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Half a century of climbing comes to life in Sender Films’ ‘Valley Uprising’ 

No question, the overarching goal of telling the history of climbing in the Yosemite Valley in a single film must have been daunting. This year, Sender Films is using the Reel Rock Film Tour, with its round-the-world schedule that includes hundreds of stops, to showcase the feature-length documentary Valley Uprising: Yosemite’s Rock Climbing Revolution, which aims to do just that. The film tells the story of how climbing began answering the call for a generation of people in the 1950s looking for a life more interesting than one set in the security and tidiness of post-war American suburbs and how climbing continues to be a mecca for dirtbags on the fringe. But then scale down to the details of getting the task done, and it meant finding a way to take half a century of climbing photos and give them not just the breath of life but the adrenalin to sate audiences accustomed to actionpacked shots of climbers pushing the edge of their sport.  The task would call for more innovative work than panning over or zooming in and out on pretty pictures.

So Sender Films’ Pete Mortimer and Nick Rosen called on Montana-based motion graphics artist Barry Thompson to use all of his talents and unique skill set for motion design on the project. Thompson has worked with them for eight years, often on credits and title sequences and occasionally dressing up a shot inside a film. Without him, they say, the film might never have come to be.

“We really wanted to choose these specific time periods where we could drop you in and where we had the footage and the photos and these amazing dramas were taking place, so really the whole conception of the film started with Barry and with the ability to take these old sort of static images and almost put you inside of that,” Mortimer says. “I think where Barry’s stuff is the strongest is in the 1960s, because we have these beautiful photos from Glen Denny and the great story between Robbins and Harding — Robbins the visionary and the ethicist and Harding the iconoclast and rebel. I think what we’re hoping happens is you’re watching this story unfold and you’re just in it like it’s happening right now. … It wasn’t like an afterthought of the film or like, ‘OK, we want to do this or what can we do that’s cool,’ it was really part of the conception of the film.”

“Pete said, ‘I want the audience to feel like they’re on the rock, but all I’ve got are these old photos. How can I give them vertigo? How can I give them the expansiveness of Yosemite? How can I give them the feeling of being a rock climber in the ’60s, ’70s — there’s drugs being done and fights and people soloing and dying,” Thompson says. “So we really tried to use the different techniques of separating photos, moving photos with syncopation to the music, getting energy that way.”

Using computer programs Photoshop and After Effects, Thompson separates an image into something between three and 15 layers, cuts them up and repaints in behind them, filling in the gaps created on a rock face or a forest, so he can essentially move the camera’s eye through the image. “The more layers that you get in the photo, the more fun it is to look at,” he says.

“If you’re moving through a forest, you’ll cut it up and you’ll bring in more trees. So what I do is I start with a base photo, let’s say climbers on a boulder, and I’d cut up and separate the rock, so I’ve got the rock and that plane of reality, and then what’s next is a rock on the ground, so I’ll cut up that layer, and whenever you cut up a layer you have to repaint what’s behind it, so it’s a whole process of taking something out and then repainting behind it. … Then I add other elements that might be in the scene like dust or any pollen in the air, sunbeams. Then I’ll add depth of field to the shot.”

There were even occasions when the Sender team went back to Yosemite and shot the areas around the historic photos they wanted to use to add in those backgrounds. The result is that the still faces of climbers in decades-old photographs appear with clouds drifting behind them, or the view swings around a climber ascending a pinnacle — the climber caught mid-reach, the forest and sky moving around him.

“It’s kind of like two-and-a-half-D, because you’re not fully working in three dimensions,” Thompson says.

Three shots in the film get even more advanced work that involved working with camera mapping and a 3-D artist who sculpted the rock itself. One treated to that more intensive, and expensive, motions work shows John Bachar on a boulder, and the camera seems to approach him, creeping over the rock toward him while sunlight shifts through the pine trees behind him and chalk dust rises from his fingers.

“When you’re watching anything in cinema, it usually has movement from whatever they’re shooting plus the camera plus the way the film works — the way the film runs through the camera — and digital loses that natural, subtle jumpiness, there’s this, the fluidity I guess. I also try to bring that back into my scenes, so I add that back into my shots. It’s really a subtle effect, but it gives it something, it gives it more life, it doesn’t feel like a dead photo moving at you,” Thompson says. “And we bring in true cinematic grain on top of these images.”

