Friday, October 29, 2010

Nurburgring Pt 2 (or the By a Newb for a Newb guide to the Nurburgring)

Ok... so you've got your mind set on finally driving this famous track that you've wasted so much time playing in Gran Turismo/Forza/GTR etc.  You know where it is (kinda), you know its open to the public, and you have plane/boat/flying donkey tickets that will land you somewhere close-ish. Now what?

Wait... Is it even a good time to go?  Will it be too hot/cold/crowded/rainy/windy etc
From what little experience I have, every season seems to have its advantages and drawback.  Summer is very popular as the weather is definitely adventagous, but it also means MASSIVE crowds, which just means massive traffic jams should the track close (and it WILL close for some reason during the day).  Late season is when I went (late October to be exact), and the weather at that time is VERY volatile.  One minute it will be bright and sunny, the next it will be overcast, then it will start to rain, then the sun might come out again etc.  It was also very cold, and cold + wet = slippery.  Keep that in mind when hitting those corners...

Getting to the Ring
See part 1 of this for an example of how NOT to get to the Ring.  Quite simply, while German public transport is probably one of the best in the world, the Nurburgring is just so far out of the way that even ze Germans kinda said screw it and cut back on the transport options.  If you must get there by public transport, make sure you've planned both directions, as buses have a nasty habit of running only every few hours, and in my case not running at all on the day I was leaving. will be your best friend here.  I haven't seen a trip planner quite like what they have on  It works, its pretty optimal, and it will tell you whether or not your public transport ideas will work.  Your goal from pretty much anywhere in Germany is to get to either Bonn or Remagen, then grab a regional train to Aubruck, at which point you will hop onto a bus (which thankfully runs 7 days a week) to Adenau.  Its actually not a bad journey as you get to see a lot of German countryside and vineyards, and if you've got the time it would probably be a lot of fun to just tour some of the towns along the way.  Adenau will be homebase, unless you're crazy (and cheap) like me and decide to stay "a little further out" in Wiesemscheid.  They have some decent hotels there, its actually closer to the Ring than Adenau, and if you have a rental car this is definitely an option, but for those unlucky enough NOT to have a rental, well... trust me, just stay in Adenau.

Getting a ride for the Ring
I'm assuming you don't know anyone in mainland Europe who has a car and is coming with you or letting you borrow it, cuz then why are you still reading this?  There are really 2 options for cars, taking your rental car to the track or getting a ring prepped car for the track.  Option A is the "how much do you enjoy risk" option and option B is the "how much are you willing to spend" option.  People definitely take rental cars onto the track, but most of them are smart enough to not rent them from either the UK or Germany.  Also, rentals tend to have crap tires, tired brakes, and who-knows-what-else kind of problems, so if you decide you are gonna bomb the course one last time that rental just might crap out on you in a big way.  Oh, and if the companies find out you've been to the ring, who knows what kind of penalties you'll incur...  In short (or not so short) I will only be describing option B, as its the one I went with and had a great time using.

Picking a ride for the Ring
What did you drive around the Ring in GT/Forza/GTR?  Probably something like a M3 or a GT3 or even maybe a STi right?  Well, forget about those for now, cuz as an Honorary Ring Newb (like me) you'll be looking at something all together more mundane.  The beginner car of choice for most of the Ring specialized rental companies seems to be the Suzuki Swift Sport.  Its got 130 roaring horses (they actually roar quite well once the rear insulation is stripped away) and every place preps their car with at least a bit of weight reduction (like insulation removal) and a roll cage.  Its very beginner-friendly car for quite a few reasons actually.  First, its light.  At around 1000KG those 130HP can actually do quite a bit of good.  Second, its FWD.  This will save your ass when you way overcook an entry or exit and need to save yourself from that armco looming in front of you.  Third, its forgiving.  This is a combination of lightweight, low power, and FWD working together here.  Its also forgiving because its got a 5 speed manual, and that means you'll probably really only need 2 gears for the entire track (3rd and 4th).  2nd is useful for a couple of the REALLY slow corners (and powering out of uphill corners) and 5th is only needed on the long back straight and the section before the gantry.  In short, the Swift will be your friend and won't actively help in your attempts to kill yourself around the track.   
"BUT BUT BUT" you may ask "BUT what if I... um... can't drive manual?"
Well first, shame on your for coming all the way out to the Nurburgring and not be able to drive properly.  Second, you're not out of luck, as most of the rental companies carry GTIs and Scirocco with DSG gearboxes.  They're quite a bit more expensive (almost double the price of the Swift really) but they're also more powerful (at ~220HP) and in the case of the Scroccio, much MUCH better looking.

But I'm rich and stupid!  I want something FASTER!
Well then... there's plenty of options for potential ring damage here.  The M3 is a popular choice (both e46 and e92 are available) as are various Porsches (GT3 being the runaway favorite).  However, I don't want to be anywhere near you if you decide to drive one of those on a first time out, no matter how careful you say you're gonna be.  

So Umm... whats the wallet damage gonna be?
Ahh... the inevitable question of how many organs you may have to sell to fund this little endevour.  Well, for those of use who aren't gifted with a trust fund, the total cost is actually quite reasonable.  Now, think about a track day back home.  A normal track day costs around $250-$500 for admission alone.  You may get instructor training, you may not.  You will be paying for your own gas, and after day's lapping probably your own tires and brakes as well.  So in the end, its gonna cost you AT LEAST $300-$600 not counting the cost of those new tires and brakes.  So how much will it actually cost to drive the Ring?  For a "reasonable" car (aka Swift or VW) you're looking at anywhere between 250 euro and 500 euro all inclusive (that means gas, tickets, the works).  For 250 euro (the option I went for) you get 4 laps in 2 hours (well, I took 3 hours, and they weren't too picky about it).  For 500 euro you get 6 laps and 4 hours to do it.  Honestly, if you're doing this with a buddy or 2, go for the 500 euro option.  You'll get a better car and everyone will get more chances to drive.  4 hours is enough for at least 8 laps if you've got two drivers, and thus a couple extra tickets might be needed but you'll definitely get a lot of laps in.  If you're doing it alone then I'm not sure if the extra laps (or time) are gonna be worth it.  There's only so much you can take in the first day, and after 4 laps I was feeling like I would either improve greatly on the 5th or crash.  There's also a 3rd option which is probably worth exploring and thats going through ringprojekt.  They do things a little differently as they charge not by time but by lap, and all their cars are quite interesting, as they're all Lotuses.  The Elise seems to be a great beginner car (low HP, lightweight, RWD) while the 11 looks like great fun in the sun and the Exige just looks nuts.  They're priced quite reasonably for being a "per lap" affair, and on the low end you'll spend around 250 euro for 3 laps in a Elise (something I was seriously considering).  Options options options, always a good thing.  (BTW... for the curious, a half day rental of a E46 M3 WITHOUT gas or tickets was 750 euro.  The guy who ordered it also got an instructor to come along with him, and that was another 250 euro.)

