Reel Rock 7: Q&A with Mountain Filmmaker Josh Lowell
Film festival founder talks new technology and what makes the movies so damn good
Those epic shots you see of Alex Honnold taking on Half Dome without ropes or Chris Sharma climbing impossible overhangs in Spain wouldn’t be possible without the work of Josh Lowell and his partner Peter Mortimer.
Lowell (Pound Ridge, NY) and Mortimer (Boulder, CO.) each head their own studios focused on climbing films. They are leaders in the adventure film industry and founders of the Reel Rock Film Tour, an event they founded in 2006.
This year Reel Rock 7 will debut some of the hottest new climbing movies during its world tour. They feature notorious climbers including Conrad Anker, Sasha DiGiulian, Alex Honnold, Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra, Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin. Lowell and Mortimer had a hand in each of the four films that show these athletes pushing the boundaries of their sport.
From his office in New York, Lowell told me about the most fascinating moments from a year of filming, epic nighttime shoots thousands of feet off the ground and the team’s unique collaborative approach.
For more about the event and showings near you, visit the Reel Rock 7 website.
What sets the Reel Rock Films apart from other climbing movies?
In the last 5-8 years, there has been an explosion of good-quality cameras, cheap editing programs and places to post videos (YouTube, Vimeo). There are hundreds of dudes out there shooting climbing footage and putting it up.
Ten years ago, I wasn’t trying to go too deep–it was just rad footage of climbers. That was enough. Now it’s not because that’s out there for free. Now we put most of our time and energy into identifying big stories about interesting people and telling them in the most compelling way. That’s what makes our films work and that’s the future.
What makes Reel Rock special this year?
This is the first time we’ve worked so closely with outside producers. The films by Camp 4 Collective (The Shark’s Fin) and Hot Aches (Wide Boyz) add extra depth to the tour.
With Camp 4 Collective, it’s their first attempt at a big commercial film and they worked with us on a short version for the tour. They gave us all of their footage and we did the recut with their input. That film is really stands out in the lineup because it’s an epic story of a huge, huge adventure. It speaks to a broad audience because you have death involved, but it’s the kind of thing that I will never go shoot. These guys are amazing and I’m honored that they worked with us to include the film in the tour.
We also put more time and thought into making the stories deeper. It’s not just about action, it’s about people. We try to tell these stories in ways that will inspire and be authentic for climbers, but will also resonate with other people.
Which of the films did you work the most on?
All the films are collaborative, so we work closely with the Sender guys on planning out the stories and we cross over on who shoots and who edits. Honnold 3.0 and La Dura Dura were collaborations. I directed La Dura Dura and did a bunch of the shooting, and my team and I did the edit. I also did some shooting for Honnold 3.0 and codirected and edited it along with Peter.
What was it like filming La Dura Dura?
In La Dura Dura, we’re charting this showdown between Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra. Chris is 31 and has been at the top of the climbing game since he was 15. He’s a legend who totally changed the sport. Adam Ondra is a 19-year-old Czech kid who came out of nowhere. He’s a prodigy who quickly caught up to Chris. The two of them started working on a new climb together that would be the hardest climb in the world.
It’s a very unusual situation. Normally climbers don’t work on a project together. You have two guys who are at the forefront of the sport and every single time they tried the route it seemed like it could be it. Every time one of them would tie in, everyone who was up at the cliff would stare and wonder who it was going to be.
It was really fascinating to watch their approach to collaboration. The obvious element of competition is there but they kept it positive, healthy and productive and used it to motivate themselves.
They have extremely different styles in their approach to climbing. They were doing the movements completely differently. As a fan, it was fun to watch and to try to capture the energy. When we edited it, it turned out to be a funny sequence, comparing all the difference between these guys’ personalities.
At the same time, there was a lot of pressure–not just on Adam and Chris to climb the hardest route in the world, but also on us. If they do this historic thing and the batteries on our camera run out, we will miss the moment.
Who did you have your money on?
Adam was the favorite, but I’ve learned over the years never to bet against Chris. Chris is a laid-back legend and usually the moment you bet against him is the moment he rises to the occasion.
Can you tell us a little more about the special set up you used for the shoot?
We wanted long, perfect tracking shots that would give continuous documentation of the climb, so we developed a new camera rig with the help of our friend Matt Maddaloni. Matt is a climber from British Columbia who built his own cable cam for filming mountain biking and kayaking. It’s a horizontal system that flies the camera across a river. We wanted to find a way to do it vertically.
We brought Matt over to Spain and we spent a week rigging. The original system they used involved a motor and a fly wheel. To create a vertical system, we anchored a climbing rope to the top and the bottom of the wall, along the route. The rope worked a track. We then put together a metal-framed rig that would hold the camera.
