by Benji Newell
edited by: Tricia Aurand

Note: Any views expressed below are solely those of Benji Newell and not Conscious Mind’s Productions or Levi’s. Neither Conscious Mind’s Productions or Levi’s had anything to do with the edits of the proceeding content.

6 Guys Walk Across America

This summer I was was blessed to be a part of a once in a lifetime RV road trip across the country helping shoot the “Guy Walks Across America” video. This is my chance to share my perspective of the story of our amazing trip. I’m also excited to be able to share a bunch of behind the scenes clips that give a glimpse what it what we’re all really like when we’re just hanging out trying to get a project done. First off, here is the full list of our awesome crew:

Left to Right: Peter, Michael, Blake, Brian, Me (Benji), Sam

Peter Cote – Photographer/Editor/Roommate/Recovering “Marble Mixer” Addict
Michael Johnson- Model/Cuddle Buddy/Driver Extraordinaire/Plants vs. Zombies Pro
Blake Heal-Producer/Co-Pilot/The One Who Feeds Us
Brian Soash-Driver/Lord of the RV and Anything Mechanical
Benji Newell- Camera Assistant/Measurer/Assistant Cook/Sam’s and Michael’s Bed Mate
Sam Griffith – Director/”Angry Birds” Specialist/Guy Who Likes to Take Up the Whole Bed
Jenny-The Beloved and Despised Generator (3 different generators actually) whom we relied upon for all life and sustenance (charging our iPads and anointing us with AC)

The project was sponsored by Levi’s and my job was to help with the camera, measure the distance to the model (Michael) and shoot behind the scenes footage. Turns out my responsibilities as documentarian often fell by the wayside as measuring took priority and left little time during production to document things. After a shoot, everyone was usually too exhausted to film. In fact, there was quite a bit of disdain from various sweaty and exhausted members of the crew about filming any documentary footage whatsoever during our rest times. Luckily, Blake stepped up and filled in as needed (and no one was gonna argue with the guy mostly responsible for feeding us), so I’ve got plenty of extra footage to share here. Like me and Pete’s mad skillz:

Green Screen…Seriously?

There have been a lot of comments regarding whether or not the piece is fake — as though we must have composited the model in after the frames were shot. Having had experience in compositing (not to mention also having been present for all 2700+ photos taken to create this thing!) I think it would have been a heck of a lot more of a pain and expense to try to perfectly match the shadows, lighting, and color to make Michael look like he was a part of the environment in each and every frame rather than just spend the 2 weeks it took to actually shoot. ‘Nuff said. As proof, here’s a breakdown our shooting process during an actual shoot:

And here is a first-person dissection of my intellectually challenging, physically strenuous and emotionally unstable task of measuring the distance from the camera to Michael. Please take note of the the precision, dedication, and focus required to make sure every frame is as accurate (down to the micrometer) as possible. Don’t try this at home:

This was one of the reasons it was so easy for my mind to wander on our journey. The shooting process was so repetitive most of the time. All I had to do was measure, and since a majority of the shots were taken at 14.2’ from the camera, this only consisted of stretching out the tape to where we had it marked. We did this so many times that every once and a while Michael stepped exactly into place on his own:

Our Adventure Begins…

With a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York. There was a huge baggage ordeal during our connection flight in Colorado (which we barely made) that I really don’t want to get into, but I’ll just say that in the end Jet Blue needs to be given credit for making this project a success before we even got started.

I usually don’t have trouble sleeping on planes but for some reason — even in the front seat with extra leg room — everyone had a horrible time getting sleep. This was coupled with the hot and muggy shooting conditions of Day 1 in New York, but to me it didn’t matter because I had never even been to New York, so it was awesome.

The whole piece was shot mostly in order, with a couple of scenes re-arranged later on, so we shot the opening scene at the Brooklyn Bridge first thing. This also happened to be one of the more complicated shots as it was the only shot that involved the camera jibbing down from above Michael’s head plus we forgot the protractor we needed for the opening camera orbit. The iPad Sam had to use for reference overheated multiple times that morning:

During this shoot a random guy at the park looked at Pete and asked him if he was the guy from the DSLR Show. This became an recurring joke for the rest of the trip because although his site gets a good amount of viewers it seemed so absurd to be across the country and have a random guy in New York pick him out on the street.

