Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Internet Video is Transforming Climbing

In my previous post, I suggested that Adam Ondra's recent run of 9b ascents and 8c+ onsights marked a kind of watershed moment in climbing. But I don't think that Ondra is the only one transforming climbing. There is also a collective transformation that has been underway in the sport for several decades, a transformation that has been accelerated by the power of the Internet. This transformation has to do with the transmission and distribution of images of climbers and climbs and is present in both a quantitative and qualitative sense.

In a previous post about Master of Rock, Pat Ament's groundbreaking book on John Gill, I suggested that "the sheer mundane quality of much of the photography in the book anticipates a new aesthetic for climbing that refused the consciously heroic and crafted images of an earlier age..." However there is another aspect to these photos that I did not develop further which was their documentary specificity. The book acted as both guide and inspiration to more than one generation of climbers because it showed specific moves on problems in a way that few if any books had done before.

Today, in a media-saturated climbing environment, it's hard to recall even back to the 1990s when climbing video was first available for viewing. This was the first time that climbers could replay live action footage of a particular climb. Among the pioneers in this genre was the series Masters of Stone. Looking at the videos now, I am struck primarily by the efforts to make climbing something spectacular and mediagenic, that could be packaged according to a showbiz aesthetic. The first one even had a ridiculous contest to "win" the arm of some woman with a torch. Staged falls, big but easy lunges, free solos; these videos had just about everything except ascents of routes from which we could learn how to climb well. There were indications however of other directions such as a video called State of the Art, made by Metolius Climbing in 1989, that was intended to show sequences of specific routes at Smith Rock.

I think that the problem was financial in nature. There was no market for "straight" video of boulder problems or climbs at the time and producers were still thinking in terms of cable or broadcast media and its production values. The filming equipment was expensive as was production and editing so the spectacular was emphasized rather than the mundane.

This consensus first started to fracture in earnest with the low-budget amateur-looking videos made by Mike Call such as Yank on This and Fast Twitch. These videos were quickly produced and based on the skateboard and surfing models of ephemeral promotional videos made by companies to promote products for a season or two at most.

With the development of broadband internet, attempts were made with sites such as ClimbX Media and Momentum Video Magazine to market video on a subscription model. These efforts ultimately failed for a variety of reasons not exclusive to climbing but applying more generally across the media landscape. Video increasingly became a free commodity, boosted by the presence of sites such as Vimeo and Youtube and readily available low-tech digital cameras and free editing software.

In the midst of this explosion of video, a transformation in how we think about climbing has been in progress. Gone are the efforts to present climbing as a heroic or spectacular activity. The average teenage climber may be more interested in footage of a local boulder problem than a professionally produced segment on Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. But more compelling is the idea that this widespread distribution of free information about climbing and how to do it well is contributing to a rapid evolution of the sport. By viewing what works and imprinting its lessons in our own climbing, we collectively change the way we climb to degree unseen in the past, a process that is occuring globally across large populations of climbers in much shorter periods of time.

It may be the case that the feature climbing film will persist into the future, that marquee names such as Chris Sharma will be presented in spectacular locales. But the actual redefining of the norms of the sport will increasingly be done on the fly, in DIY video clips of increasing sophistication and for free. Climbers will view them, learn from them, and then rapidly move on, advancing both their knowledge of the sport and the boundaries of film-making. The film as physical artifact is certainly gone.

As a postscript, I searched for clips of the Masters of Stone videos on Youtube, etc to link to this post. A few turned up, mostly trailers, and not really worth watching. The producer is still selling them via the old-school method of shipping DVDs.


Anonymous said...

The Real Question is, when are the larger climbing companies (Petzl Black Diamond et al) going to finance a video shoot at the crags with real production values. Not just some one hanging on a rope with a hand-held "prosumer" camera, or standing on top of Sharma's van with a home-made jib arm, but actual cinematography, with cinestyle cameras and lenses, cranes, cablecams/flying cameras, lighting, 5.1 audio etc, which to my knowledge has never been done. The CableCam company itself is staffed with current/former big name climbers...

Climbing would also seem an ideal medium for 3D - one of the main aesthetic obstacles of climbing videography is conveying the dimensionality and not making everything look flat. With the advent of the Red Epic camera, 3D beam-splitter rigs are getting smaller and more manageable. We have the "Xtreme Sports" cachet, the personalities, the spectacular exotic locales and adventure...c'mon climbing industry make it happen!

sock hands said...

in order for the industry to support that kind of production, turn in your prodeals, sponsorships, and expect to pay over $200 for a pair of rock shoes.

business is all about the margin, and climbing companies have to run thin, lean, and mean.

