Digging Deep with Documentary Filmmaker Todd Huffman


Todd Huffman New cover photo

 

“It is really cool [being at the premiere of your own movie], I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. I don’t know if it makes it entirely worthwhile, but if you didn’t make a lot of money at it, at least you made a lot of people smile.”

 

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Alright, I really don’t have much to banter about for this installment. We’re at installment eleven, which in terms of achievement is kind of like turning twenty. Too far past the allure of privileges gifted at eighteen, but too young to enjoy a proper night on the town. Eleven is eleven, the Tuesday of integers.

My next subject is documentary savant Todd Huffman, who you might know from his TV show “The Motocross Files,” or standalone documentaries like “The Carlsbad USGP: 1980” or “Penton: The Story of John Penton.” The guy has a penchant for storytelling and knows how to pick his topics, probably because he’s been around the block a time or two. Todd knows what it takes to make a documentary: who to hire, who to talk to, where to film it, and most important of all, he knows why he does it – to tell the best damn stories there are to be told, and to tell them right. We’re just lucky he likes motorcycles! I’m sure Todd could lend his talents to many a sport or genre and present it with the meticulous accuracy he does heroes like Brad Lackey and Roger DeCoster, but thankfully he stays connected to his two-wheeled roots. All that being said, I was very excited when he sent me a message saying he wanted to come on the show.

That’s the other thing, I guess this is a show now? Todd becomes our first guest on the inaugural stream of World of Echo Radio, where you can now listen to me stammer incessantly over the phone! This ain’t no Pulp MX or DMXS, but hopefully you can breeze through our conversation with some headphones if you’re pressed for time.

Discussion includes: Growing up on moto and BMX in NorCal, meeting Don Hoffman at the Pipeline in Upland, why Speed Channel picked up “The Motocross Files,” stories from premiering “Penton: The Story of John Penton,” upcoming projects, and much more…

 

Listen below or directly on anchor.fm!

[audio https://d3ctxlq1ktw2nl.cloudfront.net/production/2018-9-19/5245837-44100-2-2947378fd8e78.m4a ]

 

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World of Echo: Admittedly, I don’t know a whole lot about you, Todd. I of course had heard of The Motocross Files through the grapevine (though too young to appreciate it when it was released), but other than that I’m a little lost. I want to first get a sense of who you are as a person, and as a filmmaker. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be part of the “older guard” of filmmakers, bred on filmmaking, as opposed to today’s shortened video formula.

Todd Huffman: Well, I’ve only been doing these motocross videos since about late 2003, I think that’s when we shot our first interviews for The Motocross Files, so we [jumped in] on digital with our Panasonic Varicam. That camera had just come out at the time and we bought one of the first ones, so it hasn’t really been that long, right? I’ve been involved in the two-wheeled business for a long time though, mainly on the bicycle side, as I was the director of marketing for GT Bicycles for ten years and we produced a lot of BMX and mountain bike TV shows / commercials. My current business partner, Don Hoffman, we worked together at GT – so we got together in 2003 and started doing our own thing with Pipeline Digital Media. So, I’ve been around but… I’m not a camera operator! I can barely edit, I can’t shoot. I can tell the people where to point the camera but they’re the ones responsible for making sure it’s in focus and getting the exposure right.

It’s interesting to hear you’re relatively new to filmmaking in relation to motocross, but I’m curious about this BMX background. Did you ride a lot as a kid?

When we were kids in the seventies we just wanted to be moto guys, right? We pretended we were Roger DeCoster and Marty Smith riding our BMX bikes. We had dirt bikes, but we were too poor maintain them or race them, so we all got into BMX racing because it was cheaper and that was what was really blowing up at the time. I got into the BMX side of things as a participant, but deep down we were always still moto guys, so we’d watch [ABC’s] Wide World of Sports: Carlsbad USGP. The creator of that, Gavin Tripp, just passed away a couple weeks ago and I spoke at his celebration of life service the other day – which was really neat and sad all at the same time. Here you are as a kid, being inspired every January watching your sport on TV for the one and only time of year it’s on, then here you are forty years later speaking at [the creator’s] celebration of life event with Roger DeCoster sitting in the audience.