Alright, so I've got my car picked out and my stay sorted.  Now what?
This is where I kinda dropped the ball, as I hadn't forseen actually coming to the ring so I totally forgot to install any racing games onto my laptop.  Definitely grab a copy of GTR or some other game with the Ring on it and bring it with you.  Now, in the game, drive the course SLOWLY (I mean really really slowly) and get an idea of how things are laid out and where (approximately) the major corners are.  At the very least, know what corner comes after what.  This will help you avoid some of my embarassing moments entering a corner I thought was fast way too hot and having the car's ESP step in to keep me from doing anything I would regret.  Staring at a map won't help you as much as virtually driving the course will.

Whoo hoo! Time to drive!
Congrats on making it this far.  There's only a few final things to keep in mind...
1) You WILL do stupid things on the track.  You're driving it for the first time, and you will overcook both entries and exits.  It will look bad, and the guys behind you might laugh, but you'll be fine.
2) You WILL NOT crash.  People go on and on about how dangerous the track is.  The track is only as dangerous as you want it to be.  For the people I saw driving 30-40mph on a family tour... their danger level is practically zero.  For the guy bombing the track HARD in that GT3?  Danger level much MUCH higher.  As a Newb you'll be somehere in between that.  At certain points you'll push yourself a bit too far, and the track will bite you.  Just back off, slow down, and keep driving safe.
3) You WILL see crashes.  Crashes are a regular occurance.  You may not witness one in action, but you will definitely see the aftermath.  The ones I saw didn't look to bad, but then again, the track was shut down for 30 minutes and helicopter was brought in for one of them.  Its a race track and people get hurt.  Make sure you're not one of them.
4) You WILL NOT be afraid of the "scary" corners and places.  Bergwerk, Flutsplatz, Karossel... all famous, all quite tame for the Newb driver cuz you won't be hitting anything too fast (right, RIGHT?).  The corners you should concentrate on are the myrid of esses scattered across the track.  Any single corner give you the option of running wide if you screw it up.  Screw up an S curve and you'll be feeling rumble strip and maybe even a bit of dirt if you're not careful (ask me how I know...)  
5) You WILL have a beer when you're done.  Well, probably not just "a" beer, as Germans seem to have this great fascination with small beer glasses at any place except a biergarten.  

As you can see, I didn't give too much information about things "around" the Ring, like accomedation, things to do, food, etc.  The reason is simple... I didn't experience much of it because of my schedule and my lack of transportation.  There's far better sites with more detailed information on these topics from people who actually have done the research themselves.

I will just say that I had a great time driving the Ring, and its definitely one of those "life accomplishments" you'll be proud about for a long time.  

And finally, the obligatory lap video :)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On The Nurburgring Pt.1

I did it. 

Four laps, not one scratch on the car and only one "rumble strip incident".  A major life moment has been accomplished, and my only wish is to come back and be able to do it again.

A little background... 

The Nurburgring Nordschleife is located in town of Nurburg, Germany.  Well... "in" is not the right word.  The track actually surrounds most of the town and spreads into neighboring towns as well.  Its located deep in German countryside, and just getting to it is a feat in and of itself (as you will soon see).  This "track" isn't so much of a track as it is a long series of mountain roads that 1) are quite smooth and well maintained 2) is one way only and 3) has some conveniently placed armco and rumble strips.  In total there is 21km of drivable road, not counting the race only southern portion (Sudschleife) and the F1 course nearby.  To drive it, you simply show up in a car (or bike), pay 22 euro a lap, get in line, and go for it.  

Now... what about this place has brought me across a continent and an ocean in order to drive it?  Simply put, if you are at ALL a car enthusiast, this is your Mecca.  This is the holy land of driving, and at some point in your life you will make the pilgrimage here, drive the track, and leave a more enlightened person.  The journey is neither easy nor cheap, but its well worth every dollar (euro, pound... etc) spent.

So how did I get here?  

With much difficulty I must admit.  I'm at the tail end of my journey across Europe, and being a good European traveler I have relied only upon public transportation.  Now... for 99% of Europe this is perfectly acceptable, and is probably more convenient than trying to drive to it yourself in a rental.  For the 'Ring however... its a bit of an issue.  The most basic issue is knowing when the 'Ring is open.  Simply put... you don't.  They have a schedule, but that changes regularly.  Your best bet is to plan at least a couple days nearby just in case something dire happens on the 'Ring and it shuts down.  I unfortunately didn't even have this option, as during the cold season the ring is only open once or twice a week.  

Alright, so I committed to a date, made my reservations to put a roof over my head, checked to make sure Ring rentals were available (another important topic for later).  The trip was now set.  Great... so how do I actually GET to Nurburg?  Or in my case, how do I get to Wiesemscheid (where my hotel was)?  Well... the plan was quite simple in theory.  I start in Mainz, take a train to Remagen, take another train to Aubruck, take a bus to Adenau, and finally take another bus to Wiesemcheid.  Ok... so not so simple, but at least pretty straight forward, as I later found out I'd be taking everything to the end of the line (always a good sign...)  So on the day of, I go to the train station, purchase my tickets (the German train system btw is awesome) and head off.  

Issue #1: I was very short on cash at that point, so I thought I might stop by the bank when I reached Aubruck before I had to pay for my fare to Adenau.  Well, as it turned out my bus was waiting right when I got off the train.  CRAP.  I had about 3.60 euro on me at that point, and the fare was 4 euro.  DAMN.  After a bit of gesturing, some broken English about being short on money and needing a bank, the bus driver obvious knew I had no idea what I was doing and just let me on the bus without paying.  Whew...

So the bus arrives at Adenau market, and I know that I have about an hour to kill before the bus to Wiesemcheid is supposed to leave.  Well, no... I didn't "know" that as I totally forgot to write down the exact time.  I just knew I had time between when I arrived at Adenau and when I would leave.  Good.  Now... time to find a bank...

Issue #2: Finding a bank near Adenau market was an exercise in missing things right under my nose.  I looked like a total idiot wheeling my suitcase in circles asking people where the bank was.  First guy said it was out the door and on the right.  I go there... no bank.  Next guy says no... no bank this way, turn around and head back.  Alright... so I head back and try to see if the tourist office is open.  Of course, they close at 1pm (its near 4pm at this point).  Yeah...  So I head back and happen to spot a post office and a sign that says "Post Bank".  Well there's a start, so I go into the post office and ask the lady at the counter, and she says yes this is a bank, but no she can't give me any money.  I have to go to the ATM.  Now... one thing you have to know about European ATMs is that while numerous, they tend to be shoved into the most inconspicuous locations, often with no signs at all alerting you to the fact that there is indeed an ATM 50 feet from where you're standing.  So the lady tells me the ATM is around the building, and I head out and lo and behold.... AN ATM!  RIGHT NEXT TO THE DAMN BUS STOP!  Sigh...