Automated said...

there are definitely high production value climbing videos out there. but i don't see a big correlation between production value and popularity. story telling seems to be hook that catches the most fish. without a story, even the best footage are just pretty scenery. (note that a story doesn't require talking -- the right footage edited into the right sequence can tell a story, words or not).

but i think to peter's point, it's the rough and ready, home-grown stuff popping up on the internet that's facilitating a more rapid evolution within the sport of climbing. another place where video has had this effect is dance (breakdancing specifically), though even more evidently than with climbing, i'd argue.

for a great talk on this topic, check out chris anderson's TED talk video:

Anonymous said...

"there are definitely high production value climbing videos out there."

Like what? Progression? It used hand-held (not even ENG-style shoulder mount) prosumer cameras that even low-budget indies only use for B-roll and behind-the-scenes footage. Actual cinematography, like on a movie shoot, with a cinestyle camera crew, aerial rigging, monitors/playback, lighting etc has never been done at the crags/boulders for the purpose of making a climbing video.

The climbing companies could start off by shooting some test footage as proof-of-concept to shop around for investors, like low-budget indies do, but it needs to look professional, not the usual shaky-cam hand-held camera hanging on a rope stuff. Doing that for a day or two would be at most in the low 5 figures, if that. If done right, especially in 3D which is not as difficult or costly a proposition as it was even 2 years ago, has the potential to change public perception of the sport in a way we can't really foresee, because like I said, it's never been done.

Peter Beal said...

Automated, thanks very much for the URL. Unicycling or bouldering, the results are the same!

The deeper issue is the desire of media creators to monetize their efforts which implies for most selling them up for money. However high production value films are worth less for learning about climbing than a huge number of free ones. Personally while I admire the breathtaking aspects of high quality film, that's just entertainment, not really instructional. After all what do football coaches watch most of the time?

jriggedy said...

CORE seemed to be a fairly well-produced movie. ( Being shot with a RED camera is only part of that. And yes, Progression is another example of a more advanced climbing film. Sender Films' more recent works are being shown on Nat Geo all over europe -- I wouldn't say they use shaky, hand-held on-rope shots, for the most part. No, they're not Lord of the Rings grade stuff, but they are serious pieces.

These days climbing filmmakers are doing plenty of fancy stuff: aerial rigging, helicopter or plane footage, cranes and lights hauled up on top of walls, use of monitors and pricey cameras. Perhaps your video library hasn't been updated since the days of West Coast Pimp?

But the truth is, big-budget Hollywood tactics are ill-suited to climbing films, regardless of price. In fact, it seems like tinseltown is moving more towards the light, efficient filmmaking techniques that adventure cinematographers have been using for years out of necessity. Fringe and some episodes of House, the Book of Eli, etc. were all shot using todays more affordable digital cameras (REDs, DSLRs, and the like). They don't want to spend millions on every episode or movie, if they can create something just as slick using a rig that's 1/10 the cost.

And with the pro-grade editing set-ups dropping in price all the time, more climbing movies will look more polished and produced without requiring giant budgets.

Finally, as someone who's been around the industry for a while, I will say that making one big, high-end, super-expensive climbing movie doesn't hold much value for climbing companies -- even the big ones like TNF. If you want to spend a ton of money on a climbing flick, you'll have to make something like Cliffhanger or Vertical, cause that's the only way you'll get enough people watching to make it worth your while. If you want to make a climbing movie for climbers, you'll have to keep the budget leaner and the techniques simpler (for now).

There will be evolution in the climbing-movie arena, just not in the direction you're proposing.

chance and real said...

I'm not proposing big budgets, just basic cinematography, good cameras and lenses, and the kind of indie-prod production values people use when they want to be taken seriously. And as someone who works in LA with RED and other digital cameras both in production and in post, and climbing for longer than I care to admit, I can tell you that there is HUGE room for improvement in the current level of climbing video standards. Take a dolly and some tracks, a RED camera, and industry-standard prime (not DSLR) lenses to a bouldering area, and the knowledge of how to use them, and the difference would be immediately obvious. A 60' crane at the sport crags? Please. Are you saying these tactics are out-of reach for the larger climbing companies? I don't think so.

Maybe climbing has yet to be perceived as a professional-level sport along the lines of skiing/snowboarding/surfing etc because it's never been shot professionally? As long as it's presented at the amateur level, that's all it'll ever be taken for?

Writing this in the hope that the "big" companies will see it and start thinking...

Micah Bryan Humphrey said...

I'd love to watch Sharma send Jumbo Love in 3-D.