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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Young Filmmaker’s Beginnings: “The Walk to Indy”

by Jenny Lyons

The Man Behind the Camera

The camera lifts and the grey haze of a scene comes into focus. The menacingly shadowy sky casts an ashen light over this wet summer afternoon in Ohio. A group of young musicians stand dutifully at parade rest, their shining instruments resting uniformly in their arms. Dressed in half of their performance regalia, they squint and blink against the rain that is starting to pour from the sky. They wait intently for the next word from their musical instructor Brad Davis, who, ignoring the sudden onslaught of raindrops, calls out, “Bring ‘em up.” A row of gleaming horns snap up and Davis’ voice rings out in measured time, “1 and 3, and 1...” as his precisely moving hands conduct. Right on cue, the notes of their well-oiled warm-up tune rises from the arc and swells in the air. The rain falls harder. His hands suddenly break from their musical momentum and he pinches off the growing music with a simple hand motion. “Run away,” he calls out in his unmistakably stoic way of speaking.

Through a suddenly jarring lens, the performers grab the second half of their uniforms and instruments, and, as instructed, run away, instantly reducing the organized arc into an ant-like scattering of people. The scene disintegrates into a blur of pavement and grass and movement, punctuated by the sounds of splashing footsteps and general chaos. The whirl of motion eventually slows, voices gain an echoing quality, and the camera lifts once again. A horde of half-uniformed musicians are filing through sliding automatic doors above which a sign advertises “Low Prices”. Their mad dash has led them to the garden center of a Wal-Mart which is now filled with clamoring voices and laughter. As the onward motion ceases, flecks of rain are suddenly strikingly visible on the lens. The cluster of musicians is suddenly eclipsed by a fuzzy darkness.

This fuzzy darkness happens to be a towel held by Adam Adorno, the man behind the camera. This rain-filled moment in Ohio is just one of the thousands of moments he captured in the summer of 2010 as he filmed for his first full-length documentary, entitled “The Walk to Indy” about a drum corps from Diamond Bar, California. Adam Adorno is a twenty-two year-old freelance videographer. A Southern California native, Adam is of an average height, has dark, friendly features, and is rarely seen without his Rainbow sandals, some form of camera, and a broad, genuine, smile. As a freelance videographer, Adam’s work covers everything from romantic wedding montages to the ridiculously cute antics of his small terrier-mix, Abby. This includes live concert productions and featurettes for a variety of performing arts. What makes Adam’s work for this documentary unique, though, is that he once stood among the ranks of those young musicians standing dutifully in the pouring Ohio rain.

Marching Music’s Major League

A life-long musician, Adam has always been drawn to the performing arts. His high school years in marching band and winter drumline led him to Pacific Crest, Southern California’s world class drum corps. Drum corps, known as Marching Music’s Major League, is a dynamic, high-intensity summer activity. Every year, thousands of musical and dancing athletes between the ages of 16 and 21 years old spend months training and preparing a field show that is about 10 to 12 minutes in length. The field show is an explosive blend of precise drill, whirling color, and evocative music; it is a unique collaboration between about 150 brass players, drummers, and colorguard members. For each of the 23 world class drum corps throughout the United States, the season starts with auditions in December. Winter auditions soon turn into spring training camps and everyday summer rehearsals. In June, they depart on their summer tours: they pack their lives onto tour buses, stack their instruments onto precisely organized semi-trucks, and join a convoy of support staff vehicles and cook trucks, ultimately putting their lives on hold to take their carefully constructed show on the road for thousands upon thousands of fans. On tour, drum corps live and rehearse at various high school and college campuses across the United States, staying at each for one or two days at a time. Life is organized into blocks: a short breakfast from the cook truck meal line, hours-long morning and afternoon rehearsal blocks, a short period of time to pack up the convoy, a drive to the show site, a pre-show warm-up block, dinnertime, a drive of anywhere from 2 to 8 hours to the next housing site, and finally, sleep wherever it may find them, usually on a bus or gym floor.

