“I don’t think we really knew we were making a ‘classic.’ We were just trying to do a good job…”
It should be known before anyone reads this: “Terrafirma 7” is my favorite motocross movie of all time. I’d don my Fox Racing PJ’s, eyes glued to the ginormous tube TV in our house as Ricky Carmichael put the smack down on everyone during the nationals section. Before I could even understand anything about anything, I was watching this movie. I’ve never seen anything as artistically sound and properly representative of motocross, well… ever. I sound like a kiss-ass but it’s the truth, “Terrafirma 7: Project MX” is the pinnacle. End of story.
Now that I’ve grown to make my own videos, I find myself continually inspired by this piece, and it has influenced a lot of the ways I try to present my work. It is my belief that this is how a motocross video should look/feel, and I can only hope my work accomplishes what Terrafirma 7 does with razor sharp editing, thoughtful music selection, and outside-the-box visuals. In speaking with Jessica about the project she shot and directed, a lot of stuff about this movie started to make sense. It was an awesome experience getting to go behind the curtain of a film that means so much to me, something I probably wouldn’t have ever imagined I’d get to do. Hope you enjoy the peek as much as I did.
Discussion inclues: Life before Terrafirma 7, feature-film influence, learning to shoot moto, mishaps at RC’s and Loretta Lynn’s, tales of the GZAP cam, and much more…
World of Echo: Hey, Jessica?
Jessica Young: Hey! Just putting on my headphones! One second.
Nice to speak with you, [World of Echo]!
Yeah, this is crazy! I’m super excited you agreed to chat! Like I said in the email, “Terrafirma 7…” I’ve been watching that movie for years. I don’t even remember when my family got it, we’ve had it so long. It’s one of those movies that… I don’t know. There’s just something about it that keeps me coming back.
It’s the editing.
…and the soundtrack is pretty good.
It is! It doesn’t feel as dated as other movies that came out around the same time. There are moments that feel a little “2000’s-esque,” but for the most part it’s pretty eclectic, pretty varied.
Yeah, no backflips though.
Yes, this is pre-backflip freestyle motocross.
I don’t know if that’s your thing. I ended up being way more into the racing myself, specifically the outdoors. As you know, I chased dirt bikes around with Troy Adamitis for like, ten years. For awhile there that was the sport I knew the most about, of all sports. I knew who all of the riders were and all of the rules. I think outdoor motocross is amazing and it takes one of the most insane athletes to compete at the tippy-top. I don’t think people understand that. I’m not really sure why motocross hasn’t become bigger than it already is, or bigger than it should be, I suppose. Supercross is one thing, but outdoors…
It’s raw, yeah. Only the strong survive.
I wanted to kind of get into the time frame a bit, pre-Terrafirma 7. What was your life like before getting on board with Fox Racing, around 1999/2000? Where were you at personally and professionally?
I had just gone to film school in San Francisco at the Academy of Art College. I already knew at that point I wanted to do cinematography, so that was my focus while I attended. I put together the best possible reel I could right before I graduated, which consisted of a lot of spec ad’s, commercials, and music videos, because it was really pressed upon us that those types of things would get you work outside of college. It was good advice for the most part, music videos took a bit of a nosedive there, but [the curriculum] centered less on narrative work and film studies, and more on just grabbing a camera and shooting something. Back then everything was film too, mostly 16mm but we were shooting 35 as well. The best thing about that school was that they had a telecine [suite] on site. You could take out a camera, shoot some film over the weekend, and have it processed down the street by Monday where you’d get to watch your mistakes. (laughs) It was just a really great way to learn how to shoot.
I was taking cameras out so often that I think I actually bought my own Bolex. I was shooting a lot of nature, my boyfriend at the time was really adventurous, so we’d go camping or take trips and I’d always take the camera to try capturing nature. I was shooting a lot of spec ad stuff as well, in addition to editing it all. I graduated in December of 1999 and I left with a pretty strong reel. My very first job, which I scored a few months after I graduated, was shooting out of a helicopter for Channel 7 news at the Oakland airport. Which was great and all, because I really love helicopters, but it was also just the news. You’d shoot the traffic report in the morning and then wait around for something bad to happen, which got pretty old pretty quick.
