Monday, July 25, 2011

The Schengen Files: A Review and Interview with Paul Robinson

Paul Robinson has been on a sustained bouldering trip for a while now, starting in Europe, then South Africa and after that who knows. Fortunately he began recording some of the problems he has been doing in conjunction with his girlfriend Alex Kahn. I say fortunately because Paul has been somewhat under the radar in terms of video recently and there are few boulderers with better style out there right now with such an impressive ticklist. Paul also has a degree in the fine arts from the University of Colorado and is a painter with a well-honed visual sense. So when I heard of his new film, I was hopeful that this would be something special. The editors at DPM set me up with a copy and I sat down and watched right away.

At the beginning, the film sets itself apart when Paul talks about history in Font and the way past and present blend in the boulders. As he discusses the sense of place at Font, the visuals are remarkably beautiful photographs and close-up video of natural forms of moss and leaves. After an homage to the past masters with an ascent of Karma, a repeat of the Dave Graham problem Sideways Daze V13 follows. From then on we mostly see problems that are relatively little known stateside, all of the highest quality and filmed in such a way that we seem to understand not just the climbing but the environment around them. Readers may recall my review of Between the Trees, which also focuses on Fontainebleau. This movie is very reminiscent of that and yet is a bit more detached, less intense.

This is seen on the two last Font sequences of Trip Hop 8c and Angama, both brutally difficult problems. Paul climbs basically alone, except for Alex filming and a solitary spotter on Trip Hop. On Angama, a linkup of the Fata Morgana boulder, the rock itself has this peculiar looming quality, like the hulk of an old battleship, gray and green with brown rust streaks. Paul moves across it with certainty and finesse making for one of my favorite climbing video segments of late.

The Schengen Files closes out with an ascent of The Story of Two Worlds, an 8c Dave Graham testpiece on Swiss granite in the Ticino valley. The aesthetic is different here, more intense, dynamic and acrobatic, with a harsher light for filming and a rock that is more aggressive in its form. With this very significant repeat the film ends and naturally the viewer wants more. The Schengen Files is an impressive debut on the part of Paul and Alex and a reminder of how much can be done with minimal gear and support. I really look forward to seeing more.

Below is an interview with Paul about the film.

1. What kind of look did you want for the film? It seems you deliberately tried to avoid the hype/shock and awe approach.

The look Alex and I were going for on this film was more of a grunge art approach. The film was not a high budget endeavor in the slightest. I wanted to really get down and portray pure climbing. The goal was, through the use of music, color and shot choices, to portray climbing as a harsh sport, which we as climbers all know it is, but yet visually pleasing at the same time. There is no shelter or pleasantness when you are curled up on your crash pad amongst the freezing cold wilderness unable to feel a single part of your body. I wanted people to see that and to not over-glorify hard bouldering. The film was not shot in a climbing gym or even outside on fairly pleasant days. Nearly every climb filmed for the movie, it was slightly above or below freezing outside.

2. How about camera and other gear? Was this a low-key, low budget affair?

The shooting for the film was done on my canon t2i with the 17-55 f/2.8 ef-s lens and an old tripod. This definitely made the video what it was. Having a zoom lens with such a low aperture is a necessity when it comes to shooting video with a DSLR. We unfortunately did not have any other lens or a microphone for the interviews. The filming of this movie has been a huge learning process for both Alex and I and we are very much looking forward to getting a bit more professional gear for the next film.

3. You're an artist, so tell us something about color and light in Fontainebleau.

For me, It was amazing to be able to film in such beautiful places as Fontainebleau and Ticino. Alex also has a very artistic eye as she has been shooting photos for years. It was really fun to arrange shots together for each of the different climbs we chose to shoot. I learned a ton about light while shooting for this film. Light is an extremely harsh element when it comes to shooting video on a DSLR. In France, it was not super hard because we had mostly cloudy even lit days but in Switzerland it was quite difficult to set shots up so that it would be relatively metered correctly. The colors in Fontainebleau were incredible and being there to film them and then see them on the big screen was mind blowing. It made it easy to compose interesting and visually pleasing angles!

4. What natural forms interest you most in Font? For example, how did you find that framing shot on Elephunk?

When I am thinking about creating a shot. I tend to think about how the rock is going to be seen by the viewer. Some angles in person will look incredible but on film can be distorted and leave the viewer not having a good idea of how the climb actually goes. I have been peeved in the past by films that make it nearly impossible to understand the problem as whole. I watch climbing films to get psyched on going to areas and to have an idea of the climbs there. In making my own film, I wanted to gather angles that would really show the problem as a whole and give people a real understanding of every boulder I climb. The framing shot on Elephunk was kind of luck. My friend and I noticed a cool vine patch that could make a cool shot. it was really bright outside, so we did what we could, but in the end I think that shot looked pretty cool and gave the viewer a nice account of the scenery around the boulder.

5. I think the sequence on Angama was really the most successful from a visual standpoint. What were you the most pleased about?

I really did enjoy the Angama sequence as well. I don't think that I have a favorite climb, however, there were certain shots that when I got home and saw them on my computer I was really happy about. One of those was the close up shot of the slap move on Karma, another being the top out sequence on Trip Hop, and some of the cool nature/color shots i got along the way that were nice addition and filler footage to the movie. I think I was genuinely most pleased about the whole process it took to make the film and how all of these clips came together to make the movie what it is today. It was a long process to make everything fit well and to be visually pleasing as well as work with the music I had.

6. Finally why not more from Switzerland?

To be honest, I wish I did have more from Switzerland. The idea for creating this film came when we were in Fontainebleau, after our four month stint in Ticino. We had already used a lot of the footage we had shot in Ticino over the last four months in various online clips. We did not want to use any footage over again so, we decided that from that point on we would with hold the hardest footage for the movie we were making. When I went back to Switzerland, the plan was to film a lot more after climbing TSOTW, but unfortunately, the weather went bad on us and we made a quick return to Fontainebleau! I still have many amazing projects in Switzerland that I will definitely be filming and putting into the next film!

The Schengen Files is downloadable at for $6.99 and is well worth it. If you are a serious boulderer, buy a copy now.

Thanks to Paul for the interview and DPM for supplying the film!

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