Filmmaker Adrian Bonvento recently made his feature-film debut with the release of Rookie Season, a cinematic auto-racing documentary from Strike Back Studios (https://strikebackstudios.com). Available on-demand, the feature premiered at the 2021 International Motor Film Awards in London, where it won Best Documentary. Its North American premiere took place at the Mammoth Film Festival, followed by theatrical release in February.
The project dates back to 2018, when businessman and amateur racer Frank DePew purchased the assets of Rebel Rock Racing with the goal of testing his skill in the professional racing ranks. He then hired driver Robin Liddell, a decorated veteran with 29 career wins in IMSA’s top-level series and the 2015 Michelin Pilot Challenge champion in the Grand Sport (GS) class. Joe Hall also joined the team as its crew chief.
The team witnessed a tough start, finishing dead last in a 49-car field at the 2019 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Slowly, however, DePew, Liddell and the Rebel Rock crew built the program back up and punctuated the rebirth with a win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, and a storybook victory at Road America.
Rookie Season gives the audience access to the team throughout their 2019 season, be it through visceral in-car cameras, pit stops and engineering-room discussions. Bonvento, who served as director, cameraman and editor, was there for it all, with unrestricted access to the team, including open and honest narration from key members.
Here, Bonvento shares his experience, along with the challenges he faced as a one-man production team.
Rookie Season: In the driver’s seat
By Adrian Bonvento
director, cinematographer, editor
In all my years of involvement with motor racing, from fan to filmmaker, I have always found it difficult to explain how the sport makes me feel. I think it’s that desire to share those feelings with others which led me first to photography, then to filmmaking — because those feelings are, quite simply, incredible.
The forces inside a race-car cockpit are quite a difficult thing to capture and convey, if not impossible. Watching a race from your couch, or even from the track, simply does not do it justice. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to have been a passenger in several race cars with a professional driver at the helm, and let me tell you: words cannot describe it. When I set out to create Rookie Season, one of my top priorities was to strap the viewer firmly into the driver’s seat and do the best I could to convey that sensation. With those experiences as my reference, I knew I needed full control of the audiovisual setup within the car if I was to come close to achieving my goal.
The underlying problem? During a race weekend, no one is there to make a movie. There are no second takes. Everything you do inevitably comes second to the pursuits of the team. Any cameras added to the car are essentially foreign objects in a controlled ecosystem.
Every piece of recording equipment must be securely fastened, out of the driver’s field of view, and outside the natural arc of emergency cockpit service, should it be required. A custom connection must be created between the cameras and the car’s power supply, to ensure the camera does not die during recording. A separate, high quality audio recorder is necessary – as audio is often more important than the visuals. One is for the car, and the other is for the team’s radio communications.
For this film I was regularly using four GoPros in order to capture all angles of the in-car action. Each camera was roll-bar mounted and hardwired to the car’s power supply. This was coupled with a Zoom audio recorder running on battery power, which I later synced up to the video footage in the editing room. A second Zoom recorder was clipped to my hip at all times, pulling double duty by recording the team’s radio transmissions, and simultaneously allowing me to stay abreast of race happenings, which might require me to quickly relocate.
With this car in particular (a front-engine Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R), the cockpit can regularly reach temperatures of over 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) during the warmer races of the year. This means certain zones of the car, which do not receive enough air circulation, are off limits, as equipment can simply stop working. All these restrictions were a direct challenge to the framing and feeling of each shot.
Outside the car, predicting what is likely to happen when filming around the track is essential as a team of one. For me, this comes down to experience, being tied in to the team radio and trusting my gut. Both worlds need to be captured with specific intent if you are to paint the entire picture of a race weekend. As much as the drivers and cars are often the stars, racing is a team sport through and through, and much of the story often develops off-track.
All of the scenes taking place outside the cockpit were filmed with my trusty Canon C300 Mark II. I can’t speak highly enough of this workhorse, especially when working solo. I used a variety of microphones, depending on the volume of the scene. But most of the footage that took place close to the cars required a Sennheiser vocal microphone (what a singer uses on stage) so that levels would not be blown. This was a tip I got from a Sennheiser company representative several years back (and apparently what broadcast cameras use to capture the explosive audio of drag racing).
As important as footage capture is, the editing room is really where it all comes together. Throughout the editing process, which took me a little over a year (with some healthy breaks in the middle for my own sanity), I produced everything in Final Cut Pro. Color grading was done through a third-party plug-in, but all else was accomplished natively within the program. I’ve come to like the streamlined and user-friendly interface of this editing suite over the years.
This was the most challenging edit I’ve ever undertaken. I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now. If I had, I might never have started it.
It all began with the interviews. I knew strong voiceover was going to form the backbone of this film, and that is where I started the editing process. I spent several weeks combing through hours of interview footage that I had captured over the course of the year, and slowly began to streamline it. Once I was happy with a given segment, I would throw some visuals and music into the mix to see if it gave me the feeling I was looking for.
When I first start to build out a scene in this fashion, if I can feel the emotion then and there, at the beginning of the process, I know I’ve got something. Because after hours, days and sometimes weeks crafting minute-long segments of a film, listening to the same thing over and over and over and over again, it can be easy to question whether what I have was ever actually good in the first place.
Making decisions on whether to cut to the next clip 1/24th of a second sooner is what comes up most often. When I begin to get sick of a scene, that’s usually a good indicator that I’ve spent enough time fine tuning it.
Music and sound effects are good for recreating the natural emotions that would be occurring in realtime, but the music should never overpower the visuals, or the natural sound of the car, especially when a car sounds as good as this one.
The timing, positioning and varying emphasis of all of these small details are together what create the sensation of being in the race car.
With Rookie Season, I feel that I’ve come the closest I ever have to conveying the controlled chaos that is a race-car cockpit. However, as with all impossible pursuits, there is always more I can do. And that is what drives me.