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Brain Power

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Walking into an IMAX theatre can be a disorienting experience. The screen seems too large. You can’t imagine how you could possibly take in a moving image on that scale. Having found your seat on the precipitous slope, you calm yourself by plunging your hand into a bucket of popcorn and wait for something to happen….

Words: Paul Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

And happen something does. Those first moments of an IMAX experience—and, for once, to describe it as an experience feels apt, not just marketing phraseology—are exhilarating. The screen is designed to be bigger than the viewers’ field of view, so you feel as if you are inside the image. And the sound is all around you, adding to the sense of being absorbed into the movie. When the lights go up, an hour or so later, there is a feeling of having been taken to somewhere very different.

Many who have seen IMAX films will think of dinosaurs, or sharks, or cosmic voyages into deep space—all very educational and sometimes just a little mind-blowing. But what if you could experience a bike race in an IMAX theatre? What about the greatest bike race in the world?

IN 2003, A TEAM OF FILMMAKERS SET THEMSELVES JUST THAT CHALLENGE: to make the first IMAX film about cycling. Only it wasn’t really a film about cycling. The germ of the idea came from JoAnna Baldwin Mallory, director of new ventures at Partners Healthcare, one of the largest biomedical research companies in the U.S. Baldwin Mallory already had extensive experience of educational television in the field of neuroscience, and had an ambition to take her public education program further. She identified IMAX as a format that could engage viewers in her subject—the life of the brain—but she needed a story against which to pitch the science. Peter Frumkin, a veteran public television producer, suggested the Tour de France as a suitable vehicle for Baldwin Mallory’s film, and she immediately saw the potential.

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With funding from the National Science Foundation in place, Baldwin Mallory began assembling a team of experienced directors, cameramen, editors and technicians. Some turned out to be cycling fans, others were newbies to the sport. The director, Academy Award-nominated Bayley Silleck, confessed to having only a rudimentary understanding of the sport before embarking on the project. “It’s kind of embarrassing, really,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was a team sport…that there was actually an incredible amount of strategy involved. It’s like chess on bikes. When you get to know some of the riders and you learn how hard it is just to finish the race, let alone win anything, it’s almost impossible not to get emotionally invested.”

The idea behind the film was simple: follow selected Tour de France riders and use their experience of riding the race to explain how the brain works. The execution was not so simple. First the team had to scout locations over the 3,400-kilometer route, record the coordinates via GPS, and submit the locations to the race owner, ASO, for approval to film. While always being supportive, ASO also advised the filmmakers to arrive at each spot four days in advance to secure the camera angle they wanted. A wine- and cheese-fueled drive around France was straightforward compared to the reality of actually filming the race.

For “Wired to Win” there were storyboards, but to get the shots they needed the crew members had to dive into the frantic jumble that we know and love as bike racing. Anyone who has ever tried to get involved in a pro race knows that things move fast. The race doesn’t wait. If you don’t get your shot, tough….

The crew was up to the challenge. Each member knew that getting close to the riders during the race would be an essential part of the filming process, and that the only practicable way of doing so was from the back of a motorbike. After considerable testing, they came up with a solution that involved an IMAX 70mm camera, attached to a specially adapted BMW motorcycle, operated remotely by a helicopter flying overhead. For every shot, the motorbike driver had to wait for the race commissaires to give him an “all clear” to move into position into the peloton, then radio through to a car farther back in the convoy, which would then notify the helicopter crew. And for every two minutes, 45 seconds of film, the camera bike and the helicopter would have to rendezvous in a sports field or an empty car park to reload, then chase back into the race. All this on baking hot, crowded French roads, with every other media, team and organization vehicle fighting them for space. No surprise then that the crew members found “Wired to Win” the most complex film they’d ever shot.

When I spoke to co-writer and first assistant director Daniel Ferguson, he told me how IMAX technology had moved on in the last decade: “Most giant screen filmmakers favor digital tools now. We shot and released ‘Wired to Win’ in 2D. These days you would have to release in 3D as well, which means additional cost and even quirkier capture equipment. I think if we were going to do a multi-camera shoot of a live sporting event today, most of the cameras and the workflow would be digital. It would allow us to react faster and to catch things that a three-minute film load (1,000 feet) never allowed. When we filmed the 2003 Tour, we had four cameras. Most of them got no more than three minutes per day. Some just got a single take. It was crazy!”

Crazy, but worthwhile. The film features some of the most beautiful bike race sequences ever filmed. The French countryside swoons and pouts for the camera like a gorgeous starlet, and the Tour peloton sweeps along like a 200-man tourist guide. The scenery, and the sporting action, however, had to link to the film’s fundamental aim—to explore the human brain. “We knew from the start that we didn’t want this to be a textbook approach to neuroscience,” Baldwin Mallory said. “The science had to flow naturally from the drama, from the human story. We wanted to move seamlessly from live action to computer-generated imagery of the inner workings of the brain.”

Through Baldwin Mallory, the film crew had access to world-class resources in this area. Ferguson recalls how one of their medical advisors, Dr. Matthew P. Frosch, assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, was eager to get the filmmakers to understand the physical aspects of the human brain. He invited them into his morgue to dissect one.

