Now in its 7th year, the Fireflies West charity bike ride from San Francisco to LA brings together riders from the advertising industry to raise funds for the City of Hope hospital and cancer research. RSA Films director Shih-Ting Hung documented the group’s annual 550 mile trek down the California coast last year in a short film that gets to the heart of the event: the people, their stories, the camaraderie and exhilaration experienced from six days of uphill challenges and breathtaking views of coastline, and the motivation that pushes them through every last mile.
We asked Shih-Ting to share her experience creating a film that tells the story of Fireflies West in the interview below.
How did you get into directing?
Good question without me knowing how to answer in short! As my friend Hsin-I jokingly describes it, if I had to work at a desk 24/7, my colleagues would see me running around the office in an endless circle within a week! I simply do not know how to do regular office work, so that narrowed my options from the get-go.
Running around collaborating with great filmmakers has been a great pleasure of mine and it started when I went to USC Cinema School. Making good films has always been the goal, and I have been lucky to have great mentors to guide me early in the filmmaking process. I remember being stuck for months making my thesis film, Viola: The Traveling Rooms of a Little Giant
(2008), which prompted a conversation about filmmaking in general with one of the faculty, Prof. Mary Sweeney, who edited for David Lynch beginning with from Twin Peaks
(1990). I was so very inspired by her great spirit which really helped with finishing the film. After this film took off, that’s when I started directing. There have been many stories from other great filmmakers along the way that continue to inspire my filmmaking.
How did you get involved with the Fireflies West film?
Curiosity. Some of the flies have been friends for a few years. They have photos framed from the ride in their houses and they always spoke about it fondly. The Fireflies’ fundraising mission for Leukemia research has also had a close relation to RSA Films. As one of the members of its Asia division, I was asked whether I would be interested in taking on this task for a good cause. Very gladly, I said yes.
Aside from its good cause, I enjoy LA. It’s home. I haven’t spent a lot of time in it over the past few years after signing with RSA Asia
. Asia is adventurous but parts of me belong to Los Angeles. Fireflies’ “Il Capitano” Michael Hodgson kept asking me to come back. “You belong here”, he said. And I think he’s right! After the shoot, I now try to spend half my time in LA, half in Asia. In some ways, Fireflies has had an impact on me as well.
What was your process creating the film?
In the beginning, I had an assistant who helped with the driving and that was it. There was no budget, as funds should be saved to go to Leukemia/cancer research. We shot with an in-house 5D, a shotgun, and a few GoPros. It was interesting going back to a guerrilla shooting style and seeing what would come up. At first I tried approaching some cinematographers for help, but they were either unavailable or unwilling to take on a pro-bono project without pay. We had a DP bailing on the project 12 hours before the shoot because of another commercial job.
As a freelancer myself, I have to say I understand, but it was a tricky start for the Fireflies shoot. Luckily along the way, the Fireflies and RSA LA, The Mill in LA, Lime LA started to contribute their resources and it made a world of difference. Editor/Firefly Adam Duthie kindly contributed his time after work for a month editing this film without charge. The people who came onboard for this project, came with good spirits and heartfelt stories behind their motivation, which was a breath of fresh air. This project would not have had done without them. (Cheers with beers to those folks!)
How did you craft the story of the film?
It’s my first time shooting in a semi-documentary format which has its own challenges. We had no idea what we were going to get. We tried to capture as much as we could while trying hard not to be in the riders’ way. Most of the Fireflies West routes happen on coastal highway and it’s dangerous to drive parallel to the riders. We got 75% of the footage shooting far behind the riders and all we got were butts on seats!
The positive spirit behind the whole event is what makes the project. I hope through watching this film the audience understands why cyclists put themselves through the physical challenges for the Fireflies ride. For Those Who Suffer, We Ride.
It was always understood that the project should not be paced too quickly as it is not a bike race, and it should not be too serious because the audience will get bored. Instead, the film shares the riders' heartfelt personal stories, motivating them through the physical challenges of the ride while also allowing their sense of humor shine through. And that was the general atmosphere along the ride. I hope the film has achieved this for the audience.
What challenges did you face with the project?
As the Chinese call it “Eat the sugar cane backwards 倒吃甘蔗 (All Things Are Difficult Before They Get Easy)”. Things got better and more support came in, so it became more about looking for creative solutions along the way. I enjoyed the overall process very much. Working with great spirits made it a good experience.
Were you inspired by any other films for the project?
Ben Hampshire, chief production officer at The Mill in LA, sent me a DVD of the film “Safety In Numbers" (2009) so I could see how the companion Fireflies tour through the Alps was previously shot. The European ride has very different landscapes and the shooting conditions also vary compared to the California ride, though it was such a lovely piece of work. It was special for me to watch it too. The film worked as a time machine, taking me on a journey to see how some of my friends took on a trip like that years before I knew them.
What was your favorite part of the project?
The spirit behind it is interesting. Riders feel especially free and happy when they are on the bikes. All we had to do was try to capture their happy faces mixing with pain while pedaling up hills. The event also becomes a bubble, offering riders an escape from the world. We all hold challenging positions in daily lives: the professional, the father, the mother, the leader, the good cop, and the bad cop. However, when it comes down to the Fireflies ride, everyone seems to be equal and a softer side shines through.
With a daily physical demand of 60-80 miles, each rider seems to find his or her own inner buzz while descending or climbing. Through the wind and the heat, they bond and strengthen friendships differently. They seek ways to support one another along the ride. Everyone seems to have a different story coming onto the ride. They may have lost someone to Leukemia/cancer or they may just simply enjoy being on a bike. This bubble of six days allows everyone to react to the chemistry generated by the ride naturally. Those are interactions we don’t necessarily see from them in their everyday lives. I find this part very fascinating.
As for the best bit of every project: it’s always the people. I have a few new good friends post Fireflies ride. That’s always good.