As was the case during most of the trip, we didn’t have time to hang out in the cities, so New York was a total blur — especially with so many people and traffic. I remember one time we were running around a corner, looking for the subway to Manhattan, and off in the distance was the Statue of Liberty. I realized later that day that it was also the first and only time I’ve ever seen the Atlantic ocean (for about 20 seconds). When we finally found the subway, I was surprised because there weren’t that many people on it. I should’ve knocked on wood or something because each stop that brought us closer to Manhattan also brought with it a shat load of more random people. We already look tired and worn and you can barely see Michael sitting in the corner surrounded by strangers:

We thought we’d have trouble shooting in Times Square — so much so that Pete and Sam decided not to have me measure so we could move faster — but when we showed the police what were were doing they just laughed and thought it was cool. The scroll wheel on the 5D allowed us to preview our immediate progress in a rough animation right on the spot which was really useful showing people, like the local police, exactly what it was that we were making.

Bye Bye Jenny…

Here I must take note of our RV nightmare. First of all, as soon as when Brian and Blake picked up the RV they got side-swiped and smashed the driver-side mirror. We had to pay for this, but our costs evened out because the rental company had to make up for all of our bad Jennys. We didn’t have time to sit around and wait for them to fix her so we continued toward Philadelphia where the rental company promised to meet us with a new RV. We were really bummed because during this time we had only spontaneous AC and power and no hot water. In fact, we woke from our first restless, powerless night in the NY Wal-Mart parking lot to mother nature’s vicious natural alarm clock: heat.

If you look closely at the video, when we’re in Philadelphia, right after the Lincoln memorial and right after a few frames of a water fountain, you’ll see a couple of frames shot from center islands in the middle of a busy street. Michael, Sam, Pete, and I all raced down these islands hoping we wouldn’t get caught and thinking it would be so cool watching Michael make his way downtown in the center of the road. Since it only ended up being about 10 frames, if you blink you’ll miss it:

By the way, after a full day of shooting in the heat and humidity, I gazed at the above water fountain like an oasis in the desert. Michael and I nearly dropped everything and jumped in, but the fountain might as well have been a mirage because we had to keep shooting. Looking back now at how many more frames we actually got done that night, I think we really could have gotten away with taking a dip in that fountain…and this thought makes me sad.

Our big motivation while shooting in Philadelphia was that that night we would have a new RV with AC, time to shower, and we’d finally be able to catch our breaths. When Brian and Blake returned with the new RV, they assured us that the technician had run and tested the Jenny that afternoon and that they had had the AC working for the last hour just fine. But — of course — literally the second Pete, Michael, Sam and I stepped on the RV, we heard the all too familiar sound of Jenny dying. Again.

We were so sweaty and tired and we needed to edit footage to get an idea of where we were at with the piece and how we could change our work-flow to make it better. The RV was our little haven and place of rest from the brutal, rugged, and wild outdoors of urban America — but only if we had power!

All said, I think we were in somewhat good spirits because we knew we were about to eat, but the despair of the broken RV lingered constantly in the back of our minds. So here are some of the moments from that night including a few of my hungry rants:

At this point all the crew could think about was how much things were going to suck if we had no power the whole trip. It wasn’t really an option, we had to have power. I remember everyone sitting in the dark in the RV all hot and sweaty trying to come up with a plan. We drove around and found a random gas station with a power outlet that we tapped into so we could at least have some AC while trying to come up with a solution.

Sam and I used my iPhone to google unsuccessfully for a local truck stop with power hook-ups. In a last ditch effort I typed “RV park” into Google Maps, found a place about 20 miles away and called and made a reservation for us. They said they had hot showers and power. We were ecstatic. As soon as we pulled in, plugged in, and showered, every one’s moods lifted and we had some new-found encouragement that we could actually finish this thing.

There was a funny incident that night at the RV park because in the bathroom there was a long row of about eight or nine showers. That was cool; everyone could shower at once if they wanted. The only problem was that the left-most shower was the only one that got any hot water. I think Sam and I went to take showers at the same time that night and, because someone at the park had told me about the left-most shower, I naturally went to it (w/out telling Sam). When Sam quickly realized that he was only going to get hot water if I wasn’t showering, we started to take turns. We proceeded to fight over the length of time each of us deserved the hot water while the other one stood in the next stall dripping. I’ll admit that my share of the hot water was not quite equal to his…

We even found a little extra time to christen the RV:

Washington DC was one of the only stops where I got to look around a little bit. While Pete and Sam were posing Michael for the orbital shot in front of the Lincoln memorial, Brian and I got to go inside the memorial. This has seriously always been a childhood dream of mine — ever since I realized you could see the little statue of Lincoln in between the pillars on the back of a penny.

