Shooting Dust to Glory

By John Virata

The SCORE Baja 1000 has often been described as one of the most grueling vehicle races in the world. Motorcycles, trucks, ATVs, and the namesake Baja Bug are some of the classes of vehicle that enter the race in the Baja California desert each year. The desert, with all its pristine beauty, has been known to absolutely devour these off road vehicles and render them useless. The logistics to put on the race have been refined over the years, but documenting this grueling off road motorsport until now has been relegated to a few specials on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and other sports channels.

The filmmakers whose recent film Step Into Liquid, brought the world of big wave surfing to the silver screen, have stepped up to the plate to document the SCORE Baja 1000 with the feature documentary Dust to Glory, one of the most extreme documentaries on off road racing. While the 2003 SCORE Baja 1000 promised to be a challenging race not only for the riders but the organizers as well, the notion of filming the event in the desert sun, in the dust, over the course of 1000 miles, proved to be just as challenging for the filmmakers who sought to document the seminal race.

Dana Brown and Scott Waugh, part of the team that successfully brought the extreme sport of big wave surfing to the big screen, are hoping that they can capture a similar essence with Dust to Glory, a film that documents the history, the racers, and the personas behind the SCORE Baja 1000. In this interview, DMN senior editor John B. Virata spoke with Dust to Glory executive producer C. Rich Wilson and Director of Photography Kevin Ward on what it took to shoot this film.

Rich Wilson previously served as managing partner and associate producer for Step into Liquid and worked on the production on several action sports titles, including Edge of Reality and Pure Pickle.

Director of Photography Kevin Ward has clocked time behind of an in front of the camera, serving as director of photography on more than 300 commercials, two full length feature films, four shorts, and the documentary, The Perfect Moment (Sundance Film Festival Audience Award ), and as a stuntman on TV shows, including Hardcastle & McCormick, Hunter, and Nightrider. Ward also has more than 20 years experience racing stock cars and motorcycles, including winning the SCORE Baja 1000 in 2001. Here is what they had to say about shooting the SCORE Baja 1000 for Dust to Glory.

JV: You had more than 70 action film production experts on hand, converging on more than 1000 miles of terrain to capture the essence of the Baja 1000. How was everything coordinated? Was there a centralized headquarters or a mission control of sorts? How did you handle communication between the teams? How big was the support staff to all these experts?

RW: All of our coordination was done before the event, and not during it. For the months preceeding the event, mission control was at our production office in Santa Monica, Calif. The DP, Kevin Ward, created a wall sized map of the Baja Peninsula with the race route. After a weeklong scout of the racecourse by the Director Dana Brown, Producer Scott Waugh, DP Kevin Ward, and Baja expert James DeGaines (of BF Goodrich), the battle plan really started to take shape. Camera teams were assigned specific locations (via GPS waypoints and still photographs gathered on the scout) based on their strengths (people, action, etc.) and specific equipment based on their assignments (4×4 trucks, overnight camping gear, film or digital cameras (or both). Separate overlays were created for the helicopter assignments versus the ground units. The filmmakers worked together as a team for several weeks working out the logistics of the two days of filming, trying to maximize the efficiency of every piece of equipment and crewmember.

The first unit team went down a week before the event and began shooting interviews, pre-run footage, time-lapse photography, and rescouting specific areas. Mission control was moved to a ranch (Wide-Open Baja Offroad Adventures) just north of Ensenada. The rest of the crew and equipment traveled down mid-week before the race. An entire day was spent meeting with each Ground Unit Leader (director Dana Brown and DP Kevin Ward held court) to finalize their assignments. The Ground Units were told to arrive in Mexico
completely self-contained and be prepared to possibly have zero amenities for 2 days. Fortunately that wasn’t the case for almost all but a few of the teams! The 13 ground units headed out on Thursday to travel to and scout their locations and verify any access roads to the racecourse they had been given. From that point on there was only sporadic communication with the Ground Units. They were trusted to make their own changes in their plans as needed. Each Ground Unit consisted of a Unit Leader (cameraman/ operator) , a Camera Assistant (who if no focus pulling was needed would run a 2nd camera), and a Driver/ Loader (many times a local camera assistant).

