Pushing the Long Take in Cinematic Bike Epic 'For Thousands of Miles'
How long should a particular shot be on screen before cutting to the next? In his narrative-documentary hybrid about a cross-country bike trip, Mike Ambs pushes the viewer's duration expectations of a shot of a man on a bicycle to spoketacular ends.
From attaching a crane to the top of a production car to working on a film for eight years and then releasing it for free, Mike sat down with No Film School to describe the making of the cinematic genre-bending epic For Thousands of Miles (which, powered by VHX, you can watch gratis here!)
Mike Ambs embarked on a 55-day trip on a bicycle with his best friend shortly after graduating high school to "get out and see things -- it was as simple and as complicated as that." Some years after the experience, which left him feeling both unfinished and nostalgic, Mike set out to film Larry McKurtis on a 4,200 cross-country bicycle trip and nearly eight years later, the result is For Thousands of Miles, which you can watch for free on the FTOM site. Have a watch and read about the process of making the film in our interview below.
NFS: There are some extremely long takes of your subject biking. Can you describe the filmmaking strategy behind this?
Mike Ambs: There are a few answers I could give. One answer would be that kind of longer, slower pacing felt like my memories of the road. That’s how I remembered them, not just visually, but emotionally they felt better represented in longer, slower takes.
I think, if I had cut that shot, say, 30 seconds in, that people would have seen a wide of Larry biking up a hill, they would have gathered all the immediate visual information in the frame and then moved on -- I wanted to hold on Larry much longer than felt normal.
But, another answer, one that is more from a filmmaking approach, is I wanted to set a tone and pace for the film. As an example, the first shot is almost three minutes long. I wanted to give people time to look closer at what was going on with Larry as he struggled against the wind and up a steep hill. I think if I had cut that shot, say, 30 seconds in, that people would have seen a wide of Larry biking up a hill, they would have gathered all the immediate visual information in the frame and then moved on -- I wanted to hold on Larry much longer than felt normal. I wanted people to begin to question if there was more to see, to study the frame for other things they might be missing. Which isn’t always something an audience is up for, but we’re okay with that range of response. I think it’s true to the idea of riding a bicycle across the country, or hiking the entire length of the Rocky Mountains. These things are not for everyone. It takes a certain kind of mindset and person to find those undertakings interesting or even rewarding.
For myself, those longer takes are the ones that draw me in the most.
We had everything we needed crammed into a production van, with a homemade wooden box strapped to the roof that supported a 20-foot crane-arm.
NFS: What was production like on For Thousands of Miles?
Mike: Well, this was my first film, so every lesson I learned, I learned it the hardest, most embarrassing and expensive way possible. Even so, much like my first bicycle trip, my first experience of filming a feature was equal parts amazing and crushingly difficult. Emotional cost aside though, we kept production very light. We did start off with a crew of five, following two friends on a 4,000 mile trip, but when one of them wasn’t able to continue, the crew was eventually just myself and Amanda Walker. We had everything we needed crammed into a production van, with a homemade wooden box strapped to the roof that supported a 20-foot crane-arm. We got a lot of strange looks.
Larry had a pretty unique approach to his trip -- he wasn’t up with the sun like a lot of other travelers we crossed paths with, he wasn’t rushed, but when he was one his bike, it turned out he was fast. Very fast. And in half the time other people would spend riding, he would cover just as much, if not more ground.
NFS: Am I seeing crane shots from a moving vehicle? Can you describe what's behind this cinematography?
Mike: We did pack a crane with us, and at first it was quite an ordeal to set up, it took about 30 minutes to put together and tear down at best. But a little less than two week into the trip, when it became just the two of us following Larry, we ended up securing the crane on the roof of the production van permanently -- well, at least until it caught a downed wire in New York state and snapped one of the tripod legs in half. But there were a few weeks there where I would spend hours up there on the roof, driving behind or up in-front of Larry, filming a bird’s eye view of the countryside, or sweeping around in a full 360 to get a sense of how isolating a trip like that can be.
Now, when I think back to that summer, I see it from 40 feet above the ground, I can’t see my face anymore. I just see the landscape going on ahead for miles.
NFS: How did you come up with the structure of the film, and the other filmmaking strategies employed?
Mike: The approach changed quite a bit -- it seems like documentary directors say that kind of thing a lot -- but I went into this project with a very different idea of how it would work. I filmed a lot of interviews with other people on the road that will probably never be released, and we pulled them from the timeline not because they weren’t interesting, but because they weren’t reflective enough in their tone. Now, if I had been smart, I would have set aside funds to go interview many of the people we had met during Larry’s trip a year after they had returned, because we did start to get letters from people, and those letters had a strong sense of longing and nostalgia, which is what we wanted. Instead we just kept a lot of those conversations going as best we could -- and some of the lines in the final film are actually directly quoting people’s emails and how they felt about coming home. So that is sort of how the narrative structure of the film came about, it really was out of necessity, a way for us to take all the different voices of people we had met, and bring them together into one perspective.
Visually speaking though, the film followed, as closely as I could capture it, the way in which I remember my own trip. I’ve spoken before about how when I first came home, all my memories were very first-person and immediate. But as time went by, my memories drifted higher and further away. Now, when I think back to that summer I see it from 40 feet above the ground; I can’t see my face anymore. I just see the landscape going on ahead for miles. But there is a mix of that in the film -- some moments are fresher in Larry’s mind than others, and his recollection of his ride varies from very personal to very disconnected -- like another version of himself.