I don’t even remember how I got [Terrafirma 7], I think it was through my old school, through career resources or whatever. There was a notice that said Fox Racing was looking to hire a director/cinematographer to shoot their next motocross film. Fox was down in Morgan Hill, which was an hour from San Francisco. I went and interviewed with Greg Fox and one of their in-house producers, Matt Story. I felt like they had a good reaction to my reel and they liked the idea that I had been flying in helicopters, which was a regular thing to do back then while shooting moto. I think they really just wanted fresh eyes, new blood, to make their next project. So amazingly, and life-changingly, I got the job, which allowed me to literally put the camera over my shoulder and charge into the battlefield right away. I didn’t have to come up through AC work, or pay my dues in a rental house or something, I got to start shooting right away. I was very privileged. Fox at the time had their own 16mm Arri SR, so we were shooting everything on 16, which is a different discipline. It’s something I wish we saw more of these days, but I also like having the ability to roll two-hundred frames per second on my Amira as long as I want.
My first assignment I got paired up with this guy Taylor Congdon, who they brought on to make the next mountain bike film, and we made “Fox Racing’s Greatest Hits.”
You just re-edited it?
Yeah, re-edited. Fresh music, fresh takes on things. We probably scrounged up some retro footage of sorts, too. That was really valuable though, because I had never shot dirt bikes before. I didn’t know anything about the sport, at all. It was amazing that they even gave this girl a chance at [shooting their next motocross film], being so far removed from the sport itself. Through the Greatest Hits process I was lucky to be able to watch all of the old footage, which was film transferred to big Beta tapes, so you could just watch the film session and learn how the shoots went. A lot of the best stuff came from Troy Adamitis’, because he had just rolled through Fox before getting snaked by No Fear. He signed with the competition!
He went to the dark side!
He went to the dark side, yeah! He was super talented though, and I was able to watch quite a bit of his raw footage. I learned a lot about how to run a motocross shoot from watching his stuff.
You were not only learning how to shoot moto, but you were having to learn about the sport itself through these old tapes.
Yeah, a little bit. I still had a lot of question about technical things in regards to what happened at races, though. In the beginning, I didn’t know the difference between nationals and supercross. I didn’t know shit! (laughs) I had to learn all of the names of the freestyle tricks, too. Just had to jump in head first into all of that stuff. No motocross background whatsoever.
But my biggest goal for Terrafirma 7 was to take the audience for a ride. I really wanted them to feel what it might feel like to ride a bike. Meanwhile, I’d never even ridden a bike! I maybe rode some four-wheelers on my Uncle’s property, but I didn’t have any clue about what it really felt like.
I think that might’ve been the best thing for the movie, honestly. You’re starting from ground zero.
Yeah. I had to explain that sensation visually.
Which obviously, film being a visual medium, made for a great piece. That’s so interesting. What did pre-production look like for Terrafirma 7?
Good question… that’s really going far back! We knew we were going to break it down into sections, covering all of the different disciplines of the sport. Outdoor nationals, flat track, trials, off-road racing, all of that stuff. Some of the riders dictated our plan as well. For instance, Fox sponsored Guy Perrett at the time, the wild man. We knew we were going to shoot with him up in Canada. We knew we were going to set up a flat track shoot. All of those pieces just kind of came together. Freestyle was also on the cusp of breaking out into something new, or forever crashing and burning. It really was right on the edge. How many more nac-nac’s are we going to see before something gives?
You said earlier that Greg Fox and Matt Story wanted “new blood” for their next feature, and I think they really nailed it by choosing you as the lead for Terrafirma 7. I feel like your presentation of Terrafirma differs from the Hatchett brother’s [Directors of Terrafirma 4-6]. His was very much in the vain of Crusty Demons, this punk rock, in-your-face attitude. I feel like you brought a lot more intimacy and variety, like Vuillemin riding to that Squarepusher song, Stewart’s section with Mos Def, Geoff Aaron and the flat trackers. Was that in line with your thought process of “taking the audience for a ride,” was to show the delicacy of riding as well?
