Monday, January 21, 2013

A Sheppard, his goats and a road gap. Filming in Morocco with The Collective.

It started faintly, almost in a whisper; a deep and monotonous humming sound.  The noises became slightly melodic and blended into words that I did not understand; then grew louder until he was fully wailing on the microphone, blasting a successesion of words. He kept going for what seemed like forever, chanting the hypnotic prayer that was cast at high volume from the mosques’ towers throughout the walled city. Who on earth came up with this brilliant idea? I thought in a half-asleep state. Whoever he is, i’m sure that he isn’t too popular right about now. I rolled over and fought to regain sleep and cruelly smiled as I remembered how close Darcy and Darren’s rooftop room was to one of the loud speakers. It was pitch black outside and the city was coming alive around us; my watch read 4:30am. Welcome to Marrakech.
Our Marrakech abode was called a riad. Traditionally, it was a building where several families lived with rooms and balconies looking over a common courtyard. Lately, Europeans were buying old riads and transforming them into beautiful boutique hotels complete with fountains, orange trees, palatial rooms and over-the-top rooftop patios and of course lots of pillows and rugs.
Andrew Shandro putting his Trek Session to the test Morocco style.

Leaving our riad promised instant adventure as you’d step out and realize that the door, which you’d just closed, was identical to the neighbors’ doors and none had any signs or numbers. To make matters more interesting it was situated in a medieval labyrinth of twisty narrow lanes with no structure. Numerous times I’d had to pay a local kid to help me find the way back to our door. Minutes from our riad was the famous Jemaa el-Fna Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s greatest spectacles.  Since Marrakech was developed in the 11th century, the square has been a cultural crossroad where frenetic commercial activity and entertainment attract crowds well into the night. There is a huge range of performances and acts: story tellers, musicians, dancers, snake charmers, glass-eaters and performing animals. A wide variety of services are also offered, like dental care, traditional medicine, fortune telling, preaching, astrology and henna tattooing and much, much more.
Four hours after morning prayer we were chilling on our rooftop patio in the warm sun sipping freshly squeezed orange juice, eating dates and discussing our proposed plan. Our group of 11 consisted of three pro mountain bikers, Andrew Shandro, Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham, four cinematographers, one photographer and four guides: nine Canadians and two Moroccans. We were lured halfway around the globe for Morocco’s world-class dirt, culture and landscape. The purpose of our trip was to film a segment for the Vancouver and Whistler-based mountain bike filmmakers, The Collective. In 2005, their self-titled debut blew the doors off of action sports films and won best cinematography at the X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival alongside the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Utah. They also captured movie of the year and best cinematography at Bike Magazine’s Video Awards. Needless to say, we had an all-star crew and cast on this trip. Our rooftop oasis featured 360-degree views of the city below and the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains on the horizon, which inevitably drew our imaginations to what lay beyond teaming Marrakech.
The crew getting ready to leave Marrakech.

Most in our group hadn’t been to Morocco and didn’t know what they were getting into. Those of us who had knew that patience and flexibility was paramount as things often happen on their own schedule. Safety was also a key issue. Hucking your carcass in Morocco was a dicey idea as proper medical facilities were basic to nil. If a rider was seriously injured it would mean a satellite phone call to a rickety helicopter and a flight to a run-down hospital with cats cruising the hallways. The nearest modern medical facilities, by Western standards, were in Spain or France. It was agreed, the riders needed to stick every stunt and ride with confidence. We wrapped up our meeting with many questions unanswered, stepped out of our door into the dizzying otherworldliness, packed the Land Rovers and drove off across the plains of Marrakech.
We drove south out of the city and climbed the Tizi-n-Tichka, North Africa’s highest pass at 2260 meters, and down the other side to the city of Ouarzazate. A sense of déjà vu is present in Ouarzazate as it’s the site of movies like as Laurence of Arabia, Gladiator and The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s also a gateway to the Sahara desert, the world’s largest. Looking out over the Sahara one can only imagine what lies between you and the other side, inexpressible solitude, endless sand dunes and one hell of an adventure to those who attempt to cross it. The other side is also deeper into Africa and other foreign worlds.
For the first few days we scoped terrain about an hour from the city in the foothills of the Atlas. The landscape was arid, large and lonely with endless ridges and big mountain lines. For a day and a half we drove, scoped, shot a few short lines, scoped some more but didn’t get our teeth into anything spectacular. In the evenings the North African light would pop, bringing features to life like a painter with his brush. Every so often a man dressed in a jalaba would saunter past us on a mule and wave, in the middle of nowhere.
Then we found a big road gap in a spectacular canyon setting. After a closer look the riders agreed that the jump was doable, but technical. The approach was a downhill roll-in, off an angled lip that would send them 25-feet above the road and 20-plus feet to the landing. It was the landing that was tricky: a steep 50-foot long off-camber shelf with a loose ball-bearing surface. They’d have to make a slight direction change in the air, then lock up the brakes upon impact, throw it sideways and hang on tight. “Look’s good. The air’s actually pretty minor,” Shandro said casually and matter-of-factly, ”it’s the technical and unpredictable run out that’s sketchy. We’ll be hauling ass coming down this landing ramp and throw in the fact that were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Morocco and the difficulty level goes up considerably.”
We returned early the next day and worked on the landing while the cinematographers found camera angles. As the riders rolled into the lip over and over and discussed the variables a Sheppard, his dog and fifty or so goats sauntered up the valley. What an amazing sight; a head-on collision of contrast. The Sheppard layed his walking stick down and grabbed a seat on a rock while the goats spread out to nibble on the sparse growth. The cameras were in position, the wind subsided and silence fell in the small valley. Then the call came over the radio. ”OK, im dropping in 10.” Vanderham rolled in and launched the air with total coolness, tweaked his bars in the air just as he’d planned and swooped in for touch-down. He overshot the landing by a good eight feet but stuck it. His bike let out a big ‘whomp’ when it hit the earth followed by a rush of air as he accelerated down the steep shelf. The crew erupted as whoops and howls that echoed off the canyon walls. Shandro went next and made it look easy. Hunter, who had had a close friend get seriously hurt earlier in the summer on a similar feature, dug deep within himself and stomped it. None of the riders did the air twice. 
A sheppard and his flock. Photo: Dave McDougall.

