Drag racing is fast. Like, really fast! It's a sport where, from a standing start, cars can reach 335 miles per hour and cover 1000 feet in less than 4 seconds. With the fuel-burning primal-screaming engines producing 10,000 horsepower, drag racing is simply the fastest sport on the planet. It's also the subject of 'Fire Breathing Monsters' - a fascinating 7-minute documentary commissioned by Jim Jannard, the founder of RED Digital Cinema, on behalf of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA).

Brought in for the challenge was Green Dot Films director Brent Thomas, an experienced filmmaker and life-long drag racing fan. The mission - to document the sport's historic season opener, the WinterNationals. With thousands of fans, hundreds of racers and their crews and cars, and the emotional peaks and valleys of winning and losing, the crew had a rich tableau of iconic imagery at their disposal… and a handful of RED cameras (including the amazing RED DRAGON). The crew had the four day race weekend to capture everything they needed, including race footage and interviews on camera.

The RED footage was then handed to Therapy Studio's editor, Lenny Mesina, who along with Wes Lipman, carved out the compelling story that lurked in the vast amount of footage and wove the interviews with unexpected imagery that captures the true excitement of the event. The Therapy Studios team handled the scope of post-production for the project, including color, finishing, sound design and mix. Cory Gabel scored the music, creating the perfect audio complement to the action.

The result is a gloriously-realised snapshot of a sport pretty devoid of coverage in much of the world. From the roar of the engines to the gleam of the smiles (and there are some SERIOUS smiles in this), the film is a perfectly produced bit of content that not only highlights the majesty of motoring, but also the impressive fidelity of the cameras that shoot it. Indeed, the film is housed on YouTube in staggering 4K – a resolution more common for cinema screens.

We were really impressed by the film, so caught up with director Brent Thomas (first interview on this page) and editor Lenny Mesina (second interview on this page) to find out how they tamed the 'Fire Breathing Monsters'.


How did you get involved in the project? Is drag racing a passion of yours?

Well, it started with an email from Jim Jannard founder of Oakley sunglasses and, more recently, RED Digital Cinema. Jim and I have collaborated together on print and broadcast projects for both Oakley and RED.

What was the process once you'd signed up?

One of Jim's passions has been drag racing and he fielded a very successful championship 'funny car' team for a few years at Oakley. I was invited to a discussion with Jim and the NHRA board of directors about a variety of issues. One of the topics was the need to revamp the idea of interviews with the drivers and crew, and shift the focus back to the emotional origins of the sport. My eyes lit up at this. The assignment was simple: capture the essence of NHRA Drag Racing as it is today. We wanted to take this opportunity to begin a visual upgrade of NHRA by focusing on the human side of the sport and listening to the drivers and crews explain what motivates them. ESPN covers the winners and losers of the events, but we're after the emotional element and a connection with the audience who seldom see the intimate side of drag racing. We were gunning for humanity and technology as played out in the pits and the track.

Our footage is not to highlight race wins and tally the point standing of the competitors, that's ESPN's assignment, but to heighten the drag racing experience to old fans and new fans as well…it's about moody times of the day and night and unique views of these ferocious, thundering monsters, and the visual and audio cues they produce. We were interested in the big pictures and the macro-sized framing of warping metal under the torque, heat, and power of 10khp fuel-burning engines. We wanted the blood, sweat, dirt, grime, fire, smoke, and tears of euphoria and dismay. The only way this exercise made sense was to make documentaries that are little jewels of performance in comparison to the more formulaic ESPN approach. Fire Breathing Monsters was to be a new formula. We wanted to create a benchmark of photography and audio recording that could be extended to the other facets of the sport. It was to be all about the color, sound, and mayhem of modern NHRA Drag Racing. The hipness of NHRA was there, it just hadn't been captured on film. This film was to be a test to see if we could find a more interesting way to tell the NHRA story.

What was the pre-production process like?

