Climbing Video 101

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Julie Ellison
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Photo by Andrew Burr

Just as digital photography opened up the world of image-making to the masses, so have the many gadgets that shoot video opened up the creative possibilities for amateur filmmakers. Whether you have an iPhone or a $6,800 Canon XF300 camcorder, you can be your own media mogul thanks to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and similar sites.

Getting started in filmmaking can be a confusing and bumpy road, paved with crashed hard drives, terrible audio, and absolute frustration, so we at Climbing have tapped our professional contacts to help you, the wannabe videographer, get started. Below, we tackle the entire process, including planning, shooting, and post-production, plus a range of camera options for your project. May you use this guide well, whether you want to become climbing’s Martin Scorsese or just get more than 14 views on YouTube.

PLAN IT OUT Many amateur filmmakers skip the planning process entirely, yet it can prove to be the most crucial step in turning a bunch of random shots into a concise and coherent video that people will actually want to watch.

Begin with a strong idea of what you want your video to be. Is it an artistic vision that you’ve been dreaming of shooting since you started climbing? Is it a straightforward documentation of a friend’s send? Is it a tribute to a certain crag or a humorous look at climbing culture? Different story objectives are going to require different shots, and the objective also infl uences the editing process. For example, a story-driven piece obviously will need strong interviews and B-roll (we’ll get into this more later) to accompany your action footage. A friend’s ascent of his latest project could simply be a compilation of attempts with a victorious clipping of the chains and background music. Even a humorous clip requires thought and preparation, including a complete script that is, you know, funny.

Two things integral to film planning are shot lists and storyboards. The shot list provides the bones for the storyboard, which acts as a skeleton for the story. The storyboard gives you an idea of where each piece of the film will go, in what order, and roughly how long they will be. Be as specific as possible when drafting these tools, so when you go into the field, you know exactly what you need and, if need be, what you can sacrifice.

A typical story for a short climbing film might be your friend’s battle with his long-time project. Think of it in terms of beginning, middle, and end. The beginning might be his training days, talking about how long the project has haunted him, climbing other routes to gain a specific strength. The middle would entail working the route, stick-clipping his way up, or falling repeatedly. Toward the end of this segment, you might want to show the climax of him sending the route, with a simple triumphant shot on the top. The end segment could be short and sweet: a little wrap-up of how it went down and what the route meant to him, or just a shot of the celebratory beer with friends.

Fitz Cahall, co-creator of the 22-episode web-TV program “The Season,” says the stories he films usually start with the athletes. Hopefully, the objective will mean something to the subject, and then “their passion will resonate.” He also suggests knowing the ins and outs of where you’re shooting, because you might be hiking in before fi rst light. “Love the dark,” Cahall says. And with any outdoor film project, there is a good chance you will get rained out. Be prepared to adapt, and don’t ignore an exceptional shot because it’s not on your list—you might need it later. Have backup shots planned in case you can’t get what you wanted. It’s always better to have too much than not enough, and the almost infi nite storage capability of digital video makes extra shooting easy.

Chris Alstrin shooting in Africa. Photo by Gabe Rogel

Chris Alstrin shooting in Africa. Photo by Gabe Rogel

SHOOTING Many of the same tips and principles that apply to still photography also apply to video: composition, lighting, subject, rule of thirds, etc. Experiment with shots, lighting, angle, and perspective—this can yield amazing results.

Silhouettes and panoramas translate wonderfully in video, so don’t ignore breathtaking lighting or striking scenery just because it’s not a hard-core climbing shot. Scenic images like this make up part of the previously mentioned B-roll, which will provide transition material between the main storytelling shots. Shoot your friend tying in before his send, or document his superstitious psych-up ritual. Shoot the sun setting over the crag or your partners enjoying a wrestling match after a long day. These in-between moments are what will really bring a day or trip to life.

“All the filmmakers who are pushing the envelope supplement good action with good filmmaking,” says Bryan Smith, cocreator of “The Season.” “They pick up on small natural details, nuances in a climb, close shots of a crimp.”

More shooting tips: Take notes. Document where, when, who, and what you’re shooting. This will help in case you need to come back and reshoot. It will also help you stay on top of your shot list and what you still need to shoot. Your notes will also help tremendously with editing by helping you locate certain shots and images without searching through hours of footage.

