HomeBreeders' MagazineHorsefly Films: Creating On-screen Arabian Magic

Horsefly Films: Creating On-screen Arabian Magic

Once you have seen a Horsefly Film, it stays with you for a lifetime. Already creating waves around the Arabian horse world, Horsefly Films cemented its place in history when, in August 2009, their film of Pianissima’s filly, Pia, premiered at Arabian Horse Days as part of the Pride of Poland Sale. The response to the film was instant – people moved beyond words and the essence of the Arabian truly captured in cinematic artistry. Read on to find out more about the women behind Horsefly Films and their deep-rooted love for everything Arabian.

Sophie at Michalow
Sophie at Michalów. Credit Jen Miller

The Horsefly Films partnership passionately believes that the Arabian horse deserves to be captured in the most cinematic and glorious way possible. By creating some of the most well-regarded, moving and beautiful films in the Arabian horse industry, they have made stunning equine filmmaking their sole mission.

“They” is Jen Miller and Sophie Pegrum. Although Horsefly Films has been in existence for less than three years, the seeds of the company have deep roots in both of their lives, going back to the time when these highly-approachable and friendly women were just girls. Horsefly Films might not have come to be had it not been for an extraordinary twist of fate that brought Jen and Sophie together 12 years ago – cue bolts of thunder and sweeping orchestral music, they laugh. While both forging different creative paths in the film industry, they met and tapped into a magical creative fusion, their talent and mutual passion for great filmmaking allowing the two to collaborate on many projects. It was during these countless creative hours spent working together and supporting each other’s individual film projects that the two realised film was not their only binding passion – they also had a lifelong love for horses.

Jen and Sophie at Janow
Jen and Sophie at Janów. Credit Jen Miller

As a girl, Jen grew up with Arabians in the wildest stretches of the Rocky Mountains in the USA. In her own words, Jen says that living where the high altitude instructions on the cake mixes had to be adhered to meant that, with her sister, she made her own fun, often centred around their Arabian horses, riding them down to the remote, pristine Blue River or anxiously awaiting the monthly arrival of the Arabian Horse World magazine. Together, they poured over the photographs of famous Arabians and, being enterprising children, they wrote fan letters to all of their favourites including Fadjur, Bay Abi, Bay el Bey, Khemosabi, Alladdinn, Elkin and Elkana, papering their bedroom walls with posters of the greats. Jen studied bloodlines and easily memorised pedigrees: “I finally figured out about 15 years ago that I have a photographic memory, which is incredibly helpful when dealing with pedigrees,” she smiles. “I just somehow retain the knowledge instantaneously.”

Sophie’s childhood was decidedly different, growing up in Bristol, England. Her first experience with horses was when her grandfather took her for riding lessons at the local pony club, where Sophie proved far too wild for the stodgy club set, instead enjoying galloping her horse with the wind in their hair. “Control your pony!” they admonished her on a regular basis. Although Sophie dreamed of having her own horse, it was not to be until she moved to the US many years later. “I found my spirited way back to horses by taking a trail ride with my brother one Christmas Eve up in the Malibu Mountains,” she recalls. “I had not been on horseback for over 10 years and the experience moved me tremendously.” Having realised just how important horses were to her life, Sophie volunteered to spend two summers as a trail guide until she was finally able to have a horse of her own. Several years ago, Sophie had the chance to film the famous and extremely rare Marwari horses of Rajasthan India, creating a unique opportunity to see – and ride – these incredible horses close up. “As a child, I was fascinated by the opening of the Black Beauty television series, which had shots of horses galloping hard across the countryside,” says Sophie. “It was as close as I could get to having my own.”

Jen and Sophie at Michalow
Jen and Sophie at Michalów

Flash-forward a few years to Hollywood: both Jen and Sophie were wearing any and all hats that anyone offered, honing their more than able filmmaking skills at every turn as producers, directors, writers and editors. Jen’s first film job was working on the highly-decorated film Forrest Gump. From there, she moved into producing, writing and directing. Ever-capable, Jen was also a music supervisor and producer, putting together the soundtracks for several feature films while her screenplays were optioned by major studios.

Meanwhile, Sophie moved to Los Angeles from England to pursue her career as an independent filmmaker, quickly making inroads as a rising talent. She wrote, directed and edited the critically-acclaimed feature Dogstar. Thereafter, she continued as a commercial editor and producer, worked on independent documentary subjects and film-writing projects. With the encouragement of other do-it-yourself renegade filmmakers, Sophie also began shooting her own subjects as a digital videographer.

When they had time, Jen and Sophie began attending horse shows together. Seeing the stellar quality of the still photography used to promote horses only served to emphasise the video promotions that they saw, which were mostly done as an afterthought. With their natural love for Arabians as a creature of mythical movement, they felt that horses deserved to be captured in a more cinematic way.

