It’s often said that one should embrace truly difficult situations because they make for the best stories. The film Free Ride illustrates this point exceedingly well. The “boots on the ground” of a film is the position of camera operator. To understand the process of capturing the action in the way that it is presented to the viewer, this professional is the person with literally the closest perspective of anyone on the entire crew. For a better understanding of how this award-winning film came to be manifested, camera operator Jun Li is the most qualified individual. A comedy crime film, much of which takes place inside a van, Free Ride provided the opportunity for Jun to flex a great deal of his skill to obtain the director’s desired aesthetic.
The plot of this film is a result of looking at the ridiculousness of a situation and choosing to embrace the humor. It displays numerous people of questionable character and the foibles of their choices. Roger is driving a van containing mental patients on a multistate route when he loses one of them. Ben is a thief with a bag full of cash whose path intersects with Roger’s. With the authorities in pursuit, Ben recognizes Roger’s potential to help him and makes a cash offer. Roger agrees but greed plants a seed of duplicity in his mind. The comedy of the film is brought to surface because of the tension of this scenario. A passenger van full of patients, the police looming ever nearer, and two conniving men makes for a twisting sequence of hilarious events.
The humorous lack of comfortabilty of this film comes natural as at least half of the action takes place inside a 1989 GMC passenger van. The tight quarters seem an inconceivable setting in which to film a story with multiple characters for such a prolonged period of time. Jun Li concedes that it was not the most comfortable of situations for him or the cast. He recalls, “We filmed in April when it was already pretty warm. Netting and a big light source gave us the proper exposure but exponentially increased the temperature inside the van. I spent the majority of the time bent over with an Arri Alxea EV and a Cooke Panchro classic S3 lens (including fully built accessories) strapped to me…bending over to get the proper angle. I was sore for weeks! In the end, we got the perfect look for the story and that made it well worth the physical pain.”
Director Quinn Qu was adamant that this road film/comedy-drama contain a large number of stunt action scenes. This necessitated an experienced and talented handheld camera operator and Cinematographer Forrest Hu recommended Jun Li to fill the spot. The formalism and design inherent in comedy required a well calculated visual approach to Free Ride. Subliminally, the use of extremely low angles with a very wide lens and Dutch angles for close ups are cues which elicit laughter from viewers due to their absurdity. The adeptness displayed in Jun’s camera work as he executes fast whip pan shots and push ins are remarkable considering the confined space in which the filming took place. It’s not often that the camera operator’s work is so notable but in Free Ride this is undeniable. The characters’ personalities become larger than life due to his execution. For his part, Li relates, “Every film is a chance to utilize the skills you have as well as learn on the job. The limitations of the space definitely helped me to understand more about finding interesting compositions as well as understanding the script. There's no doubt that this will help me on comedy films in the future.” Free Ride has already been recognized by a number of festivals such as the Los Angeles Film Festival, Transparent Film Festival, CineChina Film Festival, Humboldt Int'l Film Festival, and more. Everyone loves a good comedy and the team who created Free Ride delivered this in spades.