Use a tripod. All four of the professional videographers we spoke to agreed on this one. Kyle Berkompas, videographer for Sender Films, says shooting from the hip “looks amateur. If you want to look professional, you need to have stable shots.”

Still cameras have the advantage of fast shutter speeds to minimize camera shake (the natural tendency of our hands to tremor—it happens to everyone), but video cameras will catch every bump and jerk, making the results difficult for the viewer to watch. (Nobody wants to see a Blair Witch Project effect in a climbing film.) When a camera-specifi c tripod isn’t available, brace the camera on something to stabilize it: a boulder, a car, the ground. If you must hold the camera, always cradle it as much as you can, keep your elbows all the way in against your body, and lean your body against something: a rock wall, building, anything that’s stable.

Mikey Schaefer uses a tripod creatively. Photo by Andrew Burr

Mikey Schaefer uses a tripod creatively. Photo by Andrew Burr

Clean up your backgrounds. Paying attention to what is behind the subject may be the single best piece of advice for a beginning photographer or videographer. Often the background might be a simple rock wall, but always do a quick scan of what else might appear in the viewfinder. Cutting off a person’s head with the horizon line or the branch of a tree can ruin an otherwise well-composed shot.

Because the subject is moving in a video, it can be more difficult to keep the background clean. Pay attention to what is behind, in front of, and beside the person. Judge where the climber will go next and scan the area for distractions. Let her climb into or across the frame. Too much camera movement will give the viewers motion sickness and distract from what you really want them to see: the action on the screen.

Pay attention to sound. An often-overlooked aspect of any climbing film is the audio—not the soundtrack or background music, but the first-person interviews and dialogue. Recording good audio can be a real pain when filming on cliffs and the tops of mountains, so think about when and where you really need sound. If you’re shooting someone climbing, you don’t necessarily need to catch him breathing or cursing under his breath (unless, of course, it’s pertinent to the story). The post-send campfi re and the crackle of the wood make for great audio, but howling wind that drowns out everything else might just get in the way of the story.

With many cameras, the audio and video are recorded on separate tracks, so you can separate them in post-production. Editing software will allow you to cut and move audio and video independently, so you could place an interview track or music where the ambient audio was unnecessary or just plain bad. Many cameras allow you to attach a separate microphone; keep this in mind for important interviews and dialogue. Editing will allow you to control the overall volume and order of the audio, but it won’t let you remove that barking dog in the background of a crucial shot. Make audio a priority and know that bad audio can kill an otherwise great video.

The Sender Films offices in Boulder. Photo by Caroline Wiley

The Sender Films offices in Boulder. Photo by Caroline Wiley

POST-PRODUCTION OK, so you have hours of raw footage on tiny memory cards. Now what? This is where the planning really comes to fruition. If your goal is a 30-second spot on Vimeo of your friend sticking the crux of his project, then it’s simple and straightforward; little to no editing may be needed. If your goal from the start was an epic film worthy of the Reel Rock Film Festival, it’s time to get editing.

There are several popular editing software packages, ranging from Final Cut Pro and Avid Studio (used by professional filmmakers) to iMovie (Mac) or AVS Video Editor (PC). A program like iMovie is great for starting out because it’s free on most Macs, user-friendly, and intuitive for inexperienced editors. AVS Video Editor is similar and relatively inexpensive at about $39.

Whatever software you choose, you’ll first use the program to import the video from your camera onto a hard drive (the internal drive on your computer or an external drive). Pay attention to what format your camera records (examples: MPEG or MOV fi le), and make sure your editing software can handle this type of file. This can usually be found on the box, in the Help section of the program, or online via Google.

It can be a little overwhelming when you have raw footage imported and ready to be edited. There’s no hard ratio to tell you how much raw footage you need for a 10-minute film, but it’s safe to say you’ll need several times that to end up with a concise and well-shot story. Where do you start? As filmmaker Chris Alstrin puts it, “The good thing about shooting everything yourself is that you know what you have.”

