Danny MacAskill reveals the inside story of Postcard from San Francisco
Scottish trials biking legend Danny MacAskill heads back to the streets for his new riding project. Here, he explains how he performed some of the key tricks in the Golden City.
Postcard from San Francisco has been a true passion project.
Since making my first street film, Inspired Bicycles, way back in 2009, I've focused on different conceptual videos. This time I wanted to revisit making a proper street film.
I knew it was going to be tough, because crashing onto concrete isn't very pleasant. Some of the lines took over 300 goes to land. And also, I broke a kneecap in-between shoots, but it was really cool to finally push through and get the project done. I'm really happy with the outcome.
Watch the full Postcard from San Francisco in the player at the top of the page and then scroll down to read about how Danny MacAskill went about approaching tricks used in the edit.
No matter what street you're on, or which way you look, you know you're in San Francisco
It's my second attempt at making this film
I first started thinking about doing another street trials video back in 2017 as I hadn’t made a proper one since that first Inspired Bicycles film in 2009. Of all the different types of films, street riding has been pushed the most – whether that’s BMX, skateboarding, mountain bike or trials – and has had decades of progression, so it’s a hard genre to go after. I’ve realised it’s much easier to go and look for the holes and paths that haven’t been as well trodden. But in 2017, I thought, ‘I’m 32, my body’s feeling good, let’s go and do a nice progressive street film’.
In America, they've seen plenty of skateboarding and BMX through things like X Games, but street trials is still relatively small. You have riders like Hans Rey that have pushed it over the years, but I thought it'd be quite cool to do something people hadn't seen as much of over there.
My team and I scouted San Francisco like it was a level of Grand Theft Auto – I feel like I've been down every street and looked around every building
I chose San Francisco because it’s such an iconic backdrop for a film. No matter what street you’re on or which way you look, you know you’re in San Francisco – whether it’s the steep hills, the colourful terrace houses, or the amazing views of the two bridges and Alcatraz. I thought it would be a perfect place to make a cool-looking film.
My team and I scouted San Francisco like it was a level of Grand Theft Auto – I feel like I've been down every street and looked around every building. It's important to spend a lot of time scouting the project before starting to film though. You find the best locations, make a list and then try to have them cleared because we have to work with permissions in the city; it's a difficult thing, to persuade people that you want to jump off their building or ride outside their premises.
It’s a difficult thing, to persuade people that you want to jump off their building
We had an amazing film lined up with most of my dream locations, and then on the second day of filming in September 2017, we were at an iconic skate spot called Third and Army. I got a bit ambitious trying to do a tyre tap 180 on some rails at the far end of the plaza, and unfortunately, I had a crash. I broke my kneecap, but I was more concerned that I had loosened a few of my front teeth. That put a stop to the project, and even to this day, I'm still not completely over it.
San Francisco got put on the back burner. I had a few other plans, like Danny’s Gymnasium, but then post-Covid, I thought it would be cool to try and get some redemption on the project. We had all the spots scouted. We had the difficult task of having to re-clear some locations, but I felt ready to do another street film.
The video opens with what I call a back wheel bump front flip. I've always been quite envious of sports like parkour, where they're able just to flip and spin without a ramp or any height. I tried to work out what was the smallest distance or height that I could do a flip with. I had dreamed about doing some kind of flip into one of the steep streets of San Francisco – the streets are really steep, but not steep enough to be able to do one naturally. We scouted so hard to find a curb that was naturally in place, but we ended up having to make a flowerbed of our own so that I could use it as a bump for the back wheel.
You pull up the front wheel, missing the ledge, and you have to hit the back wheel just as you're about to throw your weight over the handlebars. It gives you a boost of energy that allows you to front flip down a small drop
It was a scary one to try because if you miss the bump when you’re going for it, you basically front flip onto your head. Alternatively, if you hit it too hard, then your feet come off the pedals and you land on your back.
Landing on a descent was also something I’m unused to – I'm more comfortable with flat landings because when you crash, you just land where you are. I tried it about 20 times onto mats and then took the mats away and landed it first go. Getting over the mental side of knowing how bad the crashes are is the hardest aspect, but by transitioning from the mats to landing the trick, I managed to get it done without the fear building.
I do tricks by the book...
I like to use a notepad to visualise and plan the tricks I want to do. I have a list of tricks that I write down in a book and illustrate with little stick men doing various flips and spins. It helps when scouting locations because we can then go and try to find spots to suit the tricks.
One of these was the balance line along the tennis net. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try as I feel like it’s something people can relate to. It had to be quite a specific set-up though. We had to modify the net slightly, widening the wire from the standard 5mm to 8mm so that it could take my weight. The poles also needed to be in a certain configuration so that I didn’t damage them.
I had the exact same net set-up at a warehouse back in Inverness and had spent the winter practising. I had all my own time to try it with no pressure, and in days of attempts, I actually only made it across once, so I wasn’t feeling particularly confident that I was going to be able to do it in San Francisco.
In total, it took me about two days of attempts and around 400 goes to get across the net
In total, it took me about two days of attempts and around 400 goes to get across the net. The most difficult part isn't necessarily riding along the thin wire – it’s the fact that the wire's got material on top and that material spins as you ride along it, dragging your tyres off. You feel like you're just rolling the dice whether the tyres are going to stay on or not.
