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An Interview on the Cinematography of 'The 90-Year-Old Cyclist’

2024.4.2

Florent Piovesan: Director, Camera Operator & Editor / Alex Botton: Cinematographer

 

Self-Introduction:

 

 1. Can you please introduce yourself, including your career, major, hometown, hobbies, and your role in the filmmaking industry?

 

Florent: I am a French Australian filmmaker currently based in the French Alps. I specialize in documentary and short commercial work, with a passion for the outdoors.

I have been a freelance filmmaker for 7 years and created my production company and online presence Of Two Lands in 2014.

Over the years I have worked with agencies and also directly for brands and businesses on projects that took me around the world including Antarctica. I also share what I have learnt on my YouTube channel Of Two Lands where I have more than 45 000 subscribers.

This allows me to also work with brands, especially camera and lens manufacturers. It also allows me to raise funding for my own documentary and passion projects.

When I am not filming I enjoy hiking, reading, as well as watching films and TV shows, and most importantly I love to travel and spend time with my wife and our 2-year-old son.

 

 

Alex: I am an Australian-born filmmaker currently residing in Kelowna, BC. After graduating from design school with a fascination for the art of film and darkroom photography, I pursued this passion using video as a catalyst to be able to experiment with film stocks, vintage lenses, light, and ultimately, the moving image. I can always be found with a 35mm film camera around his neck when I'm not on set.

 

 

 2. How did you get started in the field of filmmaking/cinematography, and what motivated you to pursue this career?

 

Florent: I started to film travel videos back when I was in high school using small cameras and it gradually evolved towards filming short documentary content as a passion project.

 

Alex: I started shooting films with my friends as an extension of my graphic design diploma, and instantly fell in love with the collaborative, creative, and problem-solving nature of filmmaking.

 

 

 3. Were there any filmmakers or cinematographers who influenced your style or approach?

Florent: Since I was a kid I have always been drawn to movies with either incredible scenery or films that had a very serious tone. Movies that might be different from what I do but that made me fall in love with cinema.

The Lord of the Rings was my first inspirational movie and then others later on such as Into the Wild, The Revenant, Moonlight, Macbeth (2015), and Call Me By Your Name just to name a few.

When it comes to filmmakers I would have to mention David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Denis Villeneuve amongst the ones I admire most and whose work I love.

In terms of direct influence director, Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and their use of natural light played a huge part in the style I have today with films like The Tree of Life and The New World.

 

Alex: I grew up skateboarding and late 90’s / early 2000's skate cinematography excited me. That combined with anything that Kevin Smith or Spike Lee inspired me, then I started getting into documentary filmmaking and went from there.

 

 

 

Overview of the Documentary:

 

 1. Before we dive into the technical details, could you provide a brief overview of the documentary "The 90-Year-Old Cyclist"? What inspired you to embark on this project?

 

Florent: The 90-Year-Old Cyclist is a life portrait of my grandfather illustrated through his love of cycling.

From his immigration to France from Italy as a teenager and the hardships that came with it, to his role and influence as the eldest brother in a loving and close-knit family.

Cycling has been a major part of his later life and has contributed to his good health and longevity.

And is also a reflection of how I see him as his grandson with his constant energy and unwavering positivity.

 

In this short documentary, we follow him on solo and group rides in the French countryside and we also get a glimpse of his daily life and routine in both intimate and shared moments.

 

I consider this to be both a portrait and tribute to his personality and it is probably my most personal and important project to date.

 

10 years ago I made a short documentary about my grandfather who was 80 at the time and still cycling every day. It was my first proper short documentary and of course, it was made with limited gear, experience, and budget.

Fortunately, my grandfather is still with us and very much cycling almost as often as before so I wanted to revisit this idea and create a new documentary for his 90th.

The plan was not to create a copy of the original one of course, but to shoot this with a bigger crew and create a new documentary with a different angle and stronger visual style.

For this one, I also wanted to include some of his brothers and friends and give the opportunity for them to express what they feel about my grandfather.

 

I feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to tell his story.

 

 

 

Cameras and Lenses Choices:

 

 1. What cameras and lenses did you use for this documentary, and why did you choose them?

 

Alex: We shot on Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras, both the 6k and 6k pro. Flo and I both own these cameras and are comfortable on them, but also love the color rendition of these sensors. We paired these with the DZOFilm Vespid Retro primes for a “clean vintage” look.

