Beyond the Border - Sterling Noren Interview

A man struggles to keep his footing on the loose desert shale, there are no easy hand-holds on the steep incline. Much of the spiked foliage would draw blood in a fall and he has a load to carry. Dust rises from the rocks that tumble down behind him.
But the slope is easy where he has stopped to set a tripod and video camera. Far below his motorcycle leans on it's sidestand along a dirt track and beyond that shines the blue water of the gulf and the frigate birds circle high above in the clear sky.
The Baja climate is too warm to be climbing hills in heavy boots and a helmet, and the man sweats from the exertion. After a moment's rest in the light breeze he peers through the viewfinder of the black camera, framing the scene and making small adjustments.
Satisfied, he sets-off back down the hill leaving the camera behind.

And so it goes, behind the scenes of Beyond the Border - Riding Solo in Mexico

For more than twenty years, Sterling Noren has been a visual storyteller. He has worked with television documentaries, journalism, film and video editing, commercial production, motorcycle travel and instructional videos. He's produced work for the GlobeRiders with Helge Pedersen, TouraTech, BMWmotorycles, The Discovery Channel and plenty more.

I was excited to catch-up with Sterling and learn more about how he uses the camera as the tool to share his motorcycle adventures.

You’ve been all over the place on motorcycles; Iceland, China, Russia, Turkey - How long have you been riding motorcycles and what do you ride now?

I grew up on a blueberry farm in Western Michigan and got my first motorcycle when I turned eight years old. It was a birthday present, a Honda 50. I rode that bike and others for about six years and then I returned to riding when I was 26 and living in Seattle. I bought an old BMW R50/5 in 1994 and a BMW F650 in 1998. So I have been riding for 16 years as an adult. Today I ride a new BMW F800 GS.

In Beyond the Border, your trip took you down the Baja peninsula on one side and up through the Seirra Madres and Copper Canyon on the other. Those Baja backroads really pound on your bike and your gear, how did the worst road conditions of this trip compare to other trips you’ve been on?

There were truly some very difficult stretches of road in Baja and the Copper Canyon, but nothing that was more difficult than anything else I’ve seen in other parts of the world. You can ride all the way down to the bottom of Baja on the main highway, which is very smooth, but I was looking for rough roads on this trip, and I found them. The section between San Isidro and Mission San Jose de Commundo was one of the roughest roads I have ever been on. It’s in the film where I fall off of my bike and end up camping out in the middle of nowhere because I was too exhausted to go any further that day. Rough roads can be found anywhere - you just have to know where to look.

So being a one-man documentary team is really painstaking - a hell of a lot of work. I’ve only ever seen something similar in Guarav Jani’s “Solo to the top of the World” DVD, he filmed himself with his Einfeld in Northern India.

I mean you had to unpack your video gear, set up the camera at a good location, compose your shot, hit record, take the bike back to the edge of the frame, ride completely through the shot, ride back to the camera, disassemble the gear, pack it up and keep riding... For each shot!

And sometimes this would involve hiking up steep hills in the Baja desert - where everything is sharp and pointy - or even fording a single river three times to get one shot. Ever have a “why am I doing this?” moment?

I love Gaurav Jani’s movies and I met him when he came to Seattle last year to present his latest film. When I saw Riding Solo to the Top of the World my first thought was “Man, I could do that.” In fact, I have been doing that for a long time now, but never entirely solo. I’ve documented a lot of group rides with Helge Pedersen and GlobeRiders, which has given me the foundation for solo motorcycle filmmaking. My trip to Mexico was an opportunity to take everything that I have learned about travel, riding and filmmaking and combine it into something that was very personal and independent.

I had many of those “why am I doing this?” moments and the answer was always “because I love doing this!” I get a real sense of pleasure and satisfaction doing what I love to do, even if it is filming myself riding a motorcycle in a strange land. What could be better? Sure, it’s a lot of extra work to make a movie along the way, but I really like the fact that it makes me slow down and appreciate the scenery a little bit more than I would do if I was just riding through it. I suppose that the hardest part, honestly, is the loneliness that comes with the territory sometimes. I mean, you have these amazing experiences and vistas and you just wish there was someone to share them with. And that’s when I would try to remember that the viewer of my movie would be the person I could share the experience with, in the end. I just had to be patient and appreciate things the way they were and keep my audience in mind.

So the trip was 3000 miles, but man, with all that extra back and forth to set up the camera, surely the odometer on your BMW tells a different story. How long was the trip really? Were you able to keep the costs of your trip down?

The entire journey was about 7,000 miles round trip from Seattle, Washington to Baja and the Copper Canyon. Riding in Mexico alone was about 3,000 miles over 30 days. I don’t think that the “back and forth” part of the filmmaking really added that much to the odometer.