Yeah! I mean, maybe? I guess it was just a general interest in a journalistic sense, as I was researching all of these facets of motocross, I wanted to educate the viewer as well. It wasn’t like I had some awesome access to Travis Pastrana for a day, or something, it was more about what Travis does on a motorcycle relatable to an audience. Does that make sense?
Delicate… delicate is kind of an interesting word because that’s so NOT what dirt bikes are! Maybe that’s just what happens when there’s someone from outside of the project looking in.
I say that because, watching Geoff Aaron’s section or Stewart’s section specifically, it’s almost calming. Especially watching Stewart ride. Yeah, he could be a little wild and out of control during his career, but the way you presented him appeared delicate to me, especially paired with “Umi Says,” by Mos Def.
The song, yeah. The song is great. I give all of the credit to my assistant director Todd Bell, who I snatched right out of film school. I saw his talent early and I was like, “You!” I got the job at Fox and I could hire one person to be my right hand man. Bonus for me, Todd rode dirt bikes as a kid, so he had a motocross background to go along with his cinematic abilities. He was a musician in his own right, and he brought so much to the table with his music selections. We’d decide things together and work with our editor, Nick [Kleczewski], but his influence there can’t be overstated. Like I said in our email exchange, I hadn’t watched the film in over ten years and that soundtrack is still good! It’s different, it’s not your average punk rock / heavy metal dirt bike soundtrack. I think that probably made it feel a little more delicate as well, having something lyrical or instrumental playing of a flat-tracker laying it sideways. It becomes almost poetic.
The formula of punk rock and motocross was selling really well at the time, there didn’t seem to be a lot of people deviating from that winning recipe, and then here came the new Terrafirma team with artists like Mos Def and Cinematic Orchestra. It just totally changes the dynamic of what you’re watching and makes it that much more interesting.
Yeah, hopefully! I’ll tell you, when I first played the quarry section for Brian Deegan. (laughs) Brian Deegan came down to Fox and I showed him the edit for the quarry section and the first thing he says is, “You got any punk rock music in this movie?” (laughs) Something like that. He might’ve said, “You got any metal in this movie?” But of course, the Metal Mulisha guy is wondering why the song is soft.
Yeah, because that first freestyle section has that Incubus song, “Summer Romance.” There is metal later on in the movie though, he got his wish!
No, yeah. I followed up with the next freestyle section and he was much happier! You’re not going to win over everybody, that’s the bottom line. The good thing is that you only have to invest in thirty, thirty-five minutes of music, how bad could it be?
The film opens with the darkroom sequences. Well, it’s not a darkroom per se, but there’s some dude —
Oh, the madman! We just called him the madman.
Yes, the madman sequences. I love those! It’s so abstract, it’s so… I don’t know. It just pulls you right in. You have the shots of the hallways, these low-shutter, blurred-image sequences. The bottle of adrenaline! What was it like piecing that together throughout the film?
I don’t exactly remember how I came up with this idea, but I knew that we were gonna need a way to bridge the sections of the movie together. We were gonna have to come up with these “chapter beats,” so I came up with the madman character. In my head he was just this weird dude in a dark corner of the basement at Fox Racing, taking newspaper clippings and filing slide films. I don’t really know what he was up to. Up to good and no-good, basically, keeper of the Fox Racing archives. We had to build that room, so we spent a weekend dressing it. I actually hired a young art director, Garett Zunt, to dress it. I had gone to flea markets to find those little bottles and typed out labels that said “pure adrenaline,” and what not. David Fincher’s “Se7en” had just come out as well, around this time. The opening credit sequence to that was so profound to a young filmmaker, we studied that sequence in editing class, you know? We didn’t exactly know our movie was going to be called “Terrafirma 7,” but we knew it was going to be number seven, so there was a little bit of a crossover wink/nod to Se7en. I think that played inspiration for the dark opening as well. I actually cast my cinematography teacher for that.
So he was the madman?
Yes, his name is Mark Herzig. He was my cinematography teacher my last year of college. He’s a shorter guy, bald head, long and lanky arms. He fits the profile for some creeper-dude. (laughs) Luckily he was willing to do it. That was fun. He was such an actor that day, he didn’t even try to go into “teacher-mode,” he was down for anything.