At the end of the discussion with Jim and the NHRA, I had my orders. The Winternationals, the opening meet of the racing season, was two weeks away. I told Jim that I would scout the event with my still camera just to find out how it all worked and talk to prospective interviewees. We could shoot one of the other events later in the year when we had figured the film out. Jim countered with "Why don't you just shoot it for real?" I looked over to my producer, Ursula Gabel Baird, with a "Can we put this together in less than two weeks?" look. She took a deep breath and gave me a wry grin. Pre-production was simple and minimal: a short treatment from me and faith and a budget from Jim Jannard. No one else.

With my producer, we worked out a couple of budget options. Option A was a simple lo-fi approach with a camera and an operator-2 shoot days, no sound, no interviews, no additional crew-just beautiful riveting imagery to give the NHRA a taste of what we could do with a proper crew. Option B was more crew with 3 days of shooting. In the end, we re-worked the numbers and came up with Option C which allowed a crew of 10-12 people for all four days of the race weekend. This option gave us the maximum time to scout and shoot as many events and aspects of the drag racing world as possible and would give us time to revisit cars and drivers that we may have missed the first time, and we could start building a library of footage which we could use over the course of this project.

Jim liked Option C and backed us up accordingly with the budget and donated camera bodies, lenses and a couple of very proficient RED technicians. My expectations were for about three or four hours of usable footage a day. We actually shot six to seven hours of footage per day.

How was the shoot?

Brent - We were on for February 6, 7, 8, and 9. Four days of racing, dawn to dusk, thousands of fans, 400 races, and the visual/audio spectacle of fire breathing monsters and the people who ride them.

We had a very minimal crew because we had to move quickly throughout the event-this was true guerilla shooting-2 Directors of Photography (Karl Hahn and Dean Mitchell), 2 camera assistants, 3 RED techs, 1 DIT, 1 grip, a PM and a few pa's. No electrics…everything was available light. Jim provided 4 REDs, including the remarkable Dragon. What helped tremendously was the cooperation of the NHRA which gave us complete access to the championship event. There was no place out of bounds for us. We are especially grateful for the help in coordinating the interviews by Paul "Torch" LeSage.

Was there a particular tale you wanted to tell, or did the content come from meeting and speaking to the drivers?

I went to the races with an open mind. I let my curiosity lead the cameras. There was no particular tale I wanted to tell beyond sketching out an authentic weekend at the Winternationals at the Pomona drag strip, and interviewing drivers and crews from the participating teams for their candid opinions. The content would come out of that.

The film is full of characters (and some amazingly shiny white teeth!). Did you have to coax a performance out of them, or were they naturally that gregarious? Did you have to adjust the contrast for a few of the Hollywood smiles!?

In the end, the interviews were the backbone of the film. I worked with a writer, John Stein, on the questions we asked of the drivers and their crews. The goal was to provoke them into candid answers that explored their own personal thrills with drag racing and what about it attracts them to such a violent sport. They are an articulate bunch and have a no-bullshit approach to their opinions. Plus, they liked the questions. I think that comes through. No coaching was needed.

When making the doc, did you feel under any particular pressure to showcase the capabilities of the RED cameras, or was that not part of the process?

The film wasn't intended to showcase the RED, but that was the result anyway. The cameras performed flawlessly. We finished the film in 4k because among the screens it had to be compatible with included full-theatrical cinema projection.

How was the edit? How did you choose what to keep? Were you given a time-frame to keep to at the beginning?

The editors, Lenny Mesina and Wes Lipman were a godsend. Over the weekend we shot 24 hours of digital content (roughly equivalent to 140,000 feet of 35mm film-more, really, since I shot the whole production at 60fps). I spent the first week of ten hour days with an assistant editor sifting through the dailies for selects, while Lenny and Wes tackled the interviews (we had hours of it) to make a verbal skeleton for the piece. They then ploughed through my selects for the meat on the bones.

We had no set length for the film. My feeling was that the moment it got boring, we were done. Seven minutes and 30 seconds was how long that took.

The audio-mix is incredible. How did you get the roars?

