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Call of the Open Road – A Behind-The-Scenes Look

Jimmy Collins
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Many thanks to those of you who have watched Call of the Open Road, the newly-released video I had the pleasure of creating for Leisure Travel Vans. Featuring footage from my trip around the country over the past year, Call of the Open Road is a celebration of our continent and the incredible, uniting power of travel. This video parallels the story of my own journey over the past year as I’ve circled the US and Canada in my Unity Twin Bed. As a professional director and cinematographer, this project was a dream come true, combining my passions for travel and filmmaking. In these uncertain times, I hope this video will provide some inspiration while we nurse our wanderlust from the comforts of our (motorless) homes.

This post will be a behind-the-scenes look into how Call of the Open Road was made. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my process and all that went into creating this unique video. I also hope this post will help inspire more creative projects from the road once it’s safe for us to get back out there and explore. So, without further ado, let’s dig in…

The Idea is Born

It all started at my home in Los Angeles. As an avid traveler, I am always thinking about the next great journey. I had finished the 50-state challenge by my early 20s and subsequently had the opportunity to visit over 70 countries, seeing many of the world’s great wonders. I had spent years living and traveling around Africa, I’d toured Asia with a Japanese star, I’d created a film that took me all over Europe, and I’d collapsed from altitude sickness at the base of Machu Pichu. But, I still hadn’t seen all of the US national parks, and that was an itch I really needed to scratch! It occurred to me I would need to make many small trips to make this happen…or perhaps, one big one. Noticing various “van life” posts on social media, I got to thinking about the prospect of truly living on the road. And bam, that was it! I decided I would get a van. I became hooked on this idea, and once that happens, there’s no stopping me.

I started researching everything about vans and RVs. I needed something I could live and work in comfortably. I also needed something small enough to park in cities and nimble enough to maneuver around the parks. Of course, it needed to look great too. I went around to local RV dealers, scoured resources online, and searched far and wide for what seemed to be the impossible combination. But, when I finally stumbled on the Leisure Travel Vans website, I knew I’d found the one. Though it would be incredibly cliché to say it was love at first sight, it really was.

The Unity struck me as the perfect combination of everything I needed. So, of course, I had to get one. But, being in my mid-30s, I’m still very much working and needed to figure out a way to make this adventure (and major purchase) work with my professional life. I direct videos and TV commercials for a living and generally fly to jobs as they come up. I figured I could leave the van at airports or with friends and family as needed, but I also began to wonder if I could maybe make my trip into a project itself. The best of both worlds.

I contacted Leisure Travel Vans the next day and started a conversation about the prospect of working together. They liked my work and seemed intrigued by the idea of hiring me to create a video of my journey, but said they would need a proper pitch. So, I put together my ideas and a few weeks later was on a plane to go meet the team in person in Winkler, Manitoba, Canada. I had a wonderful time that day at the LTV headquarters (get the factory tour if you can!) and a really productive meeting with the amazing guys from the marketing team. We outlined a plan for a “lifestyle” video that I would create from the road during the course of my journey. I placed an order for my van days later and eagerly awaited its arrival. The journey of a lifetime was about to begin!

Pre-Production

After several short trips in the van, getting used to the ins and outs of RV life, I started preparing for the big journey. Pre-production, as it’s called, is generally the phase where detailed planning, location scouting, and coordination occur. But, since this project was about my personal trip, I decided to plan it more like I plan my travel; that is, to wing it! I crafted a loose itinerary that would allow me to see the parks on my bucket list, while leaving plenty of room to explore and film beautiful locations along the way. The most important thing would be choosing the right people to work with.

Kirra was an obvious choice for the “female lead.” Considering her adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail and extensive acting experience, I knew she’d be a dream to work with. Of course, she’s also beautiful, and there was a budding romantic interest between us, so I didn’t exactly need to do much thinking! An adventurer, outdoorsman, and highly talented cinematographer, I knew my friend Kasey would be the perfect collaborator behind the camera. Suffice it to say, convincing my small crew of two to join was not a difficult task! A dream job, right? In reality, none of us really even considered this a job. It was an adventure, combining our mutual passions for filmmaking and the outdoors. We worked out flights, planned some basic details, and let it roll from there.

Filming

Call of the Open Road was filmed over the course of several months, with a few focused bursts of filming in late 2019 and early 2020. Though I aimed to make the video look like a bigger production, it was really just me, Kirra, and Kasey behind the scenes, with never more than two of us on the road at a given time. Kasey (who you can see briefly in the video navigating a cave with a flashlight) filmed the shots of me, as well as some beautiful shots of the van. I filmed the aerials and scenes with Kirra. I should also note that Kasey and Kirra served as my “precision” van drivers during aerial filming.

I kept the equipment for this project pretty simple and straightforward. I wanted us to be nimble on the road, ready to roll when the moment presented itself. We used three cameras: a Sony A7SII (primarily with a Tamron 24-70mm zoom lens), a DJI Mavic Pro 2 drone, and a DJI Osmo Action camera (for underwater shots and some of the action shots). Most of the footage was filmed handheld, though we did use a tripod and a small stabilizing device (DJI Ronin-S) several times. You can see this smooth steadicam-like effect, for instance, when the camera moves through the interior of the van toward the beginning of the video.

