Keoghan Melds HD Formats To Create Feature Documentary

When Phil Keoghan, host of The Amazing Race, got on his bike in Los Angeles in the spring of 2009, he knew he would keep riding until he reached New York City 40 days later, documenting the journey in a video blog. What he did not know, however, was that those four-minute video entries would become the basis for a feature-length HD documentary, The Ride, which begins a 10-day national theater tour on Feb. 3. Keoghan raised more than $500,000 for the national MS Society during his ride, and he hopes to use the film screenings to reach $1 million.

The Daily Grind
Keoghan is a veteran of the television world, having spent 25 years working as an actor, author, television host, producer, director, and camera operator in more than 100 countries. Before embarking on his 3,500-mile cross-country bike ride, he decided to pack two Panasonic VariCams to document the journey and create the daily blogs that drummed up nationwide interest.

“I never actually set out to make a film,” he explains. “I thought we had to document the ride, so I decided to take a friend of mine, Scott Shelley, who’s a camera operator I’ve been working with for 19 years, and a young editor. Every night, after shooting all day, we would set up a little edit suite in the hotel room, and we would post a daily blog.”

The hardest part of the ride, Keoghan says, was off the bike. After starting every morning with a press event, he rode 100 miles, set up an edit system, and worked into the early hours of the next morning cutting and posting material for the blog. A tracking device on his bicycle linked to the blog, enabling fans to greet him as he passed, sometimes offering him refreshments along the way. These fans would later prove to be critical to the success of the film, as Keoghan reached out to them for their home footage to supplement his own.

A Two-Man Band
Keoghan is accustomed to working with a lean production crew, but, for this trip, it was just himself and Shelley.

“We did everything [except edit the video] — producing, directing, whatever pieces we wrote, sound, everything down to labeling tapes,” Keoghan says. “It was extremely challenging at times, but it was back to real basics and back to the way I first started in television.”

Both Shelley and Keoghan owned VariCams, so they used two cameras to capture footage from the ride, one equipped with a long Canon lens and one with a wide-angle Canon lens.

“Scott was on the bike shooting all the close-up, in-the-face material, and then, every now and again, we could radio ahead to the support vehicle to go a few miles up the road, and I’d get my Dad to help set up the long-lens camera,” Keoghan says, noting that his father, John, came along for the ride. “Scott would zoom ahead with the motorbike, switch out to the other camera, and get those beautiful long-lens shots of me from a distance. I’d go by, my Dad would pack up everything, and we’d carry on.”

Keoghan put on his own microphones and changed his own batteries; Shelley monitored sound while shooting on the back of a motorbike, riding at 30 miles an hour; and they both took stock of tapes and batteries to keep everything charged. It was not an ideal production environment, but they made it work.

For 10 days in the middle of the ride, Shelley returned home to visit his family, so Petr Cikhart took over camera duties.

“It was nice to have the two different styles of shooters,” Keoghan says. “Petr came right in the middle of the ride, which worked stylistically because Scott was there to bookend the pieces.”

From Four Minutes to Feature Length
Upon completion of the ride, Keoghan had more than 200 tapes of footage that was too beautiful to sit in a box, so he hired an editor. Over the next year and a half, he invested a great deal of money and time into turning those tapes into a feature-length documentary, with some help from fans along the route.

“We reached out to everybody along the way that we had come into contact with, saying that, if people had any material that they would like to share, please let us know,” Keoghan says. “We started collecting footage from consumer HD cameras, and, all of a sudden, we had a totally different perspective and some really great material. There was even a clip from a cellphone that we included in the film.”

From a technical standpoint, making all of those HD formats match up in the final product, which is 1080p23.98 HDCAM, was a brand-new challenge.

“I don’t know if there’s any HD codec that we didn’t work with,” he says. “We had 1080p, 1080i, HDCAM, DVCPRO50, HDV, stuff off of cellphones and Flip cams, and we had to standardize it all. With [Adobe] After Effects, we de-interlaced all the 1080i material and then shot some supplemental material.”

Great Content Trumps All
Had Keoghan thought about doing a film when he set out on the cross-country ride, he would have chosen cameras that allowed tapeless workflow and proxy files, and arranged for better audio. But, overall, he was impressed with the quality of the film that he was able to produce, given that he never intended to make one.

“A lot of times, people get hung up on the technology, and they forget that technology needs to accompany great content,” Keoghan says. “I want to use the latest and greatest technology, but, if I have to make a compromise, I’m going to choose a great shot over great technology any day.

“I’m very proud of the final product,” he continues. “We did a great 5.1 stereo mix, and it’s been so much fun understanding what it takes to get a film into a theater. When you work in television, it’s a totally different world.”

Regal Cinemas will be hosting screenings of the film in 10 cities across the country, beginning in Los Angeles on Feb. 3 and ending in New York on Feb. 18. All the box-office proceeds will be donated to the MS Society, and the film will also be available for download. Visit www.noopportunitywasted.com for more details and to purchase tickets to the screenings.