Projects come to us in many different ways. Briefing documents, phone calls, social media, carrier pigeon etc... Strega came to us with a visit from our good friends at Santa Cruz Bicycles.
The Juliana range were launching a new bike which was to be named after the Italian word for witch – ‘Strega’. Obviously, the only way to launch this bike was a full on spectacle witch-hunt! Horse chases, flaming torches, mob of angry villagers. The lot.
Where do we start?
The chance to take a completely different approach to a bike launch film doesn’t come along too often, and we knew this one was going to be a big opportunity for us to push ourselves in all departments. We were excited.
After enthusiastically throwing around Game of Thrones scale ideas, our next step was to break down the concept and work out our approach to each chapter, from art direction through to logistics. Without a GOT-sized budget, we had to be realistic with our expectations, but at the same time keep pushing those boundaries to really bring the idea to life.
Our biggest challenge from the beginning of pre-production, right through to the last day of shooting, was finding the right location.
We had to find a location which looked remote, could easily be placed in the 17th century (Juliana were big in the MTB scene back then too y’know), was accessible to crew, and had trails to suit both mountain bikes and horses in close proximity to one another. We were initially looking for a bothy or cottage in this location to serve as the witch’s home too, but after a particularly unsuccessful location scout, a light bulb appeared and we were converted to #yurtlife – which incidentally turned out to be much more authentic anyway.
Let’s start with bikes and horses though. There’s a reason we don’t often run into horses when we’re out on our bikes! For the horses to gain speed, we needed gradual inclines, firm ground, and no rabbit holes or rocks to ensure the safety of everyone involved. In complete contrast, to show off Anka and the Strega’s riding, we were looking for steeper, more challenging and interesting terrain. We had to find a balance between these terrains to set the chase scenes.
We scouted high and low in search of the ideal location with the right backdrop, and after several weeks of looking, we ended up finding an perfect spot close to home in Mugdock Country Park. The location was horse friendly with trekking trails through the park, stables next door, a network of bike trails for star rider Anka Martin to ride, two coffee shops, a bike shop and incredibly helpful staff… Winning!
With the location finally in place, and little over 2 weeks until the shoot, we quickly switched our focus to sourcing the yurt, props, costume, casting, and the joys of logistics and health & safety!
Day One of the shoot saw us beginning with interior scenes of the witch’s home. Using a yurt allowed us the flexibility to place it where we wanted for filming, along with the ability to really get creative and authentic with the art direction. This is where a very important person to the project comes in. To guide us through all things mystical was our very own white witch and art director, Oona.
Oona knows the witching world inside out and delivered a phenomenal level of authenticity to the whole project. Everything Oona used to dress the yurt and surrounding area was authentic or custom-made, with a few bike-themed twists. Candles, precious stones, hanging herbs, fabrics, and best of all – the custom-made altar from old bike wheels – it was incredible!
Juliana have a theme of naming their bikes after strong and powerful female legacies, and the Strega was no different. Who better to play that character then, than Anka Martin. We’ve known Anka for a long time but this was our first time working together. This project was unique for us and Anka though as we knew we needed more than just riding ability. We needed our main character get into the acting side to make this film work.
We knew Anka was awesome before we started, just not quite as awesome she turned out to be. She threw herself into the role of ‘Strega’ and could not have been a more committed, genuine and fantastic person to work with – she completely encapsulated the character from the first shot, and was a pleasure to work with from start to finish.
One moment in particular stood out for us all. We set up a long take of Anka reading an authentic Italian scripture from a leather-bound book before lighting the candles on the altar. The yurt was dimly lit with candles and subtle lighting. It was totally silent as we called ‘Action.’ What followed was incredible...
Anka found this voice, hiding behind her hooded cloak, which sent shivers through all of us as we filmed... The Strega was real! After the take we all looked at each other for a moment before bursting into amazement at the mood which had been created… This really was a very different product launch shoot!
The following days brought us up against the challenge of the horse chase. It was a huge learning curve for everyone. We found two incredibly skilled riders and horses who specialise in vaulting, which can only be described as gymnastics on horse-back. They were up for every challenge we threw at them!
Our first lesson was to understand that when the horses start running, they want to run! We had to start the days with shots which required slow movement before building up to a full chase. We started the chase scenes in open areas so we could all get comfortable with how the horses reacted, how Anka fitted in around them, and most importantly how we could all communicate to ensure everyone’s safety. After getting into each other’s groove, we escalated into the wooded areas where things were even more challenging. However, the outcome of these scenes was worth it for everyone.
The fourth and final shoot day was the big one. It saw us bring in a rowdy mob of villagers with the shared aim of hunting our ‘Strega’ down.
The mob arrived early to go through their make-up/mud-up ritual before finding their perfect costume. It was all good fun but the real action came when we got on set and handed them their flaming torches. Only lit after a thorough safety briefing and rehearsal of course!
Cue flames, atmospheric haze and we sent them running towards the yurt! This was one of the most fun mornings we’ve ever had! The noise of the flames coming from the torches, and the atmosphere created with the haze in the creepy looking woods really brought the whole concept alive.
The shoot finally came to an end on the shores of the Mugdock loch. Just as the sun was setting, the mob finally caught up with Anka as they forced her towards the waters edge… Would she sink or would she float? You’ll just have to watch the film to decide.
One thing which was almost beyond our control (Oona – we know you helped here too!) was the weather. Normally in Scotland we pray for sunshine and can rely on it being overcast at best. In this case, we were praying for overcast, moody weather – not much to ask in April you’d think, but on record, the second last week in April is known for unseasonal sunshine.
We were fortunate that we had enough cloudy, moody weather to keep us ticking along, and not too much of the dreaded rain, or worse, sunshine. However at those times when the sun wouldn’t be shrouded by a passing cloud, we had to adopt that age-old motto of ‘fix it in post’!
You’ll see from this Colour Grading Breakdown clip, the incredible work from our grading wizard Gav, to emphasise the mood created on set. With or without the weather.
From start to finish, this project was an incredible display of team work and dedication from all involved at every stage. We don’t know how to thank everyone who was involved enough. Maybe we should look into a sequel for next Hallowe’en?!