“The Sensei”

Yuji Hirayama and Daniel Woods in "The Sensei," part of the 2013 Reel Rock Film Tour

Last week, I went to the Salt Lake City screening of the Reel Rock Film Tour. All the movies were great, interesting in their own unique ways, but the one that stuck with me was “The Sensei,” a story of two exceptional climbers: Yuji Hirayama, of Japan, and Daniel Woods, of the United States. Together, they constitute a sort of yin and yang of climbing personalities: East and West, old and young, patient and eager. Their differences and similarities are the wheel that drives the movie forward.

Hirayama, now 44 years old, is the philosophically minded master who has climbed at the highest levels across disciplines, from trad cracks and big wall speed climbs to sport onsights and World Cup competitions. His words usher us into the video, setting the tone with a shout out to the animistic indigenous belief system of Japan:

“In Japan there is a Shinto idea that all natural objects have a life. For example, when we go climbing, we worship the rock.”

His perspective in this video and earlier ones has the equanimous tone of Zen practitioners, accepting of the natural ups and downs of life as necessary compliments. In a 2010 video called “The Stone Rider,” for example, he explains:

“When I climb difficult things and have failure and problems, it still gives me happiness to have something to work on. I smile about that.”

The 24-year-old Woods, on the other hand, comes off as a quintessential American kid — spacey, a little goofy, but full of stoke and energy. Throughout the video, Hirayama refers to Woods as a gemstone in need of polish. Of course, Woods has also accomplished much in his (comparatively few) years of climbing, including first ascents of several of the world’s most difficult boulder problems, high-end sport redpoints, and success in bouldering competitions.

When Hirayama takes Woods to an unrepeated V15 roof called Hydrangea, the young American is eager for success. But his eagerness undermines his efforts, and Hirayama suggests Woods should slow down and “wait for the right moment.” It’s reminiscent of Chris Sharma’s perspective while he worked on the Biographie extension, in Céüse, a route that would later become the world’s first 9a+ (5.15a). “I think the best attitude for me to have on this thing is just, when it’s the right time to do it, I’ll do it,” Sharma explains in a video documenting the project.

Hirayama invites Woods to the strange, high-altitude granite monoliths of Mount Kinabalu, on Borneo, and the trip serves to further highlight Woods’ “unpolished” nature. He is described as ill-prepared for the journey from sea level to 13,000 feet, for the high winds and mists and intense sun. Close-ups show his face raw and cracked like the surface of a dry creek bed, his hair a wild burst in all directions. Blasted and exhausted by the hard projects and inhospitable conditions, Woods nonetheless wakes up day after day with an undiminished desire to climb, and climb hard.

Throughout “The Sensei,” Hirayama carries the air of a teacher, but like the best teachers, he knows the relationship works in both directions. “I myself have changed again and again,” Hirayama explains. “When I was young I just wanted to climb the hardest routes, but as you get older that becomes more difficult.” Woods brings the fire of youth with him to Japan, and it seems to help Hirayama change once again, to revisit an intensity from his own past. “Daniel doesn’t think at all about daily preparations,” says Hirayama, impressed. “What is he focused on? Only that day’s climbing.”

Woods’ determination and beginner’s mind redouble Hirayama’s inspiration to tackle his own daunting 9a project in Borneo, and both climbers walk away from the experience transformed in their own ways. In watching them, it’s hard for us as audience members to not feel a little of that energy and experience a little of that transformation, too.

Animals that climb

Baby squirrel climbing concrete wall

We humans sure like to make a big deal out of our climbing feats. But anyone who’s spent much time on the rocks knows that nature has produced all manner of creature that excel at high-angle maneuverings in a way we clumsy Homo sapiens sapiens could only dream. Here’s a collection of 11 such variations from Mother Nature’s menagerie, all of which utilize unique and often strange modes of vertical locomotion.

Bears

This video of climbing bears started making the rounds in April, 2014, and really caught fire—probably because the climbing bears look so much like climbing humans when they move. According to the YouTube description, these “Endangered Mexican Black Bears” are scaling the walls of Santa Elena Canyon. The videographer spotted the momma and her cubs while kayaking and whipped out the ol’ camera, just in time to make an Internet sensation.

Baboons

Like most primates, baboons are excellent tree climbers. But did you know they also climb rocks? And because they’re built a lot like humans, they look like us when they climb, too. Aside from a killer strength-to-weight ratio, baboons benefit from long tails they can fling around for balance, and prehensile toes that can grasp the rock as ably as fingers. Baboons dig congregating on sheer cliff faces because it keeps them pretty well beyond the reach of natural predators, like leopards and cheetahs.

Geckos

These radass lizards have been the subject of endless scientific study due to their ability to calmly stroll up even the smoothest surfaces — glass, for example. They achieve this sweet trick thanks to their hairy feet. Not quite as gross as it sounds, geckos use superfine hairs called setae to adhere via van der Waals forces (which attract molecules to each other) to pretty much any surface. Adhesives have since been created that steal a page from the gecko’s playbook, and we will no doubt soon have climbing shoes coated with setae. Which would be totally cheating.

Sloths

Sure, they’re a little pokey, but what the sloth lacks in speed, it makes up for in efficiency. Sloths have long hook-like claws they use to dangle from the tree branches they call home. If you were to ask a sloth for climbing advice, he would probably say, “Simple. Don’t let go.” That’s advice these shaggy, muppet-looking creatures really take to heart — so tenacious is their grip, they’ve been observed to remain suspended in a tree even after they die.