I wanted this to be a low budget trip. I did the entire 50-day trip for about $2,500 which averaged out to about $50/day for all of my expenses including fuel, food, repairs, lodging, etc. I didn’t have any sponsors for the project, and I was riding an old 1997 BMW F650GS.

Obviously you have to be prepared and have a bike and other equipment that is capable, but it’s easy to get caught up in fixations about the latest motorcycles and equipment available. There is so much out there to choose from.

My idea was to create a motorcycle movie that was more about the pure travel experience and the spirit of long distance solo riding than the bike or the gear used on the trip. I wanted to show average riders what they could do with little money, some optimism and an old motorcycle.

Everywhere I’ve been in Mexico I found the locals to be "muy amable" and always curious to see what I was up to. Did you find that setting up tripods and video cameras changed the reaction of the locals?

The presence of the camera always affects people’s reactions but I’ve learned how to be flexible and amiable myself to the people I meet. There are different strategies and techniques for dealing with this but in general I try to be open, honest and respectful to the people I meet along the way. It takes time too.

The thing that really comes to mind was the race in Urique – the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. It’s at the end of the movie and really represents the climax of the whole journey. Urique is in the heart of the Copper Canyon. I knew that I really needed to get good footage in the village because it was so central to my story – it was the destination of the whole trip. I had arrived! But it is also a very small community and I was a complete stranger. I did not feel comfortable just whipping out my tripod and filming all alone on the streets of Urique without something more specific in mind. Fortunately that’s where I met Micah True (“Caballo Blanco”), a respected member of the community, and he invited me to film the ultra marathon. That was what I needed. I had “permission” to film a real Sierra Madre community event. Form that point on I had no problems whatsoever wandering around the city with my camera and tripod. It made all the difference in the world.

Did the sparse population of Baja and the Seirra Madres make it easier to temporarily abandon several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment at the side of the road? 

My motto on this journey was “Ride Hard and Shoot Fast!” There was always a fear that I would be hassled or assaulted on the side of the road while I was setting up or taking down my camera, or that it would simply disappear while I was away riding. A lot of the riding shots were done in pretty remote areas where I wasn’t too concerned about passing traffic and/or other people. This was the same for both mainland Mexico and Baja in general. I could just set the tripod up on the side of the road, ride away and return. If I was doing a really “long” shot where I had to ride a couple miles away from my camera, I would try to get creative and hide it off the road, on a hill, or in the bushes where it could not be seen. I always knew that I was taking a chance doing it this way but that was part of the whole “paradigm of trust” I was seeking to establish – faith in the innate goodness of the normal everyday people I would encounter.

At times it was a little surreal to be filming myself this way, out in the middle of nowhere, but I knew what I was looking for and that was just a necessary part of the process. I had to laugh at myself quite a lot and stay humorous about the whole thing too.

The hardest part about filming myself was not the riding shots at all. It was the other times when I needed footage of myself doing the everyday normal activities of life – setting up camp, cooking, eating, and interacting with people. The riding shots were easy because all I had to do was ride through the scene. There was no “acting” involved. But the other scenes of daily life were more challenging because I felt a lot more vulnerable and exposed in front of the camera. I pretty quickly decided that I would just film simple actions and sequences about life on the road. Nothing fancy, just images of the daily activities that I needed to do.

Was it always a pain to setup the camera or were you able to develop any techniques to make the solo filmmaker process easier?

It wasn’t necessarily a pain to set up the camera because that’s what I set out to do and I was mentally prepared for the challenge. I’ve also become very efficient in my methods and organization. I can usually get the camera set up and rolling in about two-minutes once I stop the bike. The challenge is finding a balance between riding and shooting. There’s always “one more shot” that I want to stop and make, but I had to make progress and couldn’t stop everywhere that I wanted to.

In general, I would say that if you want to do this kind of filmmaking you have to make it convenient for yourself to be able to get your camera up and rolling. The less convenient it is to shoot footage, the less you will shoot.

Clearly you would have needed quick access to the cameras and tripods - what gear did you take with you and how did you pack it safely on the bike?

I had three cameras on the journey. My main camera was a Sony FX-1 HD video camera that I have used for years filming projects like the GlobeRiders Silk Road Adventure and Indochina Expedition. I also had a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot still camera that also takes HD video, and a POV helmet camera. Each camera had its purpose and I would use each one regularly. The Sony FX-1 was my heavy gun that I used the most. It’s a serious professional HD camera. The Lumix was mostly just a point-and-shoot still camera although it could record HD video too. The helmet camera was obviously used while riding, to capture the POV flavor of the trip, but it also worked well as a stealth camera, to film spontaneous little scenes of interaction with people I met along the way. The border crossing for instance, where you could never get away filming everything with a big camera.

Other gear I had included an Apple MacBook Pro, a rugged Lacie firewire drive, a Sony GV-HD700 HDV video deck for viewing footage,a wireless mic, a good shotgun mic, extra batteries and chargers.