Personally, it was the most difficult trick in the film and I was pretty pleased that it worked. It was one of those out-there ideas and I had no idea whether or not I was going to make it.
The double drop down onto China Beach was another line that had been heavily scouted and had this really cool vista back to the Golden Gate Bridge. Back in 2017, I planned to jump down onto a rock, but when we returned, some wooden structure had broken and left this sketchy, concrete ledge. Old, slightly crumbling reinforced concrete is one of my favourite things to ride in the world, so it had to be included. Originally, I had aspirations of trying to front flip off the second drop onto the beach, but in practise in winter, I realised it wasn't going to be on, so I planned to ride it straight, which ended up pretty damn scary.
The first ledge was about 10 feet in the air and only six inches wide of disintegrating concrete
To land the Beach Drop, I had to start balancing, hop on the back wheel, and then drop about seven feet [2.1m] onto a wall that itself is only six inches [15cm] wide. If I was to fall backward, the fall was about four feet [1.2m] . If I was to fall forward, the drop to the beach was around 16 feet [4.9m], and I’d also go head-first into the landing that I’d fashioned out of a bunch of driftwood.
Normally, I do most things on my feet first. I don't do parkour, necessarily, but I have to be quite comfortable on my feet to then do it on the bike. I did jump down it on my feet eventually, but it was on the limit of what I was comfortable doing.
Mentally, it was difficult to commit to. I would be hanging around on top of the structure, trying to get the courage to do it, bottle it, and then would get up to the top again and try it. It was really hard not to imagine going over the handlebars, because I wasn't 100 percent confident that I wasn't going to drop the front wheel.
The first drop was disgusting
Eventually, I managed to give it a go, and on my first try, my back brake slipped, but luckily I fell backwards. On the second time, I landed the back wheel and balanced but had to put my feet down on the wall. On the third go, I managed to do it. The second drop was a little bit of an anticlimax for me personally, but the first drop was definitely disgusting.
I was against the clock on the Rock
The coolest place that I got to film was definitely Alcatraz. I knew I was getting very special permission to be able to shoot on the bicycle in places like the rec yard, which has these famous steps that the inmates used to sit on.
It's such an iconic location, but you have all sorts of different emotions there. In some ways, it feels like a Hollywood set, but when you think that it used to be a prison, it's got quite a sinister feel to it. I couldn't help but put myself in some of the inmate's shoes who'd been stuck out there. But then there's another part of me that felt a little bit like Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz or Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage in The Rock.
The final front flip off of the steps at Alcatraz stands out as the biggest trick of the film, and it definitely had all the trials and tribulations of landing a banger
In general, this project was pretty challenging because of having to get filming permits that normally lasted about four hours – although that seems like a long time trying one trick, for me, that’s quite a short window. At Alcatraz, we had to be up at 4:30am to get a boat across to the island an hour later and then get the tricks filmed before the first tourist boat arrived at 9am. It wasn’t the easiest trying to get motivated to do the biggest riding at that time in the morning, but getting to be in that location was enough to push me.
The final front flip off of the steps at Alcatraz stands out as the biggest trick of the film, and it definitely had all the trials and tribulations of landing a banger. Originally, I planned to 360 off a certain step, but on the day, it was way too windy, and I couldn't get my brain to do it – I felt like I was going to clip the bottom step and hurt myself.
We managed to get another permit to go back, and I changed the trick to a front flip because I felt a bit more proficient at them. Unfortunately, during my attempts, I had a rear wheel explode on landing, which was the first time I've ever broken up one of my wheels on my trials bike; I was quite surprised, but it was a big impact. I got up, brushed myself off, put a new back wheel on, tried it again, under-rotated, and looped onto my back.
It wasn’t that painful, but it was a bit annoying. I noticed that I’d actually cracked another rim because I kept under-rotating – all of the force of the landing was going down on that rear wheel, and it was mainly my spokes failing that was the biggest problem. We didn’t have another spare wheel, so we had to give it up.
I thought that was maybe the end because that was two lots of permits we had to clear. But we decided that it was going to be the last trick of the film, so I managed to get to San Francisco during the summer for one last trip.
I was down to my last wheel, it was exactly nine o'clock and the tourist boat had arrived. We had to get out and the wardens were all waiting. I had already broken three wheels at this stage, but decided to give it one last go, not expecting much
The first time I tried it again, I actually ended up blowing up another wheel. The step was a little bit too low for me to rotate properly, but any higher, and I felt I might not be able to hold onto the bike on landing. I kept on slightly under-rotating, snapping spokes and the wheel just failed once the spokes went.
I was down to my last wheel, it was exactly nine o'clock, and the tourist boat had arrived. We had to get out, and the wardens were all waiting. I'd already broken three wheels at this stage, but decided to give it one last go, not expecting much. But I somehow rotated that little bit extra, landed the bike, and held it up. I rolled away, and it was such a nice feeling getting that one in the bag and felt like a fitting end to my San Francisco street edit.
Go behind the scenes with Danny in San Francisco and see how he nailed the edit of his dreams.
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