Somewhere between warm-up block and dinner lies the highlight of every member’s day: the performance. The athletes of drum corps face a summer-long battle with 100-plus-degree weather, hundreds of sweat-drenched repetitions of the same drill set or musical chord, and sheer exhaustion, all for the sake of the 10 minutes of glory they find performing in stadiums every night. The tour begins in many different states, but the journey always ends at DCI Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana under the shining lights of Lucas Oil Stadium. Adam himself embarked on this adventure for three summers with Pacific Crest and chose to adopt this strange summer lifestyle for a fourth time in order to follow the drum corps all season. However, the true inspiration for his first documentary came not during the dog days of a past drum corps summer, but during the wee hours of a cold November night.

Zachary Headden and the shoes

In the world of drum corps, the drum major is the center: the one person solely in charge of maintaining the tempo of the show, the connection between the director and the students, the ambassador to the audience, and ,essentially, the force that drives the corps forward. His is the first voice they hear at the wake-up call every morning on tour and the last they hear at night for lights-out. For any drum corps, losing a drum major is unimaginable, but on November 13, 2009 the unimaginable happened for Pacific Crest. At 20 years old, just months before his final summer as a drum major, Zachary Headden lost his life in a car accident. Driving home from a personal jazz gig, Zachary is thought to have fallen asleep at the wheel before crashing into several light poles at the side of the 60 Freeway in Diamond Bar, California. Pacific Crest’s Director, Stuart Pompel released a statement to the drum corps community that evening, saying, “"I am shocked and deeply saddened about this. The entire Pacific Crest family is stunned, and when corps members call me, I'm asking that they get together to support one another during this incredibly difficult time." On Drum Corps International’s website, the headline read: “Pacific Crest mourns loss of drum major” at 2:19 pm on Friday, November 13, 2009. Those words failed to capture the feelings of those who knew Zachary, those who has lost not only a drum major, but an important leader and close friend.

In Zach’s passing Adam had lost a member of his drum corps family. “He was like that brother that you don’t always get along with but you love them anyways”, he says of Zach, “What I learned about him was that he was an inspiration to a lot of people. He was an inspiration to his students [at his alma mater Los Altos HS, where he was a tech for the high school marching band program] and he was an inspiration to his drum corps. He was very, very passionate about being a leader.” For Adam, Zach became the inspiration for “The Walk to Indy.”

In a marching musician’s career, marching shoes are a vital part of their routine. Designed for optimal marching, these shoes are worn only during performances and shined to gleaming perfection before they reach the bright lights of the football stadium. When a member of Pacific Crest reaches the end of their drum corps career at the age of 21, they leave their marching shoes on the field during the age-out ceremony, a sort of graduation from the activity after DCI Championships. Shortly after Zach’s tragic passing, it was decided that his drum corps would take his shoes on tour with them to leave on the field at the ceremony in Indiana, as it was to be Zach’s year to age out of drum corps forever. Adam leaped at the idea to follow Zach’s final journey. He cancelled his acceptance to LA Film School and “literally dropped everything” to start fundraising and filming. His plan was to follow Zach’s shoes on their journey to DCI Finals in Indiana and to capture the way in which Zach’s passing affected his drum corps. “Even though Zach was gone, he was still able to experience this summer with everyone in a small physical way,” he says. Just months later, Adam was traveling all around the country in a rattling tour bus, not as a marching member this time, but as a filmmaker.

