A binocular telescope at the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 1a

I should have numbered the previous post ‘0’. Will I never learn?

OK, so the plan had been for us to blog as we travelled across America filming the segments of this documentary, but… well, that didn’t happen, what with us being back now and all. Jetlag, altitude sickness, thunderstorms and 14-hour days will do that to you. So let me present: the retroproduction blog. Just like what we planned, only two weeks later.

The premise

Alom and I are making a film about the use of demonstrations in science teaching. What’s that you’re saying? “Niche”? Indeed so, but we think teachers are worth it. The film’s perhaps more of a video essay than a conventional documentary – it’s certainly very personal and opinionated – and amongst our objectives with it is: we want to make a film that’s beautiful. Which is a tall order when a chunk of it’s going to be about pedagogy, so we thought we’d give ourselves a fighting chance by shooting the bulk of it in the pretty bits of America.

There’s a bunch of other reasons for us being there, but we’ll let you figure those out as we go along.

Day 0 – Tuesday 13th August

The ubiquitous "looking out of the aeroplane window" shot.
The ubiquitous “looking out of the aeroplane window” shot.

For reference, 4am is a stupid time to get up, and the day doesn’t get any more pleasant when you wind up rammed into a high-speed metal tube for 12 hours or so. Which happened. We popped out the other end in Denver, Colorado, and spent an hour or so fretting over whether to accept a hire car which didn’t have any cover over the luggage area. I’d made the mistake of reading my equipment insurance terms, and ‘covered luggage area’ was the sort of phrase that kept cropping up.

Eventually the nice folks at National managed to find us an immensely huge Jeep thing for only a chunk of cash more than the marginally smaller Jeep thing we’d booked, and miraculously the monster still had its luggage cover. We were on our way, albeit somewhat intimidated by the sheer scale of the Jeep thing. Inevitably, the first eleventy-three other vehicles we saw on the highway south from Denver made our ride seem puny in comparison. Everything’s bigger in America.

Including, it turned out, the hospitality, despite significant chunks of our first overnight town having been washed away in a flash flood a few days earlier. Which explained the tragic ‘mud people’ aesthetic of Manitou Springs. Once they get it cleaned up again it’ll be extremely pretty, I’m sure, and we can heartily recommend the Sahara Cafe (as can TripAdvisor): cheap, friendly, and terrific tabbouleh. Which isn’t something I’d expected to type about a restaurant in a small American town. Manitou Springs also has a dulcimer shop, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Tuesday was a travel day rather than a shooting day, but we shot some travel stuff, so:

Miles travelled: 5120 (flown) + 114 (driven).
Footage shot: 00:18:27 / 3Gb

Day 1 – Wednesday 14th August – Pikes Peak

Jonathan steadies the camera at the summit of Pikes Peak. Or possibly interviews an alien robot. It's hard to tell.
Jonathan steadies the camera at the summit of Pikes Peak. Or possibly interviews an alien robot. It’s hard to tell.

The first proper day of filming. A few ‘Alom on his Summer holiday’ shots to set the scene, and a couple of the ongoing stories of the film to introduce. First, though, we had to get to the top of Pikes Peak, a mountain which joins the category ‘big mountains with cafés at their summits’ along with Snowdon. Except Pikes Peak is 4,300 m/14,100 ft, so… it’s a tad bigger than Snowdon. Sorry.

The received advice is to take the cog railway from Manitou Springs rather than drive up the windy switchback which is the road. We, of course, got up a bit late and then had to find somewhere to print the script (I’d reordered it on the plane over, having had a bright idea on the train from Newcastle the day before), and hence missed the train, and hence had to drive. So here’s some advice for experienced UK drivers: you’ll be fine. Really. It’s a long way, but it’s nothing like as evil as, say, Hardknott Pass. The hairpins are all levelled off and everything.

Working at 14,000 ft is another matter, however. Shortly after we arrived at the top we had to help another motorist push her car out of a hidden ditch, then sit with one of the other helpers to make sure his laboured breathing didn’t turn into a full-on panic attack. Atmospheric pressure is something like 60% that at sea level, and the difference is both palpable and unpleasant.

Setting up a demo on Pikes Peak. There's a clue here. It's not very subtle.
Setting up a demo on Pikes Peak. There’s a clue here. It’s not very subtle.

We wrestled somewhat with wind, clouds and other tourists getting in the way, not to mention our wits being addled by the oxygen deprivation, but eventually got the shots we wanted. Heading back down we picked up a couple of other shots, dodging thunderstorms as they rattled down the valley below heading for – gulp! – Manitou Springs.

We reached the ranger station halfway down the descent (mandatory brake temperature check: by now Alom had found the Jeep’s manual and we’d worked out how to lock it in gear, thankfully) to be told that the highway East to Manitou Springs had been closed on another flood warning, so we turned left and headed West to Buena Vista instead.

A gentle first day, apart from the altitude changes, and we later learned that Manitou Springs had been spared another flooding.

Miles travelled: 158 (total 272)
Footage shot: 00:50:22 / 7.5Gb  (total 01:08:49 / 10.5Gb)

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