In the hands of director Ben Conrad and veteran rally driver Ken Block, any drab stretch of concrete can be transformed into a vehicular playground. Block, who is also the founder of DC Shoes, became an Internet sensation in 2008, when he uploaded a video of himself practicing a little known motorsport called gymkhana, in which a skilled driver maneuvers a vehicle through an obstacle course. Watching Block’s gymkhana was a little like watching a floor exercise in Olympic gymnastics, but instead of sporting a leotard and bounding across a spring floor, he was strapped into a tricked-out, 650-horsepower rally car and let loose on an abandoned air field. The video went viral overnight.
Four gymkhana videos later, the series has racked up a staggering 155 million+ views on YouTube and inspired a winding convoy of imitators, some of whom are Fortune 500 companies. The most entries, Gymkhana 4: The Hollywood Megamercial and Gymkhana 5: Ultimate Urban Playground are by far the most extravagant. Both were directed by Ben Conrad, co-founder of the production company Logan.
In Gym 4, Block and crew crashed Universal Studios in Hollywood (Literally. There were explosions.), and in Gym 5, released this month, they took over a large swath of the city of San Francisco, including all two miles and five lanes of the top level of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Gymkhana 5 has become the fastest spreading video in the series, drawing 5.1 million views in its first 24 hours and over 20 million in its first week. The 10-minute video was culled from 250 hours of footage shot over four days in May, and although the polished production utilized helicopters, cranes and marquee locations in the City by the Bay, its budget was reportedly well under $1 million.
In this Master Class, we talked to Conrad and Block about the key ingredient to viral videos, shutting down an iconic city, and how to hoon with an injured Travis Pastrana.
Ben Conrad: It came to San Francisco, but it didn’t really start there. We had a lot of iterations before we really got to the concept of San Francisco. But once it became clear that it would be possible to get the city and it was doable, then we were just all in. I worked with this great location scout named Scott Logan, who I also did Gymkhana 4 with, and he had gotten me Universal Studios, which was hard enough. He pretty much gave us the whole town. It was really, really amazing. He’s definitely one of the best scouts around.
We were looking for an urban environment. The goal was to feature really hard, gritty driving in a real setting. We looked around and put the feelers out in a few different places. We knew San Francisco was receptive to shooting, but we didn’t know just how receptive they would be. Once we found out that we could get Taylor Street and Twin Peaks and especially the Bay Bridge… I mean really once we found that out the deal was done. There was no question. Just the image of Ken alone on the Bay Bridge… I mean that’s too hard to pass up.
Ken Block: I wanted to do something on city streets, so the concept really was "If you could take a city and build a racecourse however you wanted, what would it look like?" I thought up a bunch of locations as far as what would look nice in San Francisco, like the jumps, the trollies, the wharf, or something by the water, and the bridge. Logan was able to source locations for everything that I wanted to do.
Block: It’s always been a surprise to us just how successful these videos have been. I think part of it is giving people something that they haven’t seen before. A lot of people know about rally racing but they don’t get a chance to see the cars getting pushed in this way and certainly not in the environments that we use. So what we basically did was take the best of four wheel and aggressive driving and put it in a package that was easy to watch and had a short program. That’s kind of in our mind why they’ve been so successful. This style of driving and what’s done with these cars is amazing, and we’ve just showcased it in a way that anybody can sit down and watch it for a few minutes and appreciate just how technical it is and how well these cars can be driven.
Conrad: The tricks that he does are creative and they’re fun. And there’s no question that what he’s doing is very real. You feel the energy— your heart’s beating faster. It’s very exciting. What’s nice about the DC crew and Brian is they understand that there’s an element of entertainment to what Ken does. So taking that style of driving and then adding creative obstacle courses and a creative way to film and to show it, that really surprises the audience.
Conrad: What’s really nice about working with Ken is that this is something that’s in the works for quite a long time. I’m used to working on a very quick turnaround, so it’s nice to be able to marinate on an idea and really think about it. And with this we were going into a hot, live location, so it was my job to really visit and revisit locations and make sure that we know where Ken is gonna be placed, how the blocking will occur, the transition shots they need to get from one place to the next… so it’s a lot of prep work with the city. I did several director scouts, tech scouts, and then a couple times with Ken and the team. That being said, things are always going to happen.
Prep work began a couple months beforehand. We developed GoPro (camera) arrays. When you see the film, there’s little time-shift moments where we freeze the frame, mostly during Ken’s jumps. I developed that with my key grip, Bob Mayberry, and then Brinton Jaecks did the programing and synchronization of all 50 GoPros. The other cameras we shot with were a pair of Alexas and a RED Scarlet, which is what I used most of the time.
My key grip developed a kind of seat for the GoPro array. We learned from Gymkhana 4 that we needed to keep the array very quick and mobile. With these shots, Ken will do a practice run, but when it’s all said and done you’ll get maybe one or two takes depending on the location. And with some things, like the jumps for instance, you don’t really wanna push those things too far. When Ken’s doing his thing, it’s our job to get the coverage. We have to be as nimble as possible.
Block: Usually, I’m the one who comes up with the tricks for the video. I have a few people I consult with, but generally what I do in the car is what I want to do in the car. I really love the creative aspect of this as well, in addition to the driving. As a driver I’m always trying to figure out how we can make things more challenging. If we maneuvered around one object in the past and that worked out pretty well, let’s try and see if we can do two. So it’s a process of thinking about the specific track and the environment as well as figuring out how to step things up for the enjoyment of the fans.
Conrad: The crew was all having dinner one night and we were talking about this sequence and this one location that really wasn’t working. That’s when my production designer suggested this idea of Ken on a concrete barge, and so that’s how that scene came about. Literally Scott Logan and my production designer Matthew Holt made that happen on the first day of shooting. And to me that scene was amazing. To have Ken on a concrete barge in the middle of the bay was just mindblowing.
