D + S Bicycles

Story

I just recently wrapped up shooting a short documentary about Dan and Steven and their store DS Bicycles (4215 N Elston Ave), a local Chicago-based bicycle shop located in Irving Park. It was a short, one-day, shoot with director Justin Roy, gaffer Samuel Johnson, and with sound done by Thomas McDonald.

I got involved with this project from the beginning. When I purchased a used bicycle from Dan and Steven's other bike shop, Nearly New Bicycles, in Uptown (4075 North Broadway) I was immediately inspired by the atmosphere and vibes I got inside the shop. The shop was small, packed with bikes– old and new– and had a pleasant metallic smell. Dan fixed me up with a great old Schwinn. Shortly after, I told Justin about the bike shop and he seemed to get inspired by the story as well. He contacted Dan, asked if we could make a short documentary about him, and the deal was done.

DS Bicycles, is more than a bicycle shop, it's a place where people can meet up, hangout, talk bikes and listen to music. Dan opened the store without an intention to grow a huge business, but rather as a safe haven for kids and teens in the community.

Shoot

Dan's Interview

Due to limited equipment and time, Justin and I decided that we would try to make most of the light available at the location. We wanted the film to have a naturalistic feel– based off of Dan's and Steven's characters. 

When Justin and I scouted the shop a week before the shoot, we saw that there wasn't much room for lights or grip equipment– we had to make use with what we had. There were three fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling, but I made sure to have them turned off at all costs as they added a terrible green cast to skin tones. In the workshop area there was a single hanging tungsten bulb, which I thought could work to define the setting. We ended up not using the single light on the day of the set as it casted too much light on the walls and we had no flags or rigging available to shape the light in another way. (note to self for next time)

We decided to film the first interview in the work shop, located at the far end of the shop, which, unfortunately, significantly diminished the amount of available light. We were forced to rely on our small lighting package consisting of three small Fiilex LEDs. We had one light set to daylight and bounced off a piece of bounce board. The other LED we set to tungsten to motivate the workshop-tungsten esthetic and placed the light behind our subject as a hair light. The third LED we also set to tungsten and had bounce of the ceiling as our tungsten fill. I added a small pocket sized LED on the tool counter to raise the levels on the background a little– so that it wouldn't be too dark.

I wanted to create patches of light and dark in order to separate Dan from the background and have him as the focus of the interview. As cinematographer Billy Williams states, "..when I'm lighting I think in tones of black-and-white and gray rather than in color. When I'm lighting I always try to get separation, a light subject against the dark, or a dark against a light. I like to rely on tonal separation rather than just relying on the color to separate it... you get a greater perspective in composition, a greater depth... by doing that, you can emphasize what you want the audience to view."

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To be honest, I wasn't satisfied with the lighting set up for our first interview. It felt very flat, and forcefully mixed the tungsten and daylight sources. I also found it too different from the rest of the shots. Despite this, however, I did learn a lot about lighting for interviews. If I had the opportunity to light the interview again I would have lit two LED sources (set to tungsten) through diffusion coming in from the top off the camera's right, or I would simply have moved the location closer to the window and relied mainly on natural light like I did in the second interview.

Steven's Interview

With Steven's interview, we tried to recreate the original lighting plan I had planed– and it worked out much better. We had the light from the window through some white translucent as our key light. Sam had the ideas of placing and LED behind Steven to raise the levels in the background a little higher, and also to place another LED facing towards the back of Steven's head. This added a little kick, that seemed motivated by the window and gave a really interesting effect on Steven's glasses. The natural negative fill coming from the environment was enough to create nice contrast on Steven's face.

We were lucky enough to have an overcast day– which gave us pretty much a constant source from the window. However, towards the end of the shoot, the clouds began to break and I was forced to dial in the ND up and down.

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After Steven's interview I decided to have Dan sit in for some additional questions in the window light setup. 

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Some other frame grabs from the shoot:

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Inspiration Corner

I thought I would share this incredibly powerful short interview with Roger Deakins, especially what he says about documentary filmmaking.

Also, this short documentary by Daniel Soares about NYC freelance creatives. 

The Harvest

(photos at bottom)

"HELL IS REAL" proclaims a black and white billboard standing to the side of the wide and empty highway interstate. Our car whizzes by, unharmed, and continues along the road. I quickly turn my head back around, perplexed, to glimpse the other side of the sign: Thou shalt not kill. – Thou shalt not commit adultery.  – Thou shalt not steal. – Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 

I turn back towards the road, and the pink line beyond it.

