Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Greatest Race Dramatic Scenes Overview

Please note that the "Making of the Film" starts at the bottom entry.

The research was chugging along, the photos were being scanned and sorted, we had researchers trying to determine the exact route of the race, and Joshua (AD) had begun casting.

We wanted to dramatize a number of the key elements in the race to give the viewer a sense of what they went through; the "mud, the blood, and the beer" as I called it. We also wanted the viewer to sympathize and get to "know" the characters in this story: Monty, Schuster, Hansen, Williams, McAdams, Sirtoria, Haaga, Scarfoglio, Koeppen, Snyder, and a host of other players.

There are a number of different points of view about re-enactments or the dramatization of historical events. Some producers believe that there should be no re-enactments (e.g. The Civil War series by PBS), others believe that they add to the story; some believe that they should not deliver dialogue if you are using re-enactments while others believe that the dramatic bits need to be heavily scripted. This has been a huge debate amongst history producers and always comes up at the annual History Producers Conference in New York each winter. And we thought long and hard about it.

In the end, we had two lists for shooting. The first was all the scenes where a driver or reporter would be on camera. They would be delivering words either from their memoirs or from the newspaper reports of the day ... and we had a mountain of papers.

For instance, we had Monty commenting on the day to day activities of the race from NYT's reports. We normally had him "present" his thoughts from the seat of the Thomas Flyer. If it wasn't written down, we didn't have the actors say it.

Schuster's comments on the race came from his memoir. As his book was written in the past tense, we decided to shoot his scenes as if he were telling us a story from his gas station in Springville, New York after the race. And we used his unpublished memoirs.

The same applied for a number of scenes. One of my favourites was when the Italian team broke down near Kenton in the US west. From their accounts we knew what was broken and how they fixed it. We also had a very good sense of the "mood" of what the three Italians discovered when they took the rear end of the Zust apart. To create the "mood" we let the actors read the actual words from the book. Then, while we went to Voice Over, the actors created a scene for the cameras that was accurate to the book, accurate to the mood, but all ad-libbed in Italian. We do not hear the details of the live re-enactment before the cameras because we did not know exactly what they said ... but the lively discussion in Italian in the background added to the spirit of the written/spoken word of Antonio. In the scene in Russia where the Zust is believed to be the cause of the death of a little boy, Franco (the actor playing Antonio) brought real passion, sorrow, and grief to the scene. It was fanatastic. It was such a powerful moment that there were real tears on the set for an incident that had occured 99 years before.

Joshua spent the better part of a year looking for the right actors. We wanted actors that could not only act, but ad-lib, look similiar to their Great Race characters, and be flexible in their time for 18 months of off and on filming.

Some of the characters fell in to place immediately. Williams and McAdams were perfect as was the George Miller character (Mark Stubbings). The Italian team needed to speak English and Italian (and learn the Naples accent in the case of Antonio). I was surprised how fast we found them ... and they were perfect! The Schuster character was harder to find; in fact, we cast this part twice. In the end, the Schuster we found was perfect. All of the actors were into the roles and did a little research on their own characters ... and brought that research to the film set!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Old meets New

Please note that the story begins at the bottom of this blog.

We were amassing a huge number of original photos. One of the goals of the project was to create the largest archival fond on The Greatest Auto Race on Earth which would include photos, film, original manuscripts etc. However, managing the photos took two paths: one for film and one for the archives.

The post production process we were using was strictly HD 1080 24p with the option to output a film print at 2K resolution. That's complicated film talk but what it basically means is that we wanted the absolute highest resolution we could get now, and protect it for future visual/video/digital formats.

All of the photos were therefore scanned at 600DPI and saved to discs and hard-drives. The original photos (at mid 2005)were removed from their folders and inserted into archive/acid-free photo slip covers and deposited at the Bank of Montreal for safe-keeping. The discs and drives were then backed up twice to ensure that everyone working on the project (look at the list of credits at the end of the film just to see how many people were involved!)had acccess to the very best quality photos/images.

And they had to all be tagged the same so that when Adam (visual editor) was needing a shot worked on by Rat Creek (digital wizards) or colour corrected by Presto Digital, everyone had the same photo. A numbering system was created for each disc/drive and then a name given to that collection.

For instance, the Buffalo attic photos became known as "BufAttic600DPI." There were about 30 such discs/drives created which just contained photos. Right up to the week before we were mastering, however, we were getting new photos.