Squirrels

We’ve all seen squirrels blast up a tree at warp speed, but did you know they can also climb a blank concrete wall? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, when a baby squirrel in Colorado fell from a tree and then scampered for the nearest wall to climb away from danger. Squirrels’ sharp, hook-like claws, coupled with a highly mobile ankle that allows them to rotate their rear feet around backwards, lets them hang from and climb a variety of surfaces. In the case of the baby squirrel I saw, tiny air-bubble pockets in the concrete were just right for claw placements.

Snakes

Like squirrels, the fact that snakes can climb trees is no big deal. But, troublingly, they can also climb other vertical surfaces — brick walls, for example. Researchers have found that snakes use what’s called a “concertina” mode of locomotion, in which some regions of the body stop and grip while others extend forward, to climb. Snakes not only have amazing flexibility (due to their hundreds of vertebrae) and muscle control, but they can also extend tough scales on their underside for increased grip.

Mountain Goats

Perhaps you’ve seen this photo, showing a bunch of goats (mountain ibex, specifically) chillin’ on the wall of a dam in Italy like it’s a nice place for a nap. Aside from a Honnoldian head for free soloing, many goats also have feet custom-made for vertical exploits. This passage from Douglass Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter, describes the mountain goat’s special climbing footwear: “The sides of a mountain goat’s toes consist of the same hard keratin found on the hoof of a horse or deer. Each of the two wrap around toenails can be used to catch and hold to a crack or tiny knob of rock…The mountain goat is shod with a special traction pad which protrudes slightly past the nail. This pad has a rough textured surface that provides a considerable amount of extra friction on smooth rock and ice.” The list of all-terrain features goes on…  Five Ten take note…

Crabs

Wait. What? That’s right, crabs can climb — or at least one kind can: the coconut crab, which is an arthropod related to the hermit crab and is found across the islands of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. (FYI, the coconut crab can grow to be almost ten pounds and three feet across.) These fruit- and vegetable-loving critters will actually climb trees using their long, spiny legs and grab coconuts, which they then smash open using their powerful claws and eat.

Cats

As we all know, cat videos are the heart and soul of the Internet, so it was easy to find videos of cats climbing things. Still, it’s impressive that cats have so thoroughly honed their face and arête climbing techniques. Cats big and small rely on tactics similar to that of the squirrel — i.e., sharp claws and an awesome kinetic sense — to scale trees and manmade structures alike. I’d bet a can of Fancy Feast maneuvers like those shown in this video are the root of the term “cat burglar.”

Spiders

Like geckos, spiders legs are studded with microscopic hairs which, scientists postulate, allows them to stick to walls via electrostatic attraction (the afore-mentioned van der Waals forces). Spiders and most insects also sport tiny tarsal claws that can grip the minute texture of surfaces that, to our eyes, appear smooth. Hence their ability to hang upside-down on the ceiling and then drop on you. Which is totally creepy. In fact, I think I feel a tickle on my neck right now…

Snails

Lubricated with a mucus layer secreted by a gland near the mouth, snails are able to glide, albeit slowly, on a layer of slime. This terrestrial gastropod mollusk’s flat underside undulates in a wave-like motion to propel it forward. Its slimy excretions, combined with a smooth, flat base, creates a powerful suction, allowing snails to climb walls, trees, etc. This method of climbing, although effective, is undoubtedly the grossest method, and it really louses things up for other creatures who might want to climb afterward, like that super sweaty guy in the gym.

How to Make a Climbing Movie

make_a_climbing_movie

Video is all the rage these days, and thanks to increasingly affordable and powerful cameras, not to mention social media and the mobile web, the barrier to filmmaking stardom is thinner than at any time in the history of planet Earth. If you like climbing and you have a DSLR, there really is no good reason to wait. All you need is a subject (a strong-ish climber and a good route or problem), an afternoon, and a laptop with a pirated copy of Final Cut. That, coupled with the following 10-step structure will help you make a hot vid that’ll get you rich, 100% guaranteed.*

1. Set the scene… – Slider footy of beautiful natural places surrounding the climbing area. (“Footy” is slang for “footage,” if you’re not in the know.)  If you can’t afford a slider, a simple pan will suffice, I guess… but you should really get a slider.Bonus footy: Grab a time-lapse of sunrise, clouds zooming over crag. 

2. Hi, my name is…  – Sit your subject(s) down in front of idyllic landscape or at least a nice-looking tree. Have them say the following: “Hi, my name is [name], I’m from [location], and I’ve been climbing for [number of years]. Cut interview footage with shots of your climber getting geared up: pulling on shoes, tying in, brushing holds, etc. Pro tip: Be sure to bring your sticks (aka tripod) for rock-solid talking-head shots.

Bonus footy: Have your climber tell the story of how he / she started climbing at a friend’s climbing gym birthday party, or whatever.

3. Introduce the area – Show images of the crag — shallow depth of field always a plus — and splice in close-ups of running water, birds in trees, common insects, and / or grass blowing in a field (this is called B-roll in the biz… hey, you got that slider, right?). Have your climber endorse the area: “[Area X] is one of my favorite places. I’ve been climbing here for [number of seasons], and the routes / problems are as good as anything else I’ve seen. [Something positive about the rock and / or local culture].

Bonus footy: Throw focus (i.e., make the image blurry and then sharp) a bunch.