From start to finish, Adam filmed the corps for over nine months, and he still continues to collect the occasional interview. Though the corps spends the winter and spring months rehearsing in and around Diamond Bar, California, the true heart of Adam’s film lies in the tour to Indy. To capture this journey, Adam essentially lived with the corps for the entirety of their four and a half week tour in July and August. Housing with the corps’ instructional staff, he traveled on the tour buses, waited in the cook truck food line, and trailed members at rehearsal and at the show sites. As the corps members and staff dragged their heavily-weighted luggage from bus to gym and vice versa, Adam lugged not only the necessities, but at least 20 extra pounds of film equipment as well. While the corps caught a few hours of sleep at each new housing site, Adam unloaded the footage from his camera to his hard drives every night to have a clean slate for the next morning. Out of this massive undertaking, Adam has captured over 100 hours of footage from across the United States. PC’s tour spans over 23 cities in 12 different states, reaching from California and Texas to Louisiana, New York, Ohio,and Indiana. From this expansive list of locales, Adam has filmed everything from the groggy beginnings of the breakfast line to the pre-dawn field painting sessions with the mellophone players, hours of arduous rehearsing, booming drumline sectionals, the quick movement of the colorguard’s dance technique blocks in the far corners of fields, pods of horn players meticulously shining their precious horns, sparkling laughter among friends, strife between members, moments of pure exhaustion, tears, high-flying triumph on and off the field, the silent tension in the stadium tunnel as 150 members wait for the step-off, the roaring rush of performance, and the beaming afterglow of a well-deserved standing ovation. He followed the dedicated instructional staff, the selfless parent volunteers, the loving fans, and the young people who left their hearts out on the field that summer. Most importantly and most impressively though, he captured the legacy of a leader, a drum major, and deeply missed friend through the memories and actions of those he left behind.

In the trenches

It is a sticky day in Indiana on August 12, 2010. It is well over 100 degrees and downpours have been passing through all day. By mid-morning the air is heavy and stiflingly hot. The humidity from the passing rain seems to leave little room for oxygen. There are only a few days left of summer tour and Pacific Crest’s final full rehearsal day is well under way. The corps is spread in sections over Monroe Central High School about 30 minutes from Indianapolis as Adam picks his way around the campus to film the day’s activities. By this late point in PC’s tour, the corps hardly notices Adam’s presence behind the camera, and he floats in and out of rehearsal generally unnoticed. In late afternoon, Adam finds his way to the secondary field. Earlier rain has overwhelmed the back half of the grassy field with dingy puddles and left the front half of the field a slippery mess of mud and dying grass. Nonetheless, he braves the sweltering heat and the swampy field to film, just as he has done for the full four weeks of the summer tour. He hoists his Canon 7D onto his steady-cam, a spring loaded handle which steadies jostling to create a smooth, gliding shot even as he runs alongside the corps. Adam stands along the front sidelines of the field, on one of the last patches of surviving grass which clings to the spray painted boundaries of the field. Matching the rest of the corps, his clothes cling to him from the sheer humidity, though his khaki shorts and Rainbows stand out among the bright track shorts and muddy running shoes. He peers into the camera, following the corps from the front sideline as they place the final touches on the show and battle the rising heat and humidity. Eventually, Adam spreads a small towel in front of him for his camera and lays down among the sticky grass to capture more of the sky in his shot. Rainclouds loom threateningly overhead as he lies in the chokingly humid grass. Asked if he ever minded the heat, Adam says he hardly noticed, especially since he was standing and filming while the corps was rehearsing hard for hour upon hour in the summer heat. “It’s been hard this last season filming while some of my best friends were out there marching right in front of me. It was my last year to march and I was just standing on the sideline with a camera” he says.

Later in the evening, as corps members linger after dinner block in the chilled hallways of the school, still gripping paper cups and milling under the plastic blue awnings that line the school walls, Adam rushes by, forgoing the usual chatter with various staff members. His face is a mask of intense focus as he holds the camera low to the ground, trailing PC’s new head drum major Mark Kveton. Mark walks quickly with his ever present backpack and water jug hanging from his shoulders. He doesn’t look back at Adam, nor does he stop to talk to any of the musicians in the hall. He strides intently towards the gleaming glass doors before him; from his left hand dangle two shining black shoes--Zach’s shoes. Traveling safely out of sight for most of the summer, the shoes are to be placed on the drum major podium throughout the final rehearsal and during the corps’ final performance, a reminder of Zach’s missing presence in the corps. As Mark carries the precious marching shoes to the podium, Adam matches his pace, curved over his Canon 7D. He follows him through the glass doors and out into the fading evening light, capturing Mark’s every move as he approaches the silver podium and carefully places the shoes on the scuffed surface. Despite having just caught one of the most important pieces of “The Walk to Indy”, Adam pauses only for a moment before setting up his camera carefully on a tripod just behind the podium. The corps makes its way out onto the field, and he makes his final adjustments and leaves the camera to capture the shoes in the foreground and the rehearsing beyond them. As rehearsal pushes onward, the orange haze which has been illuminating the strangely looming rainclouds fades to darkness, and the corps is left to rehearse under the blazing stadium lights.