Flo and I both love using vintage lenses - specifically re-purposed vintage stills photography lenses (Nikon ai-s, Canon FD, Contax, and Leica R), but these lenses really can only be functional as a single shooter as they have their quirks. We chose the Vespid Retros because of their usability in a filmmaking team context. The same size outer diameter for matte boxes, hard stops for focus gears, and no external barrel movements were all a huge plus.

 

Florent: This documentary was filmed on both the BMPCC6K and the 6K Pro. These are my cameras and ones we know very well, so it made sense to use them for this project.

Originally I intended to shoot this on the DZOFilm Pictor Zooms for speed and to still have that 'cinematic' look we were after, but after chatting with Alex we realized that using primes would allow us more control creatively and also make for a beautiful image and achieve what we had in mind.

The regular Vespids were our first choice but as soon as we knew that the Retros were available, we jumped on the occasion. And I am glad we did.

 



 

 

2. Were there specific characteristics of these lenses that complemented the storytelling?

 

Alex: The retro look of these lenses was a no-brainer for us. The subject matter was old, the beautiful French location oozed character and we wanted our lenses to complement these things. Shooting a lens with the character was an obvious choice.

 

 

3. How did the lens choice contribute to achieving the desired visual style?

 

Florent: From day one I told Alex I didn't want a super clinical look for this project, I wanted a beautiful image of course but one with character, so the Retro really fitted the vision I had.

 

Alex: It's all in the subtleties - we wanted something with character and these provided it. From the flares to the depth of field.



 

4. Can you highlight the characteristics of Vespid Retro that you found particularly suitable for the project?

 

Alex: The falloff of these lenses was beautiful. They are usable wide open which is rare for vintage glass, and the shallow depth of field renders beautifully.

 

Florent: There was a great balance of character, sharpness, and flares. We could control these aspects or let them just happen organically.


 

Cinematography Approach:

 

 1. What was your approach to cinematography in this documentary, considering its personal and intimate nature?

 

Alex: Our consideration was that we wanted to be genuine in our storytelling but also provide a cinematic piece that presented beautifully. We wanted to slow down wherever possible and be extremely considerate in our framing and choice of locations and scenes. It was an intimate personal piece, and so we also wanted to do the project - and the subject justice.

 

Florent: We wanted this to feel like a documentary piece but have scenes and sequences that looked like narrative ones and that were carefully crafted and intentional in their look and movement.

 

 2. How did you balance capturing authentic moments while maintaining a visually appealing narrative? Can you provide specific examples from the documentary?

 

Alex: Benjamin was an incredible collaborator. He was constantly chuckling and asking us who would find his story interesting (apparently 350k and counting), but because the subject matter was cycling - something that he very much loved - he was always happy to do it again and again for our shot variations. And when we shot some of the bike maintenance scenes, he was keen to use it as an excuse to work on his bike anyway. And in true grandparent fashion, they were more than happy to cook for us and house us - often with lunches and dinners eating into our shooting time (not complaining at all!)

 

Florent: I think, like with all documentaries, we wanted to make sure it felt genuine and authentic. So essentially we wanted to capture the real way that my grandfather is riding or interacting with people but because it is family we were able to redo a lot of the scenes to make sure they were as good as possible. This allowed us to both get the core element of the subject but also to tailor it to our creative needs.

The lunch was probably the funniest one as it took probably 2 hours for them to eat that plate of pasta!

 

 

 

 

Adapting to Different Scenes:

 

 1. The documentary features various settings, from indoor interviews to outdoor cycling scenes. How did you adapt your cinematographic approach to suit each environment?

 

Alex: A fundamental tool we used was our false color to make sure that our subjects’ skin rendered more or less the same exposure value in every scene. Benjamin is a beautiful old man and his face tells stories so we wanted to respect and foster that.

We intentionally mixed up the piece between large daylight exteriors and dark basement interiors for a visual breakup. Bringing in a big soft light source helped us tremendously in the interior scenes.

 

Florent: 10 years ago I was on my own. This time I wanted to expand on that first documentary and have additional scenes to paint a bigger portrait.

That involved filming in different locations, both indoors and outdoors.