Jen and Audacious PS
Jen and Audacious PS. Credit April Visel

“Growing up in the Arabian world with the likes of legendary image-makers Johnny Johnston, Jerry Sparagowski up through today with Stuart Vesty, April Visel and the like, I knew that still photography was widely and rightfully revered, but the moving image was a red-headed stepchild,” Jen says. “This was especially damaged with the advent of cheap, handheld video cameras.” Sophie agrees: “The moving image that truly captures the living, breathing power that we all feel in the presence of a great horse was totally missing in our view.” Jen elaborates further: “We always talk about creating images that make your heart splash in your chest and that’s exactly the feeling we try to create every time we film a horse, because that’s the magic feeling we all have when we see a truly brilliant horse.” They both smile and add, in unison: “It’s larger than life.”

Jen and Sophie had an idea that they could be the pair to change the face of equine filmmaking, but life interceded. Sophie embarked on a lifelong dream come true, going on an expedition to the Antarctic and the North Pole as a member of the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Writers and Artists Program, creating a stunning documentary feature film, 77 Below. Meanwhile, for Jen the adventure was far more domestic – she married a horseman and had a son. With the grains already sown, Horsefly Films would have to wait just a little longer.

2007 was the year when the pace began to quick: Sophie returned from her polar adventures and Jen realised that raising a son in Los Angeles was not something she wanted to do, moving instead to Ojai, California, about an hour south of Santa Barbara. Having completed one big Hollywood chapter of their lives, Jen and Sophie decided that the time might be right for Horsefly Films to finally take shape. They had already met their good friend, equine photographer April Visel, through Jen’s husband who was head trainer at a ranch April frequently shot for. One day April called Jen up and asked if she and Sophie wanted to come along and film a few minutes of footage at Gallún Farms. The occasion was a photo shoot for National Champion Strike (Aladdinn x Gwyndalyn), to commemorate his 1985 win for the final year of US Nationals in Albuquerque. Jen almost dropped the telephone. “April said, ‘ I think we’re shooting an old horse named Strike’ and I went gaga, saying ‘Strike? Strike? THE Strike? I used to write fan letters to his sire!’” Sophie and Jen went to the farm with April and filmed in the last five minutes of daylight in the barn over April’s shoulder.

Sophie recalls: “I remember Greg was laying on the ground in front of the stall door, just handing carrots to Strike and his donkey companion, Jackson. There was barely any light left in the barn and Jen used a big reflector to bring in the last of the golden light. It worked like magic and we went home and edited the piece as a gift for Nancy and Greg. Nancy gave us some old 16mm footage taken in 1985 and we used some of that as well to create the final piece.”

Jen continues: “The day after we mailed the dvd to them, Nancy called me and she was crying, saying she had watched it 20 times and had cried every time. That was the greatest compliment she could have ever given us because the truth is, we cry every time we watch it too.”

Jen on a shoot. Credit Horsefly Films

At the US Nationals that year, Greg asked Jen and Sophie if they were ready to do some bigger projects and they jumped at the chance, not knowing exactly what he had in store. In early November, they got the call to film QR Marc (Marwan Al Shaqab x Swete Dreams), who had just been sold to Belgium. The two flew to Florida and filmed for three days with Greg and John Rannenburg before flying home and editing like mad to unveil the piece a few days later for the World Championships in Paris. “We went all out,” Jen remembers. “It has become a watershed moment for Horsefly Films because it was the first piece we did that anyone saw and it couldn’t have been on a bigger horse.”

“We went for something completely different, something that we would want to see and experience and it kind of blew people’s minds,” continues Sophie. “We weren’t trying to be ‘revolutionary’ because, by our standards, we weren’t, but we realised pretty quickly that we were precisely that to the Arabian world.”

“I remember in our final editing, we just kept pushing the envelope and I said to Soph, ‘let’s Bruckheimer the hell out of it’,” Jen laughs, referring to Hollywood blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “So we just went for it with lots of fast cutting and some intense sound design. Greg and Nancy were totally supportive and told us we’d knocked it out of the park.

“The morning the video hit in Paris, we both woke up to hundreds of e-mails from around the world. People kind of went nuts over that video because it was something totally new.”

“We knew then that we were really onto something, but to be honest, we also knew we were being viewed as too ‘out there’ for some people and that was okay with us. We looked at it as ‘hey we’re turning the page here and if you want to join us, that’s great!’” Sophie admits. “We really wanted not only just to ‘show’ the horse on film, but for the film itself to reflect back some of the intensity, power and magnetism of the incredible QR Marc, for it to stylistically mirror his character, rather than just being a record of him moving from a to b. A lot of that design comes in the editing room. The process is much more than just pointing a camera in the right direction.”