Issue #3: Getting to Wiesemcheid.  So to bus finally comes (after I thought I had missed it going to find the tourist office), and I take the ride to the stop known only as "Potzdammer Platz".  It’s not on Google Maps, and the only place it showed up (quite literally THE only place) was on a single site for the local buses, which was only found after much stumbling.  Now, Potzdammer Platz is not actually a “Platz” (a traffic circle for everyone else) but rather a highway intersection that happens to have a traffic circle below it.  Getting dropped off there meant I still had about another mile and half to Wiesemcheid by foot.  Now, it was by foot next to not a B road but a two-lane highway.  Things are getting even better…

Picture this will you.  A lone Asian man is in the middle of Germany with a large backpack and a small wheelie suitcase and another small backpack.  He is looking around very confused, and finally decides that wander onto a major two-lane highway between Mainz and Cologne would be a good idea.  It’s also 5pm, which mean in another hour or so it will be getting dark.  You see why I was questioning my planning skills at that point…

Back to first-person view now.  I got up to the top of the highway intersection, and upon realizing that while the overpass had a shoulder protected by a guardrail, the highway really didn’t.  I was not about to wander down the highway with people buzzing me having just gone around the Nurburgring.  Up ahead however was a small path leading into the woods.  Now, I knew that there was a small road just north of the highway, and this path was going north.  Hmm….

So I get started on what has to be a tractor road (2 strips of gravel and dirt with grass everywhere else) and after a while, it begins to turn left.  Great… well, it’s not gonna take me to the other road, but by turning left it meant I was heading in the right direction anyway.  Onward!  Being a dirt road also meant the wheels on the suitcase were useless so it was rather slow progress with me having to stop, rest, and switch hands every so often.  Finally, I heard the highway again (a very good sign) and I paralleled it for a while before meeting up with it again.  This time however, there was what looked to be a marked off bike or pedestrian path on the right hand shoulder.  I say looked to be because there were no signs at that point signifying it as such, but there were also no cars using it as a lane.  Yes!  A paved road!  So now, again with the confused Asian man picture in your mind, think about what it would have looked to all the drivers who passed me as I wheeled my suitcase along this highway.  Another 15 minutes or so later I finally saw buildings, and then a turn off, and I knew that yes… I had finally made it.

And just think that this was all before even setting foot NEAR the track…

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Momentum

Like many things in nature... life tend to follow momentum very well.  My trip had some pretty heavy forward momentum for the past two months for whatever reasons those were.  Not every moment was glorious or deeply satisfying, but there was enough exciting things sprinkled between the long drawn out portions to more than make up for them.  But like a ball rolling into a brick wall, momentum can be taken away just as quickly.  I'm currently sitting in my room in Amsterdam, trying to figure out... well... a lot of things.  First and foremost is trying to figure out what I"m going to do next on this trip.  My options are beginning to dwindle, partially due to cost, partially due to time, and partially due things just not working out the way I had wanted (a typical scenario).  Now... that brick wall I was talking about was this recent bout of flu I managed to pick up and that I'm still trying to get over.  Thankfully the really nasty bits are over and done with, but the linger lethargic feeling as well as the occasional headache still are around to remind me that yes... I was sick... on a trip to Europe.  Just my luck.

The next bit of figuring goes a bit deeper, and thats why I'm here in the first place.  The easy answer of course is that I went "Hey! Europe! Lets go!" and well... that might be the correct one.

Or it might not be.

I don't tend to know what I'm planning until well after I've planned it, and this has certain downsides, one major one being foresight (or the lack thereof).  The "that seemed like a good idea at the time" excuse only works so often before it gets trite, and thus one is left seeking some deeper meaning their own decisionmaking process.  My decision-making process tends toward the agonizingly slow variety, with most things needing a double or triple thinking over before I can commit to it.  I've been trying to avoid doing that on this trip, and for the most part its been a success up until recently, when having lost forward momentum and needing to regain it I've been unable to really plot my next course of action.  The Nurburgring is still on the list, but it looks like it might not be possible to make reservations for that in the near future (by near I mean in the next few days).  This leaves heading farther east into Germany (not something that was really high on my list) or just skipping the Ring for now and heading straight for Milan.  I loath skipping the Ring, but without a car to drive I'm a bit SOL unless I can swing back around and hit it before I leave.  Even Milan or Torino don't seem that exciting anymore, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on other than that well, I'm expecting a solo journey there to be very similar to my solo journeys elsewhere in Europe.  Maybe this is as far as my solo journey can really take me, or that I will allow it to take me at this time.  That little voice in my head saying "It would be more fun with more people" keeps popping up now and again, and there's no denying its correct.  But my situation is what it is, and now I just need to figure out how I'm going to make it work better.  Its kind of strange in that you would expect being here (rather than America) that I would have far more options and thus not run into those things.  But unlike being in America, I can't just decide on a whim to drastically change direction.  Any huge location changes will result in major transportation headaches, and its something that I've been trying to work out since I've gotten to Amsterdam.

An Interlude:
On this topic of transportation, I would just like to say that given a choice, I would take European rail travel over flying any day.  I may take just an hour via plane vs four hours via train, but this does not take into account the transportation from the city to the airport, hour (at least) you lose before the flight, and the transportation from the airport to your destination.  The nice thing about train stations is that they tend to be located really centrally and thus save you quite a bit of transportation time.  Not to mention first class trains feel just as good as any first class flight (though the food was... barely edible) and you have the benefit of wifi for free AND no need to pass through security.  Its a great system that should really be adopted in the states for some of the more highly traveled corridors, like say... Seattle/Portland/SF/LA/SD, or.... Boston/NYC/DC (no... Accela doesn't count... its barely high speed and its far too expensive for what it does), or even NYC/Chicago or NYC/Miami.