The key was to still maintain a consistent look and feel throughout the entire project, using the same approach for each scene and spending the time to get it right. From exposure to camera movement and framing we worked hard to create a diverse and convincing world.


 2. Were there specific challenges in maintaining a consistent visual style across different scenes?

 

Alex: It's always challenging to keep interior and exterior scenes consistent, but we knew that a heavy contrast ratio and moody color palette was what we were going for from day one. So we leaned into the heavy contrast whenever it presented itself that way. It was not only a documentary but also a chance to experiment a little cinematically.

 

Florent: Filming in the middle of summer meant we had to deal with extremely bright and warm outdoor scenes that would contrast with the interior ones. In the end, I think they really complement each other.

One of the key aspects was also the color grading in the post to maintain that look we spent so much time and effort creating during production.

 

 

 

Schedule, Challenges, and Solutions:

 

 1. What was the initially planned shooting period for the documentary, and how did it compare to the actual duration of the shoot?

 

Florent: Originally I planned to shoot this over 3 days, but since we were all available for a little longer and were staying at my grandparents' house, we pushed that to 5 full days.

 

2. Were there any unexpected challenges faced during the shoot, and how were they overcome?

 

Florent: The heat was a major one. Since we were filming a 90-year-old cyclist, we had to make sure he was okay and avoided filming around midday. The summer also meant early or late golden light, so we had to start early and finish late to make sure we got the footage we needed, and the days ended up being quite long and tiring.

 

 

 

3. Were there specific scenes or shots where the choice of lenses played a crucial role in conveying the narrative?

 

Florent: I think the sunset-riding scenes towards the end of the piece looked even better than we expected, as we got all those beautiful flares that really elevated the images and made for a memorable end-scene to project.

 

 

Team Member Selection and Collaboration:

 

 1. How did you go about selecting your team members, Alex and Clement, for this project?

 

Florent: I knew that I couldn't achieve what I had in mind on my own as I had one 10 years ago, so I brought in two filmmaker friends on this project.

 

The first one is Alex Botton. I have known him for nearly 10 years and we have worked on several projects together, both documentary and commercial.

He is a very talented DP who has a ton of experience having worked on loads of short-form content pieces but also feature-length ones.

He is also very used to working with a bigger crew on bigger sets, especially when compared to me.

So from day one, I knew I wanted him to be involved in this and act as the lead DP, especially when it came to the interviews and indoor scenes involving artificial lights.

We always had a similar taste when it comes to visuals and content in general, but also enough of a difference to both bring something to the table and collaborate.

So Alex acted as the lead DP and I operated the camera, that’s usually how we worked for most of the project outside of the car shots.

 

Alex also happens to be the stills photographer on set for both BTS and general content.

 

The second filmmaker is Clement Hodgkinson. He is a super talented drone pilot and DP as well with lots of experience, especially with outdoor content.

The main reason I brought him in was for his drone skills. When I first made the original doco I didn't have a drone, I just shot it on my DSLR.

Drones can bring a different perspective and for a cycling project, they're very useful.

Clement's role was also to capture BTS videos when possible and acted as a grip or 2nd AC depending on the scene.

 

 

 2. In what ways did your collaboration with them influence the cinematography of the documentary? How did their unique skills contribute to the overall vision?

 

Florent: As the director, I had a say in the framing and lighting, and I was also the camera operator most of the time, but this whole project was a real collaborative effort.

We all took part in everything, but we tried to have distinct roles as much as possible.

And I got Alex as the DP because he’s super talented and has a lot of experience which really showed in the final product.

I love shooting with natural light, but Alex is more experienced when it comes to artificial light, so this was a great combo!

 

It was a great experience to be able to bring in talented and close friends like Alex and Clement, and not only did the final product look amazing but we also had fun making it, I feel privileged to have been able to share such a project with people I both admire and love hanging out with.

 

 

 

 

Adapting to Documentary Style:

 

 1. Documentaries often involve capturing real-life moments. How did you adapt your cinematography style to accommodate the spontaneity of the documentary format?

 

Alex: Our doc was very much a cinema verite piece. It was a documentary about a cyclist, but it didn’t require a lot of real-time unrepeatable actions, which is why we were able to get creative with our frames and lighting. We knew what was going to happen in each scene, so we were able to light for it and recreate it when we needed to. Mostly it consisted of asking you show us what you're going to do before you do it please and then setting up for the action, shooting, and repeating.

