As days go, it was one of my biggest, and certainly one of the best.
Earlier this week, I got to see my work on the big screen. “The Great Ride,” the documentary I produced with the team at WQED, premiered on the giant screen at the Carnegie Science Center. I’m used to seeing my work on the small screen. But this would be something bigger, both in actual dimension and in terms of my career.
The documentary features the bike trail from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh – 335 miles on the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage. The film crew and I were out on the trail from May through mid-November, following our cyclist-tour guides as they pedaled along the path, telling stories of the history and highlighting the spectacular scenery and the physical challenges of the long trip.
The project was especially personal for me because I’ve cycled the trail many times, including a five-day through- ride of the whole thing several years ago.
Tuesday evening was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work, both in the field and in the edit room. Walking into the theater, I was struck by just how massive that screen is: a city block wide and four stories tall.
My story was going to reach four stories.
It was strange to experience a large audience. There have been plenty of times I’ve watched my work on television at home. The response has always been warm, but that doesn’t count because they’re family. This was the first time I would hear, firsthand, the reaction of strangers.
They laughed at the places I hoped they would laugh, and clapped when I expected they might. Many responded to specific scenes of towns and landmarks, because they lived there.
And when some beautiful images of eagles appeared on screen, I heard a collective gasp: I hadn’t expected that.
When the production team and I started the work all those months ago, we talked about how best to capture 335 linear miles. The greatest accomplishment for any producer is to arrive at the end of the work, knowing that you got the story right, that you let your audience see and feel something in the way you see and feel it.
I have favorite moments in the film, and it was exhilarating to see them in such huge, vibrant form. It was a special thrill to see my name looming 30 feet tall in the end credits. That image will be with me forever.
As I stood at the exit after the show, audience members smiled at me, or nodded their thanks. More than a few said the film makes them want to ride the trail. For someone who has been talking about that trail for all these years, there’s no better compliment.
“It was a beautiful film,” said one of the audience members. I hope it is. I think it is, but then again, I’m too close to it right now to know for sure.
Working on the film has been like sitting in that front row of the theater; everything is too large and distorted. I’m too much inside of it to be objective. Someday I’ll be able to watch it again from a distance, and see the whole thing from a different perspective. Maybe the film captures the same spectacular, intimate, sweeping, green and blue trail I experienced on my bike all those years ago. I think it does. I hope it does.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at email@example.com. “The Great Ride” will have its broadcast premiere on WQED at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 14.