4. Introduce super rad route / problem – Have your climber say something along these lines: “This one route / problem in particular really caught my attention — it’s called [route / problem name] and it’s about [grade]. It follows a super aesthetic line. It’s really classic…” Etc.

Bonus footy: Have your climber drop some knowledge about the route / problem history: the original route developer / first ascentionist / funny story behind the climb’s name.

5. Capture the struggle – Show your climber trying and failing on the route / problem over and over again. You almost can’t show too much failure, as it simply builds the suspense (“Will he / she send?!”). In a bouldering video, it is good to show the climber falling on every move of the problem two or three times. Have your climber show the camera his / her chalky, calloused, possibly bloody fingers as proof of dedication.

Bonus footy: Show us a real-life wobbler — a fully grown man / woman screaming obscenities, kicking a wall of solid stone, or whipping his / her chalk bag, all because he / she was unable to climb up a rock.

6. Show progress – Show the climber linking sections of the climb, but make sure he / she still repeatedly falls at the crux. We need to taste the excitement of a possible send before it actually happens. At this point, the climber should describe the crux section or sections: “The crux is really tricky and powerful — it involves a [shallow mono-pocket / skeezy knee bar / all-points-off slab dyno to double fist jams]. After that, you get a quick shake and then have to [fight the barn door / make a blind toss to a razor-sharp undercling / execute a full bat hang]. The finishing jug is guarded by [the world’s smallest crimper / a below-the-waist lock-off on a completely natural five-mono “bowling ball” hold / a rabid Chihuahua].”

Bonus footy: In the middle of this section, show your climber breaking off a key hold and then shouting, “Shit!” [dramatic pause] “[Sigh…] I don’t know if it even goes any more.” Fade to black…

7. Build the dramatic arc higher – Show your climber triumphantly working through the crux against all odds. If you got the broken-hold money shot in the previous step, make sure to show your climber working out a new-and-improved sequence. A glimmer of hope when everything seems darkest.

Bonus footy: Candid shot of your climber sitting alone, eyes closed in meditative silence, methodically rubbing chalk into his / her fingers.

8. Witness the fitness – Cut to your climber setting out on the route / problem from the beginning, but this time be sure to up the volume on the music track (hip hop or electronic, preferably), to signal something sick is about to go down. Multiple angles (from above, from the side, from the ground) will allow the audience to experience the movement in a sort of 3-D hyper-reality. Close-ups of fingers and toes grasping tiny edges and pockets are key to show the viewer that, No, those are not jugs. Tight shot on the climber’s face as he / she grasps the finishing hold and hoots or yodels in victory.

Bonus footy: Get creative — super-slow-mo or GoPro POV footage add “depth” to your “story.”

9. Coming back down – All that training and paleo dieting paid off, so be sure to nail a shot of relieved joy on your climber’s face as he / she is lowered to the ground / stands atop the boulder with arms raised in victory. Interview footage here would include phrases like, “I’m so psyched to be able to climb this [awesome route / rad problem]; it really filled the aching void in my soul,” “That was pretty sick, for sure, but I’m a badass so I never really doubted it would go down. In fact, I’m surprised it took as long as it did,” or, “I’m glad that’s done; now I can eat a burrito.”

Bonus footy: Fist bumps for everyone.

10. And… scene – A few good cuts of everyone packing up their gear and cracking brewskis. Grab that time-lapse footage of the sun coming up and just flip it to create a sunset / feeling of closure. The climber should offer some heart-warming nugget of wisdom like, “You know, sending felt really good, but just spending a day out with good friends is the best part. It’s really special…” Classic heroic journey drama set in nature. It’s in the bag.

Bonus footy: If your video has any sponsors, now’s a good time to put their logos on screen. Go ahead and thank mom and dad for getting you your camera, while you’re at it…

–––––

*Not guaranteed.

 

Cycles

sit_and_watch

This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.

 

[Video] Why Plaid? A closer look at the unofficial uniform of Outdoor Retailer

Last August I wrote a post called 50 Shades of Plaid, featuring a photo gallery of the many plaid shirts that attendees of the Outdoor Retailer Show wore. The post garnered an inordinate amount of attention and, as Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 approached, several people asked what I was planning for a follow-up. This video, shot entirely on an iPhone 5, is the answer — a closer look into plaid, the unofficial uniform of the Outdoor Retailer Show and the outdoor industry.

[Vid] Nothing Flat About Flatanger

Ethan Pringle recently posted this video in which he climbs the first ascent of a new 5.14c called The Eye of Odin in Norway’s massive Flatanger cave (aka Hanshelleren, according to this Swedish blog). You can read Pringle’s very extensive blog about his time in Norway here.

This granite (?) cave has been getting a lot of attention in the past year or so. In fall of 2011, Jorg Verhoeven put up a 5.14d there called Nordic Flowerwhich he writes about in this blog. I recall talking to a Swedish climber about Hanshelleren back in 2008, so it’s certainly been on the radar for a while, but I think the sea-carved formation is just so big and steep that it has intimidated local climbers until recently. In an interview with Björn Pohl, Magnus Midtbø guesses the cave is 1,000 feet wide, and 500 feet tall, adding, “It makes Santa Linya look tiny!” One blogger describes climbing in the area as “like being close to a nasty animal or a dangerous place.” Perhaps Chris Sharma’s 2008 ascent of Jumbo Love helped break down the perfectly reasonable mental barrier associated with neck-sappingly steep, 250-foot long super-routes.