Robert Rampton (one of the historians we interviewed in the film and now a good friend) had been rumagging around the Library of Congress in June 2008. He found a file folder whose slip covered noted it had not been opened since the 1950s. It was close to the other photos we had already received copies of. In this file folder were about 30 photos no one knew existed. He got us copies, and they ended up in the film ... just in time. The disc/drive became known as "Rampton Pics 600DPI."

In December 2007 we had accumulated about 24 feet of stacked research including thousands of photos. It was time to write the script.

Over Christmas I sat down and for the first time took all of that material and began putting it in order. We cross referenced as much of the material as possible. For instance, there were reports in Koeppen's book of a certain incident which did not jive with the NYT's report which was, though, the same as a local eye witness in a local newspaper.

There was a wonderful story about Capt. Hansen and St. Chaffrey in Chicago. It was reported in Le Matin that Hansen was leaving the French team in order to take a ballon ride across the western US and be a "tourist." The NYT's reported it differently noting that Hansen and St. Chaffrey had had a huge blow-out. Schuster's memoir noted the NYT's report as accurate.

January saw the first draft of the script ... unfortunately it was about six hours in length. At that point, Scott Parker and I began cutting it down. It was hard. We had so much detail gathered that we wanted to share. Cutting it down was difficult. In fact, the final script was not arrived at until July when it was given to Terence Harding (fabulous writer)to do a "clean up" version. I was too close to it and Terence was able to bridge the gaps and just make it flow for the Narrator.

Fortunately, the first draft still exists. I am still proud of the research process.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Photos

Please note that the story begins at the bottom of the site.

Through the internet we were able to identify a number of libraries, archives, and museums that had a few photos. The New York Library had a number that we had not seen as had the Library of Congress. We eventually located a number of photos never before seen at the Chicago Library and soon after that a number at the Detroit Library. But there were not nearly enough to make the film. We had heard about a bit of news reel that had been shot at the beginning of the race. We tracked it down to the Library of Congress. When we phoned the head archivist we were told that the nitrate film had been lost to flooding in the 1960s... as had the "paper" copyright version. The paper version was a process where they would make an 8x10 photo from each frame of the original negative. This was done because nitrate was so unstable. A dead end.

We had read that a photographer from Denver had driven to Cheyenne with his new "moving picture camera" and did in fact film the arrival of the cars in Cheyenne. It was later shown in Denver as news reel. After much phoning, emailing, and writing of letters to archives and his estate, we discovered that this footage was also lost and thought destroyed. During the 1950s and 1960s massive amounts of old nitrate film was destroyed because of its tendency to ignite spontaneously.

Around 2004 we received an email from a lady in Las Vegas (Lisa). She had some photos of the race and wanted to know if we would like them. Wow! Kerrie and I made travel arrangements and headed to Vegas. We met Lisa in one of the restaurants at the Mirage. There in the dim light she opened a shoe box. It was filled with large format negatives and a contact sheet that she had had a local photographer made. I had seen some of them before ... but then we saw probably 20 that we had either not seen ... or not seen the entire original photo! We were able, for instance, to show the shot of the Thomas with Monty at the wheel rolling into Cheyenne! That same photo had been heavily cropped in earlier books and noted as "the drive through Buffalo." In fact, it wasn't. We arrived at a price, I went to the ATM, got a handful of money and Lisa was as happy about that as the fact that we were going to use her photos in the film. The next day she graciously drove us to the Hoover Dam. It was a great trip...and we had discovered almost 2 dozen never before seen Alaska and Cheyenne photos.

We knew that a big part of the story was going to be the Italian and German points of view. We had read the memoirs and seen the photos. We knew there had to be more. We asked Miriam if she might check to see if there were any still in Berlin, the home of Koeppen's publisher. Much of Berlin (and its archives) had been destroyed with the bombing of WWII. But, in the end she discovered about 40 photos of the race in a German archives...again, most which had never been seen before.

Over the years we received photos from enthusiasts in Vladivostok, Moscow, Japan, Paris, and across the US. During Miriam's research in Paris she even found the archives for the Le Matin newspaper ... most people thought it was long gone, but she found the remains, in Germany.

