bts: Episode 2 ~ Chasing The Light

The drama continues in the bts documentary web series with Episode 2, “Chasing The Light.” While on location in Rwanda, the Zacuto Films behind-the-scenes camera crew documents the journey of Director T.C. Johnstone and Producer Greg Kwedar as they finish the last 18-days of filming their upcoming documentary, “Rising From Ashes: a film about Rwandan's first national cycling team.”

In this episode, it doesn’t take long before the collective vision of the RFA film crew begins to unravel as the passionate group of filmmakers battle it out to catch the elusive light. Lack of sleep, language barriers and the pressures of shooting on location in a foreign country begin to take its toll on the crew. “This has not been the easiest film,” says Johnstone.  “It’s the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. There’s a real story here and if we wait, it’s going to pay off. At the end of the day, you look at these guys and you realize…this matters…this really matters.”

Magic Hour = Tragic Hour. The turning point in the race to finish shooting before night invades the sky escalates along a dirt road on the way to a mountaintop location.  Egos collide as the crew breaks-up and scatters from the van in their own individual attempts to capture the beauty of Rwanda. As a slave to the light, a frustrated and exhausted T.C. attempts to reel in his crew, but at one point he has to make a decision.  Do they leave a man behind?

                                   “It’s like working on a horror movie and someone yells—Ghost!” ~ T.C.

Episode 2 continues to stress the importance of having a liaison while filming in a foreign country.  You need someone who not only speaks the language and can translate, but also someone who knows the people and culture. “Someone that you can trust,” says Kwedar. “Someone who can get you places. It’s everything.”

Next, the RFA crew dives into finishing the day of interviews, but it soon becomes a struggle to choose between locations. Do you pick the location with the best sound or the location with the best light?  Who gives in?  Will it be camera operator, Jeremy Rodgers or sound recorder, Sean McCormick? The docu-drama concludes with the RFA crew coming together and doing whatever it takes to get the shot.  Photographer, John Russell, “takes the shirt off his back” to create a last minute white, bounce-board.  Just as things seem to come together for the crew, they begin to worry about the upcoming cycling race.

“Planning for the race is the kind of thing that would keep me up at night,” says Kwedar. “It’s been that looming storm on our horizon since before we even got to Africa. What happens if we don’t pull this off?” Come watch this dramatic episode and see what it really takes to film a feature length documentary.

A Zacuto Films Production. Produced by Steve Weiss, Jens Bogehegn, Scott Lynch, Greg Kwedar and Daniel Skubal. Director of Photography Jens Bogehegn; Cinematography by Jeff Waldron; Lead Editor Daniel Skubal, Assistant Editor Chris Voelz; Graphic Design by Daniel Skubal and Chris Voelz; Sound Recordist Sean McCormick; Location Director Jake Hamilton; Directed by Steve Weiss.


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29 Responses to “bts: Episode 2 ~ Chasing The Light”

  1. Phil Arntz on June 30th, 2011 5:48 pm


  2. Anonymous on July 1st, 2011 1:30 pm

    I’m recently getting “The creator of this video has not given you permission to embed it on this domain. This is a Vimeo Plus feature.” instead of the embedded video.

    Using Firefox 5 on a PC and Firefox 3.6.17 on a Mac. Works fine using Safari, however.

    Used to have no problems at all a few weeks ago.

  3. Zacuto on July 1st, 2011 1:57 pm

    I have seen complaints about this from other Firefox users, it looks like for some reason FF doesnt send the referring doman information when it pulls the embed which means Vimeo security blocks it.  Sorry of the issue, this is the first BTS we had using Vimeo embed, we limit it to our site for the first couple weeks, before we distribute it elsewhere.

  4. Chris Gibbs on July 6th, 2011 7:55 pm

    The BTS audio sounds great — any secrets you guys would like to share here? :)

  5. Anonymous on July 6th, 2011 8:29 pm

    The first thing i noticed also! Was the awesome CLEAN audio. Defiantly was recorded separately. No way audio that good came out of a D5 or 7. Something I NEVER! want to have to do, and then sync it up in post?. NO THANKS.

    Well, I guess their not going to answer your audio question.

