Responses by Tuesday McGowan, creative director, Where The Buffalo Roam; David McMurry, director, Where The Buffalo Roam; PJ Koll and Tim Pries, founders, Where The Buffalo Roam; and Marco Scisco, head of Piaggio Studios and content, Piaggio Studios.
Background: Vespamania is a character-driven docuseries featuring Vespa owners around the world and how they embody their love of the world’s most iconic scooter. Episode two is an adventure story featuring Emma Trenchard, a 24-year-old English artist who traveled from the United Kingdom to Mongolia and back on a mint green Vespa she named “Grettle” with an adorable, adopted Mongolian street dog named Molly. The target audience is anyone who seeks inspiration to put their fears aside and embrace their own adventures.
Challenges: Going into the project, we knew telling a dynamic, engaging story around an event that had already taken place would be a challenge, but we were completely taken with Emma. She exudes fearlessness with Austenian independence, and her charisma is infectious. We also had access to Emma’s incredible archive to help bring the story to life. Over the course of 30,000 kilometers through 19 countries, she documented nearly every aspect of her journey through photos, videos, and an encyclopedia of imaginative sketches and paintings. Our editor combed through hours and hours of material. Deciding which parts to bring into the story and which to leave out proved an additional challenge, but having those resources was an amazing gift.
Design thinking: We knew we had the story’s bones going in. What we didn’t know until we arrived in England was that Emma lived in a world straight off the pages of an Austen novel. During our location scout, we discovered her family home; its highly acclaimed English gardens; and her mum Clare’s enchanting, life-sized sculptures of acrobatic hares and roaming wolves. After speaking with Clare on the phone, this setting—combined with her Attenborough-esque voice—inspired us to bring the location in as a character through stylized frames and a storybook intro voiceover.
Still, we felt a great responsibility to tell Emma’s story authentically while crafting a narrative that captured her magical imagination and infectious love of adventure. So, we reached out to Emma’s friends—including her mechanic, Clie—to get notes from a chorus of other voices who could speak to their experience of Emma and her journey. They were so colorful and captivating, too, as if we had pulled them straight from central casting. We feel this makes the retelling of the story so engaging; it feels as if it were written from a storybook, even though everything we encountered was as we found it in real life.
Favorite details: Because Emma’s scrapbook-like chronicle of her journey was so visually compelling, we decided to meticulously bring her handmade journal to life. We leaned into cel animation and stop motion to create kinetic collages with various textures and mediums, from charcoal pencil to watercolor. It is this kind of attention to detail that we thrive on when producing creative documentaries.
The literary vibe of Wes Anderson inspired the typography as we developed the novella-like main title and chapter headings. We also took great care to design a map of Emma’s adventure that was straight out of an English boarding school classroom, complete with camels, yaks and Mongolian horses.
Visual influences: Emma’s artwork; the wonderful world created by her and Clare; and the lush rolling hills of Dorset, United Kingdom, motivated much of the film’s presentation. We were also inspired by Jane Austen and the films of Wes Anderson. There’s a bit of her independence and his eccentricity in Emma and her story, so they felt like the perfect people from which to draw inspiration.
New lessons: Even though what we do as filmmakers is often intrepid and exploratory, Emma’s courageousness and thirst for adventure ups the ante. It was inspiring to experience her story and to hear her discuss encountering what she calls “the kindness of strangers” at every step along her journey. When she says, “There’s always a way,” you feel it. While it’s not necessarily new, we were reminded that, despite the challenges of the past several years and plenty of headlines arguing for the contrary, the world is a wonderful place filled with wonderful people. When you carry that openness into a project, things show up that you could never script. It’s sort of the tao of documentary filmmaking.