Occasional trees jut out like small black spikes amongst the sea of flatness. Another shouting billboard advertising RVs slowly comes into view and abruptly disappears as our car drives by. 

To my right, I see corn. To my left, also corn. Nevertheless, the road spawns ahead.

The pink sky settles and everything slowly changes to a blue color cast. "Welcome to Southern Indiana," I hear my brother say from the front seat.

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Part I: Coles Farm

Coles farm lies nestled on top of a high ridge overlooking the Ohio River Valley. On the other side of the valley lies Kentucky. Occasionally, a long barge can be seen below, treading along the wide Ohio River. From the farm, the barges look like twigs running through a stream. During the harvest, these river boats are filled to the brim with the year's crop yield: corn, soybean, wheat, and rye– piled high like sand ready to fill the shore.

It's a couple of minutes after dusk when we finally arrive. The sky has become purple blue, and although the temperature has decreased by a few degrees, the humidity has stayed the same. Opening the car door I find my cousin, Marcus, coming out from the house.

Marcus grew up in Southern Indiana and has been farming since he was just a boy. His father's side of the family comes from a generation of Southern Indiana farmers spanning way back. He grew up along side the cows, and the corn fields by the house, helping with the chores of the farm along side his brothers. Now, at age 22, Marcus has taken over many of the farm responsibilities. 

Eager to see the animals of the farm– the cows, and the goats– I ask Marcus if it's still possible to tour the barn. "Sure, come on," he responds and leads me out back. My aunt and brother come along.

Walking through the grassy divide between the home and the barn I stop to look around. Last time I visited, back in May, during the planting season, everything around the house was flat. Now, three months later, a wall of corn surrounds the property. Soon, after the harvest, everything will become flat again. 

 Marcus leads me out back to the barn.

Marcus leads me out back to the barn.

I run to catch up with Marcus and my aunt. The inside of the barn stands tall as a center of warmth. Bugs fly about frantically hitting the harsh industrial lights mounted to the side of the barn. That familiar barn smell, conditioned by the many animals and the hay, breezes through the barn. Cats run up poles and goats stand tall on their gates trying their hardest to attract attention.

I head towards the cows standing in the far corner of the barn, patting all the animals along the way. Those cows, with their big noses and big eyes, boggle at my new presence. "Scratch them on the back," my aunt suggests, "they can't reach that spot." She shows me how to scratch correctly and the cow emits a loud sound of pleasure.

Time to head back. Marcus turns off the barn lights. Now, all that remains is the light of the home and the sky– more blue than before.

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Marcus tells me that this is the summer recess. The period between the planting and harvest season. All he can do is wait. Then September comes and work begins. Whole days spent out in the field, maneuvering large combines around seas of golden corn. Dawn till dusk. September to November. Everything depends on the harvest. Everything.

This October I plan on making a short documentary about the harvest in Southern Indiana. I will try to keep this blog regularly updated along the way to document the process.


Inspiration Corner

This is a new section of the blog where I share something that struck me recently.

This week, a short documentary for ON Running, about the Athlete Refugee Team (A.R.T)–  
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Jordan Maddocks and directed by Richard Bullock

The story they were able to tell is remarkable. It reminded me of a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book, Wind, Sand, and Stars:

"We need to ask why we race: the race itself is more important than the object."

Video description:

There are 65 million refugees on earth right now. The most in recorded history. There are 31 refugees from 5 different countries who train in the Ngong Hills of Kenya as the Athlete Refugee Team (A.R.T) 

To learn more:
Guardian Article
On Running Article


(with help from Drew Coles)

Sunday Down Union Avenue

The concrete steps that stand before "The Grace Church" stretch long and crooked. And as I walked up those heavy concrete slabs I couldn't help but turn my head to notice the surroundings– dozens of boarded up homes, cars with trash bagged windows, shattered glass.

What am I doing here?

My head swung back towards the church's entrance. There, stood a smiling man, proudly dressed in a dark suit. His eyes shined with deep curiosity. "Come on in," he said, leading me away from the heavy rain. He leaned his back against the tall white doors and guided his left hand inside. I entered with my camera swinging over my neck.
Inside that church I saw the lives and faces of Cleveland. Down the street, I saw the stores they shopped at, the barber shops where they got their hair cut. I saw those boarded up homes, those broken cars, and that shattered glass. 
 