There were also several “solo” units that had specific assignments, embedding themselves with chase teams and pit crews, covering the “weatherman” (coordinates all race communication via relay for the entire event) on his 10,000 ft. peak, our Class 22 Pro Motorcycle entry with a helmetcam, our purpose built “Class 1 style” 4-seater buggy with a remote operated camera mount, and riding “shotgun” in chase helicopters.

JV: A variety of cameras were used in the making of Dust to Glory. When pre-planning the different aspects of the race, how was it determined when to shoot with a film camera as opposed to a MiniDV camera as opposed to HD?

KW: 35mm and mid-mounts (door off) were employed in two of our three helicopters, as weight was not an issue, and quality was paramount. For our third helicopter which was assigned to stay up front with the motorcycles, we used a Hi-Def camera in a gyro stabilized head with a remote deck in the ship. We went this route to minimize reloading, but keep the quality as high as possible. 16mm Arri SR3 high-speed cameras were used for the majority of the ground units. These cameras were chosen to keep weight to a minimum for these crews, enable them to overcrank up to 150fps, and allow for extremely quick reloading. Almost all ground units also had a Panasonic AG-DVX100 “mini Hi-Def” camera as well. They were asked to roll these simultaneously with the film cameras to capture sound, alternate angles, and cutaways. Those Ground Units that were given more “people” assignments than “action” assignments were given Sony 900 Hi-def cameras. These cameras were chosen because of the length of time you can roll without reloading, their quality of image, and their ability to capture quality sound. Weight dictated that our “helmet cam rider” be equipped with a Toshiba 3 chip “ice-cube” camera recording to a Sony DV-CAM deck in a backpack. On board roll cage camera mounts went to Mini DV or DV-CAM to minimize weight and limit reloading.

JV: These cameras are being taken everywhere to get the shot. In dusty conditions, mounted in vehicles, etc. How did the crew prepare the equipment for this? What types of housing units were used to protect the cameras from the elements? How did the team deal with image stabilization?

KW: Dust protection was very low-tech– Plastic bags and lots of tape! Lots of clear glass filters were used and replaced many times to protect lens front elements. Our one helicopter had a gyro-stabilized mount which enabled them to get very tight and use long lenses. Our off-road camera car had an extremely high tech stabilized mount built by Mike Majeski of Shelly Ward Enterprises.

JV: Were backups needed and what did the teams do in terms of backup equipment? Was any of the equipment destroyed during the shooting?

KW: No backups were employed. We had one camera run over by a non race vehicle going backwards on the race course, and one of our “nightscopes” (used to capture night-time photography) failed.

JV: What brand HD, miniHD, DVCam and miniDV cameras were used in the shooting of Dust to Glory and why?

KW: Sony HD. (proven, rugged, reliable.)
Panasonic miniHD (excellent 24p quality in a very lightweight camera)
Sony DV-CAM decks were the only way to go with the ice-cube cameras. For the weight, they are the best quality available. Mini DV decks were only employed when the capturing quality of the on-board cameras didn’t warrant the quality of DV-CAM.

JV: Were limitations with the digital formats reached whereby you had to shoot with 35mm or 16mm? and vice versa?

KW: For capturing overcranked action, film was the way to go. But for minimal weight and length of time between reloads on helmet and roll cage mounts, digital was the only way to go.

JV: In what aspects of the filmmaking did the digital formats better serve the needs than 35mm or 16mm cameras?

KW: For interviews it freed up the filmmakers to really spend some extra time with non actors and get the shots, without panicking about rolling all that film, while still keeping the quality very high with HD.

JV: The theatrical release is scheduled to be 90 minutes. How many hours of footage did not make it into the film?

KW: We have about 170 hours of footage to create our 90 minutes.

JV: Will any of that extra footage make it onto the DVD?

RW: Extras planned for the DVD at this time will be “the making of” which is above and beyond our 170 hours.

JV: What type of editing system was used to put Dust to Glory together? Any compositing tools used?

RW: I know both Scott and Dana are working on Avid platforms. We should stay away from the term compositing, as there will be no “effects” in this film.

JV: How were the digital assets managed?

RW: For editing purposes everything was dubbed to DV-CAM at low resolution and then digitized. For final all our selects will be up-rezed to D5.

Editor’s Note: Dust To Glory is slated for a Summer/Fall 2004 release. More than 40 cameras were used to capture the race on both film and video. The teams used 35mm, 16mm with NightScope, 16mm time-lapse, High Definition, Mini Hi-Definition, DV CAM, and miniDV.

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