That’s a journey right there. So, you were kind of like the kids in the opening of On Any Sunday?

Yeah! That was us, really. I’m from northern California, really close to the original Hangtown motocross track in Plymouth before it moved to Prairie City in 1978, so we’d go to the AMA opener at Hangtown in Plymouth. We were just a bunch of grubby little kids running around with our JT hats on getting roosted and thinking that was fun. That opening to On Any Sunday though, that was us. Again [like Tripp’s service], thirty years later I got to interview Bruce Brown for The Motocross Files!

 

“At the heart of it I’d rather try to make the audience feel a little something in their throats, even if there’s a ‘tough guy’ in there. I’d much rather have a moment like that than some crazy drone shot of a whip or scrub.”

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So yeah, we raced a lot of BMX. I was kind of a theatre nerd too, so that’s what got me into wanting to make movies and be a producer. I became a pro BMX racer in the early eighties and moved from northern to southern California to become a filmmaker in Long Beach. It was there that I got involved with SE Racing, which was like the Pro Circuit or the FMF of the BMX world, one of those small, hardcore brands. I worked there, I was going to school, and racing, before I got involved in business side of BMX. Bob Morales (of ASV Levers) and I became business partners on a little BMX bike distribution company. We did that for a few years before we got bought out by GT bicycles, where I worked for ten years before I started doing this. It’s been kind of a weird journey, from being super into dirt bikes and maybe becoming a filmmaker, to actually doing it… forty years later. (laughs)

I love this BMX riff, I’m trying to remember all I can right now from that documentary: Joe Kid on a Stingray. You ever see that?

Yeah! Yeah, the Plywood Hood guys made that years ago. I know all of those guys. I raced against all of those guys!

I had a hunch, you being a BMX’er in the eighties. I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, I thought you maybe might’ve been in that thing! (laughs)

A lot of that footage came from Bob Hadley, who was the original founding member of the National Bicycle Association’s pro division. He worked for us at GT Bicycles.

. . .

You know, [World of Echo], for me it’s all about – people just want to see good storytelling, whether it’s BMX or motocross. At the heart of it I’d rather try to make the audience feel a little something in their throats, even if there’s a “tough guy” in there. I’d much rather have a moment like that than some crazy drone shot of a whip or scrub. To me, a good story will have more memorable moments.

That’s something I really wanted to explore with you, the in’s and out’s of documentary filmmaking. I know it’s a broad question, but what does the process look like for you – front to back – in making a documentary?

The first part is… you have to have the passion to do it, because at the end of the day these are all passion projects, nobody is getting rich off of them. Nobody’s throwing money at guys like Troy [Adamitis] or myself to tell moto stories, so we get a bit more – not jaded but, you know? I don’t know what the word is, but as you get older you lose the idealism behind making documentaries because at the end of the day, you do have to get paid. After doing so many of them you realize how much work it takes. So, first and foremost there has to be passion, and you have to have a good story. You have to have the right story to tell. You start with that, and then it’s just a matter of knowing all of the attributes of the story, finding out why the story is important, then find the people who are needed to tell that story and start making a list. See who’s available, make a bunch of phone calls, and hope at some point you can find a way to pay for it and get your crew lined up.

We have a spreadsheet that we start with all of the names in one column, and if somebody thinks they want to be interviewed, they get marked in yellow. If they say they want to be interviewed, they get marked in green, then blue after we film them. If they say no, or died or something, they get a black. You just start marking them off. You know, for the Penton movie, we shot one hundred interviews. One hundred, for one story.

 

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I feel like the documentary is the least technical discipline of filmmaking, in that you aren’t hauling huge rigs around with an assortment of lenses and gimbals. Like you said earlier, you’re not the guy going after the epic drone shots. You lie on the other side of filmmaking as a producer, not as someone who’s in the field.

I’m a producer / director / writer, so I do go in the field with my guys and assist where I can, but when it comes time for the sit down interview, I get real picky about what those look like. I’m picky about what the lighting looks like and everything. We have a really good crew that knows what I like and knows how to do it, so we don’t have to go back and forth very much before I’m going, “Alright, that looks awesome. Let’s do it.”