More eye candy: in December of last year, this cool little video went up, showing Magnus Midtbø and Dani Andrada trying Nordic Flower.

Despite the fact that I’d probably be projecting the warmups in the big cave, I’d love to visit Flatanger. It’s basically a small fishing village — beautiful, idyllic, serene — with a futuristic crag in its midst. Plus, Norway has the highest per-capita coffee consumption levels in the world, which makes it my kind of place. It also sounds like there is more climbing nearby, and a glance at Google Maps (see screenshot, below) shows a region made up almost entirely of rock. I can only imagine this isn’t the only such formation in Norway. In the interview linked to above, Midtbø mentions seven similar caves in the area. Assuming you climb 5.13 or harder, formations like these could make Norway a more palatable climbing destination for those who have previously shied away because of the wet climate.

Satellite image of Flatanger, Norway, and the surrounding region
Satellite image of Flatanger, Norway, and the surrounding region. Lotsa rock out there…

[Vid] Aid Climbing 2.0?

Listening to the Marketplace Tech Report this morning, I heard a quick news bite about the suction-cup tech that the University State University is developing for the military. Like the Atlas motorized rope ascenders (which allow “reverse rappelling”)  this promises to make moving in the vertical plane more accessible than ever.

Of course, we don’t climb just to get to the top, and making things easy is almost never the goal, so I don’t imagine this will have much appeal for climbers. Still, with the smooth, sweeping granite faces found in popular climbing zones like Yosemite, could such a suction cup rig supplement typical rope systems and help rescuers reach climbers stuck on the wall? Well… probably not. Still, I wouldn’t say no to a test drive. The real question: can you get inverted with these bad boys?

Along these lines, when are those anti-gravity boots coming to market? I’ve been saving up…

 

Photo Friday: Nikon D800 Time-Lapse and Some Birds

Just playing with the D800 some more. So far, I continue to be impressed. Two things on my wish list (and, it sounds like, everyone else’s wish list, too): 1) faster frame rate and 2) smaller RAW image size option. Anyway, minor nits. Of course, now that the D600 looks like a real option on the horizon, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll regret having dropped $3000 on an FX camera when I could have gotten a $1500 FX camera with many of the same features. Ah well, the best cure for inklings of camera-buyer’s remorse is to use the tool to create some cool work.

The following images were captured during last weekend’s Living Traditions cultural festival in downtown Salt Lake City. Strangely, I took most of my favorite images that day at small pop-up tent with a few guys and a bunch of birds, located near the festival entrance. I’m not sure what the booth was all about, but the birds were fascinating to observe.

But FIRST… here is a (somewhat underexposed) time-lapse video straight out of the D800. The camera’s automatic time-lapse function captured the images and stitched them together, in camera, into a .mov file. Pretty slick! For you pros out there, it probably makes more sense to capture hi-res .jpg files with the interval shooting mode and then create your own animation in Quicktime Pro, but for fun projects, this is a very neat little feature.

A parrot outside the Living Traditions Festival in Salt Lake City.
A parrot outside the Living Traditions Festival in Salt Lake City.
A fuzzy young owl.
A fuzzy young owl.
Dancers at the Living Traditions festival.
Dancers at the Living Traditions festival.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Baby birds waiting to be fed.
Baby birds waiting to be fed.

[Video] Petzl RocTrip China

Last year, I went to China for the Petzl RocTrip. It was one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, mostly because Chinese culture is so different from that of the West, especially in Gétu Hé, the tiny, rustic farming town where the RocTrip took place. As always, Petzl produced an amazing video about the trip. I wish I could say I was more involved with this production. Still, I feel a certain sense of pride working for a company that values and supports such adventures and such artistic endeavors. The video, with its musical integration, is pretty unique in the climbing mediaverse. Check it out:

[Vid] Aerial Video Rig Tracks Sasha DiGiulian Climbing Era Vella

Behold, a new entry on the list of rad shooting rigs allowing climbing videographers to capture the vertical (or beyond-vertical) act in ways they could never quite capture it before.

The Sea to Sky Cable Cam is a portable camera rig that allows a video camera to travel up and down on rope tracks while an operator controls tilting and panning with a remote control. The Sea to Sky crew has used rigs of this sort to shoot a variety of action sports. Most recently, as you can see in the video below, to follow Sasha DiGiulian up Era Vella a 9a/5.14d in Margalef, Spain. (Unconfirmed: “Era vella” means “old threshing floor” in Catalan, according to one poster on Climbing Narc.)

Big Up Productions worked closely with Matt Maddaloni of Sea to Sky to develop the climbing-specific rig used to shoot this footage, which will be edited into one of the videos of the upcoming Reel Rock Film Tour.

Sasha DiGiulian on Era Vella
Sasha DiGiulian on Era Vella (9a/5.14d) Margalef, Spain. Keith Ladzinski photo.

This isn’t a new invention. The NFL, for example, has been using Skycams for years, but it is an early use in the climbing world. And, of course, due to the hard-to-access nature of rock climbs, it is a welcome addition, allowing for some very smooth, otherworldly perspectives on the act of climbing.

In the past, says Josh Lowell of Big Up Productions, his team has used pulley systems to haul a camera operator up overhanging walls, meanwhile dreaming of an unmanned system that could be operated remotely. So Big Up brought Maddaloni out to Spain to help shoot DiGiulian, and also Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra, who were working a 5.15c project in Oliana together. “It took a lot of experimenting to figure out what worked and what didn’t work,” says Lowell, but he’s enthusiastic about the footage, describing it as “long, continuous, single shots of the best climbers in the world trying the hardest route in the world … the camera silently tracking along with them the whole way.” Sounds good.