As far as packing the equipment, I kept the camera in a top-loading backpack mounted on the seat behind me, and the tripod in a padded case on one of the panniers. I had easy and fast access to what I needed.

How did it all hold up, was anything lost or damaged with all that banging around?

On the roughest road in Baja I looked down and saw the cable to my helmet camera dragging on the ground. The helmet camera had fallen off! Fortunately I was able to ride back on my path and I found it laying on the side of the road a mile or so away. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was gone for sure but I found it and it still worked. I’m amazed at how much abuse my equipment could suffer and still work. Dust is always a problem so I kept everything zipped up pretty tight while I was riding, and all of the extra equipment like my laptop, video deck and hard drives were kept in the metal, dustproof Touratech panniers.

You had some kind of on-board point of view (POV) camera, how did that work out for you?

Helmet cam footage is great to have but you have to be careful too. It’s easy for a novice to burn up a lot of footage and return with simply too much material that you will never have the time to watch or even edit. That said, I think it’s important to get some good helmet cam footage because it really adds something to the program. I like to think of my helmet cam footage as the “spice” that adds flavor to the recipe. I would never want to make an entire movie from helmet camera footage, but it does add something special to the recipe.

I love the new helmet cameras that are out now because they offer such an opportunity to get good POV riding footage. I was using an standard-definition POV helmet camera at the time because that was the best one available. The only drawback was that it was not HD. Today, that is not an issue and I use a Contour HD or GoPro Hero camera.

Speaking of hours of footage, were you able to backup or edit your dailies on the road?

I would log and capture all of my footage daily – in my tent or hostel or wherever I was staying. That way I could see what worked and what didn’t, and be rewarded immediately for my hard work. I also edited several videos along the way for my blog of the trip.

Were you also taking still images or audio recordings?

I tried to take as many still pictures as I could, with my point-and-shoot Panasonic Lumix camera because I know from experience that the image quality is better than what I can pull from the video itself and it is very useful for things like websites or promotional material down the road. That said, I’m never able to take as many stills as I would like. It’s too hard to do both at once and most of the stills I got were really just afterthoughts to the video I was shooting.

Well what do you think about the new SLRs that shoot stills and HD video, the HDSLRs? Have you had a chance to look into those?

I don't use an SLR camera myself but I often work with someone who does, Helge Pedersen from GlobeRiders. He had two Canon SLR cameras on our Africa Adventure - the 5D and 7D I think. What I find is that these cameras can create fantastic images but they can also be a little hard to work with. Some of the settings are hard to access in particular.
For me, I need a camera that is solid and robust and designed to shoot run-and-gun style all day long. I currently use a Sony PMW-EX3 which is a great camera. It's a little bit large but I managed to carry it on my bike across Africa. We also used a smaller JVC video camera and several helmet cameras.

You have a lot of experience working with professional video cameras. Do you think that once we get over the ohh-ahh factor of shallow depth-of-field with the new HDSLRs  it will make sense to work with that kind of camera? I mean the image quality is incredible, but there's a lot missing from an out-of-the-box HDSLR; neutral density filters, flip out screen, optical viewfinders an easy way to pull focus...

I think that shallow depth of field is important and looks nice. I often aim for that effect with my video camera by shooting with the widest possible aperture and the longest lens possible. That said, I think that the story is really the most important thing in the end. I really think more about what I am shooting in terms of how the images will fit together into a story in the end. I've seen a lot of beautiful HDSLR stuff on the web, but a lot of it is really just a demonstration of the photographers ability to shoot nice images, not his ability to drive a story.

How did you divide your time between gathering footage and actually covering distance? Did you have shooting days and travelling days?

I was prepared to be gone for 6-8 weeks. Each day I would have a specific destination in mind, and I would try to find the balance of shooting/riding that would allow me to get some good pictures and still make it to my destination before dark. That’s one thing I tried not to do – ride at night. I did take a one-week vacation in La Paz, with my cousin who was living down there. That was the half-way point of the trip and a place for me to relax and recharge before boarding the ferry to the mainland. I also knew that it would be my bail out point if I chickened out of riding further into the mainland. I could turn around and head back up the main highway in Baja to the U.S.

It looks like your years of experience have given you a real understanding of light and composition. There’s a lot of great shots in “golden hour” light, did you have to adjust your travel schedule to wait for good light at the best locations?

I always try to take advantage of the light whenever possible and film as much as possible during those times, but I never sat around waiting in any one place for the right light. When you’re riding alone on a trip like this you tend to go to bed pretty early and get up pretty early. You take on the rhythm of nature. I saw many spectacular sunrises and sunsets on this journey.

Obviously you filmed whatever happened as you rode along, but how did you work your experience into a narrative? Did you have a rough idea of what you were looking for before you set off?