“I was a bit taken a back at first,” Ferguson said. “There we were, dressed in blue smocks at the MGH morgue, holding something that weighed no more than three pounds and yet held the secrets of someone’s personality. It was so much more beautiful and delicate than I imagined. I felt like saying to Matt [Frosch], you really don’t have to do this for us. We’re only filmmakers!” Dr. Frosch, however, insisted: “Part of my job is teaching neuroanatomy to med students and graduate students, so the chance to extend that to families and children in a way that they can grasp… was very exciting.”

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Much of the exploration of the brain’s activities is around how we control and cope with stress, pain and adverse conditions. It’s no accident that the film’s subtitle is “Surviving the Tour de France”—not “Winning the Tour de France.” The 2003 edition of the race was perceived at the time to be special for a number of reasons. It was the centenary edition, and Lance Armstrong was bidding for his fifth win. Jan Ullrich, always Armstrong’s understudy, came closest to putting Armstrong under real pressure—the German finished the race only one minute down. And there were other heroic stories, most notably Tyler Hamilton’s fourth place, having ridden most of the race with a broken clavicle. Hamilton took his first Tour stage victory on the fog-laden roads between Pau and Bayonne, riding alone for more than 90 kilometers in what seemed like a stylish and reckless attack.

But the feats of Armstrong, Ullrich and Hamilton were illusory. The race, indeed the whole sport, was being fueled by EPO. Of the top 10 finishers in 2003, only two have never been linked to a positive drugs test. As such, the whole race was a sham. ASO, besides nullifying Armstrong’s victory, might just as well have struck off the results of nearly every stage, jersey and intermediate sprint.

Hamilton was intended to be the focus of “Wired to Win.” The film, when it was in development with him, was titled “Brainpower.” Hamilton agreed to be followed through the Tour by the film crew, and proclaimed to be clean. When he crashed on stage 1 and broke his clavicle, it looked like Hamilton’s tour of adversity was going to be a storyteller’s dream. Hours and hours of footage of Hamilton now sit unused, gathering dust. In 2004, as the film went into editing, he tested positive at the Vuelta a España, and his career began to unravel.

Ferguson told me how Hamilton was originally touted to the film directors as an exemplar of clean cycling…. “We interviewed at least five of the top journalists covering cycling in 2002 when we were looking for our central character. All of them pointed us to Tyler. They told us he was the symbol of ethical sport. Some told us, ‘If he’s doping, everyone’s doping.’ When Brian Nygaard [media director of Hamilton’s team] called me that day in September 2004 to tell me about the positive test, I thought it was a bad practical joke. We went through so much with Tyler, [his then wife] Haven and his family. None of us wanted to believe it, so we hung on for as long as we could. No one wanted to see that footage on the cutting-room floor. In the end, the subject was bigger than any one rider (the brain itself as the engine of human possibility) and we needed to detach the motivational message of neuroplasticity from the dirty business of doping.”

The film’s producers made the businesslike decision to cut Hamilton and focus on other riders. They landed on two Française des Jeux riders, Australian Baden Cooke and Frenchman Jimmy Casper. Fortunately, Cooke and Casper had their own dramatic arcs during the 2003 Tour. Casper was involved in the same big pileup as Hamilton on stage 1 and battled through to stage 9 with his neck in a brace. Cooke meanwhile found himself in with a chance of winning the green jersey. While he had always been a good sprinter, winning the points jersey of the Tour de France had previously been some way out of Cooke’s reach. Now he was approaching Paris only a handful of points behind fellow Aussie Robbie McEwen. On the final stage, Cooke finished second to Jean-Pierre Nazon, and claimed the final green jersey by just two points.

Switching to two new protagonists after the race caused the filmmakers quite a headache. It was more than a case of reediting. Entire scenes had to be reshot, and there was a concern that the film could lose some of its authenticity as a result. In the end though the team had been prudent enough in its live-action shooting—there were already some great sequences with Casper and Cooke as the focal points rather than Hamilton.

Ultimately though, “Wired to Win” transcends cycling’s usual battles of athleticism, ego and money. It is about something else entirely, and that’s why it occupies such a unique position in the pantheon of cycling films. It is not a film for cognoscenti like “A Sunday in Hell” or “La Course en Tête.” It doesn’t spend minutes showing riders fiddling with their saddles, or plump Belgian soigneurs making brioche sandwiches. From a cycling perspective the filmmakers were enthusiastic amateurs. But they were such experts in their own fields—whether neuroscience or IMAX filmmaking—that they brought a fresh perspective to our sport. Coming back to Baldwin Mallory’s original ambition, the film is a synthesis of sport and science. Its purpose was noble: to educate and inspire. And it goes on doing so.

Baldwin Mallory said, “This ambitious neuroscience research program hasn’t been lost on science centers, which serve on the front lines of public understanding of scientific research. This year, the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), reported on the remarkable rise of permanent exhibitions on the brain among their member institutions, including leaders in the field, such as The Franklin Institute, the Pacific Science Center, and the Arizona Science Center, among others. With the rise of brain exhibits, ‘Wired to Win’ continues to serve as excellent complementary programming for science centers across the country. And members of the ‘Wired to Win’ team continue to work with these same institutions to develop new and exciting neuroscience programming for educators and the public alike.”

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So, after the travesties of Armstrong, Hamilton and the rest of their generation, something good did come of the 2003 Tour de France. And to enjoy it you need only find an IMAX theatre showing the film, get yourself a bucket of popcorn, and let yourself be taken somewhere very special.


Paul Maunder on Twitter: @PMaunderpaul