You’re the guy asking the questions?

Correct.

How particular do you get with your questions? Is it a lot of very vague, open-ended stuff, or are you very meticulous in how or what you ask people?

I try not to ask questions that I’m just going to get a “yes” or “no” out of the subject. They’re sitting there for a reason, right? Depending on who they are or what part of the story they fit in to, whether they’re a primary or secondary part of it, you know what you want to talk to them about. The best thing is if you go into an interview having read a book or an article and get to know a person’s career highlights, or whatever you need to know, you can ask them about that. “Hey, Bob Hannah, can you tell us about the time you beat Marty Smith at Hangtown in 1976?”

He told that story a million times, but you have to ask it because you have to get your own version of it, right? It’s the thing that may come up in the interview that you didn’t know about, that you can now ask a follow up question to expound on this newfound information. Crap, thirty percent of our stories we didn’t know about until the stories came out. Nobody knew about it! That’s the best part.

When you started The Motocross Files, was documentary filmmaking something you had to learn along the way, or was it already ingrained in you and you just applied it to this new project?

The brief history with that is, my business partner Don Hoffman and I, we named our production company Pipeline Digital Media because his family ran the famous Pipeline Skatepark in Upland, a skatepark in the Bandlands where Stacy Peralta, Chris Miller, Tony Hawk – all of those guys cut their teeth. It was also home to the original BMX King of the Skateparks contest with Eddie Fiola, Brian Blyther, and Mike Dominguez. That’s where I met Don.

So, Don was friends with Stacy Peralta and when the first Dogtown movie came out, that was about the time all of this nostalgic stuff started happening in action sports, because all of the sports were mature enough to look back on. Him and I were thinking about doing a TV project around this nostalgia, and we wanted to do something with skateboarding but Stacy had already done that. We also talked about doing BMX but agreed that the market was a little too small. So I said, “Hey! Let’s do something with motocross.” Because as a kid, we only saw motocross once a year on the Wide World of Sports, so our worlds lived in 2D in the magazines. No one had ever really heard from the likes of Brad Lackey or Roger DeCoster.

We had some people in the bicycle industry who knew how to get ahold of Brad Lackey and Marty Smith, and those were the first two interviews we shot in the winter of 2003 / 2004, and that started the whole thing. Brad was the first interview, Marty was the second. We had this new Panasonic Varicam as well which, at the time, took awesome pictures. The camera guys knew what we wanted because we played off of the Peralta / Dogtown thing for the look, and what Peralta did kind of set the tone for us. I give Stacy a lot of credit for that.

That’s crazy that Don’s family ran Upland. I’m a pretty big fan of skateboarding, so once you mentioned that my ears perked up a little bit. That’s as iconic as it gets. Ground zero, almost.

It’s almost ground zero next to Venice and Dogtown, right there with all of the other stuff going on, just inland. (laughs) The Eye of Mt. Baldy… it was all kind of a part of it, you know?

Even after we shot those first two interviews though, we made a short sizzle reel for it, we showed it to a few people but it took all of 2004 and most of 2005 before Speed Channel finally ordered five episodes. We had a whole slate of ideas for people to cover by then. They said they’d take five episodes, but they told us that at the end of September, and they wanted the first episode by the end of November.

Oh my god.

It was a crazy, crazy schedule, but we had to take advantage of it! We picked the five guys, and I credit Davey Coombs for this, because when he found out who our first five guys were he wrote something along the lines of, “This is basically our answer to ‘Behind the Music’, and Todd really picked the Mt. Rushmore of Motocross.” I was pretty proud of that because I was pretty much unknown in the industry, and after he wrote that I knew that we picked the right guys.

 

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“The Motocross Files” Season 1, from left: “Bad” Brad Lackey, Marty Smith, Roger DeCoster, “Bad Boy” Rick Johnson, and Bob “Hurricane” Hannah.

 

I’m sure there was some pressure to hit it out of the park, being as though you got a great opportunity to produce it for Speed. Was there a lot of deliberation in picking the first five?