Back to Topic:
So where does this leave me?  I'm not sure.  I'm hungry, so I'm going to go eat soon (a good sign that this flu is finally going away), but beyond my immediate needs, I still don't have an answer for why I'm in Europe and doing all that I'm doing.  I'm looking for something, but I'm not sure what it is, and I hope that I don't pass it up when I find it.  Till then, I just have to keep moving one way or another and know that there will always be something new ahead.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On Origins

"So where are you from?".  This was a question I asked and was asked many times while traveling through Europe.  It also a very tricky question to answer.  Actually, it only gets tricky when the other party becomes presumptuous.  When I ask "Where are you from?" I expect an answer of where they currently reside, or where they've recently decided to take residence.  However, when people ask me the question, its sometimes prefaced with a "So are you Chinese?  Korean?  Japanese?"  Well... yes... I am one of those if by birth and blood, but do I identify myself first and foremost as Chinese?  Hardly, and I would feel awful for doing so.  There's far too much wrong with China as a whole for me to identify with it, and thus being that I'm neither culturally or locationally Chinese, I feel like I can say first and foremost that I am American, and with an addendum of Chinese descent.  The real issue however isn't any malevolent intent on the part of people I talk to but rather a gross misunderstanding in what it is to be American.  I'm not really sure what someone from Argentina, or Brazil, or France really think when they hear "American" but I would guess they they expect to see someone who isn't quite so Chinese-looking.  The thing is, from this initial first impression they don't bother to try and actually figure out where I'm from and just assume that since I look Chinese, I must BE Chinese.  Its actually quite easy to tell that I'm not Chinese, and you just have to wait until I speak and realize that I neither speak English with a thick accent nor do I immediately go to Mandarin first before going to English.  Also, just by my accent alone one can place me as either American or Canadian, and quite honestly I wouldn't mind being identified (rightly or wrongly) as either one.  It would mean that the other party understands me, and that they aren't about to jump to conclusions even before we start speaking.  When I begin a conversation with someone, I would always take into account not only how they look but how they speak, as accent is a far better identifier of origin than looks alone (try picking out a Brazilian in London or Paris... its not easy on looks alone).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nation(s) of Happiness

And just like that, the journey changes. Sitting in my hotel room in London (no, not that London yet, just London, Canada) its strange to think that just over a month ago I was back in California about to take that first step on this very long journey.  Back then I had a vague notion of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, but I knew that that notion would evolve and change as the journey progressed.  I had worried for a while that this change might end with me returning home early due to boredom/sickness/bad luck, but so far thankfully those three hazards have been kept more or less at bay.  It seems that my planning has now fallen into a pattern in that I scope out the next major destination ahead of time while keeping most of the day to day stuff pretty spontaneous.  Meal locations are always either by recommendation or a quick check of yelp, and hotels (a subject that will at some point be expounded upon) are almost always reserved the night of.  It keeps things, and more importantly -- me -- moving, and thus staves off the boredom and monotony that could accompany a solo journey.

How I ended up in Canada was a bit of a planned drift.  After leaving Chicago I knew I had two options -- head northeast to Michigan and continue east through Canada or head directly east through Ohio/Pennsylvania etc.  That route I have driven in the past, and well... I had no real desire to cross Ohio (aka The Land of Speeding Tickets) or Pennsylvania (aka The Land of the Amish).  I did however want to meet up with a friend who was going to be in Philadelphia for a day, but that would have required a rather grueling 12+ hour straight drive across those states in order to reach her, only to watch her leave Philadelphia the same day.  In the end, the tough decision was made to not cross via the US and rather head northeast to Michigan then Canada and finally ending up at the north end of Vermont.

Now... I was very curious of Michigan.  There's really only two cities I know in Michigan and thats Flint and Detroit, both quite... um... destitute.  I didn't make it to Flint as it was rather out of the way, but Detroit was actually a much larger city than I had expected, especially if you include some of the cities in the greater Detroit area.  Its a place that, if you go by the billboards, was built by automobiles and gambling, with a little murder on the side (Detroit 1-8-7, cuz the city's image couldn't get any worse...  And whats with jacking 187 anyway?  Thats CA Penal Code people... damn producers in Hollywood forgetting that the rest of the country isn't CA and no one is gonna be "screamin' 187 on a motherf**kin' cop" in Detroit [props for the kids who get the reference]).  The automobile history part is definitely true, but even that seems to be getting weaker and weaker as even in this bastion of American motoring the numbers of imports seem to be nearly as numerous as everywhere else in the country.  I fear given some more years rust will claim what the economy and bad management hasn't already claimed of the American car market here.

The gambling aspect has sort of been a staple ever since leaving Washington.  You really didn't have to travel far to find a small casino tucked away in the middle of a empty shopping mall parking lot, or a couple machines at a gas station or convenience.  It makes me wonder what people who play on those machines are thinking.  Its almost the same as gambling at the Las Vegas Airport.  If you're gonna blow your money there are far better and more entertaining venues to do it in than some decrepit old machine next to the Slim Jims.

So in the end, what does Detroit really bring to the table, and why am I going on about Detroit instead of the far more pressing and interesting (to me and hopefully the readers) topic of international travel?  To both... I have no idea.  Moving on...

Canada will not be my only international travel destination.  Having originally conceived this trip as purely a US sojourn, I have now added a slight (3500 mile) detour across a small pond (the Atlantic) for a short amount of time (a month).  My only reasons for doing this are 1) The flight was cheaper than normal and 2) eh... what the hell (as you can see much thought goes into my travel destinations...).  Well, ok, there was one more thing, and that was that I had foolishly missed the opportunity to do this while I was in Boston, so thought this would be a good time to more than make up for that little slip up.  I'm at once extremely excited and a bit let down already by this opportunity.  Excited because it'll be my first time in Europe and I'll be doing it the "correct" way (aka public transportation and hostels) and let down because I won't have anyone to share this journey with.  I had always envisioned my first trip to Europe as being with someone, whether it be a friend (or group of friends) or a significant other.  But I guess going it alone gives me the opportunity to scope it out before hand and be hella pro then next time around (pardon the vernacular... the norcal side will never leave me).

So then comes the rather obvious question of what I'm going to do there.  I'm actually leaving that quite open, only that I wish to see at least 3 countries and try all the food, and probably hit up all the major touristy spots.  The more interesting things however are going to require a bit more work to figure out.  Near the top of that list is driving both the Nurburgring and the Autobahn. Thats either gonna take some white lies with a rental car or some more money with a service that specializes in 'Ring tourists.  I don't really car what I lap the 'Ring in really, just so long as I do it and finish, in one piece, and without a huge damage bill  ('Ring cleanup after a wreck is highly efficient but definitely not cheap, and the driver foots the entire bill).  Come to think of it, that probably means I should just buy someones 100 euro beater and drive it around till its dead.  No skin off my nose if it trades paint with the Armco...

But thats planning for another time.  Its currently very late, and I am trying very hard to get going before the clock strikes noon everyday...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

People of Happiness

Its odd that I haven't written at all about what I'm actually on the road for.  For a while it felt like the actual Nation of Happiness project wasn't going anywhere, and that I was just gonna be on the road for a long roadtrip.  It was a great feeling however to finally meet people who were willing and happy to share their stories.  Here's a short recap of the people I have met so far:

Shivey - Meeting Shivey was a great experience, as he is someone who I see as a figure for success in life.  I met Shivey through my great friend Liz (who accompanied me on the first week of my trip) and her endless stories of "Shivey did this" and "Shivey did that".  When I finally met him however the the first thing that stood out with just his pleasant demeanor and willingness to spare his precious time (he's working on a Ph.D, so time is definitely precious) for Liz and I.  His stories and outlooks however are what I really took away from that meeting.  Here is someone who really got it, someone who not only could articulate happiness and the what it took to be happy but also managed to live everything he spoke.  He has every challenge in life as an opportunity and when those weren't enough seeked greater challenges in order to truly push and better himself.  It was just amazing to see what sheer determination could do, whether it be getting you up a mountain or through a mountain of work.