Instead of using a motor, we used pulleys and gravity. At one end of the rope, there was a heavy bag of rocks we used as a counter weight for the camera. By pinching or releasing the rope, you could move the camera upward or stop it. This was really important as climbers pause to chalk up on their way up the wall. We followed the footage from a monitor down below.
What was the biggest challenge for shooting?
The hardest shoot was for Honnold 3.0 and was led by Pete. The second half of that film focuses on Alex’s big triple-linkup in which he climbs the three biggest walls in Yosemite (Half Dome, El Capitan and Watkins) in under 24 hours by himself. We were trying to capture that whole thing in real time, so you could really feel it happening, so we had 10 camera men spread out all over the walls.
The guy at the top of each wall would follow Alex as he finished the climb, track with him down to the base of mountain, ride with him in the car to the next climb and follow him to the base to film the start.
Pete was at the top of the first and third peak. He met Alex at the top of Watkins, hiked out with him, jumped in the car, drove to the base of El Cap and then left Alex with the other camera men so he could hike 2.5 hours to the top of half dome to meet Alex a second time.
Because we did it this way, you can really feel what’s happening. You can see Honnold struggling and get the sense of what’s unfolding.
For a lot of the shots, we drafted these hard core climber dudes who call themselves the monkeys. They are super comfortable on the walls and good with a camera. Some of them had experience with video, but for one or two, we were just like “Here’s a camera, let’s see what you can get.” They nailed it, too.
You have to be really experienced to go half way up El Cap by yourself in the middle of the night and sit there in the dark. When Alex showed up, the guys would follow him up for the next 2,000 feet (El Cap is about 3,000 feet high).
It’s dark, so we knew that the shots wouldn’t be gorgeous. It was more important to have someone who’s competent on the wall and who Alex is really comfortable with. You don’t want to have someone bumbling around who could hit Alex and knock him off the wall.
They used DSLRs–like cannon 5ds–which take great video images, but are still built like cameras. Everyone can flip a camera into video mode. All said, the guys did a great job.
There were a lot of really intense emotional moments in the films, from Conrad Anker’s first ascent of his 20-year project to watching Chris Sharma interact with the next generation of climbers. When you first saw the films, what moment most spoke to you?
The first time that I watched the rough cut of The Sharks’ Fin, I was really blown away by seeing Renan, the narrator and main shooter, planning to return to climb this epic mountain after a terrible ski accident. Even though he broke his spine and skull and could barely move, he was determined to finish the climb with Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin.
Conrad had put a whole lifetime into this climb and decided to leave his wife and kids (whom he adopted from his forming climbing partner, Alex Lowe, who died in an avalanche) at home to try the peak again. Jimmy had suffered terrible frostbite during their previous attempt, but was also going back.
Risking your and your climbing partners’ lives in these huge, huge adventures is an aspect of big mountain climbing that is different from sport climbing and bouldering.
People in the audience scoff because they can’t believe Renan still has this idea that he’s still going to climb this epic Himalayan peak. But that’s the turning point of that film. No one really knew if he would be ready.
For me, seeing Renan barely alive and vowing not to let it slow him down speaks to this incredible dedication that climbers have.
You sort of laugh, but it also turns your stomach to realize no matter what, he’s going back. It seems like he should quit going to the mountains or he’ll die. But he can’t. He’s got this calling.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you’d known when you started out?
One thing I’ve learned is the importance of collaboration. It’s natural to have competitive sense, but you’ve got to learn to work with talented people, take criticism, and separate your ego from the pure pursuit of your best product.
The model that we have for the tour is unusually collaborative. In most other outdoor film industries, each production company makes one film and they tour the film. Our model is to work together. It’s a flexible model in terms of the content. This year we have four films, some years we have more or less. We want to put the best stuff forward, so we rip each other’s work apart and try to put it back together in the best possible way.
What are your strengths and weaknesses and how does that work with Pete?
I get great shots and edit them together in a way that’s stylistic and that flows, but in that process I can get lost in the details lose sight of the big picture. All I see is unique moments, like the moments I love because a song comes in at just the right time or the moments I hate because I can’t get the color correction right. But I know an audience is watching it as a film – and there the flow and the emotion really count. Pete’s good about making decisions about the structure and balance of the film and the lineup. He also does the producing and business side.
Do you go to any of the screenings?
It’s fun for me to go to the first couple of screenings. I like to see if the audience will laugh where I think they’ll laugh or to hear them gasp because something crazy just happened. It’s incredibly satisfying. But I’m definitely not anxious to go watch the films over and over again. I’ve had my time with them.
Upcoming Shows in the United States and Abroad
Logan UT: Oct. 10
Glenwood Springs, CO: Oct. 10
Seattle, WA: Oct. 10
San Antonio, Texas: Oct. 10
Chiang Mai, Thailand: Nov. 3
Prague, Czech Republic: Nov. 3
Sao Paulo, Brazil: Nov. 8
For a full list of showings, visit the Reel Rock 7 calendar.