Adventure film-making after Youtube (Banff World Tour review)

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour three times now; in LA in 2008, Missoula in 2009, and here in Kalispell last night.  Even in that short time the dynamic of the films showcased seems to have changed.

The world tour makes a wide selection of films shown at the original festival available, and local promoters pick which ones they wish to show, based on whimsy and their expected demographic.  When you attend the world tour, you never know quite what you’re going to get.  I’m going to list and comment briefly on each of the seven films we saw last night, before moving on to a more general discussion of how Youtube (both as a website and a cultural phenomenon) seems to be shifting the Banff films.  In the order seen last night:

1) Dream Result

You can see a trailor at the website, above, but it bears only a passing resemblance to what we saw last night.  We did not see the full film, but rather an edit, about 15-20 minutes long.  Whether the film makers or Banff folks did the edit is unclear, but whomever did should be mildly taken out to the woodshed.  Sturges et al secured some astonishing footage, and while much of it is in the traditional, “radical” vein of bigger is better, some of it went beyond and showcased the personal, narrative side of kayaking.  Chiefly, that running the brown (aka schralping the super gnargnar) can be terrifying, and beat the shit out of you.  Our clip consisted of a biographical piece about Tyler Bradt, many minutes of the most outstanding and gut wrenching boating carnage I’ve ever seen, and a brief narrative of Bradt’s world-record-breaking run of Palouse Falls.  In short, good stuff, but the edit we saw came up emphatically short.

2) As It Happens

You can watch this one (or a version very close to the festival one) on vimeo!  I’ve discussed this one before, both because I went to college with one of the makers, and because the project is one of the more interesting ones to come out in 2010.  The premise, that editing footage as close to the moment as possible will produce a superior artistic product, is a great one, and Renan and Cory pulled it off in great style.  Unfortunately, the edit shown on vimeo and at the festival underwent quite a lot of editing to make it one single work, rather than 5 dispatches (you can view the originals on Renan’s account, which I recommend).  A lot of the immediacy has been lost in the polish, which is unfortunate.  This film also highlights the ways in which things that succeed online and in the Youtube idiom of social media marketing (TNF did well with this one, I reckon) fail on the big screen.  Each dispatch had an amount of local-color/cute cinematography/intro-extro material at the beginning and end, sandwiching the meat of the narrative.  It all sort of works online, but put up on the big screen, in a different context where expectations are different, the lack of a tight narrative with meat on the bone stands out starkly.  I enjoyed this, but think that either the original film(s) should have been preserved, or an even more complete transformation should have taken place.

3) Eastern Rises

This is by far the best film I’ve seen at the Banff world tour.  By far.  It balances all the elements the make adventure films work: great cinematography, compelling micro and macro narratives, humor, idiosyncrasy, and an interesting and exotic subject.  And the film wears its confidence very well indeed, as evidenced by the trailer.  A fly fishing film trailer without a single fish visible!  Be warned, this will make you think about taking up fly fishing.  This is a film worth buying.

4) Chimaera

Also fully viewable on vimeo.  Great shooting, completely boring content.  I think the least interesting film I’ve ever seen at Banff.  A walking, talking cliché that gives great evidence that the Youtube format flops out of the computer.

5) Azadi: Freedom

A film about skiing in Gulmarg, Kashmir, India.  Good material, but unfocused.  It has some nice skiing footage, which is particularly refreshing because the lack of a helicopter obliged the filmers to avoid many of the modern clichés.  It has even better local culture material, which to a certain extent gets lost amongst the ski porn and historical/educational diversions.  Greater focus and a time restriction would’ve helped this film a great deal.

6) First Ascent: Fly or Die

This work, by the super-team of Peter Mortimer and the Lowell Brothers, wins my award for most disappointing.  (I had low expectations for Chimaera from the first few seconds.)  Five years ago their work was indeed at the cutting edge of climbing films, but the effects used by the Camp 4 Collective crew and the material had by Hot Aches and Posing Productions leaves this film feeling stale.  The fact that the series was made for National Geographic TV is largely responsible, leaving the narrative structure dumbed-down and stilted.  Dean Potter is an extraordinarily cinegenic figure, and by that virtue alone this work should have been much better.  Perhaps the other films in the First Ascent series are better, or perhaps Sender Films just needs to step up their game.

7) Kranked Kids (or something)

The seventh film was a goofy, hilarious little spoof from the producers of the “Kranked” series of mountain biking films.  It involves their kids.  I can’t find the name or trailer.  Darn.

Overall the evening was entertaining, and “Eastern Rises” alone was well worth the price of admission.  Unfortunately for the rest of the films, the fly fishermen led by example and showed that good material is not sufficient to make a truly great adventure film.

Rises would not have succeeded had it been standard, 5-15 minute Youtube length.  The interest was in the arch of the storytelling, and the characters which drove that process.  Humor, scenery, and nifty camera work made the medicine go down easily, but were in the end secondary factors.  By contrast, “As It Happens” would have been quite boring without the exceptional camera work, because the storytelling was so thin.  If the material in “Dream Result” had not been so remarkable, the loose character development and barely-there narrative would have never been paid attention.  Without HD video and truly gratuitous slo-mo, “Chimaera” would have gone beyond the realm of the soporific and into the realm of the unbearable.

All of which makes me wonder how Youtube culture will continue to change adventure cinema.  On the one hand, 5 minute attention spans reward visual and athletic pyrotechnics above all else, providing little incentive for auteurs to step back and focus on that which, for me, is most interesting.  Athletic achievement and the dreaded process of “progression” (going bigger, faster, and so forth) are significant because of the mental processes at work for the participants.  “Dream Result” hinted at the fear involved in kayaking a 60 meter waterfall, and the psychological and interpersonal effects of such a process is in the end the story of modern adventure.  As Steve Fisher notes in the “Dream Result” trailer linked to above, in the absence of unexplored continents adventure exists more purely than ever as a pyschological construct.  Telling this story in Youtube-friendly bites, with the immediacy and quick turnover that social media marketing demands, will be a tall order.

I look forward to seeing how my generation measures up.

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3 thoughts on “Adventure film-making after Youtube (Banff World Tour review)

  1. Excellent.

    I’ve seen some of the vids, too, on-line and agree. It’s hard for me to watch more than five mins on the ‘puter, and even those better be sweet, but when I am swallowed up in the dark, with a big screen that demands my full attention, then it better be worth it — a meal, not just a junk food snack.

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