Outside in the heat, Michael got hungry:

Sam and I thought it would be great to shoot Michael walking the length of the Vietnam Memorial and having him turn his head to acknowledge all of the names written on the wall. It seemed like a perfect place to do it, since there is a large grassy field right outside of the walkway of the wall and we wouldn’t have to disrespect people with the camera while we were doing the shoot. But it turns out the the grassy field is part of the memorial, so they stopped us from shooting after only a few frames.

We really needed the re-charge at the RV park before Pennsylvania (literally; our iPhones were dying — for the love!) And it was there that we decided to shoot the hitchhike scene next to the corn fields, which I think everyone remembers as the hottest and most grueling day of the trip. We kept thinking we were done, but we ended up shooting somewhere around 250 frames in the middle of the day in the direct sun. The hottest day for me was Chicago, but we had shade there. Here it was just the sun and blacktop and frame after frame after frame. Sam got heat stroke and went to bed sick that night. He then hopped on my “Hey Blake, we need lots of water” train with me and asked me for some vitamins.

(music by “The Summer Twins”)

You’d think from how much energy Blake seems to have in the following clip that it wasn’t that hot, but this is do to the fact that while making water runs for the rest of us he got to spend extra time basking in the AC back in the RV with Brian. Its ok, I don’t hold it against him…that much.

It was also near Pennsylvania that we got to transfer into our third and final RV (because Jenny was still very very sick):

My favorite night of the trip was probably the night we photographed Michael with sparklers in Iowa. It was the first time I had seen fireflies and it was one of the few stops where we got to hang out at the location a little while before shooting. Normally we would stop, jump out of the RV, shoot the frames we needed to get and drive away. There were so many stops where I would have appreciated some time to look around – 10 minutes even – and not have to focus (or try to focus) on shooting. There wasn’t much to see except lots of green grass — which we don’t get much of in So Cal — but all of the glowing insects floating around were really cool. We even got to chase the fireflies around for a bit while waiting for it to get dark — also a lot of fun.

The sparkler sequence was tricky because we had to do an orbiting shot in the dark, but we totally busted it out without a glitch. It was still a pain, though:

In the middle of the night on our way to Chicago, Michael and I were taking our shift driving and there was a huge lighting storm. Thick, giant bolts were going off not a 1/4 mile from the road and spider-web streams of electricity raced across the sky. I don’t know if this is typical for the Midwest or not, but it was truly amazing. Pete had the idea of taping a camera to the dash and having it take photos every five seconds or so in hope that one of the intervals would catch a bolt of lighting, but to me and Michael it just seemed to put the odds against getting a photo of anything at all.

Experiences like this are why I think my head seemed so often to be somewhere else and Sam would have to yell “Measure!” when I slipped out of our groove while shooting. There was always a part of me that wanted to settle where we were at or a least try to take it in a little, even when there seemed to be nothing around to look at.

The Badlands

Of course, there were a few exceptions — like when we got a flat tire in South Dakota. I didn’t want to “take in” that place at all. It could have happened next to any of the rivers in Colorado or near June Lake or Yosemite. But instead we broke down in the Badlands of South Dakota for 2 hours. There was nothing I wanted to look at there, except the petrified gardens, which we broke down 5 miles from. So instead there were just some bales of hay and a sign teasing us of the grandness that existed only 5 miles down the road. There was another major hitch here, too, but this next sequence can speak for itself:

So in a heroic act of epic proportions, Brian tore off the control panel cover under the dash, messed with some wires, and reset the electrical system on the RV. It started up, and I hung up on AAA. We really don’t know what we would have done without Brian Soash.

When we finally got to Mount Rushmore I couldn’t figure out why in the world the monument had been constructed so far out of the way for the majority of the American population to be able to enjoy it. Here’s a conversation I heard between a boy who couldn’t have been older than five and his dad:

The boy looked up at the mountain and then over to his dad, a little confused, “Dad, where are we?”
“We’re in South Dakota,” the Dad replied.
“Why is that in South Dakota?”
“It just is.”

My thoughts exactly.

Rocky Mountain Fever

Left to Right: Benji, Michael, Blake, Sam, Peter

Continuing over the Rockies, spirits were high, especially for Pete and Brian:

The Hills Have Eyes…

Sam was determined to find a ghost town to shoot in, so we found a random place in Nevada called “Gold Point.” I guess at one time this had been a hip and happenin’ prospecting adventure town, but now it looks more or less like a junk yard with some recently built shacks posing as ghost town houses. It was very creepy. There were new cars and lots of old cars, but there didn’t seem to be any people. Michael swore he saw someone staring at me through a window, but then he remembered the rules of horror…and that since he was the first one to crack a joke, he’d be the first one to die.