But the “low-shutter” and blurred imagery you were talking about, that is the blessing of shooting film and having the taste to like those parts when you turn the camera on and off. The camera has to “come to speed,” so those couple of frames are usually blown out and blurry while the camera is coming up to speed, be it twenty-four frames per second or whatever you’re shooting. If you watch the film again, there are so many film-pop moments like that, that got edited in. I just love that stuff, I miss that aspect of film. Double imagery… double exposing, triple exposing! Those two frames per second pops. You can’t create that digitally. I think embracing those imperfections became a part of the edit.
I think it adds a bit of life to the film.
It gives it energy, you know?
“I didn’t fully grasp the idea that these are heavy fucking machines that are hot and metal, flying through the air. I was really kind of putting myself in reckless positions… But it turns out I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie…”
What was it like visiting the national circuit for the first time? Now that I know this was your introduction to the sport, I want to hear your take on seeing tracks like Glen Helen and Washougal for the first time.
It was super awesome! A little intimidating… Really hot, really dirty. I think once you embrace getting roosted by a 250 with your camera gear, there’s a thrill to it. Up to a certain point though, I was a little oblivious to it all. I didn’t fully grasp the idea that these are heavy fucking machines that are hot and metal, flying through the air. I was really kind of putting myself in reckless positions, naughty positions, positions where I could very easily get run over or hit. But it turns out I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and that was one way for me to get that high.
I had been with Fox for a couple months though, going on all of these shoots, and we went up to Canada to shoot with Guy [Perrett]. I got on a KTM 450 for the first time, and when I let the clutch out it was this “Oh shit!” moment. I thought, “This thing could get really out of control and hurt me!” Before that though, I was very trusting of the riders. It didn’t even cross my mind that the motorcycle could hurt me while I was shooting. That was a bit of a reality check.
At the time, and even now, I feel a good day of shooting is determined by how hard I work physically, and at the nationals I worked really hard! Climbing hills, trudging on with cameras and tripods in the elements. It’s physically demanding to film an outdoor national. There’s something satisfying about seeing the end of the day at an outdoor national. You did a good job shooting and you told the story by getting great shots, but you’re also physically exhausted too. It gives me a sense of pride, almost. I owned it, I fucking worked today!
You meander back to your trailer all sweaty and disgusting, lay your camera down knowing you gave it your all.
Exactly, and that’s what the riders are doing out on the track as well. It’s like your own test of endurance.
Who shot Pastrana blitzing the whoop section at Washougal? He passes Tallon Vohland like he’s carrying a bag of bricks! One of the best shots in the national section, I’d say.
I shot that! It’s almost halfway between the whoop section and the finish line, right?
Yeah, that was me!
He just destroys that section.
Yeah, Travis was an amazing athlete back then! Not to say that he isn’t now, but…
Oh, of course. I feel like this movie captured a really special time in motocross. Like we mentioned before, freestyle motocross was on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. Ricky Carmichael captures his first of seven big bike outdoor titles. James Stewart’s final years as an amateur and Travis Pastrana’s only outdoor title. In many ways this was a revolutionary time for motocross, and I think you guys were extremely lucky that you happened to capture an era that became a bookmark in our sport’s history.
I feel really lucky to have been there during the Carmichael era, and James Stewart… my god! When we filmed with him he was a baby, a kid! Just so young and so full of natural ability. I feel so thankful to have been there at that time.
I wanted to talk about that time you guys shot with Stewart at his compound. It’s so long ago, it looks like they’re just moving into the place in the movie!
I forget how many days we had with him, but James was really training hard around this time. For instance, his training whoop section was larger than the whoops at Washougal, or any stadium supercross whoop section for that matter. His practice track had this insane whoop section where, if he were to fall into one, he would disappear. Needless to say, we see the shot of him crashing. In the edit we made it look like James took that fall and had his dad show him the way, but in reality when he took that fall in the whoops that was the end of the shoot day. He got worked. We got a cherry picker stuck in the sand out there, and Papa Bear [James Stewart Sr.] had to get us towed out of there. Maybe it’s still there, I don’t know. At that time, putting cameras on the bike was really important to me as well.