  6. Steve Weiss on July 6th, 2011 9:40 pm

    DSLR’s are not great for shooting documentaries.  They are nice for B-roll for your documentary but for our interviews we used an HVX200 with a Sanken wired body (lavelier) mic.  I know you are watching the people shooting Rising from Ashes in my film using 5D’s & 7D’s and that is their choice but I think that when you are frantic on getting a moment (which is what documentaries are) the last thing you want is shallow DOF and scrambling for focus.  1/3″ or 2/3″ sensor cameras have greater DOF which makes getting focus much easier.  The shots in my film where you see sub-titles are when they are using 5D’s and on-board shotgun mics and that was unfortunate but I was directing while not being on location.  I would have used all 1/3″ style cameras that get much better on camera sound and had the on-board XLR inputs for out-board mics.  You need to make sure to get good mics and try not to use wireless mics unless absolutely necessary.  I only use Sanken body mics like the COS-11 and if I’m going to use a shotgun which I really only do as a last resort I’ll only use a Senheisser 416 short shotgun.  Many of you try to buy cheap wireless lav mics and that’s bad because they are fritzy and sound like shit.  Mics are cheap to rent if you cannot afford them.  You can rent a sanken wired lav mic for $30/week.  So nobody should have bad sound.

  7. Steve Weiss on July 6th, 2011 9:40 pm

    It was not recorded separately (double system), see description of how it was recorded below.

  8. Chris Gibbs on July 6th, 2011 10:44 pm

    Brilliant — thanks for that Steve!  I thoroughly enjoy documentaries like your BTS series.

    I’d just bought the Sony NX70 purely for the reasons you stated — good to know I’m not way off base.  Being a recovering stills guy & all I’m never too sure!   :)

  9. Steve Weiss on July 6th, 2011 11:01 pm

    feel free to contact me at any time for help Chris, or by phone

  10. Philip Blauw on July 7th, 2011 10:42 am

    Very well done. The pace of the edit in my opinion is right on. if I were Mr. Johnstone I would be worried that the making of the documentary may end up being better than the documentary…

  11. nicolas fournier on July 7th, 2011 1:00 pm

    vraiment divertissant

  12. Sean McCormick on July 9th, 2011 2:39 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Great work thus far, it’s been fun reliving the trip via the bts series.

    I just wanted to chime in on the bts audio. While I was only responsible for the RFA production sound, I do remember the bts setup that sounded the best (typically for interviews) was a Tram TR50 lav sent to the HVX via Lectrosonics wireless.


    ps  I mentioned you guys in an article I did for Sound and Picture magazine:

  13. Anonymous on July 9th, 2011 3:52 pm

    From day one of BTS the idea has hovered over my head! We are on draft #30 of the film and it looks like we have a great story on both ends. Excited for you to see it. 

  14. T.c. Johnstone on July 9th, 2011 3:53 pm

    From day one of BTS the idea has hovered over my head! We are on draft #30 of the film and it looks like we have a great story on both ends. Excited for you to see it. 

  15. T.c. Johnstone on July 9th, 2011 4:01 pm

    Nigel great insight. What you may not know is that we have been following this story for 5 years. We know the cast really well and have established great relationships with the team and strategic contacts in Rwanda. BTS is a slice of the story. Steve W. and his crew have been amazing to work with and coach us across the finish line of the past 8 months of making the film that will release in the fall. 

    Love your insight on big crews. We took 12 on this one to cover a cycling event that will be shown in upcoming episodes. Outside of that we split into 3 person teams most of the time to cover different parts of the story. One of the hardest parts of making both films was having a BTS crew with us while we were shooting the film. It added lots of additional people to the production but, both Steve, Greg and I agreed it was going to be to good miss the drama. 
    We work on 3 big principles, fast, fluid and flexible. Those were seriously challenged on this one! 

  16. T.c. Johnstone on July 9th, 2011 4:12 pm

    Chris, The 7D and 5D are a nightmare for documentary. I have a love hate relationship with these cameras. I could care less if it looks good if there is no story and bad sound. 

    To cover this I almost always have an HVX200 with me to chase the story. The 7D is used when we have controlled circumstances, 2 camera coverage and have a strategy for audio. I have learned to think completely different as a director when I shot the dslr. The film has a mix of several cameras. Lots of HVX. It’s just to damn hard to chase these guys and keep the focus. I could go on and on about this. If I can help with any details on how we do it let me know OK.

  17. Nigel Walker on July 10th, 2011 11:57 am

    TC, Thanks for the response and extra info, the BTS makes more sense given the back story… but I probably should have read more about the project. Apologies. The BTS works for me becasue of your openess and allowing the crew access to your process, this is something I’m not sure I could do. At the end of the day all I wanted to do was crawl under my mozie net, not answer more questions. Did you feel added pressure to deliver some kind of story arc to the BTS crew? I look forward to seeing the film and judging by your spirit and committment here I think you’ll have a great project on your hands.

  18. Steve Weiss on July 10th, 2011 9:58 pm

    I would have to disagree with you Nigel.  This is a grueling shoot and has been going on for 5 years.  18 days is a long time to be together with a crew and a lot of emotions happen in that time period.  This is pretty normal fare for the shoots I’ve been on in the past 28 years.

