The blockbuster new release E11, an adventure film about a man, Dave, and his wife, Claire, in an obsessive and sometimes dangerous relationship filmed by voyeur-underground auteurs Dave 'David' Brown and Paul 'Diff' Diffley, opened in 322 cinemas four weeks ago and has grossed over £123 million since then.
Hot on its heels is another high adventure drama, Set In Stone is the story of a shepherd boy (Birkett), his South American Peruvian Pan Pipe playing muse (Mary), some gnarly old author of walking guides (Bill), and three sheep (Jerry, Ben and Johnny) in a complex relationship of love, hate, loathing and redemption on the side of a Lakeland cliff. Entertainment Today (website) said that Set in Stone grossed nearly £25 million in its first weekend and is showing in 87 cinemas in the UK. Then last weekend at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival, Set in Stone won Best Climbing Film & People's Choice Awards. In an exclusive commentary two highly-regarded film critics Greg Rimmer and Mick Ryan talk about 'Set In Stone' interrupted now and again by the creators of the film Alaister 'Al' Lee and David 'Dave' Halsted.
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
Rimmer:Dave Birkett's a good climber. We've all known that for ages. For the last twenty years we've followed his new routing exploits in the Lake District in the news reports of the climbing media, his creations appearing as the headline with, dare I say it, monotonous regularity. It's easy to become desensitised.
Just how good Dave is became more than apparent to me when I watched Set in Stone, a stunning and creative cinematic resume of brilliant achievements by perhaps the best traditional climber in the world today. What a wakening of the senses.
Ryan: If you've been around for twenty years and follow the news reports closely that might be so but as climbing celebrities go Birkett and his routes are well down the league of name recognition. He's not one to appear on the front covers of magazines adorned with his sponsors oversize logos, hasn't got a blog, in fact he isn't sponsored. He doesn't court the magazines, and rub shoulders and network at the outdoor trade shows (maybe he should!). Maybe his lack of widespread recognition has got something to do with the fact that most of his routes are unrepeated, lack the endorsement of other top climbers, his reluctance to shout about his achievements and of course all of his routes are nowhere near Sheffield and aren't on grit.
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
Rimmer: The Lakes has in recent times become somewhat of a backwater. When I started climbing, several summer weekends were spent on the high fells - sometimes plans had to be changed at the last minute because someone else had got up earlier.
This latest offering from the Posing Productions and Shrewd Ape Media featuring seven routes climbed by Dave Birkett isn't likely to cause jostling for position on the belay ledges (there are no routes here easier than E8), but what the fantastic cinematography should do is kindle a desire to climb in beautiful places and act as a reminder to those who have left it for too long. The expert filming of Alaister Lee and David Halsted incorporates the use of panoramic landscapes, time delay and innovative scripting to produce a cohesive body of work encompassing action, interview, commentary and animation.
Ryan: If the BBC had made this film, and it is as good as anything on the BBC, the budget would have run to a million and the credits at the end of the film would have lasted five minutes with an assortment of sound engineers, editors, catering assistants, stunt doubles, fluff boys, graphic designers, producers, directors, helicoptor pilots, animal trainers, animators, 3D renderers, jugglers, hangers-on, girl friends and a whole tribe of Ambleside sherpas to get all the scaffolding upto Scafell. But no Alaister Lee and David Halsted from the BNP stronghold of Burnley did it all on their lonesome.....or did they?
Lee: Essentially three people were involved, Dave Birkett, Dave Halsted and myself. Between us we did the lion's share: we filmed Dave on 11 of his routes and we could only find a belayer on four occasions so the rest of the the time, as I was the stronger cameraman, Dave Halsted was belaying. He'd set a couple of cameras up on tripods and hope for the best!
Of course there's the four people we interviewed (Mary Jenner, Stephen Reid, Paul Cornforth and Bill Birkett), Bill Birkett's interview in particular was awesome, he's kind of the linchpin to the film, we came away from the filming session with Bill thinking we had some superb quotes in can.
