One of the most important climbing films of the 1960s was El Capitan made by Fred Padula and Glen Denny in 1968. It tells the story of a three day ascent on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. In recent years this film has been unavailable and there is now a project to try and raise funds to digitally restore the original version to make this seminal work available once again.
Glen Denny and I planned The El Capitan Film during the first part of 1968. It had long been Glen's ambition to make a film about a climb up the legendary El Capitan in Yosemite Valley ever since he had climbed it. He wanted to use Gary Colliver, Richard McCracken and Lito Tejada-Flores in the film, who had also climbed El Capitan, so he contacted them and arranged to start filming in May of 1968, before the weather got too hot.
I was determined to capture live sound believing this would provide a depth beyond what a written voice-over narrative could do. Wireless microphones were very primitive at that time and limited to transmitting less than a 100 feet. We needed them to transmit over half of a mile, so I delayed the start of filming for almost a month while I had them modified to function beyond what they were designed to do.
The challenge of filming the climb created many unexpected complications and delays including Gary Colliver's fall that broke a couple of his ribs and the pull out of one of the investors. With Glen's unrelenting determination and the loyalty of the three climbers, we prevailed.
After we were done filming, Glen and I spent a few months organizing the footage and the sound. Then, Glen resigned from the project and handed everything over to me. With several hours of raw footage and only a vague notion of what he might have had in mind, Lito Tejada-Flories helped me edit a rough-cut about three hours long into an accurate chronological progression of the climb. At this point it might have held together with a voice-over narration as in a conventional documentary. I knew there was more potential than this with Glen's footage, so the challenge was on. Richard McCracken helped reduce over 100 hours of wild sound down to about an hour revealing some wonderful moments of verbal expressions, exclamations, and personal feelings.
Now that there was a manageable amount of material, I was more encouraged but still had no solution. The footage sat in cans for almost eight years during which time, with the help of an American Film Institute grant, I paid off all the production debts and pondered on how I could make something out of the footage. By 1977, I was finally able to cut the film down to about an hour in just a couple of weeks. I knew that if the sound could be made to work, the film would be special. Finally, in 1978, ten years after filming, El Capitan was completed and premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Glen came to see it; his presence was incredibly important because his approval would finally resolve the whole experience for me. El Capitan was well received, won several festival awards and for the next 25 years remained very popular.
By 1995 El Capitan was only available on VHS tapes. The 16mm prints were fading and damaged from wear and tear and since the internegative had been damaged, new prints could no longer be made. As digital technology improved and DVDs of much better quality began to replace VHS tapes, I made the decision to discontinue VHS and took the film out of circulation.
Even though El Capitan was no longer being distributed, I continued to get inquires and requests for the film. When very, poor, quality bootlegged copies started showing up on the Internet, I knew I had to do something. I decided to look at the original film, that ran through the camera, and to my surprise after almost 45 years, it still looked pretty good. I had it digitized (scanned) in high definition. The new technology is of such high resolution that every little scratch and bit of dirt on the film showed up crystal clear. In order to restore the film to its original condition, over 86,000 frames, one frame at a time, has to be digitally cleaned and repaired. With digital software we are able to reconstruct the film with all the original effects, restore the color, and make it look even better than the 16mm film prints.
After several years of being repeatedly asked, "Whatever happened to the climbers?" I approached them with the idea of making a film that would reveal their lives today, and have them recall their memories of filming El Capitan. About a year ago, I started filming and have captured some delightful and insightful moments of their lives and accomplishments. Though still being edited, the film is turning out to be candid and entertaining. When it is finished, it will be included on the DVD with the restored El Capitan.
With the money that I hope to raise from Kickstarter contributors, I will be able to complete the El Capitan film restoration, finish "Whatever happened to the climbers?" (working title) and prepare the DVD master.
After being out of distribution for over 10 years, with your help, the classic film, El Capitan, will finally be available again, restored in HD and looking better than ever.
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Thank you for your support.