Refer back to your storyboard and shot list. There will be certain shots that are 100 percent necessary to tell the story, whether it’s a crucial move or a post-climb victory dance. Start with those and put them in a logical order, following your storyboard. You don’t have to edit down each of those sections perfectly and precisely; leave them a bit rough for now. Think of these pieces as the foundation, and then fill in other clips as you build and develop the story. Pick the best quotes from any interviews and place them where they serve the story best. You will probably also have some good B-roll that you definitely want in the final product. Remember, they’re excellent for transitions between key moments.

This might go without saying, but it’s worth saying anyway: Save as you go. And everything you create should be backed up on a separate hard drive daily. There’s nothing worse than spending 12 hours editing only to find all your work is gone the next morning. If there are edits you’re not sure about, save different versions, so you can refer back to a previous version that worked better.

Editing is where the tone and overall mood of the film take final shape. Follow your instincts. A lot of artistic vision is knowing what you like and what looks good to you, and then going with that. “It’s up to the filmmaker to tell the story, and with video you can give your impression and complete the story without leaving it up to the viewer,” Alstrin says.

Good editing will create a rhythm for the film or within parts of the film. Quick cuts from shot to shot help make it a sweaty-palms, adrenaline-filled movie, while slower transitions may feel more thoughtful or meaningful. Stay aware of your story line and what you’re trying to achieve, as well as your intended audience. Ultimately, it’s a creative form of expression, and there is no absolute right or wrong.

Effects. Keep captions simple; stick to names, ages, and locations. Leave the faux-film effects and dark-edged vignettes to Facebook and emo blogs, and minimize fades in and out. Make sure any after-effect is actually effective, and not just there for the sake of being there.

Music. Think carefully about what message you want to send with the finished product. A soundtrack exclusively of Jay-Z might seem like a good fit at the time, but is he really appropriate for a serious interview about the emotional struggles of a big-wall climber?

Music usage is a tricky subject, but places like Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) provide a straightforward way to license music for free or for a small fee. Otherwise, it’s worth researching copyright law, lest you pay a huge settlement to the estate of Michael Jackson for using “Billie Jean” in your 30-second climbing video. If you have a musician friend that you want to collaborate with, make sure to clarify your intentions with the video. If you expect to make money off the finished product, then it’s time to look into drafting an agreement on how he or she will be compensated.

Once you've reached a point of bleary-eyed exhaustion and you decide the editing is finally done, your masterpiece is ready for the world. Use your editing software to save to the right format. Facebook and YouTube accept a wide variety of video formats, but a personal blog or website might only accept MP4 or MOV files. Click “upload” and let the compliments come pouring in. Next stop: Sundance!

Climbing Video 101

Camera options

VIDEO CAMERA

Also known as a camcorder, this is a video-only device that ranges from small, hand-held devices up to feature film–quality HD cameras. $130 and up (way up)

Pros

  • shoots high-quality video

  • can edit on-camera with some models

  • multiple settings for image customization and shooting modes

Cons

  • most don’t shoot stills

  • cumbersome to carry and pack

  • fragile and sensitive to weather

  • expensive

Climbing Video 101

POCKET VIDEO CAMERA

These cameras usually fit into the palm of your hand and shoot relatively high-quality video despite small size and cost. Examples include the Kodak Playsport ZX5 and JVC Picsio. $30–$200

Pros

  • inexpensive

  • very portable and light

  • video easily transferrable to computer

Cons

  • lower-quality video

  • poor or no audio

  • difficult to stabilize; must be hand-held

Climbing Video 101

DIGITAL SLR (DSLR)

These are the still-photo cameras that professional photographers use, many of which can now shoot HD video. $630–$7,000

Pros

  • shoots great stills

  • manual settings for every situation

  • interchangeable lenses (including zoom/telephoto lenses)

Cons

  • difficult to pack

  • many accessories to worry about

  • expensive (average around $1,700)

  • must carry extra memory/digital storage

Climbing Video 101

POINT AND SHOOT

The fixed-lens camera that most climbers carry usually shoots some video as well as stills. $100–$500

Pros

  • lightweight

  • fits in pocket

  • can shoot stills and video

  • quick and easy to use

  • relatively inexpensive

Cons

  • poor audio

  • very small memory

  • very few manual settings