There's a couple of other people who were also critical. Dave Reeves is a South African engineer I got in touch with through the UKClimbing.com forums. He was asking around about how to get into adventure/climbing film making – of course the usual torrent of ridicule came his way. I got in touch with him and he met us up in the Lakes. We got onto talking about gear and he mentioned he'd thought about making a boom (as he's an engineer), my eyes lit up! A month later he came up with a fully operational six metre camera boom. These things cost about £12,000 to buy - I paid all his costs which were about £500! The boom shots in the 'Missing' scene in particular really add something to the film.
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
Also a good friend of mine called Antony Carysforth is a visual effects wizard (two Baftas to his name) he did the 8 second sequence where we turn Dave into a skeleton and show his bicep tendon snap.
How much did it cost? Well I haven't been keeping track, we probly spent about £700 on film and dvtapes, took about 25 trips to the Lakes from Burnley so that's a fair fuel bill. We just put all our time into these projects for the love of it really, because we're excited about what can produce. If you were to ask a production company to make Set in Stone it would get into the 10's of thousands (that's if they can carry 30kg of kit up Scafell and then abseil down the East Buttress and still have the where-with-all to film!)
Rimmer: In the opening sequence, Dave makes the first ascent of The Return of the King (E9 6c) on the East Buttress of Scafell. Desperate climbing, fantastic filming and when the route is done, the climber becomes human again and is almost giggling in a breathless spasm of euphoria and relief.
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
The interview sequences with Dave, which intersperse the following action footage are natural and understated, significant others such as Uncle Bill, his wife Mary and Paul Cornforth, are allowed to flesh out the bones. Other big routes follow, Talbot Horizon (E9 6c), Impact Day (E9 6c), Caution (E8 6c), and the cover shot and final route, Nowt but a flee'ing thing (E8 6c). The footage is fantastic, giving equal measure to both the mountain environment and the intricacies of the moves.
Ryan: The landscape shots reminded me strongly of Galen Rowell's work, large expanses of the land, richly saturated, figures on vast landscape. The whole film had a very peaceful quality about it, the timing/editing was perfect, never boring always maintaining interest. Sometimes Tolkein-like with shades of Peter Jackson (dir. Lord of the Rings). The music was perfectly chosen and in the sync' with the spirit of the film. Who are this Pendle Covern?
Rimmer: For three generations the Birketts' have made significant contributions to Lakeland climbing; Jim, Bill and Dave have written their epitaphs on the rocks they explored. An animated sequence gives the viewer an amusing, brief and almost accurate history of the Birkett family.
Ryan: That's Halsted's work I think. Dave tell us about yourself?
Halsted: Burnley boy, done good, done bad and bin done. Made daft films under the guise of 'Bumout Radio' for over ten years, but none are of a quality I'd like to see repeated and the subject matter is dubious. Other than this amateur undertaking (as a hobbyist) I have no background in film-making or TV work, in fact I'm a qualified Social Worker. I was East Cornwall's Respite Services Manager for kids with disabilities until three years ago. I abandoned my career on a whim after deciding that I'd have lots of fun (and earn far less money) working alongside Alastair, making climbing films. I haven't looked back, except occasionally when the fridge is empty, the bus is late and it's raining in the north and it's sunny at Bosigran.
Now we work up to and over 60 hours a week lugging cameras, home made camera-boom, various lenses and a massive tripod up the fells, before rushing home to sit in front of a computer for days - compositing, preening and polishing off the footage. AND I still don't lose any weight! I'm sure my moobs have grown whilst working on this project. Al is lucky that he sweats so much.
Ryan:What about that CGI and animation stuff. Are you a graduate of some expensive New York film school, funded by your affluent parents?
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
Halsted: I have always dabbled in illustration and cartoon drawing, since falling in love with Morph - in "Take Hart" (the filthy hermaphrodite). I did a few cartoons for On The Edge magazine called "The Mighty Steve Bloggs", but was merely a pretender to DC Bourne's crown and sacked it in when it failed to gain me a climbing sponsorship (I still can't climb for toffee) .