 

Florent: As I mentioned before we still wanted this to feel like a documentary but we treated it like a narrative piece. We had control over most of the aspects and locations and the fact that I am very close to the subject made it easier to ask to redo certain scenes or specific actions.

That being said the language (French and English) between all of us was sometimes tricky and combined with his old age meant that some directional points couldn't be followed exactly as we wanted and therefore we had to adapt or move on.

 

 

 2. Were there particular challenges in maintaining a cinematic feel in a documentary setting?

 

Alex: Yes for sure. When we were outside and moving quickly, we were at the mercy of whatever the sun was doing as opposed to being able to have full control of the light. But luckily that is Florent’s strength and we were able to make some beautiful frames.

 

Florent: Filming outside never guarantees the image or look you have in mind. Summer can get very bright and harsh, so we had to pick our angles, use our neg when possible and play around with the sun and shadows.

The lunch scene is a good example of how important and powerful a neg can be to shape light.



 

Favorite Shots:

 

 1. Reflecting on the project, is there a specific shot that stands out as a personal favorite? If so, what makes it special? Were there technical aspects or challenges overcome in achieving that shot?

 

Florent: This is a hard question haha! I personally love the main riding sequence that the documentary opens with.

The close-ups of his face, the bike, and his hands. I think everything fell into place that day. The quality of light, the choice of focal lengths, and the colors of the blue jersey against the green foliage in the background.

Shooting someone cycling wide open with a 75mm or 100mm lens in a moving vehicle wasn't easy but worth it!

Another personal favorite is the one where he is working on his bike. I love the mood, contrast, and feel of these frames. I love them because I can see the difference between them and the ones I filmed 10 years ago in the same spot. It is a visual representation of our evolution as filmmakers.

 

 

 

Alex: I really liked the bedroom scene when Benjamin was getting ready to go cycling. It felt like a scene from a commercial or something that I’m more familiar with, but keeping it natural-looking was a fun challenge. In the end, it was more about what we could take away rather than add, lighting-wise.

We modified the windows with sheers and put up a small tube for some wrap, and that gave us what we needed.

I also really liked the interview frame. I think we did a good job of making a humble little garage look like a place of cycling excitement. I always really enjoy building a strong interview frame and asking myself ‘how can we keep adding to this to make it stronger and help tell our story?’


 

Reflection and Future Projects:

 

 1. Looking back, what aspects of the documentary are you particularly proud of, and what did you learn from the experience?

 

Florent: The first and most important thing is that my grandfather and my family enjoyed the documentary.

I made it for him so that's what matters, and it was quite an emotional moment when I first showed it to them in person.

 

I am also very proud of what we made and I am so glad I was able to make it happen and be able to bring in both Alex and Clement on this.

I wanted to make a bigger, better version of the previous one and I think we did that.

Being able to collaborate this way was such a great experience and the documentary turned out to be so much better than if I was just on my own. First of all because Alex did an incredible job lighting the interior shots, but also because they were both bringing their ideas to the table. I can’t wait to be able to create something with them again in the future.

And of course, having beautiful primes with a lot of character like the Vespid Retros and a proper lighting kit to cover all situations really helped us achieve the look we were going for!

This is the first time I approached the exact same subject twice and it was a challenge but I’m glad I decided to do it.

The fact that more than 400,000 people have now seen it makes me extremely proud and makes me hopeful that there is still room today for projects like these.

 

 

 2. Are there any upcoming projects or areas of exploration you're excited about in your filmmaking journey?

 

Florent: I want to be able to keep telling stories through my documentaries, but I also would like to dive deeper into short narrative work.

Aside from that I am looking forward to sharing more of my content on YouTube as well as exploring and capturing some of my travels as I have been doing for so many years.

I feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to make filmmaking my career, and I can’t wait to see what else is next.

 

Watch 'The 90-Year-Old Cyclist' on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgUC0zyu4p0&t=132s

 

And explore more of Florent and Alex's work on their YouTube channel:

Florent: https://www.youtube.com/@OfTwoLands

Alex: https://www.youtube.com/@alex-botton