Aerial cinematography is one of my favorite things to do, so naturally I took plenty of opportunities to fly my drone around and capture the spectacular vistas and sunsets that appeared along the way. Filming the van, however, proved to be a much more daunting task! Simply flying fast enough to keep pace with a moving vehicle is hard enough. Add the need to get smooth, cinematic shots while steering clear of trees, and you wind up with quite the challenge! For every nice, presentable shot in the video, there are countless terrible ones that didn’t make the cut. I’m also embarrassed to say there may have been one or two drone (not van) crashes along the way. Contrary to the laws of physics and logic, though, my trusty “propellered” friend still flies perfectly! To my chagrin, you may get a kick out of this clip of me in a tree in Montana after fetching the drone and tossing it down to Kasey.

Location, Location, Location

Though I’m sure you recognized some of the more iconic sites in the video, I was thrilled to find some hidden gems along the way too. One of my favorite spots was the Little Grand Canyon area of Utah. We practically had this spectacular BLM land between Salt Lake City and Moab to ourselves, and it provided some truly awe-inspiring footage for the video.

I was also blown away by the backcountry we explored in Oregon, which you can see at the beginning of the video in several of the aerial shots, like when the camera is slowing pushing out of a cave framing Mount Jefferson in the distance. Other highlights included Medicine Rocks State Park in Montana (the final shot of the video), Devil’s Punchbowl in Colorado (the cliff-jump shot), and Weeki Wachee Preserve in Florida (the kayaking and manatee scenes).

I could go on about locations and the many spectacular places we discovered along the way, but I figured it would be easier to just make a location map for you! Feel free to check it out below. If you click on the the camera icons, it will pull up still frames from the video, so you can see which shots corresponded to which locations. If you have any questions about particular locations, or would like to share some hidden gems of your own, please feel free to post in the comments!

A project like this ultimately consists of a lot of trial and error. Since we were working with the great outdoors and didn’t have a large crew or trucks of equipment, we had to do our best to simply be in the right place at the right time. Timing is everything! You may notice that much of the footage in the video was shot shortly before sunset or just after sunrise; the golden hour, as it’s called. Of course, it also helps having a beautiful and talented subject to work with! Anyway, the best advice I can give to anyone filming or photographing from the road, is to time your shots around the light and weather. And, though it might seem prudent not to shoot into the sunlight, that’s actually often precisely what you should do!

Post-Production

Once filming was complete, it was time to start putting it all together! Normally, I prefer to work with an editor, but I decided to take this project on myself since it was so personal. Of course, I wound up kicking myself for that decision a few times along the way! Sifting through hours and hours of material and making tough decisions about what to keep and what to scrap can be grueling work. Fortunately, Kasey helped me a lot in the early phases, going through mountains of footage and putting preliminary sequences together. I don’t know what I would have done without him.

After getting a good sense of the footage, I began an extensive search for music, ultimately discovering a beautiful piece by a Croatian composer, known as “Remember The Future.” The tempo and instrumentation were spot-on for the video, while the piece’s dramatic build provided an ideal structure for my edit. Armed now with the perfect score, the video started really taking on a life of its own.

A nice story emerged, centering around the concept of two adventurers coming together, perhaps joined by fate — a tale of two journeys melding into one. I cut it so that our star-crossed lovers (Kirra and me) are never seen together in the beginning, as if we were searching for each other while having our own inspiring experiences on the road. Our travels and decision to “take a chance” ultimately bring us together. The voiceover also hints at this narrative, using “I” at the beginning and then switching to “we” at the end. Between these story cues and the way the action picks up after the cliff-jump shot, I tried to create a poetic storyline with some emotional appeal. Whether you noticed this directly or not, as long as you felt entertained by the video in the end, I’d like to think I did my job!

Another vital element of the post-production process was crafting the “soundscape.” Sound design, as this is called, goes a long way in establishing atmosphere and emotion. Believe it or not, there isn’t a single sound in the video that was recorded on location! Instead, I created the soundscape by going through sound libraries and mixing appropriate effects together to create a natural feeling for the individual locations. Putting the sound together like this afterwards allows for a lot of creative control, and adds so much to the video. The effect is subtle, but if you were to watch a cut without sound design, you’d really notice the difference!

As a final step, I wrote a voiceover script which I hoped would tie everything together, while adding an engaging layer of storytelling to the video. I aimed to create something poetic that felt true to the spirit of my trip, while also fitting the the storyline and pacing of the video. Though it took some fine-tuning, I’m really happy with how it came out and I was thrilled with the performance of our voiceover actor, John, who took things to the next level with his heartfelt read of the script.

With the voiceover completed, I added some finishing touches to get everything looking and sounding just right, and with final approval from the guys at Leisure Travel Vans, this project was a wrap!

That’s a Wrap

I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes post! I always love learning about how things are made, and it’s been fun, in turn, sharing my craft with you. I look forward to sharing more posts about my travels in the coming weeks, and would be more than happy, in the meantime, to answer any questions you may have about the filming process, video locations, or really anything. Feel free to fire away in the comments!

Thanks again for watching Call of the Open Road. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to make this video. It’s been the journey of a lifetime, and it was an absolute pleasure working with Leisure Travel Vans along the way. The guys from the marketing team gave me a tremendous amount of creative freedom and support, and were so patient with me as I dusted off my editing cap and slowly put this all together.  Their feedback and expertise really helped turn this project into something better than I ever expected!

Here’s to brighter days, new journeys, and many creative projects ahead!

Jimmy Collins

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