We finally met the owner of the Ghost Town and came to find out that it’s actually a quaint little bed and breakfast. So here’s the website if any of you are thinking about finding a nice, desolate place to spend your vacation.

We shot this sequence backwards at sunset to make it look like sunrise :)

One thing I couldn’t understand about the desert is how there could be miles and miles of flat, dry land, but all of these cattle grates (or whatever they’re called). It’s as if the cows get dragged through hundreds of miles of heat to graze on — what? Dirt?Luckily, all of Utah wasn’t sand and cracked ground; we even got some bushes to film around for the water bottle sequence (sorry about my shirt being off, I was trying to counteract my farmer’s tan from Pennsylvania):

We found a legit fireworks stand in Wyoming where we picked up some bottle rockets, roman candles, and the infamous Air Force One rockets. For a few days our inner pyros stirred restlessly as we longed for a place to set our gunpowder aflame. Finally, in Nevada, we rolled by a truck stop with a bunch of other people who had the same thing in mind and we could finally light off our Air Force One:

The City That Never Sleeps

Finally, the tape-measure guy gets some respect!

From upper left to lower right: Blake, Brian, Sam, Peter

I guess New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but we slept there (at a Wall Mart anyway). Vegas, on the other hand, was horrible. We shot the high five sequence from 11pm to 4am amongst huge crowds of people walking the strip — many of whom were, of course, drunk and having a good time. It was really hot again and the shoot took extra long because of the crowded streets and the fact that we had to ask a different random person to be in each frame. All of this made it very difficult for us to keep a quick pace, so the night dragged on and on. A big shout out to everyone who helped us that night! All the friendly people who we didn’t have to beg to be in our little film deserve another big high five for being such good sports. The other highlight of the night was that we each got our own cameo in the video :D

My Favorite State

I know the desert and plains have their own sort of beauty to them, but within hours of crossing the California border, we were greeted by snow-capped mountains, lush forests, and crystal clear, trout-filled lakes. Here we have the redwoods, sequoias, Nor-Cal beaches, So-Cal Beaches, rivers, lakes, dunes, deserts and valleys. Colorado was also gorgeous, but to me Yosemite still feels like magic. But alas, I am biased because this is the state in which I was born and I know everyone takes a special pride in their home state. To say it was good to be home is an understatement.

The first thing we shot in San Francisco was the final “bucket list” sequence, because we wanted to make sure if anything went wrong we’d have our second day in SF to get it right. I was back in city a few weeks ago and it was overcast the whole four days I stayed there, so we were very fortunate to capture the sunset through the Golden Gate on a completely clear day:

(music by “The Summer Twins”)

The next day we made a long stretch through Chinatown and finished up by the piers:

Big thanks to Walter from Levi's (second from right), he gave us so much creative freedom and supported us the whole way

Six Dudes and 3 Beds

Having stayed in a RV a few times before, I knew that my favorite place to sleep was up in the loft, because it had its own little AC vent and a curtain you could close when the lights were on and you wanted to sleep. It was also very stable from bouncing since it was all the way up front. I also knew that since the loft accommodated two, my securing of this sleep-station wouldn’t be seen as me snagging the best bed. Indeed, I only snagged half of the best bed. You’d think the master bed in back would be the most comfortable, but seeing as we were driving most of the time people were trying to sleep, the back mattress would bounce you around so much you could barely doze off.

Lucky for Pete, he could fall asleep anywhere in just about any position. Because the computer was strategically taped onto the table that would convert into his bed, he would just snuggle up on the 3 1/2 foot long little RV bench and go to sleep. He’d literally tuck his knees in and toss the blanket over his head like he was hiding, but really he was sleeping sound as a baby.

Pete snuggled up in this little bench at night

Michael soon realized that his little pull out couch sucked because it was too short for anyone to stretch out on, so it was always a race between him and Sam to see who would get to sleep next to me in the loft. I had lined my bed with my clothes and tucked my sheets around my mattress making it a little more awkward for someone to assert themselves into my bed before I got to it, but one night Sam outright kicked Michael out of the bed (kindly), even knowing that he wouldn’t get the sleep he needed for the next day on the pull-out. Besides, Michael could often rest in between shoots during the day while Sam had to sit up front and scout for the next location.

And, believe me, Sam was really focused while scouting:

Zombies, Birds, and Marbles

Although in the cities and on some country roads we often shot non-stop, there were many long stretches where we just drove and drove. Peter, Blake, and I all have iPads and the top three games of the trip were Marble Mixer, Angry Birds, and Plants vs. Zombies (for Michael anyway). We started with Marble Mixer since you could play with four people at a time. All of us were at more or less the same skill level until Pete decided to download it on his iPad.