Here are some of those faces and spaces.

 The man that greeted me before I entered "The Grace Church."

The man that greeted me before I entered "The Grace Church."

 "May I photograph your hands?" "But why would you want to photograph my hands?" "They are beautiful." He smiles

"May I photograph your hands?"
"But why would you want to photograph my hands?"
"They are beautiful."
He smiles

 "Are you interested in attending mass today?" Beautiful music flew through the door and on to the street.

"Are you interested in attending mass today?"
Beautiful music flew through the door and on to the street.

 "Here, I'll walk you to the car" He extends the umbrella open. The rain falls heavily.

"Here, I'll walk you to the car"
He extends the umbrella open. The rain falls heavily.

 The door seemed closed.

The door seemed closed.

 $80

$80

 Drive slow, through the rain.

Drive slow, through the rain.

 And the windows blinked.

And the windows blinked.

 

 

Dishwater

See: DANMARK series

The heat of the kitchen dripped down my sore back and into the thin latex gloves that covered my scarred hands– slashed fingers that reminded me of tally marks from first grade. The gloves, however, were hardly reliable: only lasting a meager five minutes from the heavy steel-wool scrubbing of inch-thick layers of grease and food off plates and pans. Repeat. This was my life for the month long stay I endured as the plongeur at the Komandor Garden, a dingy summer island resort off the coast of Denmark that had seen better days. 12 hours a day of nonstop standing and hunching: loading big metal machines like the 100-plate capacity dishwasher I called My Throne. It was hell, but I loved it.

 My Throne and I

My Throne and I

 Dishes, They Shine

Dishes, They Shine

I started out as the fresh recruit; the suburban boy who yearned for a different perspective. I was one among the many American, Polish, Danish, Congolese, French, Hungarian, Croatian, Estonian, German, and Portuguese workers: a dishwater mixture of skin pigments, ideologies, and backgrounds. As the dishwasher I was the point of contact in the kitchen. I was a brother to the waiters for every dirty plate they returned and a blessing to the chef’s with every glistening knife and pan I presented back to them. We were dishwater, but we were also a family.

Working in a 10m x 10m box with ten other people it became impossible not to get to know each other inside and out. So, as the day progressed, the stories of our lives– the most intimate and personal moments– poured out. I vividly remember Jerome’s thick French accent (“Bah oui,” he would always say with a pouty bright face) as he described how he, an ambitious boy at the ripe age of 19, had arrived in New York City to look for a kitchen job. With no place to go, Jerome lived homeless for the first night. That night, at a soup kitchen, he was offered a cheeseburger and a quote from a smiling black man that would change Jerome’s outlook on life forever: “The color of your skin doesn’t determine whether you’re hungry or not.”

 Jerome, Chef and Dear Friend

Jerome, Chef and Dear Friend

Or the time Muhammad, after a long night of orders, sat down beside me and recollected his memories, from the age of ten, of seeing starved refugees from the Rwandan Genocide lifted up by a tractor and dumped into a ditch. He went on to describe how after returning home he asked his mother why they had to die. “I couldn’t understand how this could’ve happened. Why was there all this hate?” he passionately remarked with watery eyes.

What did I learn from working at the Kommandoer Gaarden? This was the question I kept asking myself on the bus back towards our modern world. Was it knowledge of different types of soap? Sure, I learned all of that well, but looking out of the bus window onto the fields of grazing sheep I felt changed in more than just kitchen techniques. I realized that the world, as a whole, wasn’t any different from the dishwater in which I was a part of at the Kommandoer Gaarden. The stories of Jerome, Muhammad and the many other coworkers I had the privilege of meeting extend far beyond the realms of the kitchen.

 Sheep Grazing, Bus Ride Towards Our Modern World

Sheep Grazing, Bus Ride Towards Our Modern World

Everyone has a story, and the more we hear them, the more we coexist and understand each other. Getting of the bus, far away from the worn-down kitchen doors, I recognized that it was my duty to communicate the stories of my coworkers, and others without a voice, to the rest of the world in every way possible. For we live in a world where division has become more polarized than it has ever been before so it wouldn’t hurt if we all tried to imagine ourselves in the kitchen. Let’s not forget: stories are the binding substance within the dishwater.

 That's Us

That's Us