Maxine - I met Maxine at a tourist information building in Newcastle WY.  She was working there and helped me out with directions and lodging information for Mt Rushmore, and was kind enough to do an interview with me after business became lighter.  Maxine has had a some major hardships in her life with both a loss of a husband and a son, and it was interesting to see how one copes with major losses like that and still go on with life. Her story is really about the struggle of happiness and about how one chooses or refuses to choose what it is that makes them happy.

Wally - I met wally a day later when I went to Jewel Cave.  He was our tour guide for the visit, and after the tour we sat down in the old ranger cabin for an interview.  Wally was an interesting figure in that he was definitely a man of choice and decision.  It seemed to me that his life was a study in how major decisions pave the way for one's future.  He started out in the military and later moved into the ministry, where he stayed for 2 decades.  After seeing less and less progress, he changed his life again and worked in the correctional facility counseling at risk youth, and even went as far as to adopt some of those youth into his own family.  Having finally retired from this he spent a year off before being spurred to take another career change and go into the Park Ranger service, which is where he is today.  Its amazing to see someone who not only has gone through so much change in his life, but done so on his own accord, and in doing this managed to both meet and redefine what his own personal happiness is about.

Joey - Meeting Joey was as much of an experience for him as it was for me.  We met at Milwaukee Brewing Company where he was there with some of his family and friends.  It was bit of chance encounter, as it started with a simple request for me to take a photo of their group.  We got to talking about the tour and then about myself and my trip, and even before I made the request for an interview he already had told me what it was that made him happy, which is seeing someone like myself undertake a trip like this.  He stated how far too many people dream of doing something like this but far too few actually follow through with it, for a variety of reasons.  I think I would have easily fallen into latter category (and indeed have many times in the past) had I not been unhappy with things enough to finally undertake this drastic change in my life.  Whats funny about this is that in the grand scheme of things, I actually had very little to be unhappy about.  I think I just felt that without doing something truly major with my life at this point that I would never get this opportunity ever again.  There's been many times in the past in which I know I've let opportunities big and small go, and it was about time I capitalized on a major opportunity when everything was right.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Interlude

So having been through a small but not insignificant portion of the US, I thought it would be a good time to give a running assessment of what I thought of each area, in very broadbrush (aka totally unscientific and probably biased) terms.  I will be doing this periodically, for the sake of brevity, doing it by state.

California - Not much to say about it that hasn't already been said really.  The best observation is that if you want to experience a little bit of every other state, go the California.  You'll be guaranteed to find something there.

Oregon - The last bastion of the true hippie.  I'm not talking about the Burning-Man-going-pot-smoking-lives-at-home kind of hippie but the brown-clothes-backpack-dreads-wandering-aimlessly-communing-with-nature kind of hippie.  They seem to exist everywhere there, and are more or less tolerated as a feature of the landscape, like say... the bums of Berkeley.

Washington - If there was a state that resembled California, this would be it.  The coast definitely has a bay area vibe, albeit with a bit more of an outdoor emphasis.  The interior is surprisingly dry and the eastern edge hits the Rockies and thus goes back to being woodsy, not unlike a larger version of the Sierras.  You also get your spectrum of people from the progressives of the coast to the bible-thumping conservatives of the central area.  I can see why bay area transplants do so well in this state.

Idaho - Umm... Potatoes?  I saw about 2% of that state, and nary a potato I saw...

Montana - A surprisingly pleasant place to be.  Yes... it does get bitterly cold in the winter, and you are well... far from practically everything, but at least it isn't Wyoming?  I mean, I did see a Japanese student with her parents at the University of Montana, so that's got to count for something right?

Wyoming - Yellowstone aside, Wyoming is probably the last place I'd want to be stuck in.  Think of it like this: Picture the Mojave Desert.  If you can't, picture the Sahara, but with some random shrubbery and some cactus. Now take out the cactus, and cut down the shrubbery.  Then take a giant rolling pin and flatten everything out a little bit.  Finally, throw in a road (maybe two, if you're really adventurous) and a power line.  Voila!  You have Wyoming.  I have serious doubts as to whether people actually live in the state or they just stick random buildings there to keep the tourists happy.

South Dakota - Another surprisingly pleasant place to be, after the barren wasteland that was Wyoming.  Scorching temperatures aside, SD has its share of national parks, and at least there is either a)Signs of civilization or b) wilderness, not this strange limbo land of fenced wilderness like I saw in Wyoming (I think you're starting to the picture of my feelings toward Wyoming).  Just don't go to the capitol (Pierre).  That was quite possibly the biggest dump of a city I have seen, and I had to check multiple times to make sure that it was in fact the capitol instead of say, a really bad wrong turn into those areas your parents told you never to venture into.

North Dakota - So far this is the definition of a "Meh..." state for me.  Its got the sparsely populated look of SD without any of charm or major national parks.  On the plus side, its capitol is actually a decent city and its capitol building is actually rather unique (unlike say... Montana and SD, who seemed to somehow have hired the same architect with the same set of plans.  I'm all for 2 for 1 deals, but come on guys... this is a capitol building, not a pair of shoes!).

Minnesota - Ahh... the state of 10,000 lakes.  Thats 10,000 more places for mosquitoes to breed... Damn those things.  I was eaten alive in a rather foolhardy attempt to camp one night, and will forever curse any place that combines hot humid temperatures with large standing bodies of water.  That aside, Minneapolis-St Paul is quite the bustling metropolis.  It strangely reminds me of Boston, with the river running through the center and a bunch of differing and small niche districts.  Its got none of the scale of a large midwestern town like say Chicago or Indianapolis but it does manage to cram quite a bit into a rather small downtown area.  The surrounding areas... well thats still up for debate at this point.  It seems to be a hodge-podge of large commercial zones, as if a Sim City player decided to zone light commercial and accidentally made that the entire perimeter of the city.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Onward to the Badlands Pt 1

Having done so few of these posts, I now know why I would make a horrible writer. My thoughts tend to be fleeting, and if I don't somehow jot them down (lately its been via iphone voice memo) then they're gone, at least until the next time they decide to randomly pop up again. Its neither efficient nor conducive to regular writing, but its something I'll have to deal with as time goes on.