Jen agrees: “The proof is in the pudding really because here we are now, a couple years later, and a lot of those same people that were sort of shocked are now our biggest clients and supporters. They understand that we alter our style to suit the horse and the subject.

“We have also seen some knockoffs of our style out there, which is really the most sincere form of flattery. Anything that can get everyone to elevate their game and make filmmaking an important and well-respected part of image-making in the Arabian business is terrific!”

From these beginnings Horsefly Films quickly racked up some of the greatest horses of today including Major Jamaal, Eden C, Bey Ambition, Brixx, Marjestic, Justify, *El Nabila B and *Ecaho. It is difficult for them to pinpoint any one horse as a favourite. “Each horse is so different and we feel very, very lucky to get to spend time with each of them and really see their personalities come to life and then translate that into breathtaking moving images,” Jen says. “Just like actors, they all require very different kinds of coaching to bring out the best, and that is also something we’ve become really good at!”

“We really strive each and every time out to push the envelope and we absolutely are sticklers about the technical details,” continues Sophie. “We shoot in a way that gives the final result a film-look rather than video, so even though we are shooting on digital video cameras, the product looks and feels like a motion picture film, which is one reason why people connect so personally with what we put out there. Often, people don’t know exactly why they feel differently when they watch our work, they just know they are moved. And that is all part of the Horsefly magic”.

Jen elaborates, adding: “We say that we are the Tiffany’s box and certainly we strive to be better than anyone else, but it is also that anticipation, literally of what treasure is inside the box for everyone each time – what are those Horsefly girls going to do next? It keeps us inspired and it keeps our clients happy. We’re even seeing many of our clients use our name specifically in their ad campaigns – ‘World Premiere Video by Horsefly Films’ – which builds excitement. It is amazing to have that kind of cache. We just keep on capturing that emotional kind of heart-splashing magic that these horses have and people really feel it. It is really fulfilling to know that people are getting and enjoying what we do.”

Although they fall in love with many of the horses that they film, there are a few special memories. Jen recalls one: “We were filming the great *Ecaho (Pepton x Etruria) and man, he can just turn it on! He is a real star. I think we can say pretty emphatically that he is one of the most charismatic stallions ever. We took him up to a ridge in Santa Ynez, which is actually fenced but because of the slope, you can’t see any fencing. It was freezing cold and it was the last shoot on the last day, so everyone was pretty tired and some of the helpers were over it. We let *Ecaho go and he ran across the ridge – and I swear he grew wings and flew. It was breathtaking and when we stopped filming and approached the grooms, one of them was wiping the tears from his face. Here was this macho guy, but he just seen something transformative and he knew it. That’s exactly the feeling we try and give people with every film. These horses are so magnificent.” Sophie adds: “I finally felt we’d captured something that rivalled the emotion I felt as a child watching the magical opening of Black Beauty.”

Jen and Sophie with Ecaho
Jen, Sophie and April with Ecaho. Credit April Visel

Jen and Sophie’s success went up to another stratosphere last year [2009] when they were chosen to create the first-ever video catalogue for the illustrious Pride of Poland sale. “I’d been dreaming of going to the Polish studs since I was a little girl, being raised on the legends of Ofir and his sons and of Bask and Naborr coming over in the belly of the ship,” recounts Jen. “It was truly an honour and a journey back in time to one of my dearest childhood wishes. Everywhere we turned and pointed a camera was a beauty and history that overwhelmed us.”

“To be able to create the very first video catalogue of these amazing Polish horses was an unbelievable thrill,” Sophie agrees. Sometimes, this was too much of a thrill such as the occasion when 400 Michalów mares were turned loose to run down the famed chestnut and linden tree alley to their pastures. “The grooms were all really nervous about us setting up right in the middle of the road and aiming a giant herd of thundering mares straight at us,” Sophie smiles. “They kept yelling for us to move – now! Now! Now! But we didn’t want to miss one frame – it is such heart-pounding stuff – that to duck out early would have felt like a cheat. We hung in there until the last possible second and then whisked ourselves and our gear to the side as they all galloped past. Exhilarating! We will climb on roofs, lie in the dirt, hang on fences and on top of tractors to get good shots and sometimes, doing these things can make all the difference.”

Jen and Sophie returned home from Poland and worked tirelessly in their two editing rooms for 10 days straight, 18 hours a day, to complete the catalogue on time; they were incredibly pleased to finish before the print catalogue was even ready. Two weeks before the sale, they got a call to film Pianissima and her new Ganges filly Pia; a tease for the famous Lot 0, Pianissima’s embryo rights for 2010.