That’s a great question and the heart of what I was trying to do. Before I left, I had a few simple objectives. I wanted to have a good, adventurous ride on my motorcycle, in a place far from home that would really test my skills as a rider. I also wanted to document the journey all alone, as a test or experiment of this kind of filmmaking. So that in itself was really part of the story. But I also knew that I wanted it to be a story that wasn’t entirely about “me”. I wanted to find a story about Mexico, the place I was going to, and the people who live there. I didn’t know what the story would be, but I had faith that I would find it. I’ve learned from experience that you simply can’t head off on an adventure without having something amazing happen. I just wanted to be able to document it when it did happen. My encounter with Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon was the “story” I was looking for.

I didn’t have everything entirely “framed” this way before Ieft, but during he long two-year process of editing I came to realize that this was the story.

The editing is where the story really comes out. You go out and have this experience and come home with all of the raw material but what does it mean? It doesn’t really mean anything until you begin to shape the material into a narrative, and then the meaning comes out and it might be something really different that what you thought it would be. I go into a project like this with ideas and intentions but fate and reality always intrude and leave their own mark in unpredictable ways. I expect that to happen. That’s part of the beauty and mystery of adventure travel.

You’ve done all-kinds of collaborative work over the years, but a project where you are in complete control from start to finish is different. Did you approach this solo project any differently than you would a collaborative project or a project for a paying client?

On a practical level this wasn’t really that different from other collaborative projects I’ve worked on in the past. I had the same work ethic – get up early, work hard, shoot as much footage as possible, etc. What was different was the sense of freedom and openness that I felt along the way. I knew that I was doing this for myself and didn’t have anyone else to please. There was no deadline or budget. If it didn’t work out, so what? It all had the air of an experiment really. I was really just trying to have fun, do something a little different, and test my limits. If it didn’t work out, then so what?

I was pretty efficient and didn’t have to do a lot of retakes or “one more time, please” the way I do when I am filming other riders. When I am filming other people I often change the shot or think of something new and have to get them to ride through the same scene a few times. You get a lot more critical when you can see what you are filming, plus there is always the temptation to do something fancy like a camera move, a pan or a tilt or something, and screw it up. When you film yourself, you have to have a lot of faith in your shots and then just ride through the scene and trust that it will be okay. At least you know there won’t be any bad camera moves because the image is static. I rarely checked the tape or watched the footage I shot in the field.

And what are the pros and cons of having complete ownership of project?

It’s always nice to work with other people who are committed to the project. This last summer I filmed a movie about the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route with a great team of people who were totally committed to the ride and the movie. In contrast, I also recently returned from filming a larger group ride with paying customers who weren’t really there to make a movie. They were accommodating, but not really that as committed to it as I was in the end. So working with other people can be both a blessing and a challenge.

So how is that Baja legend Coco doing? It’s been a long time since he lost his second leg. Looks like he has a proper wheelchair to get around now?

Coco was amazing. He was funny and very accommodating. Such a character and a living legend. I was really happy that he was there when I arrived. He obviously has his challenges and difficulties with his handicap, living out there in the middle of nowhere, but he seems to have a lot of people who stop by and look after him.

That's great to hear, you gotta love the way Coco does things on his own terms. Nobody tells him what to do!

So what are you up to next?

I'm currently editing the latest GlobeRiders movie – the Africa Adventure, and I've also recently completed two other projects, the Washington Backcountry Discovery Route DVD and a new BMW GS Off-Road Riding Skills DVD that I filmed with Rawhyde Adventures in California. They are both available from Touratech-USA.

Beyond the Border - Riding Solo in Mexico is available now on DVD at Touratech-USA

7 Response to "Beyond the Border - Sterling Noren Interview"

  1. Andrew Phillips Says:

    very cool...

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Always a treat to experience a journey from a very talented deliberate perspective.

  3. Susie Says:

    Crafting your interests into a novel, lifelong career pursuit....good stuff. Thanks for sharing your work, Sterling, with us lil ol' west Michiganders.

  4. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Sterling had some great answers to my questions, I sure got a lot out of them. Even setting aside the fact that the entire project was a one man show, the quality of the work is amazing. Looking forward to his next projects!

  5. bmwglenn Says:

    Wonderful clips on You Tube. Any chance you can make it down for the Overland Expo in Amado this April?

  6. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Hey, thanks Glenn!
    Man, I'd love to make it down for the Overland Expo - Looks like a blast and Arizona is such an awesome state - but I don't think I'll have the cash by then to make the long trip from Montreal, I've still got to find work! Haven't had a steady J O B since I left for my last trip over a year ago! :)

  7. Matt Ayers Says:

    Having photographed my own 6 week trip throughout the western US, I can only imagine the amount of effort that goes into shooting and then editing a trip solo! I can't wait to get the DVD. Sterling and Anthony - thanks for this great interview!

Post a Comment