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August 17, 2020

Liftoff: A conversation with filmmaker Wiley Kaupas

Interview By
Joel Fuller

Wiley Kaupas is a filmmaker, professional mountain biker, and full time lover of making cool things based in Boulder, CO. He recently made a film called Liftoff for META, a magazine dedicated to well-designed stories about moto culture and lifestyle as well as awe-inspiring short films and videos. We caught up with him about the inspiration and process behind Liftoff.


All images in this article by Lear Miller.

Joel: How did Liftoff come about?

Wiley: Liftoff was the result of Austin Hackett-Klaube, Harrison Ory, Kasen Schauman, and I wanting to work on a passion project together. We’re all professional mountain bike racers and while we were driving home after a race last spring, we began to shape the idea. Austin and Harrison grew up riding dirtbikes near Hanksville where this film was made and we knew that location could provide the look and feel for the piece. We’re all kind of big space nerds and I personally am in love with the visual feeling and theme of the Blade Runner films – so that’s where it all began.

Image by Lear Miller
Image by Lear Miller

J: Where did you find inspiration for the film?

W: The biggest inspiration for me are three moto films that I watch on repeat. One of them is a META film called Terra Incognita by Ben Giese & Ben McKinney, a film by Ricki Bedenbaugh about Hunter Lawrence (moto athlete), and a film by Clay Porter about Cole Seely (moto athlete). Clay Porter is a mtb filmmaker who also films moto and has been one of my biggest inspirations growing up – I must’ve watched his films a 100 times. This love for moto mixed with our love for space and Blade Runner were the main sources of inspiration.

Image by Lear Miller

J: Was this your first project with META? Who did you pitch it to?

W: Yes, this is the first film I’ve done with META. We had the goal of doing something for them right from the start. I have always been a big fan of anything META put their name behind as they have a different take on motorcycle culture and lifestyle that’s way beyond the bro, stoke, high five stuff. We made a pitch deck and sent it to two different moto brands as well. The other brands were both super excited about the pitch and wanted to support it... until they asked who the athletes were and I was like “Uh.. my buddies Austin and Harrison''. They hadn’t heard of either of them and didn’t feel confident supporting us. We had intended to send the pitch deck to META but ended up being way too nervous to send it to them. We decided to just make the film as a passion project and send it to META after the fact. Turned out that they really liked it and picked it up, we were all so happy about it.

Image by Lear Miller

J: The location is insane! Utah right? Obviously you’re trying to make us (the viewer) feel like we’re on the moon or outer space. Had you scouted this spot before?

W: Austin and Harrison had done a lot of freeriding there and we decided that it just fit well with the space theme we envisioned. We had a pretty good idea of every spot we wanted to film. We spent a whole weekend before filming scouting and building a shot list. We wanted to film everything during golden hour and built the shot list based on what would be better sunrise vs sunset locations. We filmed Liftoff the week before I helped Alex Strohl and Wildist as the talent in his ADV PRO workshop which is in the same area. I didn’t wanna poach that spire from you guys, but I was pretty blown away being there and had to come back. The landscape shots are from some of the stuff you guys showed me. 

Austin and Harrison had to work so we filmed the dirtbiking over a 3 day stretch and then the landscape stuff over the consecutive 3 days without them.

Image by Lear Miller
Image by Lear Miller

J: The original score by Nash Howe is SO good… Did you go back and forth with him as the edit came together?

W: Yes definitely we went back and forth. Nash Howe is actually an insane cinematographer. I found him initially on Vimeo where he published a surf film called Hono - it’s insane. We were both at Crankworx in Europe where we first met. He introduced himself as Nash Howe and I was like “you’re THE Nash Howe?!?” I totally fanboyed and he must’ve thought I was so weird. I asked him every question ever about his film Hono. I discovered that he was the composer of the song in Hono after seeing the end credits again. I spent a few months looking for a good track for Liftoff but couldn’t find anything. I approached Nash with some rough cuts of the film and he was on board. He had just watched the film Ad Astra and was totally into doing something space themed.