The only aspect of the project I was adamant about was the need for amazing production sound effects. NHRA Drag Racing is the noisiest, fastest sport on the planet and the engine roars, such a big part of the event, were needed to drive the visuals and replicate the experience. The sound levels at the starting line stayed at an ear-splitting 152 decibels, which is painfully loud and difficult to shoot in. It made the days extra-long and exhausting.

I passed on my concerns about this to my sound mixer, Mark Sheret, who recorded a wonderfully sensitive series of engine-noise tracks.

Are you pleased with the result? Would you like to do a follow-up?

I like the documentary format very much. My normal assignments are traditional commercials (scripts, actors, art directors, etc.). This was fun because I had to discover where the interesting bits were and not plan too much for them. I never said "back to one." No "take two." If I missed it, I couldn't re-stage it. Relinquishing control was at first difficult for me as a director. We were shooting a real championship and whatever happened was the way it was going to be. So we were at the mercy of reality. It's harrowing in one sense but very freeing in another. It sharpens your awareness skills. I'd love to do more of these.

We were also lucky enough to ask Lenny Mesina, editor on the film, for his insights.


How did you get involved in the project?

I was just coming off of a commercial project with Green Dot Films, so I think an organic connection had been made based on the work we had finished at Therapy Studios along with the strength of the documentaries I had previously edited ("Beautiful Losers", "Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest").

Documentaries typically have a huge amount of film to cut down. How much were you presented with for this job?

Yes, as a doc editor I've always had massive amounts of footage to work with and this project was no different! We were given 25 hours of beautiful RED Dragon variable frame rate footage shot over the course of 4 days at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona.

How did you start the cut? What were the elements you were trying to bring to the fore?

Fortunately, Brent and I were on the same page from the moment we first discussed the project: we wanted to present a fresh and emotional look at the NHRA that would compliment the action-packed beauty of these "Fire Breathing Monsters". The imagery was always going to speak for itself and look amazing in any capacity so I knew we really had to focus on the drivers' interviews and mine those compelling personal and human stories that would keep the piece grounded emotionally. I believe that content is always king and fortunately, again, I was working with other sets of talented eyes, ears and hands courtesy of editor Wes Lipman and my assistant Zaldy Lopez as they initially concentrated on selecting the best visuals while I laid the groundwork for our story.

The drivers are real characters. Did they really speak in such snappy soundbites, or did you have to cut around the interviews?

We were lucky that these drivers were the ultimate press pros and had been around the block, so to speak, so they knew exactly what to say and how to say it. That being said, just like any other documentary film, we still had to piece together their interviews and soundbites to get our ideas across in a cohesive manner.

The pacing of the film builds towards a pretty uplifting crescendo (especially when coupled with the sound effects and music). Is that important when constructing what is, effectively, a love letter to the sport?

Most definitely! For a piece like this, pacing is hugely important. We essentially broke the piece up into three distinct segments: a personal introduction to the sport; the drama and danger of the competition; and an emotional, heart-felt outro. We felt that the way these storylines played off each other, in conjunction with the build of the composed score, would culminate in a complete and rewarding story for the audience.

How was it cutting to a 7 minute timeframe – not quite ad-length but also much shorter than most broadcast docs? Was there a stipulation on the time when you started on the project, or was it just however long it took to tell the story?

Initially there were talks of the film being anywhere from five to 15 minutes long, but Brent and I had always felt that the piece should be what it was going to be. We weren't tied down to any specific number as long as the piece felt right and it just happened to hit lucky number seven!

What's up next for you?

The last documentary I edited is "Manny", the inspiring story of boxer Manny Pacquiao and his rise from abject poverty to world champion narrated by Liam Neeson and directed by Leon Gast ("When We Were Kings") and Ryan Moore. "Manny" is now making the festival rounds with a theatrical release date possibly this Fall.

I'm currently editing episodes of the Dave Grohl/Foo Fighters HBO docuseries called "Sonic Highways", which is Dave's follow up to his doc "Sound City" and follows the Foo Fighters as they record their latest album in renowned recording studios across the country inspired by the musical icons that Dave interviews along the way. I've been cutting since March with my fellow Therapy Studios editors for a debut on HBO this Fall.