Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Being a Filmmaker, Secret Agent, and Cyclist: An Interview with Marc Strong

By Kat Hunter

Strong at the Driveway
Photo by Scott Strance Photography
Back in the day you'd have to work for ESPN to have an onboard camera, Marc Strong tells me. In the early nineties, he raced on a regional junior development team in the Midwest, a skinny teenager with shaved legs. He remembers a great aunt, not one to mince words, asking him why he didn't do a “real” sport like golf. At the time, for the uninitiated the true nature of bike racing was an unknown, the peloton a windowless and clandestine bubble of the lycra-clad.

“I think I've always wanted to make cycling cool, so for me the Driveway promos are a way to give non-cyclists a glimpse of that,” Strong says.

Using hundreds of hours of footage from bike-mounted GoPros and Canon DSLR's, Strong has been stitching together short, vivid video montages of Austin's Driveway crit series since 2012. The videos capture the excitement of racing and the fierceness of competition—the pain faces, the elbows, the speed, the hands in the air for victory. They're also a highlight reel of cycling's beauty and romance. In Strong's shots you see the incredible symmetry of a peloton in motion, or bikes backlit against the last light of the day; you feel the unmistakable spirit of camaraderie and community. Different angles and vantage points explore the scene from the minutia of handlebars and safety pins to the final melee of the sprint.

Some of Strong's cycling videos have a specific theme: in 2014, for example, Strong featured women's racing at the Driveway, and he produced a promotional video for cycling lawyer Brad Houston. The most well-known of his cycling projects, however, are the annual, Castelli-sponsored Driveway "trailers"—quick-cut, get-you-worked-up videos that come out in the off-season to promote the coming year, acting like a spring thaw on the blood and the legs.

Riding in 2015 for Waterloo Racing, Strong is one of the Driveway faithful, referring to the weekly Thursday-night series as "cheap therapy." As a time-limited father of four (ages 3 to 10) and small-business owner, Strong likes the short format of the crits and the convenience of the East Austin location. The Driveway's diverse racing community runs the gambit from leaned-out pros to middle-aged nine-to-fivers and college students, and Strong is an example of the unique talent pool that community represents—talents which extend far beyond riding ability. Some riders, like Strong, lend their professional skills to the sport as a kind of ancillary passion. Strong's company, Wienot Films, largely focuses on whiteboard "explainer" videos and corporate advertisements; live-action cycling videos aren't Strong's bread and butter, but they’re what he loves best.

Junior Racer Goes Rogue
Strong racing up Signal Hill in 1995,
his father running behind him. 
Strong trained at an elite level from roughly age 15 to 19, racing at national events across the U.S. During his last semester of high school, he convinced his P.E. teacher and the school principal to allow him to pursue a cycling-based "independent study," which basically amounted to leaving school two hours early every day to train.

After graduating from high school and enrolling at Brigham Young University, Strong continued racing for about a year, but then he took a different track. He went on a two-year volunteer church mission to Australia. By the time he returned home to continue his studies, friends he'd raced with as a junior were pursuing careers as domestic pros. Most were unpaid, considering themselves lucky if their teams covered travel costs, and they spent the majority of the year on the road. If a rider wasn't Tour-de-France quality, that's what he was looking at. This struck Strong as a difficult and lonely life. He downgraded from a cat 2 to a cat 3, the "sweet spot" where he could still participate in the sport without being in prime fitness. Still in love with racing, however, he helped to found the BYU cycling team. Later he went on to grad school at Johns Hopkins University and was a part of their conference championship team time trial team.

During my interview with him, Strong makes several references to how he used to work for the “government,” but we talk for more than an hour before I ask him which branch. I'd assumed it was some innocuous facet of the vast bureaucratic system—city waterworks, parks, maybe healthcare—so when he explains he used to be an intelligence analyst for the CIA, I ask him twice whether he's joking.

Strong assures me he's not, nor is his former career confidential (though he does still have to get special permission to put it on his resume). He worked for the CIA for a total of seven years.

This "government" job was Strong's unexpected and unusual segue into filmmaking. His background was in political science, international relations, and economics, and while he lacked formal education in film or illustration, he had a knack for and an interest in both. To explain a new technology, he created a simple whiteboard-style presentation video using his kids' whiteboard and a small, consumer-grade Canon Powershot. Soon he found himself being asked to do more.

