Friday Feature: Specialized filmmaker Chris Keiser

As cycling obsessives, our appetite for content is insatiable. The iconic bike brand Specialized understand that and, luckily for us, pander to it! Not only do they do adverts with style, humour and heart – no frying up cycling shoes for them, no siree, they get little boys riding like they’re Tom Boonen – but they also serve up a tantalising smörgåsbord of behind-the-scenes short videos. These show the riders training, getting fitted for their bikes, testing out wheels on the cobbles, even having coffee. And the man behind these films is Chris Keiser.

An American who has lived off and on in Paris for the last seven years, Chris follows teams that work with Specialized to capture those off-the-cuff moments. So when Chris was in London a month or so ago, I jumped at the chance to meet and interview him. Here are some of the highlights of our chat – interspersed, of course, with his work.

Kitty: First of all, thanks very much for meeting me. Let’s get right to it. What is it that you love about cycling?

Chris: When I first started watching the Tour de France on French television years ago, during the long stages, there would be 30 minutes of no commentary – I swear the commentators would go out for lunch. But in that silence, you could hear the sound of the wheels and the easy chatter of the guys as they rode along. That was my favourite part of watching the Tour – it felt like I was right there.

For me so much of cycling is the escape, the fantasy, the poetry. All those things I’m very easily seduced by – the wheels and everything – sometimes when I’m shooting I think, ‘Oh God this is awesome!’

I want to convey what I feel when I’m on the bike and I want people to have that sensation with my little two-minute videos. Maybe there’s a couple of sounds or a couple of instances in a video that makes someone go: ‘Oh yeah, that was me and my buddies out on a ride.’ For me that’s the most important part.

Kitty: So what is your favourite race – either the one you like to shoot or the one you like to just watch?

Chris: Roubaix is, for me, the most amazing race. I get goosebumps just talking about it. It’s madness and mayhem and so beautiful. It’s a crapshoot in so many ways and in Roubaix, so many of the guys crash, yet it’s still the strongest and best prepared guys that win. It’s Cancellara, it’s Boonen – riders like Hushovd and Haussler have had bad Roubaixs, then there are the guys who come from nowhere and have the day of their life. But it’s still like any race – the toughest, best prepared, best equipped guys are going to win.

But beyond that, it’s the beauty of it and the insanity of it. When you are the master of something, you have a zone and it’s the thing that if you haven’t achieved proficiency in a sport, you can’t fully understand. In Roubaix, it’s total chaos everywhere but there’s a crystal-clear awareness in riders’ minds. In some photographs from Roubaix, the best riders almost look jowly, even though their faces are usually super taut and that’s because they’re completely relaxed. Everything is loose, Fabian says in one of my videos [we’ll get to that one in a bit – Ed] that you don’t control the bike, you just let it go. You really have to let it do its thing. I love the fact that for that race, you have to be supremely fit and totally Zen. The pavé doesn’t give a shit how aggressive you are.

It was also the first real bike race I ever saw. I was over at a buddy’s house and he said, ‘Hey, let’s watch Roubaix.’ He started explaining it to me and then put in the tape and I thought,‘this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, why are they doing this?’ but I couldn’t stop watching it over and over again. Twenty years later I’m on the back of a motorcycle doing reconnaissance two or three days before the race, filming a legend on the cobbles.

Kitty: So how long have you been shooting cycling videos?

Chris: I’ve been shooting since 2008 and at the time it was just me and Joe from Beyond the Peloton – he was doing these really beautiful, cinematic films for Cervelo. Joe and I met in Monaco at the start of the Tour and it was a mutual admiration society. He couldn’t believe how fast I got everything out and I couldn’t believe how beautiful he made everything! But he had a month to do his colour corrections and edits; I’d have hours – I’d shoot it and get it online that night. Joe asked, ‘How do you get your stuff up so fast?’ while I asked, ‘How do you get your client to wait a month while you do all your colour corrections?’

Kitty: When Specialized give you the nod to do a film, do they give you specifics as to what they want or give you free rein? And then how do you go about getting that – do you have an idea in mind or do you just see where the day takes you?