Not long ago, I wrote about the use of helicopter drone rigs to produce similar birds-eye shots. We can only assume that as climbing grows, along with demand for high-production-value climbing media, we we see more of these floating and flying perspectives and more of these ingenious techniques for capturing them.

Sea to Sky Cam at Kokanee Crankworx
A horizontal Sea to Sky Cam at Kokanee Crankworx

Of course, fancy shots do not a good video make — ultimately, it is the story and the characters that pull us into any movie. Judging by their previous track record, however, the folks at Big Up and the Reel Rock Tour will not disappoint on this front, either.

Photo Friday: Night Running Video Shoot, Behind the Scenes

This week, I spent two evenings out shooting video with Salt Lake City-based ultra runners Jared and Mindy Campbell and members of the local production company Camp 4 Collective. The footage was for a Petzl video project highlighting night running with headlamps. Below are some “behind the scenes” images and general scenics I snapped while the Camp 4 masterminds, headed up by Tim Kemple, captured stunning footage of Jared and Mindy doing their thing. (I dig my job.) Plus, down below, three important things I learned while out on these shoots.

Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.
Camera phone shot taken near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island.
A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.
A lesser island in the Great Salt Lake, as seen from Antelope Island.

Day 1:

I brushed at the tiny black carcasses of dead gnats peppering the hairs of my forearms. Other gnats, still lively, vibrated against my cheeks and into my ear canals. One of the Camp 4 camera guys, Hennie, blasted my face and head with Backwoods OFF, but it seemed to have limited effect. We hiked the short trail up to Antelope Island’s Buffalo Point trying not to swat and paw at the gnat clouds that surrounded our heads like dark halos.

Tim Kemple of Camp 4 Collective, waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so we could shoot some night running.
Tim Kemple waiting for the pesky golden hour to pass so he can shoot some night running.

Once up at Buffalo Point, the wind kept the bugs at bay and we were treated to an epic sunset. Golden light poured across the island, moving the vibrance and saturation sliders up a notch. Soon after the sun went down, Jared and Mindy started running and the Camp 4 crew started shooting. Lightning flashes popped far to the west, somewhere over the edge of the Great Salt Lake. We shot until it was much later and darker than we’d anticipated. On the way home, I just barely resisted the Camp 4 crew’s tempting offer to hit the In-N-Out Burger for a midnight snack.

Day 2:

The wind was cranking up on top of the hill. The trails of the Bonneville Shoreline system traced the spring-green ridges and valleys all around us. Below, Salt Lake City was a sprawl of tiny houses and buildings, dwarfed by the snow-laced Wasatch Mountains in the distance.

The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch
The view from the hill, looking down on Salt Lake City and the Wasatch.

I had to make a  phone call to help guide my boss up to our location, but the reception was crap, so I walked up to the top of the hill. There, the wind was its worst, scouring every surface. It rippled mercilessly through my thin, short-sleeved shirt. I looked around, and saw that everyone else wore some sort of jacket. It occurred to me then that I have always been the type of guy who brings the stuff he doesn’t need (on this day: a laptop, a copy of Emerson’s collected works, an empty Tupperware container) and fails to bring the stuff he does need (something to block the chilled, howling wind!). I made the call, but the wind made everything sound like amplified static. I gave up.

Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop
Runners and crew on the wind-shielded side of the hill, waiting for the sun to drop. In this picture, the guy with jean shorts and a moustache is telling everyone about the hipster race he started in which competitors are required to run in jean shorts and moustaches.

The runners, camera crew, and I were waiting for the sun to go down so we could start capturing night running footage. Already shivering in the daylight, I wondered how far the mercury might drop after sundown. But really, my suffering was trivial compared to what Jared had endured just weeks ago, when he ran the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race with nearly 60,000 feet of vertical gain and loss through the Blair Witch woods of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. I can’t even fathom the mindset required to endure such a journey.

Jared Campbell on camera
Jared Campbell, pain cave explorer, mugging for the camera.
Salt Lake City from above
Sprawlingly awesome: Salt Lake City from above.

Despite the wind and a nagging chance of rain, the shoot went well and the skies had a nice look to them. Jared and Mindy were consummate professionals and never once abandoned their good humor while we made them run back and forth on the same stretch of trail repeatedly or sit shivering in the dark answering interview questions while staring into a huge ring light. I can only imagine that after you’ve run 100 miles, all day and all night, your idea of what constitutes a hardship must change. Meanwhile, I was excited that Camp 4 brought out a RED camera to do some of the shooting. Truly the wet dream of the video gear head set.

Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.
Hennie and the RED camera, up on a windy hill.

Three things I learned…

The final footage should be coming soon. Already, the Camp 4 guys have left on a jet plane for some big deal video shoot or other. Before we parted ways, Tim told me it was nice to shoot something locally for a change. I realized then that I’d learned three valuable lessons working with Camp 4 and the Campbells:

  1. Shooting quality video is not all fun and games. In fact, it is hard goddamned work, and should not be taken lightly. These guys work long hours shooting and longer hours editing, have to know a ton of technical stuff, have to be creative one the fly, and have to know how to make magic even when things go pear-shaped, which they inevitably do.
  2. Ultra runners are batshit crazy. I have no clue what drives a person to explore their own mental and physical limits like Jared and Mindy do, but I respect it. I respect it from the comfort of my couch.
  3. The Salt Lake Valley, despite being a strange place culturally, and despite have ruefully bad air pollution issues, is one of the prettiest places a person can live. I also realized for the first time that autumn, my favoritest season on the East Coast, is not my favoritest season out West. Here, spring is king, with the green hills and still-white mountain tops. Spring out East is muggy and damp. Here it is refreshing like an Irish Spring commercial. Spring, I lift my glass to ye. Sláinte!