Thompson, founder of Barndance, a creative motion design studio that produces visual designs for videos, independent films and documentaries, also worked on First Ascent, the six-part television series produced by Sender Films and sponsored by National Geographic Channels International, as well as the award-winning film I Am (2011) directed by Tom Shadyac and Red Gold (2007) directed by Travis Rummel and Ben Knight. He’s received awards from the Banff Film Festival, International Mountaineering Film Festival, Graz International Film Festival and Telluride Mountain Film Festival.

For previous films, like last year’s “High Tension” on the dispute between climbers and sherpas at Mount Everest, his work with motion design allowed them to move among newspaper articles and to choose colors and elements that built an atmosphere of confusion and stress through the use of contrasts, high saturation colors and flashes.

Thompson applied the same sense of aesthetics to Valley Uprising, adjusting the color tint and saturation to give viewers a sense of visual difference between one era and the next.

“There’s magic in these stills, but we didn’t want to do the — no offense to Ken Burns —but the Ken Burns effect,” Rosen says. “We didn’t want to let still images slow this film down. We wanted to be kind of punk rock and dynamic and express the movement and color and dynamism that our films cultivate.”

Rosen and Mortimer selected the images to use and essentially storyboarded using historic photographs collected from climbing photographers including the famed Glenn Denny, as well as Yosemite park staff — a particularly useful trove when it came to illustrating the conflicts between park rangers and “outlaw” climbers.

“For me, it’s just like, it’s life, it’s pixie dust, it’s this magic wand that he waves and all the sudden the people in the frame are coming alive. It’s really cool,” Rosen says.

Some of the photos and reel-to-reel tapes even showed up in cardboard boxes in garages.

“An editor like Pete or Nick would start putting together a sequence for me and so, because they know the story so well, they’re close to it, that they’ll just go, ‘shot shot shot shot in a row’ and then they’ll hand it to me, but it’ll be super rough. Then they’ll say, ‘We don’t know if the edit is how we want it, but just go with it.’ I’ll sit down and listen to the narration, then start fine-tuning their work and start moving the photos to give them life.”

The main inspiration, Thompson says, was Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys film on skateboarding and surf trends from the 1970s in California, a style Thompson describes as like slamming photos in, almost punk style.

The story itself isn’t an unbroken narrative of everything at Yosemite. It focuses instead on a few key decades and highlights those revolutionary times and the, as Mortimer says, perfect storm of characters and societal change at that time — the first climbers of the 1950s, the Stonemasters of the 1960s and ’70s, and now. The Robbins and Harding rivalry moved to Jim Bridwell and John Bachar in the ’70s, and now, in some ways, to Dean Potter and Alex Honnold. The film is a chance to see the accomplishments of this last pair, who any Reel Rock fan has gotten to know through previous Reel Rock seasons, in a historical perspective.

“Basically we had sort of an ambitious storytelling agenda with this film because we’re trying to do a few things, make a film that does justice to this legendary, 50-year history of Yosemite climbing and really that is where the evolution of climbing has happened in the United States, walls that were bigger than 2,000, 3,000 feet, the first serious crack climbing, first serious free climbing,” Rosen says. “So we’re focusing on this evolution of climbing, and we’re focusing on the intermeshing tensions between the climbers that existed, the one-upmanship and rivalry, the kind of competition that drove the sport forward for decades and really inspired that evolution, and then we have kind of this, I guess you could call it like a subplot but it’s really a big theme, which is that this is a sport that was really born out of and grew into the American counter culture.”

And as to changing up the format, anyone who’s been watching the Reel Rock film tour since the beginning will notice that this is a return to the roots. While the last few years have seen a Reel Rock Film Tour of shorts, the first few were feature-length films.

It’s been a long ride, Thompson says. His daughter was crawling around Yosemite when they started, and she’s 7 years old now.

There was one photo in particular that stood out to Thompson of a climber lining up slices of bread on the dashboard of his car to heat up in the sun.

“It’s so much like a rock climber, like a lot of these guys are just goofy nerds with muscles. They really are,” Thompson says. “That one photo, I just love it.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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