It wasn’t until much later that I started coming across other documentary films that felt much more narrative, and - honestly, I wish I would have seen them sooner, they would have saved me a lot of self-doubt in the early editing stages.
NFS: What tools did you use to make the film? What did you shoot on?
Mike: The film has just about everything in it except for 35mm. We shot a lot of the trip on a Sony Z1u -- we took a few roles of 16mm film, a handful of mp4 cameras -- there is a mix of DSLR and even 8mm footage.
We did the first assembly in Final Cut 7, and during the post production process FCPX came out, and we actually, really out of curiosity, decided to make a copy of the timeline in X, and it all transferred perfectly and so we decided to finish the cut using X. Which turned out to be, despite all the initial controversy, quite a bit faster to work in compared to 7.
NFS: What was the creative process working with your composer Eluvium?
Mike: Working with Eluvium was a real dream of mine. It’s one of those things where the entire film was worth it, just for that experience of hearing his original score. We only spoke on the phone once -- after that everything was done in writing. He would ask me what a certain moment should sound like, and I would send back notes saying it should sound like “breathing”, or another moment should feel “sad and hopeful” at the same time.
It was frightening at first. I don’t know much of anything about music -- how to talk about it, how to read or write it, how to sometimes say how it makes me feel -- still, he couldn’t have been a more inviting person when it came to helping me relax, and learning to embrace my naivety with simplistic one or two word descriptions. For all the time I had spent searching for just the right words in the narration, it was liberating to narrow down the meaning of a scene into just a single word. He would send a rough idea for a piece of music, and it instantly became that part of the film -- as if it revealed something that had been there the whole time. It was such a rewarding and exciting experience, like getting to see my own film for the first time all over again.
While the amount of time it has taken to finish the film was always a source of stress for me, I realize how much we’ve done with a very limited budget - it takes time. Fast, Good, Cheap - you only get to pick two of those!
NFS: This is a film that might blur the lines a little between documentary and narrative, in that you might not know it’s a doc when you watch it. Is that something you set out to do?
Mike: I think we could have just as easily called the film a narrative, and just a somewhat eccentric approach to production. It wasn’t very much a conscious decision to really blur those lines, I just had a somewhat limited exposure to other documentary films, and the ones I had seen early on were films like Fog of War or Tarnation, and those films felt exciting. I just always saw the film through these very specific shots, but I knew I wanted them to be real, or of a real person’s actual trip, I should say.
It wasn’t until much later that I started coming across other documentary films that felt much more narrative, and honestly, I wish I would have seen them sooner, because they would have saved me a lot of self-doubt in the early editing stages. But I’m glad the film took the course it did, and the time that it did. I think that not only was I working through the issues of a first time filmmaker -- "how do I go about this story in a way that is from my own voice" -- but I was also working through some of my own trip, and this project was a way to sort of have those two separate things come full circle.
NFS: Do you think the blending of doc and fiction is something that should happen more?
Mike: I’m always for experimenting with story, both in terms of structure and style. Yes. I think if it comes from an honest place, if it feels right for the film, then just because you’re making something unusual when compared to other documentaries doesn’t mean you should abandon it. A film is really something that should be unique to you as a filmmaker. If anyone else could make the picture, then what’s the point?
NFS: How long did it take you to make this film?
Mike: Principal shooting began in April of 2007 and continued through August 2007. This was Larry’s cross-country trip. The next 2 years or so was spent importing and organizing footage (most was on miniHDV tapes), writing, working on the BTS series and working a 9 to 5 job. In the spring of 2010 I made a trip up to Truckee with Karen Abad (DP) to shoot all the scenes you see of Larry at home. In 2012 we were part of the IFP Documentary Film Labs, and the years following our experience were spent applying to festivals, finishing grants and anything else we could be a part of to get more eyes on the film. We also used our personal savings to finance the original score and sound design. While the amount of time it has taken to finish the film was always a source of stress for me, I realize how much we’ve done with a very limited budget -- it takes time. Fast, Good, Cheap: you only get to pick two of those! Finally, in May of this year we released the film online, with the option to purchase bonus features like commentary and the sound track. So, I guess the short answer to that question is 8 years.
NFS: Why did you decide to release the film for free?
Mike: Releasing the film for free was actually the idea from very early on. You [Oakley] and I were in the same IFP Labs program, and that was the plan even back then. I remember having to stand up in front of everyone, and suddenly feel very silly for being the only person there with plans that seemed very naive. We heard a lot of encouragement to pursue other distributions plans, which we followed for a long time. But eventually, it just felt right to put the film out there for free, like we had always intended on doing.
I don’t have plans to always do that with films I’ve made. It’s actually funny, because I also was a co-director on a project at Disney. Well, it was really a small little studio in Burbank that Disney bought. It didn’t have a whole lot of the Disney HQ influence at the time, but we made a stop-motion film that was also, at the last minute, given away for free through Google. So, right now I’m two for two. We’ll see what happens with the next one.
Thank you, Mike!
Check out the free stream of For Thousands of Miles for yourself. It's a steal. Warning: it may make you want to take off on a cross-country road trip to experience and/or start experimenting with long takes on your next project!
Have you played with the duration of a shot to achieve a particular effect in a project of your own? What do you think about long takes?