Yellowstone was everything people said it would be, though I didn't expect it to be as large as it actually is. To give those of you who haven't been there some idea, the park's roads are arranged roughly in a figure 8 with 6 main attractions, two at the top, two in the middle, and two at the bottom. It is about 20 miles to get from any one attraction to the next, which means at least 30-40 minutes of driving (barring any wildlife roadblocks...).  I ended up trying to see as much as I could in the two total days I was there and I think I hit most of the major spots.  My goal going into this was to photograph waterfalls.  Yes... out of all the things to take pictures of at Yellowstone, I picked that one.  That meant an early morning hike around the south end of the Lower Falls, and various stops along drive for all the rest of the falls.  Lower Falls was obviously the best, though I think Tower Fall would have been great had they actually had the trail to the base open.  Wraith Falls was quite disappointing, and Mystic Falls, while interesting, was just too far away to get a really good composition.
Yellowstone was also the first place on this trip I tried camping, and I learned a few important things:
1) Never buy the cheapest item (of anything).  Maybe the 2nd cheapest, or 3rd cheapest, but never ever the cheapest.  It may not seem like a big difference when its hanging up in the store, but I guarantee you'll feel the difference once you put it to actual use (I'm look at you, stupid tent and sleeping bag).  My only worthwhile purchase also happened to the most expensive, which was the sleeping pad.  Self inflating sleeping pads are AMAZING.
2) I feel conflicted about car camping.  On one hand I'm not about to pick up a frame pack and go backpacking into the wilderness for a week, but on the other hand after seeing what people brought to the campground I felt kind of ashamed for sharing the grounds with them.  There were of course the multitude of RVs, campers, land yachts etc, but the one that truly took the cake was a medium sized camper.  Now, it wasn't overly large, or overly ostentatious, but as you get closer, you realized something was amiss.  Then you see those familiar words... DIRECT TV.  Yes... This family thought "hey, while we're out pretending to be in the wilderness, why don't we catch a game or two?"  And this wasn't a camper mounted antenna (as cool as that would have looked) but rather a portable antenna on a tripod.  Me?  I didn't even have a lantern.  Just a tarp, tent, mat, sleeping bag, and iphone (alright... so I was glad I had cell reception at the camp site...).
3) Rain + camping = ???? That equation can go a lot of different ways.  For one thing, I'm not sure of the effectiveness of a tarp during a torrential down poor.  It tends to pool water in all the worst places, and while I didn't get (very) wet, any clothes that ended up near the edge of the tent (like my pants) sure did.   I unfortunately didn't have enough rope (or foresight...) to rig up a shade for my tent, but undoubtedly that would have helped quite a bit.

All of that just means I gotta return a bunch of stuff when I finally get to another Sports Authority (which is all the way in Minneapolis).

PS.  I've stopped trying to post pictures here as there are just far too many.  Please click on the photostream on the right, as it will probably be synced pretty well with the latest post.

(This post will continue, but I have to check out before I'm forced to stay another day at the Bavarian Inn, which actually was a rather pleasant place in Custer, SD)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Unexpected Detour...

Sooo.... I was supposed to be just outside of Bozeman, MT tonight, preparing for a day or two in Yellowstone. Instead, I'm at a motel in Missoula, MT, about 3 hours from where I want to be.  Why?  Bad luck and really really bad luck.  First bit of bad luck was the weather.  Its supposed to thunderstorm tomorrow, and it already did that this afternoon, so Yellowstone might be out of the question for at least another day.  Now... the really really bad luck is another wonderful example of how I make anything and any situation complicated.

Missoula at Dusk

While travelling through Missoula, I decided that I was hungry and wanted a bite to eat.  I parked and started walking toward what was supposed to be a sandwich shop (which I later found out closed down) and passed a camera store.  Well, being me, I had to stop in and take a look.  I ended up eyeing a couple inexpensive lenses to buy, and having talked to the owner a bit and seeing that the lenses themselves were of decent quality decided get my camera and bring it in for a few test pictures.  The first lens, a M42 mount 50mm/1.8 worked quite well and was very inexpensive.  The second lens, a nikon mount 28mm/2.8 was also quite inexpensive, but as it turns out, didn't work so well.  You see... this was not a genuine nikon lens like I have used previously on my camera but rather some other random Japanese brand.  Now, Nikon lenses are supposed to mount in only one orientation (or so I thought) but apparently I was able to mount this lens upside down on the adapter and get it to fit on the body (don't ask... it just worked).  I ran through some tests, made sure everything was good, and then tried to remove the lens.  It was stuck.  FUCK.  You see, by somehow mounting the lens upside down it was now jamming against some pins when I tried to rotate the lens out.  Both myself and the owner tried working the lens for a good long while before finally giving up and calling the shop's repair guy for an appointment tomorrow in order to either a) do his magic and remove the lens or b) dismantle the lens in order to remove the lens.  My $15 lens just turned into a $100 problem I think...

On the plus side I'm glad I brought along my old XTi body.  On the other hand I totally forgot the remote trigger.  Ya win some, ya lose some.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On The Road

Its hard to believe I'm already a week into this trip and I haven't posted once! This has been a very busy week, with many destinations and a boatload of material that I need to sort through. This jampacked week is courtesy of my great friend Liz who decided to join me till I reached Seattle. Being a far more prolific planner than I am she managed to map out a route that would maximize things done for her leg of the trip. It was a success.

Day 1 (Sunday):
Had a late start that day due to some last minutes interviews with my parents. Didn't leave Berkeley till after 3pm so I knew it was going to be a long day. Ended up having dinner in Redding at the Black Bear Diner. Food was classic Americana, for better or worse. I did however receive a comment about my "homeless guy" t-shirt (well... more like "hey, that guy's wearing a homeless guy t-shirt!"), which was funny because I had totally forgotten that I was even wearing it. We finally made it to Klamath Falls, OR around 11pm and stayed at the America's Best Value Inn (quaint and inexpensive, though right by the highway).

Day 2:
The Open Fields
Left Klamath Falls early for the drive to Crater Lake. Holy crap Oregon is GREEN! Not in the "hey look at the shrubbery" kind of green but in the "look at the green forest, and the behind that the green hills, and in front of that the green fields" kind of green. With the combination of the green and the sunlight peeking through the clouds the only things keeping it from being a perfect “in touch with the wilderness” moment were 1) The awful, horrible road noise (Oregon doesn't seem to understand the concept of a smooth highway and instead decided to pave their highways with gravel or something) and 2) The neverending road construction (which would hopefully alleviate problem 1).

Crater Lake Panorama
Crater Lake however was fantastic. Think of it as if you took a mountain and just scooped out the middle. Its very reminescent of Lake Tahoe (very deep, very blue) but only smaller and with steeper sides. We ended up taking a hike up to Scott Peak which overlooks the lake. Very few hikes actually land you at a location were you have a full 360ยบ view of everything, but here, the only higher than where we stood was a small fire lookout on a nearby peak. Yeah... it was cool. I ended up striking up a conversation with a family who was at the top with us and apparently they were from someplace north of Vancouver and the father gave enough “eh”s and “dontchaknow”s to make up for the entire Canadian population (or at least his family anyway...).
The next stop was in Eugene, OR, which was the first major Oregon city we drove through. It has a distinctly small college town feel to it (think Davis without the cows and more trees). It has the requisite cheap (and not so cheap) eateries, the hippy backpackers/hitchhikers, and a quiant downtown shopping district. We had dinner at Steelhead Brewery, where the beer was good and cheap and the food was adaquately good (only so much you can do with a burger or a burrito) before taking a walk around the block and landing at the Oregon Electric Station, a rather upscale restaurant in an old, well, electric station. A glass of port and and a sundae later (trust me, I won't be eating like this again for a LONG time) it was time to head back to the Express Inn, as the next morning was gonna be a early one.