Links to stuff mentioned in this post:

Master of Movement or: Why Bear Grylls Is Running Through the Desert

Oh, now I see why he was running...
Oh, now I see why he was running…

A friend pointed me to an awesome video of Bear Grylls “rock climbing” in southern Utah. It’s a commercial for Degree antiperspirant, though I reckon pit sweat is not a man’s biggest concern when he’s hundreds of feet off the deck jamming in a sandy crack.  

UK Climbing has a nice post on the video, in which they identify the route as Rigor Mortis (5.9 C2), on the Tombstone.

If you watch closely, you’ll notice that Grylls himself is never actually shown climbing, only jumping around and vigorously slapping areas of the rock where there appear to be no holds.

Two ropes, no gear, and a big old stem on a blank wall.

We can only assume that the climbing was done by a stunt double. My question is, who was this masked man? Any climbers involved in the making of the video have a duty to come forth and tell us how hilarious it was working with Bear Grylls… unless of course you are contractually obligated not to do so.

A few more burning questions I have after watching this video: Why was Grylls running through the desert (see opening image — after examining the footage closer, I believe I have found the answer)? Why was he climbing in a pair of old, ill-fitting approach shoes? Why was he tied in to a toprope and a lead line? Where was his belayer? Why was he doing the splits and on a blank wall wearing approach shoes? And, most importantly, what type of antiperspirant could a man wear to stay dry on such a daunting adventure? At least we know the answer to the last question. 

Attack of the Drones: Shooting Climbing from Any Angle

Drone helicopter in action
A drone helicopter in action. This image is from a nikonrumors.com guest post by the Swiss climber/photographer Fred Moix.

I recently watched (via DVD) Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt to free climb a particularly blank line up Dawn Wall in Yosemite. Even though I’m a jaded former climbing magazine editor, I was amazed as the camera revealed a barren, vertiginous world of golden granite that few humans will ever visit. I watched, slackjawed, as the duo battled to crimp down on ripples and slivers, took massive whippers thousands of feet above the valley floor, slept on a portaledge, pooped… . It was clear to me how the climbers got to their lonely, suspended perch, but, hey, how did those get cameras up there? Perhaps you’ve wondered the same thing when watching vids like these.

Well, I know a few of the crazy dudes who do this high-angle camera work, and the truth is, they’re climbers, too. The camera operators must be comfortable with the heights and inherent dangers of climbing, fit enough to get where they need to go while hauling a big fracking bag of camera gear up with them, and have a solid understanding of safety gear and techniques. Oh, they also have to know how to point a camera in the right direction and a push the little red button, too.

While the grueling process just described isn’t bound to change anytime soon, there is a new weapon in the climbing documentarian’s arsenal: the remote-control helicopter. I came across this guest post from Swiss photographer Fred Moix on Nikon Rumors today and felt the urge to share. In it, Fred explains his use of aerial drones for getting far-out shots from pretty much any angle. Fred isn’t the first to use this technique, and the rig he shows in the post, while effective, seems to be pretty DIY. A more polished version can be seen at dedicam.tv. Mammut enlisted the aid of the folks at Dedicam in the making of the video below, which really captures the feel of exposure, height, and freedom that climbing offers.

While no climbing video has really pushed the limits of this technology yet, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see aerial shots incorporated to into more videos from big-name production companies, just as we’ve come to expect artsy DSLR depth-of-field focus pulls and mechanized time lapse slider shots.

Media makers are constantly pushing to document the act and beauty of climbing in greater detail and from wilder perspectives. And while no series of images, words, and sounds will ever match the soul-expanding intensity of a great day out on the rock, quality documentation does offer new ways of looking at, understanding, and sharing our passions. It brings new climbers to the sport and inspires old ones to don their dusty shoes again. In this regard, I see the untethered, dragonfly views that aerial drones enable as a welcome addition to the photographer’s or videographer’s quiver. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

Anyone out there have some other rad examples of climbing footage (or footage from any sport, really) shot with aerial drones? I’d love to see ’em. Post your links in the comments.

 — Update —

A commenter pointed out, as did the videographer Corey Rich himself, via Twitter, that the D4 premier video Why incorporated RC heli shots. These appear in both the kayaking (or extreme canoeing, as I like to call it) and climbing segments of the movie. I watched Why several times and, frankly, I’m very disappointed in myself for missing that [snaps self with one of several rubber bands worn around wrist]. Embedded below are both the making-of, where you get to see the RC heli crashing and being repaired, and the original short movie, which is masterfully put together.

[Video] How to Make Iced Coffee that Doesn’t Suck With the Toddy System

Among the many things I’m snobby about, coffee is pretty high up on the list, right next to booze, food, and writing. Coffee, though, is special. I can enjoy a Pabst Blue Ribbon, a meal at White Castle, or a page-turning schlocky sci-fi novel, but I will not stand for bad coffee. What do I mean by bad coffee? I mean Folgers, flavored coffees, coffee brewed (read: burned) in a cheap coffee maker and then left to turn lukewarm and acrid. I mean coffee that’s been watered down, polluted with non-dairy creamers, posioned with carcinogenic sweeteners… the list goes on. But today, I’m going to show you one way to make iced coffee that doesn’t suck: the Toddy Cold Brew System.

