in February while I continued to work on post production. The aim was still to produce a video that would be 13 minutes long. However, the trailer caught the attention of potential distributors but they were more interested in a longer final product. Steve, Janet & I talked about this. I told them that I had enough footage and narrative to produce something in the region of 30 minutes. I told them that I would find it easier to craft a longer filming piece than trying to stick to the original brief of 13 minutes as we had a good amount of footage that I was pleased with and the narratives would be better placed in a longer piece. Although we had no deal or commitments from distributors, we decided to change the framework and I aimed at producing a final short film that would be about 30 minutes long. In fact, the final version is 35 minutes long.
With this time increase came a need to include some additional footage. The Chinese New Year holidays presented the perfect opportunity for scenic shots as factories across the border in mainland China shut down and allow Hong Kong’s skyline to show off it’s potential beauty. The opening time lapse for More Than A Race was taken from The Peak during this time. Chinese New Year holidays also means an increase in tourists flocking to Hong Kong including the throngs of mainland tourists who proved a challenge to keep away from knocking my camera while shooting this time lapse on The Peak.
I have a love and hate relationship with the editing process. There are few better highs than watching the individual sequences and ideas come together during the edit. The moment when a scene comes together on artistic, narrative & skill levels is hard to match. There are also few deeper lows than wrestling with ideas & footage that does not work as you had planned or if a technical glitch occurs that demands far more time than your sanity levels can afford. The time involved in the editing workflow from transferring the raw footage to converting it into workable formats & that is even before the editing process can really begin is the unglamorous side of filming that can leave you drained as you stare at the monitor into the small hours of the night.
Another challenge with this project was working with five additional languages aside from English [Cantonese, French, Japanese, Italian & Nepali]. I set out with the intention of giving this project a truly international dynamic. After all, it was an Ultra World Trail Tour event involving runners from different countries. I was clear with the runners that I wanted them to talk in their native languages rather than English. This meant that we had to translate these parts and I am indebted to the folk who helped with this. The final touches included colour grading, finalising music tracks and some calligraphy work for the film title by my talented wife, Gabriella Belcher.
One of the more frequent comments I have heard from viewers is about the choice of music. Much the same as colour grading, music is one of the last ingredients I choose as I want any additional audio to compliment and reflect the genuine mood of the race. I wanted music that would allow the visual footage to breathe & not suffocate it but also to provide a sense of the mood of an ultra race that is long and takes a runner on more than just a physical journey. Music is a powerful vehicle in movie making and has the power to draw us into a place of connecting with the visual element. To be honest, I am tired of the upbeat music that is used in running videos particularly for ultra races. When I reflect on the ultra races that I have ran [100 kms & 100 miles], I would not choose an upbeat rock track to reflect my journey. Ultra races tend to be relatively slow [compared to shorter distances on different terrain] with climbing and are full of highs and lows and so I went with music that I felt would enable the viewer to appreciate these elements. Another important aspect of audio is not to be afraid of silence. It would have been easy for me to fill all the spaces where there is no dialogue with music or voice overs but this would not have been an authentic reflection of a race where runners spend hours with their own thoughts and the sounds directly around them.
The editing process took almost four months before More Than A Race was ready to be released. The moments when you go from the place where you have crafted, toiled and shaped your film work in private to letting a wide audience view your work is always nerve wracking. I knew there was nothing more I could have given until the moment I sent the final edit to Steve & Janet to view but remember waiting nervously for their response.
Steve, Janet & I discussed in detail whether More Than A Race should be available to view for a fee. There are not many examples of 35 minutes short films in this genre that are available for free. We wondered whether making it free to view would be a disincentive to sit through 35 minutes of viewing via a social media link while sitting on a bus somewhere. However, if a viewer had paid they would be more inclined to watch the entire video. There were other factors but we agreed that to make More Than A Race free to view would keep with the spirit & ethos of the race.
We have been taken aback by the response to More Than A Race since it’s release. What started as a small project to produce a 13 minutes promotional video that has become a short film viewed by a wide audience has been overwhelming and proven to be an eventful journey behind the lens.
Cameras: Sony FS100, Canon 5D mk2
Glass: Zeiss Distagon 35mm T* f/2 ZE
Canon: 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Metabones adaptor for Canon Glass with FS100
Rode Stereo shotgun Mic for 5D
Sennheiser EW 100-ENG G3 mics
ND filters for glass [FS100 has no internal ND filters]
Manfrotto Tripod & Monopod
F-Stop Loka Camera Backpack