The CGI and animation stuff fell upon me, in a way. Alastair can't draw for bananas. He once sketched a cafe scene whilst recovering from Acute Mountain Sickness at a hotel in La Paz, Bolivia. We were filming "Twice Upon a Time in Bolivia" (our holiday flick) and I knew from that point on that I'd have to make the maps and do any illustrations for the film. I started playing with various types of animation and discovered I could actually do it. Over the last three years I've developed (though I'm self taught, a mate of Al's works in the industry and offers pointers when I get stuck). Each film has pushed the boundaries of what I can do on a home PC.... the battle scene at the end of Storms the Movie literally took months to make, but I still gasp at how it all came together. I now do freelance animations for Children's BBC, including the new series of smArt (which also features Morph - Top Trump!).
© Hart, Nov 2006
With Set in Stone we didn't want to make the film look forced or over-cooked with special effects. But we couldn't afford an helicopter (we could barely afford petrol for Al's car) and a hot air balloon was out of the question. Instead I mapped Alastair's fantastic 360 degree photography onto 3D landscapes and presented the illusion of flying. To be honest it's so time consuming that there aren't as many of these shots as people think in the film. We also lugged a 6 metre boom that Dave Reeves made for us, up the fells (mentioned above by Alaister).
Another aside: Early in the year there was a thread on UKClimbing.com saying that a rumour had been heard that someone was making a film about the Lake District. When someone asked "What do you reckon it'll be like?", the response was, "about 45 minutes too long". That stuck with us so much we were determined to make it 50 minutes long. That way there'd be at least 5 minutes of quality. I hope we pulled it off.
Rimmer: Dave comes across as a man of action and few words, with a craggier look than most of the faces he explores, a job working with stone as a mason and waller and the genes to make it unsurprising that he does what he does. His self-deprecating humour endears him to the viewer, yet deflects any deeper questioning. The presentation is an insight into the outward self of Dave Birkett, the Dave of the crag and fell, the man of the hill. “If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it” is about as close we get to Dave's personal philosophy. But actions speak louder than words, the action is awesome and there is something bigger than enjoyment driving this man.
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
Ryan:I particularly liked "I don't feel I ever have a bad day...yesterday it was pissing down and water was coming over the top of the crag and it was awesome! It was awesome to see, and it was good day." Those are the words of someone who loves life to its fullest. I wonder if he ever gets depressed? Reminds me of a UK version of Chris Sharma but even more in tune with his environment and his body in a more natural and less contrived "New Age American" way.
Rimmer: When taunted by a North lakes climber that there was to be a new route which was going to be called The Fall of the Birkett Dynasty it was Dave's pride which led him to Dove Crag and to have one of the best days trad' on-sighting ever, when he climbed two E6s, two E7s and James McHaffie's E8 on Dove Crag, 'Fear of Failure'.
Ryan: Wonder what it was like working with Dave?
Lee: Its been an incredible experience. When I tell people that we've been making a film with a top climber the reaction is usually something along the Lines of ”Ooooo isn't that hard work, must be difficult to have everything ready.” As they need to time the ascent of a route so precisely, staying in the zone and all that. Dave's nothing like that, you could describe him as a Master Zen, he's got an incredible amount of patience.
On the filming side of things we're trying to be a bit innovative, we have cameras everywhere, 6m booms to set up, mini cams on Dave himself, it all takes a lot of time to set up and get right. He's never shown any sign of frustration with us, ultimately Dave's as enthusiastic about this film as we are, that's probably why its worked so well.
In many ways he's been the perfect climber to work with for film making. For example we'd decide which route to film and arrange a time to meet there. As we're coming from Burnley, the earliest we can get to Scafell is about 10am. We slog up the hill to find Dave and he'll have been there since 7am, got a rope on the route, practiced the moves, placed the gear and often has an abseil ready for the cameraman as well as suggestions for other camera placements. Filming at places like Scafell's East Buttress is no easy feat; without Dave's expertise, enthusiasm and organisation it just wouldn't have happened.
It's interesting because at first it seemed like quite a professional arrangement; actually at first this project was a film about the Lakes in general but after filming Dave on a couple of his routes it became clear that he had more than enough routes and intrigue for the film to be solely about him. The more you get to know him the more interesting he became, we kept discovering more and more extraordinary things. He's a bit of an enigma to most climbers so I think the film will have a lot of interest.