That golden shot

Back in “real life,” as drum corps members are apt to call the off season, Adam turns in his black office chair and stares at the screens before him. The leather chair has a simple, functional design, as does the arcing desk and low sitting couch that is pressed against the wall. Adam’s eyes wander to the his story board wall, which consists of a neatly arranged pod of multi-colored post-its. They pop against their pale blue backdrop, calling attention to to the scrawl of notes each one holds. Adam turns back to his two computer screens, which are flickering start-up messages for a troublesome amount of time. He sighs a bit and picks up the guitar which lies handy beside his work desk. As he strums absent-mindedly at the chords, he watches the screens continue to sputter unconvincingly into their starting mode. “This is taking forever” he apologizes, climbing under his curved wooden desk to unplug a few things and start the process over. Finally, the familiar hum of the computers becomes steady, and the Window’s screen invites him to enter his password and begin his work, and so the editing process begins.

Using his editing software, PremierProCS5, Adam sifts through files until he finds what he’s looking for: Florida1.04. He splays out the video over his dual screens: the right displaying a full screen image while the left shows the video with an editing context. Adam lets the clip--this time of a bus ride in Florida-- run for a bit, the time log whirring in the corner. When he finally sees something he likes, he pauses it, stopping the clock dead in its tracks at 00:14:59:02. He says that he is looking for anything that is visually appealing, adding, “I can easily replace audio later.” He quickly cuts clips he won’t be using and occasionally pauses to run his fingers thoughtfully over the keyboard. He continues to chop up the clip, grasping on to what he needs, cutting out unwanted sound, and shifting sound bytes to enhance the moment. He falls into a rhythm of work, quietly announcing, “There” when he finds that perfect shot. He rewinds several times and lets the clip run, looking for “that golden shot”. Suddenly, the program locks and Adam lifts his hands under his chin in a prayer-like position, his eyes poring concernedly over the screens. “I’m waiting to see if the program crashed” he explains. After a brief sputter the video continues, allowing Adam, relieved, to continue his editing process. After chopping that particular scene to his liking, Adam moves on to his newest trailer. He plays the unfinished trailer several times along with different parts of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, lining up certain images with different chords and lyrics. As Adam pauses to bring out the clouds in a shot using color balance and special filters, he explains that he can’t even begin to edit a video until he knows what he wants the sound of the video to be. “I think more about the music than a lot of filmmakers” he says, “I think, ‘What do I want my vibe to be? Do I want it to be really laid-back, or feel-good, make people smile, or maybe put a tear in their eye? Then I find a song that just clicks.” Adam often uses visual terms to describe music, such as “blurry” or “hazy”. Though it sounds unusual, Adam often uses his footage to enhance the musical score rather than the other way around. The results are stunning.

Adam spends the better part of every day immersed in his unique editing process. “At least eight hours, and up to twelve or so on a really good day,” he says. He usually finds his groove later in the day and works far into the wee hours, often until he can no longer keep his eyes open. Despite his tenacious work ethic, Adam is still months ,if not a full year, from completing his project. “I’m not concerned with a deadline anymore,” he says, “I just want this to be the highest quality it can possibly be.” Once finished with “The Walk to Indy”, Adam plans to host a private screening for all of the marching members and staff of Pacific Crest 2010 and for Zachary’s friends and family, with whom Adam has become quite close. Though Zach’s family has not seen most of Adam’s footage they have been supportive of Adam’s work since Day 1 and continue to be strongly involved in keeping Zach’s memory alive. Adorno plans to enter his documentary in several film festivals to gain exposure and, hopefully, interest from producers and distributors. In any case, Adam will be producing DVD copies of the film to sell to a greater audience than the drum corps community alone. Festivals and distribution logistics aside, this documentary about a young leader and a hidden gem of a summer activity carries with it the many emotions of those Adam filmed.

