Eastern Europe Animated Bicycle Tour Documentary – An Interview With The Filmmaker

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20-year-old Josh Wedlake and three friends spent a month slowly pedaling their way by bike from Berlin to Istanbul. After the trip was over, Josh sat down at his computer and for four entire months worked to create an animated film about his cycling expedition through Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Josh sent me a link to his film and recommended that I watch it. I did just that and I think you too will find Josh’s story an incredible piece of art.

Watch the film above and then continue reading below for a quick interview I conducted with Josh about both his trip by bike and the filmmaking process.

Josh, How did you come up with the idea for this bike tour? And did you know in advance that you were going to be making a film about the trip?

In summer 2008 I’d travelled around Europe with two friends, Tom Bramall and Ed Wagstaff. We bought “interrail” tickets and took our bikes as well. We started with an order of the cities we wanted to visit, and knew how long the trains would take between cities, and how far we could cycle each day. We played it completely by ear and ended up alternating between 3 days on the bike then 3 days in a city or on a train. It was great fun and I enjoyed how unplanned it was; there weren’t really any deadlines and if we were late or early getting somewhere it didn’t matter. We’d taken no maps, but instead at each place we stayed we would try and work out a rough list of villages or towns in the order we would need to pass through them to get to the next city. We carried a GPS in case it all went wrong but only really used it when we were completely stuck. After that trip I knew I wanted to go touring again.

Our university offers travel grants, some are academic and some are just for students who want to do something adventurous. Tom came knocking on my door the night before the grant deadline and suggested we apply to do a cycling tour, this time without the trains. We almost applied for London to Morocco, but its quite a well travelled route for English cyclists and we’d cycled through France the previous summer and had been rained on too much! Berlin and Istanbul were pretty much random choices other than we wanted to head south towards the sun and they were about as far apart as we could manage comfortably in a month.

I had no idea at all I was going to be making a film about the trip when we set off. I’d read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” before we started the trip, after I stumbled over it on the web when looking for bike maintenance books. If you’re planning a long journey and are going to do your own repairs its definitely worth a read first! The passage I quote in the opening to my film stuck in my mind – about the car window being just more TV. I think this triggered the idea to make a film, which I first thought about half way through the trip. We didn’t have the time or the equipment to shoot any decent footage, and even the stills we have are pretty dreadful – as much as I would have loved to take a whole load of lenses and film, we had to pack minimal. I decided if I was going to make a film, it would have to be a CGI reconstruction. One of my favourite animators, Kristian Andrews, describes himself as “a deeply unimaginative person” who has to “dredge [his] memory banks for the various non-events and anticlimaxes that are the focus of [his] films and life”. I would have to put myself in this category of animators!

Can you describe the route you took? How did you plan out the roads you were going to take?

A while after we applied for the grant, two of our more organized friends joined us, Duncan and (confusingly) Tom. Initially we’d just stuck pins into Google Earth and that was the planning done, but the more we looked into it (the risk of rabies and dog attacks in Eastern Europe, rumours about bandits, and travel blogs with stories of hundreds of kilometers of unpaved roads) we were persuaded to do a bit more planning. Our route went pretty much direct from Berlin to Krakow with much longer distances than any other legs (with initial delays we ended up doing 196k followed the next day with 219k). We went over the Beskids to Budapest (a city that both Tom Bramall and I had really enjoyed visiting the year before) then east into Romania through the cut off backwaters, subsistence farming and isolated villages. We had no idea about most of the places we were going to cycle through, other than they were miles from anywhere we’d ever heard of. If you look at Romania on Google Maps or Map24 or Bing you’ll see there are barely any roads marked. Fortunately I have a friend whose mother works in Bucharest, and she was able to send back more detailed maps. What we found when looking at satellite photos however is that very few of the minor roads are paved. We scheduled this part of the route very carefully leaving lots of slack time and writing down where we could find all the nearby hospitals and so on. As we had a plane home to catch from Turkey we were very under ambitious in the last few days and picked scenic routes that we could shortcut out if we were running behind.

What about the friends who came with you on the trip? How do you all know each other?

All of us knew each other quite well. Tom Bramall (20) and I (20) had travelled together the year before. We knew Tom Wilson (21) and Duncan (19) from college. Duncan was signed up quite late on and I only really got to know him well after we’d all agreed to do the trip.

Did you and your riding partners get along the entire time? How was it traveling with a group? What did you learn from traveling in this way? Would you travel in a group like this again?

We organized ourselves pretty well, and even with all the bike problems we had, we never needed to split up. Duncan was the tent expert and could put up the tents one handed in the dark. He was also the trips accountant keeping track of who had what currency and what we all owed each other. However he had never fixed a puncture in his life before the trip! Tom Bramall is highly adept in negotiating with the locals (in pigeon English) explaining why they should let us camp in their garden. He is also the best chef I know for cooking with one pan, and can whip up a spaghetti bolognase in minutes on a trangia. Pretty much every day we would eat the same thing as we were so tired and unimaginative by the time it came to shopping. It was usually cake/brioche for breakfast, cheese and ham sandwiches for lunch, and spaghetti bolognase for dinner. Tom Wilson and I would be left to map reading, and I would try my hardest at basic bike mechanics (not always successfully – I lost the will to live after I had 12 punctures in one day and left the others to fix it!).

I did my best to encourage everyone to keep the trip on budget (on average we got flights for £200 each, we spent around £100 each on replacing bike parts and only £300 living expenses for a month – food, hostels, pubs etc – in total that’s under $900 for the whole trip!). Duncan was not too happy about the quality of the meat we’d been buying and ‘to cut costs’ substituted my lunchtime ham for dog food, a joke which didn’t go down too well at the time!