I made a cinematic brief for him including all the shots that were going to eventually make the cut with references I had for musical inspiration. We went back and forth a little bit. He’d send me a stem, we’d chat, then go from there. Everything he sent I was basically stoked on. I built a framework of pacing, the beginning was mellow, a drop for the first heavy riding segment, then slowed again, and finally a build for the final sequence. He built the score around that framework.

I would almost say that 75% of the edit goes to Nash’s song.

Image by Lear Miller

J: Any challenges come up while filming? 

W: We didn’t really have any issues specifically. I have an FS5 that we filmed on. It’s a very decent camera, but it can struggle with the dynamic range between bright and dark areas. There’s two clips in the film where you can notice the pixel artifacts and noise, but the clips are so good that I decided to keep them anyway. I got called out on vimeo about it from a few filmmakers, but you have to be a photographer or filmmaker to really notice and understand that those clips had been filmed beyond the limits of my camera. 

For all the movement shots that weren’t filmed with a drone I was in the back of a pickup truck with a Ronin 2 we had rented. Kason is color blind in one eye so he doesn’t have great depth perception when it’s dark. He was driving the truck at dusk and went through a whoop section by accident at speed. The truck bed bounced up, hit the back of the ronin and the camera nearly flew out of my hands. Things were slightly broken for a moment and I definitely could’ve been thrown out of the truck. We fixed everything though and I was fine, all good.

Image by Lear Miller 

J: Seems like a few shots the riders would’ve wanted you to nail it first time through. I’m thinking about 3:20 with the massive drop. Did you or the athletes feel a lot of pressure getting those shots at all?

W: We did that drop on the first day of riding. Austin and Harrison were nervous the whole drive down and couldn’t stop talking about that one feature. We set a safe angle because they thought they’d only hit it once, but they ended up hitting it 5 times. Having them follow one another on that feature made it infinitely more consequential. They’re both secretly incredible moto riders.

Image by Lear Miller
Image by Lear Miller

J: Austin Hackett-Klaube & Harrison Ory (the riders) had so much style - they must be super happy with how the film came out?

W: They were super stoked. They were sending me snaps every other day watching it, I bet half the views on Vimeo are from those two. At the end of the day if everyone who is part of the film is happy with how it turned out I'm happy.

J: How did you get into filmmaking?

W: My background as an athlete racing bikes since I was 8 years old and being around two wheeled sport for so long is why I got into filming. I’d always been that kid that goes a little too hard and was always injured, because of this I started bringing a camera everywhere taking pictures and filming. About two years ago I made a film called Rider Unknown in Washington and BIKE magazine bought it. I got more work around that and people started knowing me more as a filmmaker.

Image by Lear Miller

J: How’s the feedback been from Liftoff?

W: Feedback has been really positive, people are thrilled. Some new jobs have come up because of it. It was the first film I’ve ever made that has gotten a Vimeo staff pick. Vimeo has such a high standard of quality and our goal was to make something on that level.

J: Any pieces of advice you could give filmmakers wishing to build their way up to jobs like this? 

W: I am definitely not in a great place to give advice, but I would say that for me the biggest thing is to stay focused and do the best job I possibly can with what’s in front of me. It’s easy to go on Vimeo and feel completely overwhelmed with the quality and standard of filmmaking these days, there’s just so much talent out there. You need to remember that it’s a ton of little steps to get to that level - all you can do in the moment is focus on those steps. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.

J: What’s next?

W: Working in the motosphere is something I really wanna dive deeper into. It’s more accessible than filming skiing and mountain biking. I have a couple bike launch videos that came up because of Liftoff and Ihave a few other passion projects in mind that I can hopefully work on soon.

J: Where’s the best place for people to see you work? 

W: My website or vimeo is best.

J: Thank you so much for doing this with us Wiley! We can’t wait to see what’s next from you.

W: My pleasure! I’m so happy you guys enjoyed Liftoff so much. Take care!

Image by Lear Miller

Image by Lear Miller

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