Chris: Sometimes there is a very clear brief specifying what the message needs to be regarding product. I’m doing the Classics season with the objective of getting Boonen to explain why he benefits from three purpose-built models for the coming months (SL4, Venge and Roubaix). With a guy like Tom, this is pretty easy. He’s a huge Specialized fan, and very effusive in his appreciation for the bikes. When you look at bike racers, most of them have no appreciation of what it means to be ‘pro’ beyond riding their bikes. Frankly it’s just not part of the culture to promote the product. But Tom really gets it.

Other times, however, they just ask me to attend a race. I’m left to my own devices to find a story, which is incredibly liberating, but can be absolutely terrifying. I know I’m going to get paid regardless, but what if I don’t land a fish? I cannot be chasing between three teams the whole time, so I have to sit and observe. I’m like the National Geographic photographers who sit in a covered blind for days on end, waiting for the moment that a hyena and a lion decide to have a tussle over a piece of meat – except my subjects are in and out of buses, hotels, on the road. I never know where I’m going to catch that moment!

Kitty: You’re obviously working with Omega Pharma-Quickstep – which other teams are you working with this year?

Chris: I’m with Astana, Saxo Bank-Tinkoff. I shot Specialized-Lululemon at the Worlds only last year but I hope I get to shoot them again. I’m the father of a daughter and I hope that we get to see more coverage of the women’s races. It’s incredible that cycling ignores half the population – especially now with Marianne Vos, the most dominant athlete ever in the sport.

Kitty: What’s the favourite video that you’ve done? 

Chris: The favourite piece I’ve done might be the Roubaix tire/wheel test with Cancellara and Lars Bak. So simple and atmospheric. An example of no script or direction from the client – just show up with a camera and find a little story. You feel the rain, the cold, the nuts and bolts of doing the necessary work before a big event. In this case, it wasn’t particularly organised or sophisticated, just a few guys with a van full of awesome bikes and wheels, riding up and down the cobbles. Just like you would do with your mates… Many others, many of whom work in the same field as myself, tell me they have watched it numerous times for these reasons, which pleases me tremendously.

There’s another goofy one I did at the end of the 2011 Tour de France, sitting in the car with DS Valerio Piva, now of Katusha but at the time with HTC. When they hit the Champs-Elysees, the extra team cars are pulled, leaving just one following the peloton, so Valerio sat in the car watching on the little dashboard TV and I filmed his reactions. It’s my little homage to the film Breaking Away when Dave’s father is listening to the Little 500 on the car radio.

It’s a little long, but I edited it as a laugh, and didn’t spend enough time tightening it up.

[For those of you who don’t know about Breaking Away, here is a trailer. I’m including it because I love this film and it should be cherished. If you do know Breaking Away, just sit back and enjoy!]

Kitty: Who would you love to be able to do a film about /with? 

Chris: Having just read Daniel Friebe’s biography of Merckx, I would love to be able to sit with Eddy, but I cannot imagine what I might be able to add to the huge volume of material on the man. But I am just fascinated with Merckx. The film that inspires me to this day is Hell of the North and though it’s not a Merckx victory, you cannot help but think about Eddy even when he’s not on camera.

Kitty: And lastly, any advice to anyone who wants to break into this line of work? 

Chris: Find an angle/voice of your own. When you start out, for sure you’re just going to point the camera at the brightest, shiniest objects. Don’t let them distract you from other, perhaps more interesting subjects.

Kitty: Thanks so much for talking to us and we look forward to more Specialized titbits coming our way this year!

And as an added treat, here’s that Specialized advert that everyone loved so much last year. (Chris didn’t shoot this, by the way)

You can subscribe to the Specialized YouTube Channel, where there are hundreds of short videos with riders including Jens Voigt, Alberto Contador, Tony Martin, Mark Cavendish, Sylvain Chavanel, Tom Boonen, Vincenzo Nibali, etc. You can also follow Chris on Twitter. You can also check out his portfolio on Vimeo.

Leave a Reply