For the next three days while all of us were hanging out, chatting, or playing a casual game of marbles or Angry Birds together, Pete hid away in his little nook and practiced Marble Mixer alone. He then proceeded to ask us if we would like to play with him and then went on to kick all of our asses — at which point the game was no longer fun for anyone. Pete also crawled away for 3 days and beat Angry Birds alone but this wasn’t as annoying because it was still fun for me, Michael, and Sam to figure out the levels together.

Once Michael grew tired of Marble Mixer, he needed something else to feed his new-found iPad game addiction. Shame on me for introducing him to Plants Vs. Zombies. I rarely saw my iPad again:

Noms

So the “Gatorade diet” Sam mentions in the official behind the scenes video actually consisted of a lot more than just Gatorade. It was Gatorade, pizza, chips, pop-tarts, Burger King, more Burger King, McDonald’s, and more pizza. Just the kind of nutrition we needed to keep our energy level up and bodies in tip top shape.

I can’t totally blame Blake for the food we had on the RV. After all, the initial Wal-Mart we stocked up at wasn’t a Super Wal-Mart, so there wasn’t a freezer section. Not being able to buy anything that was perishable meant buying a lot of crap like cup-of noodle (which no one ate) and chips. The only thing green we had on the RV was perhaps some green Gatorade and my packets of — what tasted like — bales of alfalfa concentrated into a powder form, which I mixed with my Gatorade from time to time while everyone else wondered what the frak I was drinking.

New York pizza was yummy. I’m a little biased because I was starving at the time (I try to snack on something every few hours, and when I go long periods without food I get outright ravenous — which was the case for me for most of the trip). Giant slices of pizza on thin crust? Yes, please. After a stressful flight and long morning of shooting, it really hit the spot:

Philly cheese steaks tasted dry, flavorless, and — if it wasn’t for the fact that we were starved — almost outright nasty. The meat had the texture and consistency of gyro meat, but with no flavor. Someone said it was all about the condiments that you put on it, but for all the hype I thought the meat would taste juicy and flavorful like a good steak. It didn’t.

Chicago deep dish pizza was awesome. It was more like a cheesy pizza casserole or a big lasagna with crust instead of noodle. So tasty.

Then there was the glorious day that Blake was gracious enough to make us a “real” breakfast:

Another morning, after all of us had taken turns driving through the night, we pulled in front of a Super Wal-Mart. I woke Blake up just enough to convince him to give me the credit card so I could buy some eggs for us. Once I had the card, I managed to sneak in some strawberries, blueberries, apples and red potatoes, as well as some yummy sausage. These I added to a huge egg scramble with fried potatoes that I cooked for everyone that morning. No photos or video of this historical moment, but you’re going to have to take my word that it was legit to say the least.

I think everyone would agree that our best meal was at the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. Levi’s took everyone out when we arrived and there was only one thing on the menu:

The best hunk of beef I've ever had in my life. Well, aside from Michael and Sam anyway.

The Final Score

There was a lot of drama as to what song should be used in the final edited piece. We had a composer from the beginning and he had started to score a track inspired by the Pixies (per Sam’s vision). At first, it was a little empty and repetitive, but we all loved the vibe and I really heard where it could go musically. When we got back to So Cal, we met with the composer (Mike Wofford) and — since I can “speak music” a little bit — I got to help direct the final composed piece in his studio. This was a total blast. I loved the idea of the entirety of “Guy Walks Across America” being a completely original piece and, though I do like the Edward Sharpe song, to me this version with the composed track gives the final piece more heart:

Six Guys, 3 Cranky RVs and 2,770 Photographs

Our return to Southern California brought back the nostalgia of coming back from summer camp, except that there weren’t any cute girls we’d met to write back to (well, Michael may have met a few…), and the only arts and crafts I can think of was the web of gaff tape Pete configured to hold the computer down on bumpy roads.

I think all of us are proud of the finished piece. I know I am, because to me it’s more than a viral ad — it’s a true celebration of our country, and it gives you a real look through real snapshots of what you would see if you were to drive the same route we drove from NY to SF. Having never seen most of the country before this trip, I try to imagine what it would be like had I not helped make the piece and could watch the USA fly by in 2 minutes for the first time. I’ll never be able to put myself in those shoes, but I can really appreciate what we accomplished over two weeks on a shoestring budget and a lot of faith.