The Sheppard seemed neither here nor there about the whole spectacle. He seemed without reaction. Did he even care? Or was the sight of a bicycle flying off a cliff so otherworldly that it was beyond him? Thinking back, im not even sure if he was facing the jump or not. He might have actually chosen that spot to rest. Either way, he grabbed his stick and walked off with his goats trailing. Meanwhile, one of our drivers, Achmed, was in the distance and on his knees, facing Mecca and praying to Allah as he did five times a day.
That afternoon we feasted on tagine that our drivers had been brewing on fires. The tagine is a slow-cooked stew of meat, prune and vegetable that’s a staple in Morocco. Our driver’s genuine warmth and kind-heartedness was present all the time as they worked tirelessly for us and always with a smile. They were also fluent in Arabic, Berber and French, which made communication with all Moroccans possible. After lunch we relaxed and laughed knowing that we had some key footage in the can.
The next day we rolled up to a new location after a full day of driving and the group pilled out of the Land Rovers, eager to scope new features. Without hesitation they fanned out and descended the hillside like skiers on a powder day. This time we were in the Ouirgane Valley, a greener area in the heart of the High Atlas with staggering views of Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak at 4167 meters, It was late afternoon and the sun was filtered through a light mist creating a dreamy pastel light. With pine trees and red and eroded hills in the foreground, peaks in the distance with a hilltop town perched on its flanks, the view was reminiscent of a Tuscan oil painting except for the Muslim minaret poking out of the town like a statue.
“This place is unreal,” photographer Sterling Lorence said as he ran up a small hill to see what was on the other side. “It’s a dream landscape with the most beautiful backdrop ever. You could blast off that bush, hit this LZ, snake around that rock and pin it into the hip,” he said excitedly to Vanderham while spinning his hands as if he was holding a toy bike. Vanderham barely had time to answer and Lorence would already be on the top of another mound of dirt ten feet away inspecting the line from another angle. Lorence is a key player in the process of finding a line or feature, and shooting it. His background as a mountain biker combined with his vast experience shooting the best riders makes him a Shinobe of line dissection. 
Very comfortable digs on the edge of the Sahara.

Watching a rider fly through the air in a film is the end result of a lengthy process of many elements that come together. Initially, a line or feature is found by a rider or suggested by the photographer or cinematographer. Upon closer inspection the cameramen make sure that it receives good light at some point during the day - the best light being early morning or late afternoon. Then the crew digs and shapes the run-in, jump, and landing to ensure that the line is safe and doable. The next step is finding the best angles to shoot from, which speed to shoot the film and which lenses to use. Meanwhile the riders continue hammering out the intricacies of the feature and the variables to make sure that they nail it: speed, pop, braking, pedaling and external factors like wind and tricky surfaces to negotiate are taken into consideration. And, each line that is shot needs to be unique and fit into the rider’s segment and complement what has already been captured. Lastly, each line’s overall safety needed to be assessed, especially when working in a remote region. 
The next day we gabbed our sad and decrepit Moroccan tools and started working on the first shot: a large step-down hip jump into a step-up hip jump. The soil was firm yet workable, the perfect consistency for shaping. The in-run was fast and straightforward with a transition long enough to land a Cessna while the second jump’s landing was trickier and off camber. The whole line made for a beautiful shot: long, flowy and dynamic with endless camera angles. Hunter hit the line in his Kamloopsesque no-frills-balls-to-the-wall style. He’d chosen an alternate route off the step up where he’d land and dive down a steep technical chute. Vanderham has an uncanny way to use his body like a spring. He’d pop like a gazelle and be sailing considerably higher and further than the other riders. With his arms extended and ultra smooth style he’d table his Rocky Mountain RM7 slow and big and land it like he was hopping off a curb. Vanderham is unreal to watch. Shandro was hitting the linked airs like a knight on his white Trek Session 10, assertive and stylee.
In the distance prayer began playing from a minaret in a hillside town. The eerie barely audible droning echoed from the mountains that afternoon as our 16-millimeter cameras whirled, shutters clicked and big bikes sailed through the air.

By Chris Winter, Big Mountain Adventures.

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