Day 3
So day 3's start requires a bit of explanation. See, Liz is a runner. She claims she's not a “great” runner, but she can outrun me many times over, so she will reside in great runner status till things change on my part. Anyway, after finding the stopping point in Eugene, she had had HAD to go and run on Hayward Field's track. You see, there's this guy named Prefontaine. He was apparently a world class runner and ran for UO on this very track. So for her to run on the track it would be like a Yankees fan playing a game of pickup baseball at Yankee Stadium, or me taking laps around Silverstone or Laguna Seca, and the prospect of doing this made her giddy in a way I have rarely seen. Bingo, I have found my first happiness segment.
So with this in mind I awoke at 7am, put on some shorts and a tshirt (mind you, it was in the mid 50's outside), and drove the short distance to the track in order to film her glorious 3-miler on Hayward Field. The field itself was very nice, though having actually been on only a handful of other fields in my life my judgement could be off. When we got there it was almost empty save for a couple other runners and the ground crew doing some watering and maintainance. After a short stretch we were off, and 10 minutes 30 seconds later we had done our warmup mile (well, her warmup, my final).
Now... about filming runners. I went into it thinking it would be just like filming cars, only, well... slower. In certain respects thats very true. You're trying to film something that moves, and more importantly moves quickly enough to outpace you the photographer. Certain aspects of track based events however make this task easier and harder. By being on a track, there are multiple opportunites to film the same thing (except the start and finish of course). However, by being on the track and not having access to any mode of transport other than my own two feet, camera stabilization was definitely an issue. My ghetto-stickcam (using the stick from my Zoom H4N) didn't quite cut it, though it would have required a pretty large steadycam rig (even a cheap pvc/conduit one) to really compensate for the shake of a full run. But a combination of shaky stickcam and very high shutter speed (1/200 to 1/500) meant a very “Jason Bourne” style of shot, for better or worse.
Having had a morning run a bit of breakfast was in order, which ended up being at [name of cafe]. After that was a quick walking tour of Eugene before leaving for Salem. We managed to arrive in Salem in time for the final Capitol building tour, which took us to the top of the Oregon Capitol to right underneath where the “Oregeon Pioneer” statue stands. It gives a great view of Salem, though Salem is such a small capital compared to the likes of Sacramento. Taking the tour with us was a family from Alaska (with a grandmother who just wouldn't shut up) and a family from Vladivostok Russia. Apparently the guy was doing research at UO for particle physics (!!!) and had been residing in Oregon for 7 years. The Russian physicist... almost as common a stereotype as the Russian chemist. The tour itself was pretty informative, though photo opportunities were few and far between.
Leaving Salem, we headed for Portland. Now... I should mention that by this time it was kind of late, we hadn't eaten since lunch, and both of us were pretty hungry. Getting into Portland was a bit messy with all its construction, but we eventually made it to the motel (which by my standards was adaquate, but Liz thought otherwise) and the headed off for dinner at [name of place]. The lamb and polenta were fantastic, but man, I really shouldn't have ordered that savory yogurt drink... If you can imagine putting salt into a standard yogurt drink then you get what this would taste like. Yeah... not a good image is it? At least the Pub at the End of the Universe made up for that. It was really tucked away but had a neat vibe and good beer, not to mention outdoor seating. A good end to a very very long day.

More back logged updates to be continued....

Monday, July 26, 2010

Living the Unexpected

The last few months have taught me to embrace unpredictability. I am who I am because of equal parts planning and luck, and no amount of planning will take luck out of the equation. Also, the biggest events in my life are never random, but rather a culmination of everything which occurred before. Some other revelations large and small:

- There is no formula or plan for love. Some will find it by relentlessly searching, others will find it waiting for them, others still will stumble on it by accident. The only requirement is that you recognize it when it arrives and act accordingly, for there is rarely a second chance.

- Success only arrives through plenty of knowledge and plenty of failure. If you are not prepared to fail, you are not prepared to succeed.

- Always listen to advice, but never trust it. There is never a correct way, only a best way.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Maybe there is hope after all...

Long time no postie... ::sigh::

There's been a combination of a lot going on with very little going on, depending how you look at things. But this post won't be directly related to project per say, but rather about my take on Inception, and its place in the modern film landscape. Having thought about it for a night, I've come to a conclusion that 1) This film will have an impact that will be felt for a decade or more and 2) It is brilliant yet maddeningly infuriating, for pretty much the same reason.

Now, having heard about this film a LONG time ago, when all was known was the title, the genre, and the director, I was already pretty excited. Christopher Nolan can make some amazing films, and he's run the gamut from crazy indie-ish films like Memento to well... The Dark Knight. Inception was pegged as a dream project for him, and now I can see why. Could you imagine any other director (other than maybe Spielberg or Scorsese) calling up a producer and saying "hey, I want to make a confusing as hell movie about dreams, and I want to release it during the summer." Yeah... good luck with that. But it happened, and definitely is a great combination of the "big boom TDK" Nolan and the "huh wtf?" Nolan.

There will be no summary or review here, as that has been done on every other site. I'll just say I loved the film, and with the exception of one single scene, it was without exception amazing. That single scene however brings up quite a few things for me, the primary of which is at what point does homage turn to derivation? Most directors walk that line all the time, and while some succeed (Shaun of the Dead was one big homage to the romcom/buddycom/zombie genres), other manage to just cross that line thus step into the shadows of films they are paying homage to.

With Inception you really can't begin talking about its deeper aspects without bringing up Blade Runner as its "spiritual homage". In many ways Inception has far more in common with The Matrix than Blade Runner, but at its core Inception is a question, in the same vein that Blade Runner's greatest impact is "the Question". (Since I hate spoilers, I will make this as spoiler free as possible, for the 2 or so readers I have :P) Both films pose the question throughout the movie, both give hints for the answer to the question, and both films inevitably leave the answer up to the audience to figure out. However, while Blade Runner subtly hints at the question throughout the film, Inception starts with hints and ends with a giant Thor hammerdrop sized "HERE IS THE QUESTION, GO FIGURE OUT THE ANSWER" ending. This is quite possibly the only film that Ive seen which kept the audience in silence through 2.5 hours only to have a truly massive and synchronized "WTF" after the final scene. We get it Nolan, we get what you're after, we get that you like playing with the audience and dropping hints, and you know what, I'm more than happy to play along. I just felt insulted that at the end, the film goes to "Here's the question, just in case you missed it, and here's the ans- JUST KIDDING!!!". That kind of cheap trick works for the regular summer blockbuster, but with a film as well crafted and thought out as Inception, it just feels like someone was in it at the end for a cheap thrill.