We craned it out to the barge and then we sailed the barge out into the middle of the bay. It was a pretty magical experience. During that time while we were sailing out we were shooting product shots. We’re never wasting time, we’re always shooting, shooting, shooting. Our first AD, Jeremy Robinson, is an amazing first AD and we utilized every second of our time. We had a diver trailing us and Ken had oxygen tanks in his car in case something happened, so we were very prepared.
Conrad: We knew we would start on the Bay Bridge, it’s a great visual and also kind of a tease. With all of the Gymkhana videos we start with really tight shots, so it’s not exactly clear where you are. And we knew we wanted to end at Twin Peaks, which has such great views of the city and makes for a nice bookend— you can see the Bay Bridge way in the background. In between, we were just very cognizant of the actual geography of San Francisco and making sure it make some kind of narrative sense. Geographically, it’s a plausible rally course.
Block: The hardest trick to pull off was probably what I did with Travis Pastrana. I had wanted him to come out, not realizing that he hadn’t actually ridden a dirt bike in over a year because he broke his right ankle at the X Games. The original plan was for him to do a very slow wheelie and then for me to do donuts around him, but we weren’t able to do that because the break controls are at his right foot and he couldn’t wheelie slow enough. In the end it worked out though, because we had the idea to do the nose wheelie and I did the donuts around that, and then he did a faster wheelie and I got one around that as well.
Conrad: Bay Bridge— we had a very, very short amount of time to shoot it. I think we started at six in the morning on a Saturday and did a few takes. While we were hot, basically the police would hold back traffic and on the top deck of the Bay Bridge it only goes one way, so that’s why it creates that beautiful illusion of just nothing and Ken going 90 miles per hour down the Bay Bridge, which I’m sure is everyone’s dream and fantasy. As soon as he’d clear the bridge it was probably about a half hour reset to get back to base camp and start over for the next take. It’s always nerve-racking for me to be limited in the amount of time that I’m allowed to get everything that I need, so just rehearsing that and getting that all right was challenging.
Conrad: With the trolleys, Ken likes these tricks where he’s doing figure eights around moving objects—it’s a real display of his skill. In Gym 4 we had I think eight moving forklifts that he was doing circles around, so we reprised that a bit this time, but specific to San Francisco.
Inside the trolleys we had the drivers and a few cameramen. We also had a cameo from DC skateboarder Josh Kalis, who we sort of threw on there at the last minute.
We waited for the perfect light, with the sun beaming right down the middle; it was about 3:45 PM. We actually did that scene in one take, and it was the very last shot we did for the film. It was our martini shot.
The trolley drivers were actually professional stunt drivers. I know they’re only creeping at a slow pace, but you still need professionals to do all these things. The footage may appear a little wild and crazy at times, but we really take a very professional approach with this kind of filmmaking. It’s very dangerous, so we have to make sure we do it correctly and safely.
Block: Always my goal is to not crash the car. So yeah, safety is always at the forefront of our mind. That’s why it’s important to have SFPD there to make sure that people stay back and that everything is clear. With a shoot like this, you always have to have the cooperation of the police department. The average commuter, if you tell them they can’t go down a certain street, they’re just not going to listen to a security guard in the same way that they would an actual police officer. We also have the red and white barriers we use that you see in the video, and that’s just so that if something does go wrong there’s some measure of containment. But in general, we’ve all been doing this for a long time, so it would take a lot for something to get out of control.
Conrad: We went under the guise of shooting a commercial because we wanted to keep a low profile. Ken has a lot of fans and we didn’t want that kind of attention because we needed to be focused on what we were doing while keeping everyone safe. Of course there are going to be lookie-loos, so we had a larger locations department on this one than in past videos in order to help control the crowds. We want to make the driving as stunning as possible and give Ken the freedom to not worry about any of that, so we have to make sure that the environment is controlled.
Conrad: A lot of the sound was captured from the on-board cameras, including Canon 5Ds and GoPros. We also had the car miked. Our sound recorder would usually try to be wherever the A camera or B camera would be in order to capture live sound from whatever vantage point we were shooting from. Keith Ruggiero, who’s our sound designer, did an amazing job boosting up all the audio from some of the cameras that don’t have the best sound quality and making it sound really thick and full and robust.
As with everything else, we wanted to maintain realism. The engine sounds amazing as it is—it really doesn’t need any enhancing. So all we’re really doing is just keeping it seamless as we move from one shot to the next and smoothing it out.
Conrad: We had about four or five weeks in post production. Most of that was editorial—we had a mountain of footage. Originally we set out to cut like a five minute piece, but the footage was really stunning and what Ken was doing was amazing, so it actually ended up being the longest Gymkhana yet at just under 10 minutes.
With the runtime it’s just what feels good. We work closely with Ken on the editorial process as well as Brian Scotto, the creative director. They’re at our offices a lot fine tuning the edit and helping us make it better, and better and better until finally it just feels done. And from that point we just tweak and color and sound design. It was nice to have time to go through that process. It becomes like painting—you really want to fine tune things and get everything right. You want to show the sequence as clearly as possible, and add tension where it needs it, and show the trick in all its glory.
Block: Every time we do these videos we work on exposure plans to try and get as many people exposed to it as possible. Between myself and all my sponsors we have over 30 million total fans on Facebook alone. So we target basically everything possible to try and get the news out there that this is going on the Internet. We do teaser videos, too.
Always the goal is to try and get as many views as possible. It’s a fun process to try and make that happen. It involves everything from doing interviews (I was just on CNN recently) to doing as many posts as possible on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Nowadays there’s so many people trying to compete for those eyeballs online that you definitely have to do a lot more to get people to notice something