Well, those guys were on the list already, you know? We already spent some money shooting Brad and Marty so those two were already in the can. In January or February, during Anaheim One, Two, and Three, the AMA got ahold of our little sizzle reel and they said they wanted to do some short little stories for this museum they just opened up. We ended up getting to do these short interviews in this tiny medical closet, and if anyone’s been to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, if you go to the show office there’s this tiny medical closet where some of the doctors hang out. We shot these interviews in there, and that’s where we met Ricky Johnson, Bob Hannah, David Bailey, Mike LaRocco, Kevin Windham – all of those guys.

Nothing ever came of that project though, so we were just sitting on all of these awesome interviews of these guys all talking about each other, like two days worth of interviews. It just worked out beautifully, we had stuff that no one was going to use so we got to use it for the first season. We got kind of lucky, really. [Around this time] we also had discovered this technique for animating still photos, my partner Don discovered it in a movie called The Kid Stays in the Picture, which is about famous Paramount Pictures producer Bob Evans. You’ve probably seen the technique now, where a photo looks like it’s 3D or “moving,” dirt flying everywhere. We were the first ones to do that in sports, first ones.

Oh, ok!

…And don’t let anyone tell you differently. (laughs) That was the reason Speed took the show.

Really?!

The programming guys saw those still pictures we put in that original demo of Brad Lackey and Marty Smith and this guy said, “You know, I’ve seen that movie The Kid Stays in the Picture, I’ve seen that technique and I’ve always wondered how that could work for sports, and you guys just did it.” Literally, that’s how the first five episodes of The Motocross Files went to Speed, because of that photo technique.

 

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Excerpt from the film, “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”

 

Coming back to the documentary process a little bit, how difficult do you find it to keep track of the mountains of footage you come back with throughout a project? Like you mentioned with the John Penton documentary, one hundred interviews is a staggering amount! How do you sift through it all? You must have some sort of team, even if it’s small.

Well, you just have to watch every clip. We do hire freelance people on occasion, like for the Penton documentary we hired a guy to look at all of the footage. We had a hundred interviews, and over one hundred hours of footage for a two-hour movie. John Penton’s interview alone was ten hours over two days, but the guy’s telling one hundred and twenty-five years worth of family history, right? It’s a lot of ground to cover. Almost all of the interviews were at least ten to fifteen minutes though, if you get them in a chair that long at least. You really just have to get people talking, because people are nervous anyway when they do this, so you try to just get them talking and pretty soon they forget a camera is even on them.

I’ll sometimes just spend five minutes shooting some BS with them to get them talking, then get them where I want. I just tell people, “Hey, let’s just have a conversation.” All of the stuff that people try to push on subjects like, “Can you remember to repeat the question in your answer? What was your first race bike.”

Then the subject goes, “…My… first, race bike… was a Yamaha Mini Enduro.”

I’ve found with all of these motocross people, unless they’ve done it before or are already media trained, it just makes them nervous. They get nervous that they aren’t doing it right. I don’t get wound up in that kind of stuff

But yeah, we have a guy who goes through all of the footage and transfers everything onto hard drives while making log notes, and these days all of the log notes are searchable. Since we’ve made the Penton movie in 2014, now you can export your clips to transcription services and they’ll send you back the dialogue with timecode that you can drop right into Adobe, and you can actually see the text from the transcripts in the timeline. All of that stuff is searchable, too.

That’s just insane.

The hardest part is once you start cutting the stuff together – you have a list of the stories – and if you’re cutting for a show like The Motocross Files, then you have five segments within the show that are each about a little over four or five minutes long, and you have to tell the story within those five segments. We’ll have the beginning, then get into their main career, the blowup, the retirement, and finally what they’re doing now. Those are the big moments. If someone had a huge career like a Hannah or RJ, you really have to whittle through a lot of stuff to get to those big moments. If they had a smaller career, not that it was any less important, but say a guy like John DeSoto, “The Flyin’ Hawaiian,” who didn’t win six or seven championships… he didn’t win any! But, he was known for this famous battle in Bruce Brown’s movie about the 1968 Baja 1000, where he raced against truck driver [Rufus] “Parnelli” Jones through the desert. It was famous because his feet are flying all over the place, and John claims Parnelli even ran into him at some point. We kind of had to build to that story, then tell it before going to commercial break. Or, tease it from a commercial break and set it up so it becomes the climax. You want those moments whether you’re doing something that’s eight minutes long, or two hours long.