Now, one could argue that the final scene in Blade Runner (at least the director's cut) pulls the same trick. I would disagree. The final scene is just another hint, which combined with the other hints of film gives the audience their own interpretation of the film. The final scene of inception adds nothing to the film except to bring out a gasp from the audience. Now... the scene just prior where ::minor spoiler:: he sees his children is absolutely fantastic and definitely fits as a capstone hint similar to the final scene of Blade Runner. Its amazing what an extra 20 seconds at that point can do to a film...

Even with this infuriating scene however (which I hope is corrected in the inevitable Director's Cut) The film is far and away one of the best films I've seen in recent memory. While its too early call it the 2000's Blade Runner (I think every decide needs its seminal scifi film), it definitely had the same impact on me as when I saw The Matrix for the first time, and its a rare film indeed that leaves you speechless when you walk out of the theatre (well... maybe it was that and it being 1:30am). Oh, and mark my words... zero-g fight scenes will be the next "it" thing for hollywood, especially if Ender's Game gets released soon. I'm not quite sure how those scenes were done, but my bet is that either they had a wireworks machine unlike anything else in the world OR they managed to rent some long stints in a very special greenscreen Vomet Comet.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

And it suddenly got very real...

The past week hasn't seen much development on this project. I've practiced a bit with shooting in low light environments with large crowds, coming to the conclusion that:
1) I need some compact way to stabilize the camera. A steadicam of any kind (even a merlin sized one) will be hard to fit and use in a crowd, so I need something even smaller, maybe just a pistol grip or some kind of 2 handed grip/follow focus.
2) MUST BUY A MICROPHONE. This was already on my list of to-dos, but now has been bumped up a couple notches because really, the on-camera sound is just unusable in anything but perfectly ideal conditions.
3) Manually focusing a Canon 50mm F1.8 II is annoying. I need a lens thats just as fast but with a much more accessible focus ring.

The getting real part however came this afternoon when I finally told a coworker a small detail of my plans. This was done in order to see who I need to talk to in order to either take an extended leave or finally begin the quitting process. Maybe this should have happened earlier, but I think now is a good time to finally start this process, as a best case scenario could have me rolling off by the end of July, which would just squeeze in to the end of my planned timeline. I fully expect that this word will get through the grapevine within a week or so, which should make for some interesting conversation with my coworkers. Who knows, maybe one of them will be willing to be interviewed...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

First HD video test!

And here it is, the first (well, actually second, but the first day anyway) video test for the 7D! Shooting this made me realize just how badly I need some sort of follow focus. Trying to accurately focus with a tiny focus ring on 50mm is definitely not going to work when the real shooting starts.

When doubt... just do it!

Well... not quite.  I've so far been just talking about this project, and too much talk is well... boring.  However, today was the first day of ACTION!  Granted... said action took place in my friend's family room, and was just a crash course in how to light a set, but I felt like this was a huge benefit for me having someone who know's what the hell they're doing just showing me the basics.  A few of the (many) lessons learned:

It may be simple, but it sure as hell isn't easy
Lighting is tricky.  Its easy enough to deal with when you've got a flash (or 2) and need to take a picture, but its a whole different can of worms when you have to light for film and video.  I pretty much have the best case scenario short of a 5DMKII with a f/1.2 lens, but even with a simple setup, a pretty fast lens, and a still subject there's quite a few things you need to take into consideration, be it the ambient light sources, the color and texture of the background, the color and texture of the subject's clothing, effect you are trying to achieve with the light, etc.  This is the art of filmmaking well before one exposure is ever taken.

Do it now, so you don't fumble with it later
A lot of stuff I saw and picked up were just really simple things, like how to correctly set up a c-stand and how to correctly wire and string up some lights.  Nothing was complex, and the art at that point was pretty minimal, but just those basic tasks make you realize how in a pressure situation they could get needlessly complex.

Sell your content correctly
I don't mean literally selling for money, but rather looking at the potential audience and maybe, just maybe, paying a little lip service in order get those all important views.  There may be some great takes later with some neat people that just don't show up right when edited, and sadly those takes may have to go in favor of something with a little more audience holding power.

Goals are great, but flexibility is better
Going into a project without a goal is stupid, but going into a project with only a goal is not very intelligent as well.  I'm not sure how much veering off I will be doing with this, but I know that I will need to be able to actively update my goals as the project goes on.

Give yourself WAAAAY more time than you think you'll need, cuz in the end you'll need it
No brainer here.

People like attention.  Give it to them.
One of the things I got out of talking with Vanessa, who's the documentary buff of the group, is that in the end, people really do enjoy taking about themselves, even if they don't seem to be that way when you initially point the camera.  All you have to do is give time, a little encouragement, and more importantly a little freedom for the subject to express themselves however they wish and sooner or later they'll do or say something interesting.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And Cooler Heads Have Prevailed...

So after much discussion (and yelling and screaming) with many people I've come up with some more details for the project.  First and foremost is that I am NOT leaving my job (yet).  This is something that was a major bone of contention with my parents (the Asianness really shows through here) and thus the planning portion will occur while I'm at work.  I don't think this will be too much of a hindrance, unless of course if the work project takes a turn for the worst.  Next, I will probably do quite a lot of filming in the bay area prior to me leaving.  I was actually thinking before of doing all the bay area filming when I got back, but warming up by filming close is probably a good idea.

Now... after having a long discussion with Kyle over the logistics, I have a better idea of what gear will be involved in order to make everything look good.  There's gonna be a lot more random bits and pieces than I thought, but nothing thats too expensive or hard to find (except the camera rig...).  This is a short list (from memory) of what I need, with whats in bold being what I have bought so far:

light fixtures
extension cords
A-clamps (small, medium, large)
china balls (not just the pair I have... :P)
500W bulbs
black wrap

Beyond this stuff however I ended picking up on today's craigslist run a few more things which will be helpful:

boom arm (probably will be used for the microphone)
sandbags (hey... it was essentially free)

My only worry is about C-stands at this point, as the set I bought is pretty big, which may become an issue later when I begin to sort out trunk space.  The superclamps look pretty sweet though, and with the combination of those and my GoPro (which I also just bought) I'll be able to shoot from almost any position in the car.

More items to come...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

And so it begins...

This blog is as much about sharing the journey as it is about my personal attempts at chronicling it.  I was (and still am) notoriously bad at chronicling anything, so hopefully this will be a step in the right direction.  So without further ado... lets begin.