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Q&A: Jessie Ayles, Zipping Through the Streets of Chiang Mai

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Jessie Ayles shooting the film “The Burman” in Chang Mai, northern Thailand. She likes to travel and make documentaries about unusual characters or subcultures.

Jessie Ayles recently produced a story about Thailand’s underground bike revolution in Thailand for Discovery Digital Networks.

Storyhunter: You’re a bike rider yourself, but in Thailand things are a bit different. How did you come about this story?

Jessie Ayles: I lived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, for one year, working with a great NGO called Documentary Arts Asia — through this organization I was introduced to the local community and quickly got a sense of everything that was happening. I cycled myself when I first arrived, and also soon realized that it wasn’t the normal mode of transport for local people!

Finding the story was very easy actually and happened very organically. I met Ganji (the main character) at a weekly jazz club night. He saw that I had cycled to the event, so we started a conversation. I told him about how different cycling was here compared to London and we laughed at the complete lack of rules and ways that you have to adapt to this. He was so excited and engaged in spreading cycling around the city, and was amazingly dedicated to helping me share this revolution in the film.

SH: There are some nice street scenes in your story. How did you shoot those?

JA: Some of the street scenes (in the day) were shot from the back of a moving truck with a Movi Gimbal stabilizer — the night time alley races were shot from the back of a motorbike with no rig, so they’re a little rougher around the edges!

I used a Canon 5D Mark III, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3, radio mics + Zoom h4N, a Manfrotto tripod. The lenses I used were: 35mm, 50mm, 24–105mm, 100mm. For stabilization, I used the Movi Gimbal. Lastly, a drone.

SH: Zipping around Bangkok had to be complicated. What was the toughest part about this assignment?

JA: I think getting pick-up shots by myself with no other mode of transport other than a bicycle was quite tricky! Films about cyclists with no rig or tracking system are always a disaster!

Also the biggest difficulty is the language barrier — my character spoke fluent English so there were no communication problems but definitely during other productions that has been the biggest barrier to overcome. The most important part of producing a film in a foreign country is making sure that you have a strong support system, so either through a local fixer or producer that you can collaborate with or an organization that can guide you — that’s so invaluable.

JA: Luckily no one got hurt during filming — we were worried with the race that someone would, and Ganji makes sure that everyone signs a release form stating that he’s not liable for any injuries and that they’re responsible if something happens, so there definitely is potential for something to go wrong! It is legal at the moment, as far as I’m aware, but laws and regulations are a little more relaxed there, especially when it comes to cyclists because it’s not really an established mode of transport yet.

SH: Is the bike culture going mainstream there anytime soon?

JA: I don’t think it will go mainstream quite yet — it’s mainstream in some competitive sporting arenas, but there’s still a way to go to make it mainstream in people using it more in every-day life. Bicycle shops are growing in numbers there though, and it is starting to be seen as a ‘cool’ thing to do, so I think in a few years it will have evolved quite a lot.

I cycled everywhere — even with equipment! (Come to think of it, that was probably the biggest challenge). I was actually going to hire a motorbike for a while, but felt that it would be more dangerous, so I stuck with my bicycle! It is dangerous there, but the roads in general are dangerous, everyone has had some sort of road accident at one point. The good thing there is that there aren’t many giant buses or huge trucks so your visibility is a bit better than in cities like London.

SH: Back in your home base of London… what other clients do you freelance for?

I freelance for production companies such as Studio Hansa and U-Dox (who have individual big clients such as adidas), commissioners like AJ+ and individual charities such as Medical Aid Films, Whole Education, Documentary Arts Asia and also work with musicians to produce interesting content for them.

SH: What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?

At the moment I’m working on a short documentary for Channel 4 with Tristan Anderson (a fellow Storyhunter) who runs Film Mode. I’ll shoot with them this summer. I’m also working on another short documentary about a very special Burmese character that I met in Chiang Mai — this is the trailer. I’m also constantly pitching ideas and produce branded content for creative agencies.

Jessie Ayles has made documentaries and brand content for a lot of clients: London Live/ESTV, Dazed and Confused, adidas, T-Mobile, Medical Aid Films, and more. She’s produced videos in South East Asia, Europe, Cuba and South Africa. She won the One World Media bursary for her documentary Zip Zap.