 

“When [Brad] talks about racing behind the Iron Curtain, there’s guys with guns and tanks everywhere in Czechoslovakia, or wherever… I want pictures of that! Instead I’ve got a picture of him on a Kawasaki from five years later, you know?”

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You have to make hard choices, too. You start with all of these little sub-stories from your main story, then at some point you cut all of that stuff together and you’re sitting there with a five hour movie. The hardest part of the whole process, is cutting that down to time. It’s heartbreaking. I know because I’ve done it, I get married to it. My films sometimes are still almost too long, because I don’t want to cut stuff. I get too close to it.

You get attached, yeah. I’ve had similar stuff happen to me, even on shorter projects that are only maybe a couple hours of total footage. You want so badly for stuff to fit sometimes, either because it looks good cosmetically or, in your case, is an awesome aside to a story. Filmmaking is a lot like a puzzle though, all of the pieces have to fit. You can’t shoehorn something in, even if you really really want to. You just have to say goodbye sometimes. (laughs)

Yeah, you have to kick it to the curb. The best part about these days though is that, now there’s a home for that on the internet. You can post a fun little raw interview or bonus clip from your movie, now everyone can see it. One of my favorite Bob Hannah stories from our time with him was about him racing supercross in Italy, and it’s one of the funniest Bob Hannah stories that exists, but I couldn’t put it in the show because it was just too long and would be considered sacrilegious to cut it down. It didn’t fit in the story at all, but it was Bob Hannah racing this Italian supercross and he’s just flipping everybody off, the crowd wants to kill him and he’s just laughing at them!

 

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You definitely have to make hard choices, though. The key is that you have to get it to time. Hey, I’ve got a five hour movie that I have to get to two. We’ll do these things called “radio cuts,” where you just watch the movie with your ears. You cut it to time and just listen because you have a bunch of jump cuts on the screen, it looks like Max Headroom almost, but it sounds good. It flows good. The emotional stuff is coming through and then all you have to do is add some music and start filling the gaps with pictures. Then, it’s done.

Yeah… simple as that! (laughs) How hard is it to track down some of the archival footage for your shows? Most of your stuff covers historical moto, so you must be on the hunt for a lot of lost 8mm, or film photos in people’s attics.

In the beginning it was hard, we didn’t have anything and nobody knew about us. We were heavily reliant on the riders themselves to give us access to their archives, which is awesome – of course I’m going to scan every picture that Brad Lackey gave me! You don’t realize until after the fact that you don’t need every single thing they give you, and a lot of the times you only need something they didn’t give you. All you can wonder now is, “Where in the heck can I get that?” Honestly, we just started taking junk stock photos from the internet at the last minute trying to fill holes, but I’d end up with one hundred photos of Brad that I didn’t use.

When he talks about racing behind the Iron Curtain, there’s guys with guns and tanks everywhere in Czechoslovakia, or wherever… I want pictures of that! Instead I’ve got a picture of him on a Kawasaki from five years later, you know? We’re really particular about trying to show the right B-Roll for the right part of the story. In later years, starting with our Carlsbad USGP movie, we started doing our own reenactments, which was really fun to do but also really hard because we wanted those to look right too. But aside from the riders themselves, the guys at Motocross Action like Jody Weisel were really good about letting us have access to their photos. Davey Coombs believed in the show from day one, he’d let us use whatever he had lying in the Dick Miller archives. There’s always going to be certain pictures you need that you don’t have. It’s easier now because people actually send us stuff. Somebody goes, “Hey I got a bunch of old 8mm film rolls, thirty reels from Carlsbad that are going to get thrown away, you want them?”

“Yeah!”