“Anyone we asked to put the [GZAP] rig on their front forks, once they heard that Ricky had put the mount on his bike they were ok with putting it on their’s.”
In a couple of sections we tried to shoot with this thing called a GZAP camera. It took a fifty foot cartridge of film that went into this tiny box, and they used to mount these things on fighter planes to get footage of the war. That’s how we have footage from old wars of gunfights and bombs dropping, they had these mounted cameras. They’re totally indestructible, metal cameras with metal casings. You had to put a fake mag through the slot to eyeball the framing of the wide lens. We worked with a key grip from San Francisco who we paid to come and construct a really thin metal rig to hold the camera. You can see it in the shadow in some of the shots, where the rig comes off of the front forks. When we shot with Stewart though, we didn’t shoot it on film, we actually had an old camera with a video recording device he wore on a knapsack. Obviously, this was before GoPro.
It was all a little more challenging back then, just because the technology wasn’t there. I think you can even see the cord from time to time flop out during the shoot. But it was a really easy camera to work with. You mount it, make sure the thing’s recording, and go.
Was James a little apprehensive to ride with that thing looking right at him?
No, he wasn’t! I think he liked it. He even gets playful with the camera in the beginning there. I can’t remember the exact order in which all of this happened, we may have already shot with Ricky at that point. Anyone we asked to put the rig on their front forks, once they heard that Ricky had put the mount on his bike they were ok with putting it on their’s. In Ricky’s section we actually used the GZAP camera with film, and you can see the vibration when he’s on the gas. I really loved that effect because you can see it stop when he flies into the air, too. The best part of that whole process with the GZAP camera was that you just had to let go. Put the camera on, make sure it’s safe, tighten all of the bolts, make sure it’s rolling, and go. You have no idea what you’re getting until you get back in the telecine and in the film transfer. When we got back and watched all of that footage from Ricky, we were all jumping up and down in the telecine, it was so fucking awesome. I was pretty controlling of the film at this point in time, so that was a great exercise in letting go.
There are a lot of smaller names in the freestyle section of the movie. Kris Rourke, Luke Urek, Dane Herron, as well as soon-to-be big names like Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg and Nate Adams. We talked about it a bit earlier, how this was all pre-backflip freestyle, but this was all shot in 2000 right?
Yeah. Shot in 2000, but I think it came out in 2001.
So while 2000 is still technically “pre-backflip,” Carey Hart did do a backflip at Gravity Games that year, or depending on who you talk to, at least attempted it. I was wondering if you guys had caught wind of it or if you were trying to somehow incorporate that into the movie?
Yeah, I remember his attempt at the Gravity Games. I think that clip is actually the last shot of that Greatest Hits DVD, which came out right before we started filming for Terrafirma 7. It must’ve been talked about quite a bit, because it had already happened. I remember it being a big deal because they told us to slap that clip at the end of the Greatest Hits DVD, just shoehorn it in there, because that’s telling of what might be coming next for the future of freestyle motocross. Then again, I don’t really remember a lot of people attempting the backflip after that.
You’re right. Carey was a bit of an outlier in terms of people attempting the flip, because I think once he did it everyone in the freestyle community took a collective jump back. They needed time to digest it.
I wonder how much time there was between his Gravity Games attempt and the next time someone did it competitively?
Well, it couldn’t have been 2001, because the X Games were in Philly that year and Carey tried to stick the backflip for good and got broke off. I think it might’ve been X Games 2002?
Yeah, so it took awhile. There was not a lot of talk of people attempting the backflip during the filming of Terrafirma 7.
Gotcha. Moving on, the amateur section of the film is great as well.
Oh, yeah! I forgot about that! (laughs)
I’m partial to the intro sequence at Loretta Lynn’s, the nature shots with accompanying music. Super eerie. Almost like an old horror, like a 1950’s slasher film or something. The whole section is great, though.