  19. T.c. Johnstone on July 11th, 2011 12:05 am

    One thing you realize real quick when working with Zacuto is they are seasoned filmmakers.  During the shoot the BTS crew did their job, they captured the truth, as embarrassing as it has been at times.  There is nothing in these films that was manufactured. The BTS crew felt like family. There were times I just frankly red lined. They earned the right to ask us the hard questions.  Our crew is really close and BTS become just an extension of that as we worked with them. 

    I wish it was only 18 days, but the reality has been a stressful long term production.  When you mentioned budget for example, it’s easy to do the math on a 12 person production team in Rwanda for 18 days. That alone can turn you into a chronic chain smoker. Multiply that by 5 years and a story thats about as predictable as the release date of the Red Scarlet. 

    When I first met Steve and Yens, little did I know, just how much filmmaking experience they had. They knew how to tell stories and had been doing it for decades, thats why we trusted them with BTS. To be honest, the Zacuto equipment is great but what most people don’t realize is there whole company is stacked with some of the best filmmakers around. The bench is deep. Really deep. Steve and Yens play it out with Zacuto baseplates and EVF’s but these dude’s are straight up filmmaker that happen to own a equipment company. My humble option. 

  20. Nigel Walker on July 11th, 2011 12:47 am

    Steve, What are you disagreeing with? I’m being complimentary. First time I watched this BTS I got the impression the whole doc was being shot in 18 days, I didn’t know of the 5 year project history. Thought I cleared that up in my response to TC. I’m sorry if you take this as a critique.

    If the conversation is the logisitics of shooting a doc in Africa in just 18 days with no prior history then I stand by my original comment, it would be ambitious to pull this off and make an authentic film.

    I also don’t doubt that this normal fare for the projects you have been working on but my experience is very different and I think it’s because I’m a low budget filmmaker working on low budget films. I’ve never worked on a documentary with 12 crew even the stuff I did for the BBC was just me and one other person.

    I think you’ve misunderstood me here. There’s only been praise from me in both my posts for TC and the BTS.

  21. Steve Weiss on July 11th, 2011 10:14 am

    I made my comment first but it didn’t get posted first. I was disagreeing before you got the whole story.

  22. Chris Gibbs on July 12th, 2011 2:09 pm

    Speaking from a still photographers perspective, it shocks me how much I can overlook in the image department when the story is strong and audio is clear — the converse (for me) doesn’t work though!  That still blows my mind after so long in the image conscious (often egocentric) stills world …………

    I have a great deal of admiration for documentary storytellers — thanks for sharing this opportunity to learn from both sides the production!

  23. Steve Weiss on July 12th, 2011 6:29 pm

    Thank you Chris.  I’m totally with you.  Doesn’t matter how pretty your film is, if the story isn’t there or the audio sucks, it’s getting shut off after two minutes.  Watch “The Celebration”, an amazing film done with a handy cam and a 1 million dollar budget.  All of the money went into the script and fabulous actors, rehearsals and not gear.  It’s a Dogma film.  
    After my 28 years in the biz, I have always had this list of importance but the order had changed over time.  Picture use to be much higher on my list and story and acting much lower.  With the money I have budgeted, this is the importance I’m allocating it towards departments now:  
    1.  story
    2.  acting
    3.  dialogue sound
    4.  editing
    5.  picture
    6.  screen direction
    7.  sound design
    8.  camera movement
    9.  score
    10.  production design

    but number one line item in any budget should be a huge over estimate for food for all meals assuming that you are going into 5 meals a day.  plus craft service including coffee, drinks and snacks.  A film travels on it’s stomach. ;)

  24. Will Farmer on July 15th, 2011 10:32 am

    Jym & Tim, thanks for posting.  I haven’t seen TC in a few year.  What a great story.

  25. Gary Nadeau on July 15th, 2011 8:56 pm

    Really great. Captures the stress of a traveling production perfectly. The shirt moment is my favorite.

  26. Edward Black on July 21st, 2011 7:59 pm

    Can’t wait to see episode 3 – is there an ETA of arirval?

  27. T.c. Johnstone on July 21st, 2011 11:09 pm

    hey man. Good to hear from you… How are things going on your end..

  28. Scott Lynch on August 1st, 2011 5:26 pm

    There’s not an ETA yet. We’ll make an announcement when Steve feels that it’s ready. Thanks for watching!


  29. T.c. Johnstone on September 6th, 2011 8:49 pm

    If you could have only seen the locals. It was quite a moment. Thanks for watching Gary! T.C.