The packrats become your friends! (laughs) The archival stuff kind of leads us into the post production world of film. Who would you say is critical to your team during the post process? That seems like one of the most intensive aspects of filmmaking, the documentary post process. The time it takes to cut that thing down takes an excellent team. Who would you say is best utilized in your corner?

Well, one of the biggest ones that I don’t think get enough credit are the composers, the guys creating the music. We’re a huge fan of having the right music for the story and the pacing of the piece. [The composers are there] giving breath between moments and changing the mood of the story with music. You just can’t put head-banging metal or electronic music over everything, right? It just doesn’t work. Our composer, Chris Brady (Motocrossed, Epic Ride) who does all of our music, deserves a lot of credit for giving us the pieces that set the mood for the story. You can have a clip of someone telling a sad story, and you’ll go, “Oh, that’s a bummer.” Then you add the right music to it and all of the sudden you’re bawling. It makes that much of a difference.

Of course, you also have your online editor. Dave Arnold edited most of The Motocross Files, most of all of our stuff, really. He’s the one who works with Jim Holley on the Supercross Live! program for Feld every year. In the past, he would do a lot of story cutting, but now I’ve learned how to do it myself, so I can get the story to where I want it and then they come in and smooth it out. They’ll be adding in all of the pictures to make it look right, and again, have the right kind of picture for the story. We’re real particular about have the right era, even. If we’re talking about Jeff Ward or Broc Glover from 1984, the pictures we show better be from 1984. Just because I got a rad shot of Jeff Ward from 1989, and it’s a bitchin’ jump shot, we’re not going use it because it doesn’t fit the story accurately.

 

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When I would go to Motocross Action Magazine to look through their file cabinets, I would spend the first half of the day just organizing all of the photos into the right era, because their files would be chock full of great photos just thrown in there. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs. It’s so hard, [figuring out the era to identify riders]. At least Roger rode for CZ, Suzuki, and Honda. Even the Suzuki era is pretty difficult to identiyf. You learn what number they were in a particular year though, so you can start making piles. Motocross Action never had anything scanned either so that was part of the tradeoff, I would scan photos all day and give them copies of those pictures organized by the year. If someone rode for multiple brands throughout their career it was a little easier, but you get a guy like Broc Glover or Jeff Ward who raced their entire career on one brand, now you’re not only looking at the bike, you’re looking at what kind of JT leathers they’re wearing. Are they wearing a full face helmet, or an open face with a Jofa? What kind of a helmet was it, was it an Arai or a Bell? Sometimes the number on the bike is even different, if it’s something like the MXdN.

In later seasons of The Motocross Files, we would have all of the riders fill out a survey to help us with this. (laughs) Now all of the riders fill out a questionnaire to get some additional background.

  • What was your first bike?
  • Who was your first mechanic?
  • When did you win your first championship?
  • Worst crash?
  • By year, what number were you?
  • What class were you racing?
  • What kind of helmet were you wearing?
  • What kind of leathers were you wearing?

It helps us identify our riders and ensure our footage is accurate. So now we can go, “Oh, that’s Jeff Ward from 1985, because he’s got a number three on his bike and he’s wearing Sinisalo pants.”

You guys really hold yourself to a high standard. I’ve done small runs of photo scans, maybe thirty or forty, and I’m at the end of those thinking this is the most tedious task on the planet. You’re out here hundreds of photos deep in the MXA archives!

In later season’s of The Motocross Files we started using a motion controlled camera that allowed us to forego scanning some pictures. We still scanned some photos, but this rig allowed us to do more with stuff like photo albums and full-page newspaper spreads, stuff you can’t fit in a scanner. It’s a huge table that moves left/right, forward/back, and the camera is mounted above it zooming in and out. You’re now able to take someone’s pictures or photo album, medals… whatever, you can zoom in on a person’s face in a picture and then pan down to the number one plate. You set the computer to the rig up and it does it by itself. You can do all of this in post, but this allows you to do it organically (and faster). One effect that we did with it was for Bob Hannah’s episode. We had all of these pictures of him and our guys just started throwing down all of these 8 x 10 photos into frame, like dealing cards in a card game, and with the right chunk of music it worked out awesome. Sometimes we’d even have the guys hands in the frame to move the pictures, or turning pages in an old scrapbook, much better than just scanning a page out of an old scrapbook.