Yeah, that was a fun one. That was actually one of the first shoots. Funny story though, the first race I shot was Jessica Patterson’s moto, because she was a Fox rider at the time. I set up for the first shot on the inside of the first turn, and as the pack is coming towards me the trick of the long lens fooled me into falling over! I thought the riders were much closer than they were so I quick stepped backwards and fell. It actually made the edit, that clip of me falling over. I think you can even see my braid flip over the lens at some point. (laughs) In my very first race at Loretta’s I fell on my ass in the first turn. (laughs)
That shot came to mind earlier when you mentioned you were putting yourself in odd positions on the racetrack! You had a lot of great riders in this section: Jessica Patterson, Mike Alessi, Davi Millsaps.
Yeah, little Mike Alessi! There were so many kids… and that was a real eye opener too, just to see how much this motocross lifestyle meant to the parents of those kids. It’s kind of insane watching a little five year old flying around on a motorcycle. You’re like, “Wait, what? What am I looking at?” It’s fascinating, you can’t look away. I wonder now if I would have even considered adding that little kid section into the film, but back then I was so new to the sport that that stuff really fascinated me. It seemed important to include it in the film. Seeing those kids ride like that was almost a little scary too, at times. Maybe that was the impetus to the “scary movie intro” you mentioned?
I just didn’t know how to describe it!
It just needed a little tiny bit of horror, that section.
“I don’t know that I can say we were ‘transcending’ anything, we were just trying to do a good job. We tried to be artful, but also mindful at the same time.”
I wanted to touch on this because it’s the film’s grand finale, but talk about filming with Ricky Carmichael. He’s just destroying everything to that Deftones song, and in that first sequence he just annihilates this berm while you dolly along to his left. His form is perfect… I think even on the DVD commentary Davey Coombs says something along the lines of, “We’re just going to shut up now and watch this.”
That was definitely one of the last shoots and we knew we had to do something big because it was RC. We rented a high speed 16mm camera, the [Arriflex] SR3, which could do up to one-hundred and fifty frames per second. That was something we hand picked and saved for RC’s shoot. We did dolly that shot and another, and I remember we actually laid track down and pushed the camera along while he went through the whoops. We didn’t bring out that kind of equipment for anyone else throughout the movie. I think we just had a couple of days with him, though.
He had lost so much weight because he had just brought on this new trainer, Aldon [Baker]. We had these huge jersey’s for him and when he put them on he was practically swimming in them! (laughs) So in the final shot when he’s riding off into the distance his jersey is really flapping in the wind because he didn’t have the body to fill it out! (laughs)
One part of the film that almost didn’t turn out was that sequence during the breakdown where RC’s training on his supercross track. I was just posted up in a cherry picker filming him do laps, because we didn’t have any control over him during that part of the day. I realized after he had already finished his training that I had shot the entire roll of film wide open, like at an f/2. I should’ve been closer to an f/16, you know? Back in the day you could shoot on film at say, an f/11, and you’d be fine. Now with video cameras you try to shoot wide open all of the time, it’s different now. You could get away with shooting at f/11 or f/16 back in the day, but I didn’t and I fucking blew it because the film was nine stops overexposed. I said, “Forget it, it’s done!” When we got to the telecine session and that part was coming up I told them to fast forward it, but we found an image there! There was actually an image on the screen and it wasn’t totally blown out! It looked like old newspaper almost, and we just went with it. What I thought would turn out like garbage ended up being one of my favorite parts of the movie.
So, I guess you can shoot ten stops over! (laughs) I dare you to do it!
I mentioned at the top of our call that there’s just something about this movie… I feel like this film goes beyond “motocross movie,” it almost transcends that. It’s a great movie about motorcycles, it’s not just a motocross movie.
Did you guys feel like you were breaking the mold with this one?
I don’t think we really knew we were making a “classic.” I definitely knew I wanted to do something different, you know? There’s a reason why they hired me to do this film, because Fox didn’t want to rely on the Crusty formula. I had an intention to elevate the sport with this film because I was just so enamored by it as a newcomer. I found it all very interesting. I probably watched On Any Sunday like, twenty-five times. I don’t remember the last time you watched that movie, but that feels pretty classic to me. Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday with Steve McQueen! Be still, be still my heart. (laughs) But yeah, I don’t know that I can say we were “transcending” anything, we were just trying to do a good job. We tried to be artful, but also mindful at the same time.