A lot of people make iced coffee by first boiling water, then hot-brewing coffee, and then pouring that over ice. This can be done properly (i.e., you must brew the coffee at double strength, as it will be watered down instantly when you add ice), but even then, it leaves the coffee tasting a bit acidic and sour. To make a tastier cup of iced coffee, I learned from my friend JD, founder of the Brooklyn-based Oslo Coffee, one needs to cold brew it. A misnomer, in that it actually takes place at room temperature, cold brewing is basically a long steeping of coarsely ground coffee in water. This method reduces bitterness and and acidity greatly, to the extent that the coffee becomes so mild in taste you can easily drink it without sugar or milk. Cold-brewed iced coffee is very tasty, but also dangerous — you might drink yourself into a state of uncontrolled vibration if given too much of the stuff. I know this from experience, dude.

The method JD used to make iced coffee in the shop was scaled for commercial purposes, but the Toddy is basically a consumer-grade version. The system is stupid-simple. You really could make one yourself were you so inclined to dig up the individual components. Then again, you can spend the extra twenty bucks and save hours of your life if you just buy the Toddy  System straight from the toddycafe.com. It’s also available on Amazon and other online retailers. The full instructions for using the system are here; I’ve based the times and measurements in the video, above, on these. They work well enough, though I haven’t experimented.

When you cold brew a batch of coffee in the Toddy system, it makes a large carafe of concentrated liquid. Unless you’re a hardcore addict, you must water it down before you drink it. The concentrate can be stashed in the fridge for a week or two. You can also heat it up in the microwave with respectable results — it’s certainly not as rich or complex as a hot-brewed coffee, but if you’re sensitive to acid, it’s much easier on the stomach. When it’s hot, I’ve noticed Toddy coffee tends to have a more herbal, tea like flavor profile, which might turn off some coffee drinkers, especially those used to dark roasts. According to the packaging, you can also make iced tea with the system, but I have not tried this, as tea is not my thang.

The video is both a way for me to communicate the use of the Toddy system, which I dig, and to practice the complex arts of shooting and editing video. Like most things on this blog (or in my life, for that matter), it’s an experiment. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below. I <3 your feedback.

The Rise of the Anti-Ad


In the age of information overload, in the capitalist society of the United States of America, we citizens have become experts at blocking out unwanted messaging and detecting cleverly disguised sales pitches. Like an attractive woman at a bar, we are accustomed to being hit on, both crassly and creatively. Our evolving cynicism is matched only by the marketing world’s ever-growing arsenal of tactics.

We are locked in an arms race that will some day become so intense we will question the motives of every conversation we have or piece of media we consume. Was that chatty guy at the Starbucks™ really a guerilla marketing agent? Was that catchy song on Pandora developed by a mega-corporation to include subliminal messaging? It might seem extreme, until you consider the extent to which product placement has already infiltrated our wold. Brandspotters.com is dedicated to following this phenomenon. One of my favorite programs of the moment, Fringe, is a major offender, with whole scenes shot around the Nissan Leaf and then followed by ads for the Nissan Leaf.  In print media, it’s common for brands to create ads that mimic the editorial content surrounding them. In Wired, for example, ads tend to feature techy infographics, slick graphic design, and photos of technogadgets. I often get a paragraph into such sneaky advertorial before realizing what’s happened. It makes sense to do things this way, but it can also turn off a reader, make them feel they’ve been duped.

As a way around this, some advertisers have taken an entirely different tack, turning their ads inside out. Ads are being developed that at once call attention to their “adness” while simultaneously mocking the very idea of an ad: “Hey, this is an AD!!! Isn’t that ridiculous?! Aren’t ads lame? Isn’t the world crazy? Let’s all laugh…” This is the latest method savvy agencies have adopted to circumvent our bullshit detectors. Not only do we not tune these ads out, we welcome them into our homes, share them with our friends via Facebook, Twitter, and email. We quote them ironically in meetings or at lunch. Here, marketers serve us a tiny nugget of a brand message wrapped in an irresistible candy coating of entertainment.

The video anti-ads in this blog are, to me, much more interesting than the products they sell (body spray, mail-order razors, crap beer…). Their genius is in their irreverence and their focus on entertainment. The companies’ messages are pushed to the background (though still present, in an ironic way), so that we accept the ad as a piece of entertainment worth watching multiple times or sharing, as I am doing here. There is no escape.

So is this newest wave of anti-ads engineered for the social media age better or worse than the other forms that already saturate the world around us? I don’t have an answer, but at least we can all have a good laugh in the meantime.

[Video] Corey Rich – Deep North

This very cool video, set in far northern Alaska, features photographer Corey Rich and was shot almost entirely with Nikon D7000s. Amazing what can be done with a relatively affordable camera (and three pricey lenses…).

After you watch it, you should check out this post in which Corey shares his thoughts on the new Nikon D800 and why it has him psyched. I should be getting mine any day now (fingers crossed).

