Earlier this week I was alerted by Twitter follower Dominic Carroll to a video that is available on YouTube. Made in 1971 by the BBC, the film – in two parts online – tells the story of Scotsman Bill Houston, a former soldier and, at the time of filming, a bulldozer driver who was also a keen cycle tourist. He was a member of ‘the Rough Stuff Fellowship‘ who disliked main roads and preferred to travel cross country. Time to sit back and watch:
As a little aside, a quick online search reveals that Bill was a founding member of the Mountain Bothies Association back in the mid 60s. The account of their first meeting – in which Bill is described as a ‘writer and Rough Stuff cyclist‘ – makes for interesting reading:
[The] inaugural meeting was held on Tuesday, 28th December, 1965 at the Scout Hut, and later at the Village Hall in Dalmellington, Ayrshire. In all, thirty-two persons signed the Attendance Book. Amongst the early arrivals were two young men who had driven from London, 402 miles, and four others who said they had cycled from Huddersfield by devious route, this making them five minutes late for the official start at 2p.m.Mountain Bothies Association, Journal No. 1
(The journal reveals that the Mountain Bothies Association seems to have been very much a Ayrshire-Yorkshire joint venture back in its early days with three of the elected officers being from the Scottish county and the other four harking from Huddersfield – close to CyclingEurope.org’s base in Halifax – in West Yorkshire, presumably the chaps who turned up four minutes late.)
Dominic’s suggestion that I watch the film about Bill Houston came at an appropriate moment as I continue to make modest plans (the flights are booked, the bike is purchased; all other plans will always only ever be ‘modest’) for my own cycling trip to Japan next summer. The documentary about Bill was made by BBC Scotland almost 50 years ago. The credits reveal a narrator, a camera operator, two sound people, a film editor and a producer. Others were no doubt involved behind the scenes and the whole project must have taken weeks of planning, filming and post-production. The analogue result of all that time and effort is a charming period piece albeit one that is grainy and shaky with the dominant colours veering towards the grey end of the spectrum. That was documentary film-making half a century ago.
How things have changed. Here’s one of filmmaker Barry Godin’s cycling films from earlier this year, also made in Scotalnd:
I wonder what the directors, producers and film editors of yesteryear would have thought of that film if they could have seen it back in 1971. I’ve met Barry several times over recent years at the Cycle Touring Festival where he now curates the cycling-themed films that are shown over the course of the festival weekend. As far as I’m aware, he’s a one-man operation when it comes to making his cycling films; films which, if you happened to see them while scrolling through the offerings on Netflix, Amazon Prime or even a mainstream ‘linear’ channel such as BBC Two, wouldn’t feel at all out of place. The production values that are attainable by a talented filmmaker such as Barry in 2019 far surpass those that could ever be achieved – probably even dreamt about – by a film crew toiling away in the early 70s. Clearly the key aspects of all documentary films, irrespective of whether they be about cycling, travel, sheep shearing or widget making and equally irrespective of whether they were made at the birth of celluloid, in 1971 or in 2019 is that they tell an engaging story in an imaginative, aesthetically pleasing way. It’s these aspects of the film about Bill Houston that keep the viewer watching. It’s also why people watch Barry Godin’s films; it’s just that Barry’s travel documentaries make the most of the digital world in which we now live, a world that wasn’t even an option until a few years ago.
Although I would never place myself on the pedestal occupied by Barry and the other stars of the cycle-touring film world (there are many out there), it is a genre in which I have dabbled over the years. Indeed what is now the CyclingEurope.org YouTube channel was launched over 10 years ago with this very short film – just 6 seconds! – featuring the original website, www.Puglia2010.com (in reference to that first trans-continental ride of 2010 to southern Italy and as subsequently featured in the seminal tome Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie). The Youtube channel now hosts nearly 170 videos of varying lengths and, admittedly, variable quality although I feel justified in being proud of Slovakia 2013, Cycling The EuroVelo 1, Cadair Idris Wales, The Three Peaks of Borrowdale, the (inevitable) three-part Three Peaks in Three Weeks (Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis), and, earlier this year, the series of films I made about cycling along the Yorkshire coast, on the Isle of Wight and from Santander in Spain to the Douro Valley in Portugal. The most popular video is none of those however; it is a 24-second epic that displays the wondrously sonorific virtues of the Crane Bell Suzu brass cycling bell:
It has been viewed over 45,000 times.