 

“Am I really going to have to use this shitty little piece of footage since it’s the only place I can get it? What do we do? We ended up playing the video in fullscreen mode on the computer, pointed our camera at the screen, and hit record.”

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I’d imagine working with photos so often that you’d eventually have to find new ways to present that in your documentaries. It’s a unique medium to present on film, photographs. Still images on the movie screen.

You’d be surprised at how often we improvise to make stuff happen! The Penton movie, we had the approval to use this guy’s footage from France, it was of the 1981 ISDE, but he didn’t have the original film anymore. Someone else had posted it online though, but the problem there was that it was only 240p or 360p, and we’re making a 1080p full HD film for the theater. Am I really going to have to use this shitty little piece of footage since it’s the only place I can get it? What do we do?

We ended up playing the video in fullscreen mode on the computer, pointed our camera at the screen and hit record. Now we have a 1920 x 1080 version of this crappy little video, but it’ll look alright now because we captured it in 1080p. It looks way better than if we tried to rip the original 240p YouTube video file. We didn’t have to stretch it.

Oh, yeah. It’ll just get all garbled up that way.

Yeah, exactly. It’d just fall apart.

It’s funny, one moment you have this high tech rig set up with a camera that can move to any position on a dime, the next you’re literally just recording a computer screen with your camera on a tripod trying to get a historical clip! It’s high tech meets D.I.Y.! I suppose this all leads us to the end of the filmmaking process, the premiere. Did you guys tour the Penton documentary?

We actually had two premieres for the Penton movie. One was at the big Ohio theater in Cleveland, Ohio, because that’s where all of the Penton’s came from. We had like eight hundred people show up to watch the story of this beloved family and character from the Cleveland area, so we had to do a premiere there. It was awesome because it’s a beautiful place and everything, but I didn’t realize until about fifteen minutes into the movie that the projector’s brightness was set too high. As soon as it got to the black and white photograph section, everything started to look blown out, and nobody noticed it but me.

Oh, of course!

Everyone was loving it, but I’m off going, “Oh my god… this is horrible.” A few weeks later we had the industry premiere in Hollywood at the Egyptian and the whole motorcycle industry came out, and the Egyptian has the perfect theater and equipment, so it looked and sounded awesome. After that it was off to the theaters with Gathr Films. I think we were in one hundred theaters with that film.

You’d present it at all of the theaters?

No, we used Kickstarter to fund a big portion of the film, and then we connected with a distribution company called Gathr Films who also used crowdfunding to book theaters with excess capacity. They’d rely on the followers of these niche movies, in this case die-hard motorcycle fans, to host the movie. These people would create demand through social media and reach out to their local theaters, and once they reached fifty seats or whatever, they’d get to see the movie. We were the first ones to kind of use that process, and we’re probably going to use it in a big way on some of the next films we’re doing.

Real quick, I liked that you mentioned your inner-monologue when the projector brightness was off at the premiere. I think that well-illustrates the relationship filmmakers have with their films. Watching your end product as the producer is almost like a magician watching his own act, he can never fully enjoy it because he knows all of the tricks. You never really get to see your movies for the first time because you have to watch it piece by piece first.

I mean, at the end of the day you’re usually going to be your own worst critic, and I think that you should be because you should always try to do better next time. You want to be critical, but the best part is just seeing people enjoy it. You’ll get some pats on the back when it’s over, or see someone wipe tears out of their eyes. That’s good stuff. My favorite part of this whole process is when people who don’t know the stories, whether it’s The Motocross Files on TV, the Penton movie, the Carlsbad movie, whatever – they enjoy it, they get something out of it, and hopefully they’re moved by it. When we were getting ready to do season three of The Motocross Files, I was working on the Danny LaPorte story and looking for a guy who was his teammate on factory Kawasaki during Baja, this guy Paul Krause. I was trying to get some pictures of Danny from Baja, so I call Paul and I go, “Hey Paul, this is Todd with The Motocross Files.”