For Annie Ochoa, Pacific Crest’s 2010 guard captain and a pivotal figure in Adam’s film, the documentary provides a sort of closure for the corps. “It gives everyone a chance to see not only the impact this one person had on PC, but the impact the corps had on his life as well,” she says. Annie was in Zach’s age-out class and, like all age-outs, looked forward to aging out with her friend. Taking his shoes to championships in Indiana allowed that to happen in a way for her. She explains, “It was our way of making sure we knew we wouldn’t forget him and that he should have been physically there on the field with us.” Annie has faith that audiences will connect with Zach and his story: “Even if you’ve never marched drum corps or don’t have any idea how much work goes into it, people can relate to losing someone we love.”

Julian Chavez, a newly appointed drum major at Pacific Crest, says that Zach’s tribute is the only thing which allows others to know him and get “a peek into our little drum corps world.” He points out that 2010 was a turning point for Pacific Crest: “Zach contributed his part to lead Pacific Crest to a better tomorrow, and now we’re showing the rest of the DCI community that we’re here to play ball.” As a new drum major, the tribute has had an additional impact on the up-and-coming leader: “I want to carry on Zach’s legacy. May he rest in peace.”

Asked about what he hopes to achieve with his unique style in this film, Adam’s intentions for his project are clear. He hopes to help start a “media revolution” for drum corps, a rich yet obscure activity. “Why is the movie ‘Drumline’ so popular, yet barely anybody knows about the Blue Devils [DCI’s reigning champions in 2010]?” he asks. Adam asserts that if a nation could enjoy the movie “Drumline” they would love everything that DCI has to offer. By making this documentary extremely cinematic, he hopes to entice viewers to learn about the activity. More importantly though, personally, it is an apology to Zach. “We said some hurtful things to each other and I really never got to take them back” he explains, “This is a tribute and last word from me to him.”

Fade to black

The song starts with the simple strumming of a guitar as a distant scene comes into focus. On a bright field, a smattering of people embrace and stand around Zachary’s grave site on the one year anniversary of his passing. Flowers line his shining headstone. As “Hurt” crescendos, there is a dynamic burst of images: richly textured clouds morphing above a field of the rehearsing drumline, the corps standing ready to perform as sunlight filters through the nearby trees and shines brilliantly off the mirror on their uniform hats, the corps emerging from a superdome tunnel. The music continues to swell with emotion as a corps member stares tearfully down at Zach’s shoes on the age-out field. A low shot of the corps running in time, a glimpse of a tearful moment on the field, and a burst of dozens of yellow flags catapulting into the air together rise to match the music. As Cash laments, “Everyone I know/ goes away in the end,” an infectiously happy shot of Zach spills into view. Just as the swelling guitar chord softens, drum major Mark Kveton strides intently through the halls of Monroe Central, carrying those ever-important shoes close beside him. The image fades, leaving only its memory. The words “The Walk to Indy” glisten softly. The screen fades to black and there is nothing but pure, rich silence.

Reporting Notes:

DCI.org Report on Zachary H : http://www.dci.org/news/view.cfm?news_id=4af92c4a-5d65-416f-abf2-a769d7b3a6d5
DCI.org :About US:
Lyrics to Johny Cash’s Hurt
Q&A with Adam Adorno
Follow-up Interviews with Adam Adorno
Interview with Annie Ochoa
Interview with Julian Chavez
Observation of Adam filming
Observation of Adam editing
Ohio video clip by Adam Adorno
Official Trailer for the Walk to Indy:
Other feature videos:

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