"You break into it, and you're the guy doing it, and then all of a sudden it's like, 'hey, can you make another one for us?'" Strong says. "So I just started becoming known for that."

He took classes and learned through experimentation, eventually setting up a side business making films. His job responsibilities as an analyst—in essence, to sift through vast quantities of information and present it to time-pressed policymakers in a clear and concise way—were very similar to what was required in making explainer videos about a confusing product or concept. But the video presentations also gave him an opportunity to set his left brain aside; he was still explaining things, but with a visual narrative spun from creativity and intuition as much as hard facts.

When visiting his parents one Christmas, Strong thought about how much he loved making films and wanted to do it full time, even though he already had a great job. At one point, his mother said, "Why not?" That was the genesis for the name Wienot Films, and in 2012, Strong transformed his part-time hobby into a full-time career, working out of his home in Austin. The venture involved a lot of unknowns, but every bike racer worth his or her salt knows the value of a good gamble.

Elbow Grease & a Marker
What is Sylectus
Whiteboard animation was Strong's answer to the self-posed question, "What can I do better than most people?" It would be the specialty that set Wienot Films apart, though Strong also creates computer animation and live-action video for many clients.

At first, the company was a one-man operation, but with increasing success and interest, Strong was soon building a carefully chosen and highly qualified team of voiceover artists, illustrators, animators, composers, and writers. (One of his writers, Jon Bernstein, wrote the Disney feature film Meet the Robinsons.)

Wienot Films' explainer videos turn complex content into plain and entertaining English—they might be a homepage video, explaining what a company does or why you'd want to work for them, or a presentation that covers a complicated topic in a much more engaging way than the traditional souped-up Powerpoint. Clients range from startups to large corporations like Canon or Cisco. A recent project for the Gatorade Sport Science Institute was right up Strong's alley: the series of presentations centered around carbohydrates, protein, and hydration, most using the analogy of a race car (e.g., the engine standing in for muscle, the coolant for needed fluids).

“Metaphors are more fun, and they stick with your brain a lot better than direct content,” Strong says. Wienot Films is in the business of storytelling.

In speaking with Strong, you get the sense that his company is like another child: well tended, a source of great pride. He quotes Leonardo daVinci in saying, “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” but his products are as close to perfect as he can muster. Strong says he's always heavily involved in making sure a given project is up to snuff.

Tandem Law Firm
The end result may make the process look easy, but countless hours go into even the smallest details. The beauty of whiteboard animation is that it seems informal and approachable, but the reality is a medium that's remarkably unforgiving. Each image is hand-drawn with fickle markers on a slippery board on which it's all too easy to erase with a stray sleeve or new mark. Live-action video is its own can of worms, as well, especially when the focus is cycling. Out at the Driveway, Strong films pelotons moving 30-plus miles per hour in less-than-ideal light. And like the proverbial needle in the haystack, the most crucial, unforgettable seconds of action must be plucked from hours and hours of race footage.    

Now that he works for himself, Strong says he actually rides less. His schedule is more flexible, which makes fair-weather riding easier, but he spends more total time on the job. This doesn't prevent him from being at the Driveway nearly every Thursday, however—still (happily) a cat 3, he often races the 3/4, P123, and masters fields—or from considering himself an avid cyclist. Last October he won the 3/4 race with a surprising (even to himself) multi-lap solo break. Knowing that his kids got to see him made the victory all the more sweet, he says.

Though certainly not as fit as he used to be, Strong says the skill set never really leaves you once you've given it years of study. For him, cycling is a workout, a pastime, an addiction of sorts. But perhaps all of this is best explained in a simpler, visual form? Watch Strong's videos, and you'll get an idea of what it's all about…

2015 Driveway Series Teaser from Wienot Films on Vimeo.

Driveway Series Trailer 2014 from Wienot Films on Vimeo.

Driveway Series Trailer 2013 from Wienot Films on Vimeo.

Driveway Series Trailer 2012 from Wienot Films on Vimeo.

More cycling videos on YouTube

More whiteboard animation on YouTube

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