Telling A Story With Video — A Work In Progress

To practice rapid-fire shooting and editing, I made the above short video of my fiancée, Kristin, at work on a new painting. Kristin earned an MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art, in Philadelphia. Today, she works full time as a graphic designer, but tries to get some painting in after hours. Like me, she faces a constant struggle to remain creatively active, but I think we have both managed to find a tolerable balance. It’s better some weeks than others, but, as always, it’s a work in progress…

I took the basic order for the shots from a handy little article by University of Florida Journalism Professor Mindy McAdams. She describes a simple method for capturing a scene in just five shots. I’m fairly certain she didn’t devise this method (I’ve heard of similar approaches from other sources — in fact, there’s a nice BBC video on the “five-shot rule” here), but she does a nice job explaining it.

If you decided not to click the link, I’ll distill McAdams exercise here:

[In the case of a subject who is relatively stationary and using her hands]

  1. Shoot the hands up close (tight)
  2. Shoot the face up close (tight)
  3. Pull back and get a shot showing hands and face together (medium)
  4. Shoot over the shoulder (medium)
  5. Shoot “something else,” typically from a wider perspective

In making the short video above, which would typically be  just one scene in a longer documentary-style piece, I considered this approach and tweaked it a little based mostly on my own gut. I do not believe in any hard and fast “rules” about communicating, whether it be via video or the written word, or any other form or medium. We can get our point across in many different ways, and strict adherence to rules or formulas, although it can save time and effort, is a good way to bleed the life out of a story. That said, starting with a solid understanding of the basics is really a must for any aspiring creative.

As you can see in the stills below, I used more than five shots, but the basic ideas were covered:

1. Close-up of hands at work.

2. Medium shot showing hands and face (notice I skipped the suggested tight shot of the face — that comes in later).

3. Vertical pan on the painting. Again, this is not in keeping with the suggested five-shot order, but I felt it made sense to show the piece up front, for context.

4. Back on track, here’s the sometimes-tricky “over the shoulder” shot. I think it works well enough.

5. Because mixing paint was the first tight shot, I figured it would make sense to do a second, this one focused on the act of painting. I like the precision with which Kristin paints.

6. This shot falls between tight and medium, in my estimation, but it’s probably closest to what McAdams identifies as “something else,” a creative shot that adds visual interest to the edit. Kristin was interested to see it, as she didn’t realize she held the brush so high up. “It looks like Japanese brush painting,” she said. It’s her favorite shot and mine.

7. Here, I decided to go back to the face (what would be the second shot in the McAdam’s method). Not sure why, really… In retrospect, it may in fact have made more sense to put it up front.

8. A quick cut to an even tighter face shot. If I could lose any of the shots in the piece, it would be this one, as I don’t think it adds any information that shot No. 7 didn’t already convey.

9. To close out, I decided to give the contextualizing wide shot, which is how McAdams suggests finishing the a sequence. It’s not the most interesting image, and informationally it overlaps with the pan in my third shot, but I like how it gives a sense of scale — this is quite a large painting!

In the end, I used nine shots instead of five, although I’ll admit that for this very basic sequence, eight or even seven would have sufficed. I have shot and edited much longer, more complex videos, but as I’m self-taught, I try to go back and brush up on basics regularly. Like a lot of media makers in the digital age, I learned quick-and-dirty at the U of Hard Knocks. Without going back and practicing fundamentals, it’s easy to get caught in a big project with shaky foundations.

Always curious to hear what rules of thumb you use when telling a story with a video.

Daniel Woods Crunches Numbers at the Rock Rodeo and Comes up with 76… AGAIN!

Daniel Woods – Hueco – 76 V-Points from Louder Than 11 on Vimeo.

This video gives a clear picture of what cutting-edge bouldering looks like in 2012. The formerly bleeding edge of difficulty is now just a stop on a circuit. This is the way of progression — nothing new, really — but it somehow it never grows old. In the vid, you’ll see Woods send the following:

  • Nagual (v13)
  • The Machinist (v14)
  • Crook by the Book (V14)
  • Phantom Limb V12)
  • Full Monty (V12)
  • Two Days With Gene (V11)

Worth noting is the fact that Daniel scored the same amount of points when he won the Hueco Rock Rodeo last year, though with five V13s and one V11. He increased his peak difficulty, but not his average. In the 2011 Rock Rodeo, Woods sent these problems:

  • Li (V13)
  • Liane (V13)
  • Mo Mojo (V11)
  • Evangelion (V13)
  • Slashface (V13)
  • Crown Royale (V13)
Daniel Woods, Champion
Daniel Woods, champion once again. Photo: © J.Roth

Oh, and in 2010, Woods ALSO scored 76 points, but with a higher high point than even this year. (Oddly consistent, isn’t he?) Here’s his ticklist from that comp:

  • Desperanza (V15)
  • Alma Blanca (V13)
  • Tequila Sunrise (V12)
  • Loaded Direct (V12)
  • Barefoot on Sacred Ground (V12)
  • Diaphanous Sea (V12)

And while we’re one the topic of Daniel Woods and his incredible powers of crush, it appears he recently declared his intent to climb Jumbo Love  (5.15b; unconfirmed, since no one has yet repeated it), Chris Sharma’s king of the king lines. How do seventy-six V-points translate to a monster 250-foot 5.15b? I, for one, am excited to find out…

Chris Sharma and the Difficult Balance

Letting Go: Chris Sharma and Mark Coleman from Prana Living on Vimeo.

“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…”
— Chris Sharma

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.

In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:

Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.

Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?

Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.

In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.

Chris Sharma at RocTrip China
Chris Sharma at Petzl RocTrip China

Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)

In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.

To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.