He goes, “Oh yeah! I’ve watched the show, it’s awesome.” Then he just jumps right in and tells me this story about him and his kid at the Oakland supercross.

He goes, “I’m at the supercross with my nine-year-old, and I had never met Brad Lackey before, but he was in Oakland signing autographs. I went over and talked with him and then when I walked away I asked my nine-year-old son, ‘Do you know who that was?’ He whines, ‘Yeah Dad… that’s Brad Lackey, America’s first world champion. I watched the show!’”

 

brad-lackey-husqvarna-1
Lackey.

 

(laughs)

Right? That’s the ultimate compliment, the fact that a nine-year-old gives a shit about a forty-year-old world champion.

Exactly.

More recently on the Penton movie, John and Jack Penton went to several screenings in Florida, Maryland, Alabama – all over the place. They were the VIP’s at a lot of the screenings getting flown in by motorcycle dealers. John told me he was sitting with this young gal, and he was chatting with her because she didn’t know who he was, even though he’s the star of the movie. She’s like, “My boyfriend brought me to this thing, I don’t even like motorcycles… but he made me come.”

They started to watch the movie, and I don’t think John told her who he was, because he was able to catch a look at her during the movie and she just had tears streaming down her face, practically bawling. Probably because the film has got some pretty sad moments. He just thought that was the neatest thing. (laughs) Usually it’s when people don’t know anything about motorcycling, when you can get a reaction out of them, that’s some of the best stuff in this business.

That must be an awesome feeling getting to be at a premiere with your project and getting to see everybody’s reaction to it. Nearly, really all of my work has been released online, so I’ve never gotten to experience something like that. I imagine it’s very visceral. You’ve probably got a million things going through your head about whether or not the audience will react to a certain part, but then they do react and it’s exactly how you intended. I bet that’s really cool.

It is really cool, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. I don’t know if it makes it entirely worthwhile, but if you didn’t make a lot of money at it, at least you made a lot of people smile and maybe tear up a little bit. You start to think, maybe we do know what we’re doing. Maybe we did find the right story that needed to be told, and that’s what it all comes down to, finding the right stories.

That’s a little over an hour now on our call… don’t want to hold you up too bad. Got any closing statements, anything to plug? What’s next for Todd Huffman?

Well first of all, thanks for having me! We are working on some stuff, I know a lot of people are probably thinking, “Gosh, we haven’t heard from Todd in awhile, what’s he working on?” Well, we’re slowly shooting interviews for a movie about the Catalina Grand Prix, which was a famous dirt bike race on Catalina Island from 1951 to 1958. It went away and came back in 2010 and we shot that for On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, but the footage never got used, so we had all of this footage sitting around and figured: “Why not make a movie about Catalina?” We’re in the process of shooting interviews of all of the old guys, and all of the guys that were there in 2010. We’re going to have Ricky Johnson, Johnny Campbell – Kendall Norman, who won the race – Travis Pastrana, Ronnie Renner, Malcolm Smith… all of those guys are going to be in this movie. That’s coming out next year, in 2019.

We shot a little bit at the 2016 Motocross Des Nations in Maggoria, Italy for our movie about the 1981 MXdN, which is a much bigger project that’s going to take some real funding. It’s going to take a little longer than I’d like, but we’re really going to pull out all of the stops for that one with reenactments, rebuilding bikes, etc. That’s going to be the next big one. In between all of that there may be another season of The Motocross Files, as well as a road racing version of it that might happen, fingers crossed on that one. I’ve got thirteen or so new motocross guys that, if I had to end the show after season four, I’d be happy. (laughs)

And finally, back to my BMX roots, we have a project we’re going to start shooting in the fall about the JAG BMX team that came out of South Central Los Angeles in the late seventies and early eighties. These kids really went through some crap in their neighborhoods to race BMX and become world champions, so yeah. It’s a cool project, I’m excited about it.

That’s a lot of stuff to be looking forward to!

Yeah, you know. Like my Dad says, it’s all lumber in the attic. (laughs) Stuff to burn.

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