The short films that I made this summer in Yorkshire, on the Isle of Wight and in Spain and Portugal (linked to above) were my first attempt at cycle touring storytelling. When cycling across Europe in 2010, 2013 and 2015 (and also when cycling in Britain over the years) I posted daily written accounts of my ongoing journey to CyclingEurope.org. I didn’t do that in 2019. Instead I put together a daily video. The following video is a good example and tells the story of the day I climbed over the Picos de Europa from Potes to Riaño:
All of the videos made at the end of each of the cycling days were filmed and edited (using iMovie) on an iPhone X. I tried to maintain a certain ‘style’ both in the filming and in the editing and the resultant series of short films does a pretty good job in retelling the story of those two weeks on the Iberian Peninsula. Three of the films are slightly different. These are the ones that I made not when I was cycling but when I had taken a day off to explore the cities of Porto, Coimbra and Santander. Here’s the Coimbra video for example:
The style is different. Most of the video clips in these three films were taken using a DSLR camera, a Canon EOS 80D which I purchased a couple of years ago primarily because it was a favourite of ‘vloggers’. The videos were transferred to the iPhone via the camera’s Wi-Fi function and editing was again performed with the help of Apple’s iMovie. The 80D is a very good camera but in a digital world of stabilised video (that’s where the iPhone excels), I was at times a little frustrated by the sometimes shaky results (I hadn’t packed a tripod). It was for this reason that I decided to give the Porto film a retro aged-film look (that is one of the options on iMovies) as it masked the unsteady footage behind a filter which suggested the shaky norm of the 1950s:
The advantage of the DSLR over an iPhone, despite the unsteady images, is in its ability to allow greater optical creativity; zooming, over/under exposure, depth of field… The iPhone tries to replicate these digitally but often falls short, especially with the ability to zoom in on your subject. The shot at 2 minutes 40 seconds in the Porto video above would be impossible without the optical versatility of a large lens of an SLR camera (compared to the tiny one on a phone). A DSLR is, however, a heavy piece of equipment. The 80D with all its attachments and case weighs in at around 1.5kg. As with all such cameras, its heritage is in the taking of still images and when using a DSLR to shoot video, you do encounter issues which simply don’t exist when taking a photograph. The stabilisation problem has already been mentioned but there are also the sounds of the camera itself when adjustments are being made mid-video (zooming for example) and simply the ergonomic design which is perfect for taking stills but can feel cumbersome when shooting video.
The learning curve of making and editing these Yorkshire / Isle of Wight / Spain & Portugal films was entirely intentional and much was indeed learnt. In the back of my mind is Japan in 2020. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to attempt to make a long-form filmed travelogue about the experience of cycling from the northern to southern tips of the country; the wilderness of the northern Hokkaido, the Olympic mania of Tokyo (I aim to arrive in the city for the opening ceremony of the 2020 games), the beauty of Mount Fuji, the spectacular bridges linking Shikoku to the mainland, the quest to arrive at Cape Sata before my time runs out… It could be a classic of the genre, perhaps.
Since returning from Spain in September, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and online digging. In terms of my ability to make a filmed travelogue, I think I have some solid skills upon which to build, as evidenced in the films that I have posted to the YouTube channel. I recently completed a course on Udemy.com called ‘Documentary Filmmaking with Soul‘ and, more often than not, found myself nodding with a knowing smile that the techniques being demonstrated were those that I had already put into practice in my earlier films, both on the technical side of things and in the storytelling.
What I didn’t have, however, was a camera that met my requirements. A piece of equipment that was capable of creating video images the equal of – if not better than – those of a DSLR, which allowed for a level of creativity far beyond that of even the most advanced iPhone, which offered a high degree of optical as well as digital image stabilisation and which was all packaged in a camera that was not only designed primarily for filmmaking but also light and compact. Did such a piece of equipment even exist?
Well yes, it appears it does and early this week I took delivery of a Canon XA-40 camera:
I can imagine that some of you are now recoiling in horror, especially if you like to travel light when it comes to your cycle touring. The XA40 is, however, phenomenally compact. It has a footprint about the size of an average outstretch hand (109 x 84 x 182 mm for the body). The handle is detachable, although very useful (it contains an infrared light for shooting in darkness for example and houses some top-notch audio features), so it will be going to Japan with me and the bike. It’s also extremely light; just 730 grams for the body increasing to just over 1kg fully equipped. In the first six months of 2020 I simply need to learn exactly how to push it to its technological and creative limits, perhaps occasionally beyond – that’s the skill of the filmmaker I suppose. The XA40 is capable of filming in 4K although I probably won’t be adopting the increasingly common UHD format in Japan. I need to keep in mind my ability to work with 4K video at the editing stage and, for a project such as this, standard HD will more than suffice. What the 4K sensor of the XA40 does, however, allow is ‘oversampling’ when filming in 1080 HD resulting in (so Canon say…) an enhanced image quality. The 5-axis combined optical and digital image stabilisation system should alleviate my concerns in that area. Here is my first short film made with the Canon XA40:
If, in the autumn of 2020, I am able to sit down and edit a documentary travelogue as engaging as the film about Bill Houston with the technical finesse of the films of Barry Godin, I will be a happy filmmaker. Expect to see a few experimental films in the build up to my departure to Japan in July of next year and, if you have advice and guidance to offer, you know where I am. The result of my toil will, of course, be found on the CyclingEurope.org YouTube Channel. Subscribe now so as not to miss out!