During our US research we had heard that most of the auto makers of the day would take photos of their cars to show to prospective buyers: how they were made and to show them off in beautiful settings. We knew that the ER Thomas company also did this. And we knew that the New York Times reports on the trip had taken numerous photos. In fact, they were mandated by the editor to take a certain number of photos per day.

We finally learned that such a "book" of photos was somewhere in Buffalo. It was supposed full of ER Thomas promotional pictures and the NY Times collection. It was known as the Fink collection, but no one we had talked to had seen it since the 1950s. At least we knew it existed. During one of our trips to Buffalo we met with Jeff's parents in the small town where George Schuster had lived and died. When we walked in the back door there was a stack of old photograph albums on the table. It was them! 1000s of original photos. With all of our research we had only been able to discover who last held them but could not find his family. Jeff's Mom knew the family name. She opened the phone book, found a number, dialed it, and yes they still existed. They were in the attic of Fink's family and had not seen the light of day since the 1950s. Wow! We made a deal with the estate immediately and had them shipped to our Edmonton office where they were immediately scanned at 600dpi to discs and hard drives. We almost had enough to make our film!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Memoirs

The race had long been forgotten by most historians by the year 2000. There were a few books published and of course the three memoirs of the teams that finished: Schuster for the Americans, Koeppen for the Germans, and Scarfoglio for the Italians. Most of the printed sources we found were in English but the German story by Koeppen had never been translated from cover to cover. Kerrie and I had just been in Berlin at the History Producer's Conference and met the film liaison officer for the Canadian Embassy. She in turn introduced us to Miriam. After a few notes back and forth she was on board: translating the book, and confering with Herr von Siemens in Munich. Herr von Siemens was a Protos collector and a bit of an authority on the German point of view. In the end I flew to Munich to oversee the interview but Miriam actually conducted it, all in German ... and then provided us with an English translation for editing. It was during that visit that we visited the Siemens Protos archives and were given 10:1 plans of the original Protos designed for the race ... but that is another story.

Early in the research stage we discovered Jeff Mahl, the great grandson of the American driver/mechanic George Schuster. We met with him several times in Florida and Buffalo. In the end, we used the unpublished memoirs of Schuster in the film as it felt more authentic than the Schuster/Mahony book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In the Beginning

It was during the winter of 2000 that Ray and myself started chatting about the race after a commercial shoot. I had heard of the Greatest Auto Race but knew very little about the details. Ray had been a fan since he was 12 years old when he read George Schuster's brief memoir. I liked the idea and decided to do some research. Afterall, if we were going to do a film we would need to have it completed for the 100th anniversary ... and we would need the research to tell the story.

And it started. The internet was able to tell me the story, but mostly from the Schuster point of view. We did find Scarfoglio's and Koeppen's memoirs which we purchased. We did find a relative, Jeff Mahl, of George Schuster. We started piecing it together. Yes, there was a story here but we would need massive amounts of Photos (which we did not know if they still existed), any motion picture footage (which we heard had been shot as news reel footage), interviews with historians ... oh, and picture cars for the actors to drive "around the world in." By the end of 2000 we had decided to make this film ... or at least follow it as far as we could. As the research process began, producers started looking for funding/broadcasters ... and doing up the budget.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

1908 Greatest Auto Race: In the beginning...

The Greatest Auto Race on Earth took place in 1908. Today, it's hard to even imagine what these men went through as they travelled from New York, across the USA, across Japan, Mother Russia, Germany, and on to Paris. The film The Greatest Auto Race on Earth is a documentary we produced to advance the story and tell this fantastic adventure story to a new audience.

We're going to try to let you know how the film was made. One of the interesting details is in the construction of the Thomas Flyer and German Protos replica cars. Yes, we built exact full scale running replicas of the cars. If you look at the photo closely, you'll notice that the brakes are not period but modern GM disc brakes. This was, of course, for safety. The challenge was to mount hand-made (by Dale Anderson at Anderprop) wooden artillery wheels to the discs. This was ingenously designed out of foam core, then a CAD drawing, and then made out of steel using a computer assisted cutting system. So, we have a safe car ... but they are not period and some of the brass era enthusiasts would see that; as a result, through careful editing, Computer Graphics by Rat Creek, and colour correction the disc brakes never appear in the film. The cover of the DVD case had the discs Photoshopped to appear as old school riveted drums.

But, why don't we go back to the very beginning ... January 2000.