How Red Bull captured a 1,200-mile trek through Vietnam for ‘Blood Road’

Red Bull’s latest documentary is much more than an action adventure film.

Rebecca Rusch had a story to tell. The world-class endurance mountain bike racer and Red Bull athlete is known for her incredible feats of daring and adventure, but this story was about much more than that. It was something personal; so personal that when she approached Red Bull Media House with the idea for a documentary, the studio decided to produce the entire thing in-house – the first time it had ever done that for a feature-length film.

The result is Blood Road, which, on the surface, is an outdoor adventure film not unlike numerous others to which the energy drink company has lent its name. In it, Rusch, along with riding partner Huyen Nguyen, travel the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail by mountain bike – 1,200 miles in total, through dense jungles and rushing rivers of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But underneath, Blood Road is about much more than that. It’s about discovery, growth, and personal change.

Some 40 years prior to her setting out on the trail, Rusch’s father, an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War, was shot down. Many years later, his remains were eventually recovered and identified. Blood Road is the story of Rusch’s search for his crash site, and her search for the father who died before she was old enough to even remember him.

Blood Road is the story of Rebecca Rusch’s search for the father who died before she was old enough to remember him.

This is the reason that Red Bull Media House kept the production under one roof, according to director Nicholas Schrunk. “Because of the nature of this story being so personal to Rebecca and all the intricacies and the detail of what we had to do to pull it off, this was really the first project where it fully made sense for us to do it in-house,” he told Digital Trends.

While the journey itself would last 23 days on the trail, it would take three years to finish the film. Preparing for the project was no easy task, and while the small crew and support staff would need to be able to travel light, Schrunk did not want to sacrifice his desired look for the film. Early on, he had decided to go with anamorphic lenses – a type of lens historically used in Hollywood to achieve a widescreen look that has seen a resurgence in modern digital cinema, thanks to its unique optical properties.

“With anything, you want to adhere to a visual style that supports the story,” Schrunk explained. “This was such a personal story that I wanted to find a way to document it that really brought he human characters to life.”

The anamorphic lenses created a warmer, softer look that helped breathe life into skin tones and wasn’t as hyper-sharp and clinical as many modern lenses can be. But it wasn’t just the human characters that needed to be brought to life. One of Schrunk’s secret weapons was a Cooke Anamorphic/i 65mm macro lens, the first one to roll off the production line. It would be used for close-up shots of the maps, which Schrunk says became their own characters in the film.

Additional lenses used included a 32mm, 50mm, and 100mm – all from the Cooke Anamorphic/i-series. Schrunk decided on Cooke lenses because they could hold up to the extreme temperature and moisture changes in the jungle, where older or cheaper alternatives would have failed. In a setting with no room for redundancy and no time to send lenses in for service, the crew needed gear that they could rely on 100 percent.

But in this type of production, those lenses came with one significant drawback: they were very large and heavy. On the single-track trail, the six-person film crew would be traveling by way of dirt bike. That meant all of the gear had to be packed into backpacks, and as they wouldn’t be returning to a home base at the end of each day, they had to be able to carry absolutely everything with them – not just production gear, but also food, water, clothing, and first aid equipment.

With the Cooke lenses locked in, the crew had to save space elsewhere, starting with the cameras. They elected to use the carbon fiber version of the Red Dragon 6K, which may be large compared to a consumer camcorder, but significantly smaller than other professional cinema cameras from the likes of Sony and Arri. The team also coordinated with local drivers who could transport larger pieces of equipment in trucks, meeting up with them every few days as the trail allowed.

An eye in the sky

Another critical component of the film’s visuals was the aerial photography, which does much more than give the film that “epic” look that drone enthusiasts lust after. In this case, letting the audience look down from the sky was integral to telling the story.

“Aerial shots were really important because that was the way Rebecca’s father, as a pilot, saw the country,” said Schrunk. They also revealed landscapes that just couldn’t be viewed adequately from the ground. “There are whole fields of bomb craters that are still there. If you get a camera up in the air, you can really see the extent of the impact of the bombing campaign.”

In order to improve the quality of the GoPros, the stock lenses were stripped out and replaced.

The crew relied on two different drones to achieve these shots: two DJI Phantom II (which was new at the time) and a massive Freefly CineStar that could support the weight of a Red Dragon, Cooke Anamorphic/i lens, and a Movi gimbal. The CineStar was too large to travel by motorbike on the trail, but the team would use it whenever they could link up with the transport vehicles.

The Phantom IIs, on the other hand, were great because they could travel in a backpack and get airborne within seconds when needed. The problem is that the GoPro Hero4 cameras they were outfitted with didn’t match the look of the rest of the film. Or at least, not by default.

In order to improve the quality of the GoPros, the stock lenses were stripped out and replaced with custom lenses with narrower angles of view and anamorphic elements. Snake River Prototyping, a company specializing in custom GoPro and drone accessories, then made bespoke neutral density (ND) filters for those lenses, which would allow the GoPros to shoot at slower shutter speeds, bringing the look of the footage in line with that of the Red digital cinema cameras.

how red bull filmed mountain biker rebecca ruschs gripping blood road nicholas schrunk with camera cooke 100mm
Josh Letchworth
Josh Letchworth

During a pick-up shoot, the crew was able to use a DJI Inspire 1 RAW with a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mount. Even then, the consumer MFT lens they used was first shipped off to Duclos Lenses to have its coatings stripped in order to get it to flare more and look closer the anamorphic lenses.

An emotional journey

In the end, every detail of production was about conveying the feeling of the film. What started as an intense journey and a struggle against the elements became a much deeper, more profound experience. After spending 23 days together on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Schrunk and the crew weren’t just outside observers to the story, they were living it. This allowed them to connect on an individual level to Rusch’s story, which aided their ability to document it. This is something that Schrunk hopes comes across to the audience.

While the film contains all of the elements of a traditional adventure epic, including the exploration of culture and environment, it also goes beyond that. “It’s an emotional journey of a daughter looking for her father,” Schrunk said. “So people will get this feeling of adventure, but my hope is that they really see that emotional journey and see Rebecca change, and live this story through her. It’s her change as a character which is what I think we were the most successful at documenting.”

Blood Road is currently screening around the country and will be available for purchase on June 20. For a screening schedule and more information, head to the film’s official website.

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