After watching your film, it seems like your vision of the trip was not exactly like what it turned out to be. Is that true? And if so, why do you think that is?

I think I’m a born pessimist and it certainly comes across in the film. It didn’t help that I recorded the narration in the last week of trying to finish the film when I’d been running at around 4 hours sleep a night! I don’t think I really had that many grand expectations of the trip before we started, other than hoping for good weather, which we got more often than not.

Partly I think the sadness in the film comes from the sense of social, political and economic change that is happening in so many of the countries we visited. Many of them have only recently joined the EU, but already it has had a drastic effect. In many cases the potholed roads we’d read about on travel blogs simply weren’t there any more and had been replaced by giant bypasses: I hope that one of these satellite photo websites will be able to show us a time lapse in future years so we can watch the sprawl growing. Globalization in architecture is incredibly sad: soon the highways in Romania will be identical to the highways in Britain, and they will all undoubtedly be littered with the same chains of shops selling the same brands everywhere. Its only a matter of time before we’ll see the spread of prefab housing, and then the loss of local languages. Of course joining the EU will be a great opportunity for many people, especially considering the dreadful history of oppression in some of Eastern Europe, but it is saddening to see a loss of culture.

What is the biggest lesson you think you learned from you trip?

Check local bike standards first. Because until recently, the quality of road surfaces was so low, almost all the bikes sold in Romania are mountain bikes with imperial size tyres. It was nearly impossible to find 700c bike tyres or tubes. We saw several people riding bikes that didn’t even have tyres on them! Eventually we managed to buy a second hand thread-bare 700c tyre from a bazaar! There were also far fewer bike shops around. It seems a bike on the road in rural Romania is considered as unusual as a horse and cart would be in England. Its the complete opposite of what happens at home: here drivers slow right down for horses and carts because they aren’t used to them, but race past cyclists; in Romania all the drivers were courteous and would steer wide around us, but would cause much more trouble for the cart owners!

Why exactly did you decide to make a film about your adventure? What do you hope to do with the film now that you are finished with it?

I’m currently studying Architecture, and my film was part of a thesis on how we remember travelling through places; the film is itself a recreation from memory. I modelled directly from memory into the software without putting the ideas on paper first. Unfortunately I can’t release the written part at this time. I’ve accepted a place on a Character Animation course next year at Central St Martins in London. I’ve never formally studied animation so the film was partly an exercise in teaching myself! I’m hoping to find work experience in an animation studio this summer so the film will hopefully be useful there! Other than that, along with my journals and sketchbooks I look forward to looking back at it in many years time with fond memories.

How exactly was the film was made? What software did you use? How long did it take? How many people were working on it? And how exactly did you learn to animate?

To make the film I primarily used the open-source software “blender.” Anyone can download blender for free (blender.org) and teach themselves how to model and animate from the thousands of tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere, just as I did. Some of the “colour grading” (the colourful stylised look of the shots) was done in Adobe After Effects which is much more straight forward than blender: if you’ve ever used Photoshop you can pick it up quite fast.

I was the only person working on the project, but occasionally I’d show tests of shots to friends to guage what worked and what didn’t. I relied on a few favours for the music – I’m very grateful to Yarden Brody, Nick Chapman and the Electric Furs, who all licensed their songs for free. I started storyboarding on the 1st December ’09, and finished the film on the 25th March ’10. Throughout most of the time I had a lot of other uni work to do so until the last three weeks it was very slow progress. The character and bike modelling took one month, the scene design took another two months, and the animation took about three weeks. I did the edit in a day and a half, and the sound design in a day!

If you could do your bike trip all over again, what would you do differently?

I’d make more effort to talk to the locals. When one of my inner tubes blew a valve in a small town in the east of Romania we couldn’t find a bike shop anywhere. We managed to explain what we needed to a passer by though gestures, pointing and drawing pictures. He beckoned us to follow him, and then drove Duncan in his car to a market, where he insisted on paying for the new tubes! In the meantime we sat on some steps outside a shop. The shopkeeper must have seen we were in trouble and brought us out bunches of grapes. Encounters like this happened every time we stopped, but in most cases the locals couldn’t speak any English and we had next to no knowledge of their language.

And if you could make your film all over again, what would you do differently?

I was hugely over ambitious considering how little I knew about 3D animation at the start of the project, and in hindsight the quality of the animation could have been a lot better if I hadn’t had so many different virtual locations to build! I only ended up cutting around two shots because I ran out of time. I would have loved to include more dialogue, but was anxious about getting my friends to act things out – they saw the film for the first time when it was finished. All in all though it was a terrific learning experience, and the comments I’ve had back from viewers have made it worth it.

For more information on Josh’s film, “Au Soleil”, just click here.

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0 Comments

  1. mike

    May 12, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Your film and story are awesome. Great work!

  2. Ryan

    May 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    I have gotten really into mountain bike touring over the years. I have done more road tours but getting away from it all has been nice. No cars, few people, serenity and the tidal flow of energy between me and the earth as I get from one point to the next.

    Bike tours are typically very logistically intensive or heavy on gear or expensive. Especially when there is no civilization for hundreds of miles.

  3. Kate

    May 26, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Fantastic watch & read – really enjoyed it !

  4. Tracy

    June 7, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks for providing a great film and interview for vicarious bike touring while injured!

  5. Joshua

    December 7, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    A nice account of your journey. I have had a few friends that started with a european cycle tour as one of there first great bike tours. Two of my friends, from Switzerland and Holland, then moved onto cycle the americas independently from Alaska to Patagonia. Having the opportunity to join them in Mexico and Chile for some of their tours was a very moving experience. They both were very moving people. Keep up the adventuresome spirit!

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