Dave was a fan of our previous film Storms the Movie a climbing sketch show, so I think that helped. Right from the start I think he's always had a lot of faith in us as film makers, there's been a kind of mutual respect there. Now we're all good mates and it's just non stop banter at the crag.
Ryan: You must have a lot of sophisticated gear to get the finished result?
Lee: I did the whole edit for this film on my laptop! No joke! It's a pretty good laptop mind (Pentium 4, 1GB of RAM and 4 external HDs , 1100GB). Dave has a much more powerful computer and does all the animations and 3d modeling on that.
I also had my two year old playing/crying in the office a lot. I was going to put edited on a laptop, in a cresh on the jewel case.
It was mostly shot on Sony PD 170s - which are the industry standard for this type of work. The panoramics where captured with a Swiss made Roundshot Super 220 VR (there's only about 100 in the UK, they cost about £7k).
Ryan: What are your favourite recent climbing films?
Lee: I think the best climbing film of recent years is Paralellojams from the The Return2Sender DVD by Pete Mortimer, his latest First Ascent although perhaps not as good a film has some sublime footage and incredible moments. E11 shows a lot of promise too and it probably has the longest trad' fall evercaptured on film/dvtape.
Ryan: You said to me that that you nearly gave up this climbing film making lark in June. Why did you change your mind?
Lee:We felt like giving it up after Storms as we put so much into it and although it was a critical success it was a commercial flop. We put 6 months solid unpaid work into that so it was tough to get motivated again.
Ryan: So how did you hook up with Birkett?
We decided to make a film about the Lakes as we were sure it'd be more commercially viable, there was definitely a gap in the market for a new Lakes climbing film.
© Posing Productions, Nov 2006
I knew of Stephen Reid (compiles Lakes new routes for FRCC) through Colin Wells and asked him who was doing cutting edge routes in the Lakes as that seemed like the obvious place to start. Stephen listed a few names but said really that Dave Birkett eclipses everybody on the Lakes scene being at least a couple of grades ahead of the pack.
I got his phone number in April but it took me about a month to pluck up the courage to ring him as although I knew the name, like most people, I knew nothing about the guy other than he kept himself to himself. I was expecting a skeptical reception.
Anyway I eventually left him a message and he got back to me straight away. As luck would have it Dave had seen Storms at last year's 'Best of Kendal' and was a big fan so we had plenty to laugh about from the off. We went and met him at the Old Dungeon Gill in early June, it was pretty funny because we didn't know what he looked like. I just remember this imposing figure who looked like he was carved out of mahogany walking into the bar and sitting on the next table to ours.
"I bet that's him." I said to Dave Halsted.
"How do you know?"
"Look at the size of his hands!"
The rest is now 'Set in Stone'.
Rimmer: They come along every few years, only a handful per generation, those climbing films that work, the latest offering from Posing Productions is one which just clicks. A brilliant climber, fantastic scenery and some awesome routes.
You can buy Set In Stone at the Posing Productions website here
Set in Stone
© Posing Productions/Shrewd Ape Media, Nov 2006
A film by Alaister Lee and David Halsted
Posing Productions/Shrewd Ape Media
Featuring Dave Birket
Directed and Edited by Alastair Lee
3D modelling/animation by David Halsted
Music by Pendle Covern, Defunckles and Jack Laverne
Total running time 50mins
Quotes from other Set in Stone Reviews.
A likeable, heart-on-its-sleeve climbing movie.
This is a climbing film that will draw families together around the hearth at the end of these short winter days and will inspire them to dream of long days on the high crags of the English Lake District. It will warm your heart, a feel good moment.
Metaphorically addresses a very modern fear, the fear of falling great distances onto a hard surface.
This film is remarkable, a wholly unsentimental attack on bourgeois suppression in the climbing scene of Sheffield, an exposure of deception amongst the working class on first ascents in Scotland and the final redemption and emancipation of a whole flock of sheep in the English Lake District. A must buy.
Greg Rimmer is former owner of On The Edge and Mountain Review magazines and is a gear tester at UKClimbing.com. Mick Ryan is the editor at UKClimbing.com.