And so Horsefly went back to where it all started, to Greg and Nancy Gallún’s, on a warm summer afternoon. The constraints on the shoot made creating the visual they so sought a little more difficult as the filly was still too young to turn out loose, so they simply captured Greg walking “Penny” in-hand with Pia bouncing alongside. “It doesn’t take much for Penny to inspire awe, she looks magnificent just standing there,” Jen comments. Both women still laugh about the other constraint: Greg’s shorts. “It is hard to shoot around a person doing stuff in-hand, but Greg declined a suggestion to put on long trousers so we cut around it in the editing room. But we made sure to razz him a bit about it in Poland!” laughs Sophie.

The results of the Pia film were simply stunning. When the film played for the first time in Poland at the auction, people wept openly. I personally will never forget the silence that filled the room as the first stirs of the music sprang out, followed by Pia gracefully filling the screen. Such was the beauty of the film and awe of the moment, I do not recall a single dry eye to be seen anywhere, something Jen confirms: “Grown men weeping and people were filming the big screen with their iphones to try and capture the moment. It was amazing and it was all Penny.” Sophie reinforces the sentiment: “It is a moment we will never forget.”

Jen and Sophie with Piaff
Jen and Sophie with Piaff

The video catalogue itself was such a rousing success that the two are heading back to eastern Europe once more this year to do it all again. “We can’t wait to get back to Poland!” says Jen. “We have been made so welcome there and we feel so at home. And plus, of course, the horses are a joy.” This year promises to be an even bigger prize for the two filmmakers: “We have been asked to film the reference sires and some of the mare families, so naturally we are chomping at the bit to get there!” Sophie adds excitedly. One can already feel their creative wheels turning and you just know that this catalogue will, yet again, be another step ahead in the visual Arabian world.

“We have been blessed to film some of the greatest horses in the breed,” reveals Jen. “From legends to up-and-comers, every experience adds to our inspiration to keep on pushing the video medium into the realm of cinematic splendor. The people we meet along the way have mostly all become wonderful friends, so it is enriching on so many levels.”

Although Arabians make up the bulk of their clients and are absolutely their first-love, Horsefly films many other breeds as well. They recently began filming a long-awaited video series with seven-time World Champion Reined Cowhorse legend Ted Robinson. “Ted is so much fun to work with because he makes it all look so easy and he is a brilliant and charming horseman,” says Sophie. “But it is also such a radical departure from the mostly Arabian work we do.” “Filming such big action is fun and exciting and changing it up keeps our eye and our ideas fresh,” adds Jen. They both agree that the goal is always the same – to capture incredibly moving footage, regardless of breed or discipline.

With so many amazing moments already captured through their lenses, what is on Horsefly Films’ wish list? Sophie begins, saying: “We would love to film Gazal Al Shaqab and Marwan Al Shaqab, capturing them in a way no one else has. “Absolutely!” agrees Jen. “They are the kings. But we have also never stopped dreaming of getting Enzo.” That wish was further fuelled by their recent encounter with the great stallion in Scottsdale.

Credit Horsefly Films

“Brent and Phillip were kind enough to invite us to Enzo’s party and when he came out after Greg’s stirring speech, snorting and dancing and just being ‘Zo’, it was breathtaking just to be standing on the same ground as this wonderful stallion,” says Sophie.

Jen continues: “It was an incredibly special moment in time and one that I will never forget. Although we have amazing moments with wonderful horses on a regular basis, I hadn’t had that magical feeling of that magnitude since I was eight years old and got to meet the one and only fabulous Fadjur.”

Both are quick to add that they desperately want to film in the Middle East. “To capture images of desert horses in that environment would be a wonderful gift,” Sophie says. They might get there sooner than later as their far-flung journeys begin to fill the calendar: filming for two weeks in Australia this March before returning to Poland in May plus lots of filming around the United States.

The Horsefly Films adventure continues to grow and it comes as no surprise that both Jen and Sophie have always had a few other creative irons in the fire behind the scenes. As an accomplished painter, Sophie shows in group and solo gallery exhibitions throughout California. Always the storyteller, Jen has just published her first novel, Billy Bones. But equally unsurprising is that, in spite of having so much on their plates, Horsefly Films is also working on a feature documentary on the Polish Arabian horse and its worldwide influence. They hope to have the film completed by Polish Nationals in August. “Going to Poland twice last year and having the privilege of filming the ongoing legacy was when we realized that we wanted to tell their story on a much grander scale,” they explain. “We are hunting down archival footage and photographs to include in the film so that we can really tell the story with all that detail that it deserves.”

Path to Glory would be the iconic film Jen and Sophie would make

It goes without saying that the finished product will be liberally sprinkled with their trademark Horsefly Films magic, perhaps inspiring a young girl to greatness in the same way that Black Beauty did with Sophie. I know we are all holding our collective breath until the next Horsefly Film is unveiled to the world.

First printed in The Arabian Magazine, March 2010



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