Short film Jon (8 mins) grew out of writer-director Lexia Snowe's desire to capture the visceral, underdog thrill of cycling in Los Angeles. Using a GoPro to shoot the cycling action sequences (as well as some of the static shots), Lex herself plays the protagonist in this quest film about losing family and finding yourself. The film, on which Lex has been working in her spare time for the last 2 years, will be completed by summer 2019, and will be submitted to festivals in fall 2019.
Here are a selection of stills from the rough cut of the film-in-progress. Click on each image for notes from the film's writer-director (and star) Lexia Snowe.
Street signs offer tongue-in-cheek commentary on Sister's progress (or lack thereof).Style
Sister has not yet started her quest here, but is wandering around her brother's L.A. neighborhood in mourning. Even as Sister herself barely glances at it, the overall theme of the film is writ large on screen for a moment.Theme
Shot variety was important to me, particularly in the interludes between cycling/running sequences, which is when we primarily get to know Sister. In this close-up, Sister tests the handlebars of her lousy bicycle, finds them to be dangerously loose, and reacts. To add dynamism to the shot, the camera itself stands in for the handlebars and shakes from side to side as she tests them.Shot
I periodically use long shots to create a vivid sense of time and place in the film. Here, Sister cuts a lonely figure as she stands with lamps and trees tall above her.Shot
Here is what we cut to from the previous still -- a POV (Point Of View) shot of the empty bicycle bay. I use POV shots often, in order to boost audience empathy with Sister and to articulate her thoughts without dialogue. A close-up of her face follows this POV shot and tells us she is weary and disappointed to discover yet another empty bicycle bay.
An action film always has a "ticking time bomb" (sometimes literally a bomb) -- some reason why, if the hero does not act fast, things will get so much worse. In Jon, Sister only has a fixed number of days before she will run out of money and must return to her job in New York City -- or make a reckless decision like: stay in Los Angeles and continue her quest without money or employment...
Sister doesn't exactly have a CIA-sized budget to overcome the obstacles in her quest. Here she is, contemplating her only resources for repair of her lousy bicycle: band aids and sticky tape.
In the cycling sequences, I make selective use of POV shots of the handlebars (here patched up with band aids and sticky tape), generally to emphasize Sister's cycling inexperience (or, later, her growing confidence). These are achieved by mounting the camera on my chest or neck. But GoPro's fixed wide lens comes with some perspective quirks: you can see that Sister's arms look elongated and as though she is reaching in to the handlebars from the sides. Consequently, I only use handlebar shots in quick cuts, generally as she's turning (when the tilt of the bicycle makes at least one arm look more natural) so as not to alienate the audience with a glaringly artificial perspective.
The pocket belongings passed to Sister by LAPD offer insights into her brother's everyday life and passions. Here, she is opening his wallet for the first time. Trivia: the song title noted by her brother here is fictitious, with JJ being the name of my own brother.
After bicycle theft fails to set her back, Sister's confidence, both on a bicycle and around L.A., starts to blossom. She loses the hoodie with which she has been previously distancing herself from others, and adopts a few L.A. mannerisms: light clothing, shades (not pictured here) and a baseball cap, turned backward so that there is now nothing casting shadows down on her face. We see the baby-faced innocence (yes, I know... I am talking about my own face) that has been there all along, of course.
This is a shot from a tongue-in-cheek montage riffing on sports films. Think: Rocky, Karate Kid, and even Dirty Dancing. Our hero shows his determination to succeed by working on his punches/reps/steps at times when others have long gone home, in places meant for other things. Here's Sister building up her strength with pull-ups in a bicycle parking bay on Abbot Kinney. Yow.
As the release of cycling brings an unexpected joy to Sister's quest, I gave myself permission to have a little fun with the POV camera. In this shot, after a long ride, Sister staggers up to a water fountain in El Segundo and drinks -- all of it in her Point Of View (the water splashes the camera and creates a natural dissolve cut to the next scene). I was pleased to capture the plane taking off in the background because, you know, that's so L.A.
Once Sister has patched up a bicycle and mastered the basics of riding, she hits the L.A. roads in earnest. In a montage (intercut with shots in other locations), we see her fail to make it up this Santa Monica hill several times until she triumphs at last.
I wanted my film to capture the full breadth of L.A. terrain: the potholes and gridlock, of course, but also the breath-taking natural beauty that curls around the freeways and transmission towers like visual perfume. Here's Griffith Park full of morning-fresh sun and sweeping curves that made capturing the joy of cycling as simple as turning on the camera.
Hitchcock used low-angle shots to boost the menace in villains and places of imminent death/cunning. With the GoPro's wide-angle lens, however, I found a low-angle shot could have a different effect: it could capture tall buildings and objects in the background in a "looming" way that made Sister look small and disoriented in the foreground. Here she is, searching Downtown LA on foot.
One of the biggest challenges was making Sister look like she'd never ridden a bicycle before. Cycling has been a passion of mine for over half my life, meaning I move with a born-on-a-saddle fluency that is entirely wrong for this character (at least, initially). I got around this by analyzing footage of myself riding, and identifying specific motions that I would, as Sister, get wrong. Here I am with my foot slipping off the pedal, struggling to bring the bicycle to a smooth halt. The band-aid on my leg was genuinely required after shooting a crash montage the day before!
I modelled the end credit sequence on The Warriors (1979), whose opening credits play over footage of a subway train barreling through NYC's dark tunnels. I wanted similar background footage that would signal this film is about movement and Los Angeles. I created it by strapping the GoPro onto my back, so that it pointed up at the sky, and cycling around Santa Monica. In this ethereal perspective, rooftops, tips of trees and telephone poles flank a nice area of white space in center of shot for the credits.
Here I am in Downtown LA, out of character but still in costume, operating the GoPro camera remotely with my iPad (encased in a very necessary LifeProof protective shell). Using the GoPro iPad app, I was able to play back footage and change the field of view and frame rate without having to schlep over to the camera itself every time (when touching the settings would carry the risk of accidentally moving it).
In the final third of the film, although she continues to be frustrated in her search for the bicycle, Sister discovers something else instead: a pure and simple joy on this bicycle under this sun. The pain of the past and the uncertainty of the future are superceded, for a moment, by the present.
Among the reasons I cast myself as Sister is the reality of cycling in Los Angeles: driver awareness and road conditions have much improved, but a bicycle continues to be a high-risk mode of transport. Having cycled around L.A. for several years, I had road experience that only expensive training way outside the film's budget could replicate in another actor. In this shot, you see some of the safety equipment I used to protect myself on the road as I filmed: a Bern crash helmet, typically worn in high-impact sports such as skating and BMX stunt-riding, and fluorescent sweats. The hand-written note is my low-budget way of recording the GoPro camera position in the footage that followed.