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How we photographed Cyclepedia

It is Saturday 16 April 2011.  Richard and I fly to Vienna to meet Michael Embacher, the author of Cyclepedia.  The following day he introduces us to the photographer Bernhard Angerer who shot the pictures for his book now published by Thames and Hudson.  Some of the shots have been blown up and printed, poster sized, on Bernhard’s studio wall.  The detail is eye-popping.

We pile into Michael’s MPV to visit his collection of bicycles stored hugger-mugger in an old factory and decide we want to capture the special atmosphere of this collection in the app too.  Richard and I agree that Bernard’s first-floor studio is perfect for the special shoot we have in mind: to mechanically turn the suspended bicycles and photograph them with a strobe flash so that when sequentially reproduced in the app they can be spun round seamlessly using the finger-swipe function on the iPad’s touch screen.  The problem is that neither Richard and I, nor Bernard, has ever done this before.

We spend our final day in Vienna tucking into large portions of sausage, schnitzel and a couple of modest beers discussing how to organize the photo shoot.  With nothing much to go on except some cursory prodding, eyeing-up of the studio and the legendary bravado of film directors we decide there and then that Bernard’s lighting gantry (a lattice of metal tubes suspended from the rafters above his studio ceiling) can support whatever we build, plus the weight of Michael’s priceless bicycles we’ll hang from it.

Richard is a consummate problem-solver.  I’ve known him since 1966 when we joined the Royal College of Art School of Film & Television and he’s never stopped assuming he can make better explosions, build bigger walls, design more complex machines than the experts can.  He’s usually right.  My role is largely the one of pragmatic-realist offering slightly modified alternatives to Richard’s excesses.  Between us we reckon we can make almost anything happen reliably and relatively cheaply, although Health & Safety rarely gets a look in.

Once back in London I nip round to Richard’s house in Notting Hill on my Pedersen bicycle.  We unpack his Nikon; rig up a crossbar on two lighting stands and experiment with folding bicycles in various increments of stop-frame animation.  The raw files from the Nikon shots are sent to our partner Toby Evetts in Los Angeles.  He tidies them up, bounces back a file of sequential shots and hey-presto the next day our bikes fold and unfold reasonably smoothly on the iMac using a mouse to mimic the finger swipe.  After that Richard heads off to his house in France for three month’s vacation meaning our nascent app company is now dotted across Europe, the UK and the USA.  During this time we all keep in touch via Skype planning the shoot and working out how the app can add value to Bernard and Michael’s material from the book.

As well as housing three elderly Citroen’s, a BMW micro car, a Messerschmitt bubble car, several Solex mopeds, dozens of bicycles and a Morris Traveler Richard’s house in France also has extensive workshops.  It is here that he experiments with the rig for our photo-shoot.  Assembled from square-section tubes, three fishing reels, nautical quality cord, nuts, bolts, cable-ties and an electric motor, the whole contraptions can be dismantled and – appropriately – fitted into a bicycle travel bag.  It is finished off in his basement workshop in London, tested and repacked.

On Sunday 25 September we fly back to Vienna.  This time we take three Brompton foldable bicycles – the extra one being for Richard’s wife, Felice, who will join us two days later.  The next day the rig is un-bagged and clamped to the tubes in Bernard’s ceiling.  The Nikon is plugged up to a Mac laptop and Bernhard’s edit suite.  Twenty bicycles from Michael’s collection turn up in a truck and we start shooting.  The weather is hot and sunny.  Vienna is at its best: shady avenues, al fresco eating, azure blue skies, a light breeze wafting the trees and balmy, scented evenings.  We see none of this spending twelve-hours a day locked in the dark slowly hanging bicycles from three fishhooks on lines adjusted by winding the fishing reels attached to the extendable square section tubes.  We use a builder’s laser to level the bikes and to align them vertically.

Richard and Patrick in the studio

Once everything is in place the motor starts and the rig, the bicycle hanging from, it turns suspended invisibly against the white coving behind.  We get through seven bikes out of 100 in the first day.  Luckily Bernard is the photographer of choice for Austria’s most famous drink: Red Bull.  It is stacked everywhere awaiting the next ad-shoot.  Chilled and chugged its addictive energizing potion keeps us going.

Each day we speed up a little, finding quicker ways to hang, align and shoot the bikes. Re-shoots are often necessary: the flash fails on just one frame out of thirty, the bike goes off-kilter, a pedal moves and so on.  Throughout the whole process humour remains good.  Bernard has two assistants.  One is an English-educated German.  He attended public school and tells constant jokes against himself and his nation learned from being on the receiving end of endless ribbing from the prejudices of small xenophobic boys.  At the end of the first week he sets off for England in his battered Land Rover and is replaced by a taciturn Austrian lad.  We miss him.

Each night Richard and I cycle back to a bar to meet Felice, then on to our hotel through the central shopping district.  Each night over beers and sausage we discuss how the whole thing might work out.  We fret over file sizes, the number of frames a spin might need, whether the fishhooks will show and how much we should charge for the app if it ever works.

Rare bikes & Red Bull

By the end of the week the inventory of un-photographed bikes is down to the ten awkward ones: bikes that fold into suitcases, bikes in the shape of a Vespa, bikes that collapse into boat trailers, recumbent tandems and so on.  I have to fly home to carry on writing scripts for The Apprentice TV shows.  Richard stays behind and diligently completes the mission, even shooting extras just in case we need them.  All the while Toby in Los Angeles fillets the files, creating the spinning images. As I script at my desk in Camden Town during an un-seasonally hot October the Dropbox on my iMac steadily fills with files of spin-able bicycles.  The first stage works…

Cyclepedia: A Tour of Iconic Bicycle Design – Download app here

Heuristic Media

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