Making films isn't art, at least certainly when we make them; it's more a blundering your way through. Rather than presenting the motivations for making HardXS I thought it might be nice to pick out a few interesting moments from the various films, describing how they came into existence and left an indelible mark on us as producers. It's a kind of leftfield look, an epic tale of British climbing daring do.
'That was a journey'. Tim Emmet was slumped on the rope after going balls out on Extinction (at E8 the hardest route at Gogarth). The tension had been unbearable as he'd committed above a sling draped over a cracked flake. He pulled off the crux sequence and then rammed a couple of cams blindly in a slot. He pressed on further. I was ten feet away filming but framing the shot was starting to become secondary, I was focused on the gear. Like every climber (we've all been there) I was thinking what were those cams like, would they hold, if not would the flake shatter and if so how much would it hurt a sixty footer in to the rock below. The uncertainty of it all seeped out of Tim, so did the fear. We were all gripped. He pressed on.
When it was all over, when he'd reached more gear and found he could dig no deeper to carry on he slumped on to the rope. There had only been the final groove to victory. He looked at the camera shaking his head. 'That was a journey' he muttered and everyone burst out laughing; Stuart Cameron belaying, Ben Pritchard on the ground filming, me on the rope. Sheer mad crazy relief.
In the edit Ben had to download a special package for the edit programme to try and smooth out the camera shake, the laughter. It's only partially worked.
The first pitch had only been about twenty feet. It took us up to the first real steepening of Breakaway, a shale rubble choss fest on the north Devon coast. As Dave Thomas ventured upwards small splinters of loose rock constantly rained down. Martin Perry, his climbing partner, and I huddled under a tiny lip of rock. Dave carried on up what seemed like a finely textured scree slope, kicking steps and swinging an ice pick. Stuff continued to fly down. I'd been peeking out and getting the odd shot only to notice Dave starting to approach an alarming looking rock band. I abandoned the camera and retreated solo down the first pitch. As I looked back Dave was perched on a large 3 foot pyramid of rock and you could see it flexing as he extended his reach. He shouted watch out and I screamed 'Noooooooooo'. It was heading straight down towards Martin. The rock was huge. I carried on screaming and Martin crouched tightly under his insignificant lip. The rock hit a foot away from him exploding. It was where I would have been stood.
The moment it hit wasn't caught on film, but there is a picture indelibly printed on my mind.
It is impossible to understand how hateful editing can become. Those first moments you cut a little sequence that half works are joyous. Then slowly it gets reworked. Then it is linked into other sequences and reworked again. Then discarded because you think it stunts the flow of the whole story only to be reinstated a week later on the advice of someone else. By this point you hate the whole thing, you've seen it a million times and worried over it twice as much. It is at times like this that you need to find something else in it, a tiny spark that lifts your spirits.
In Snow our short about an ascent in Scotland I found such a moment. Ian Parnell is hacking his way through two foot of rime, the snow falling like a blizzard. It's a wide shot from the side and Ian is quite small but I'm sure that, as yet more snow falls on his face and with his hands occupied with his axes, he tries to lick the snow off. A swift swipe of an incongruous tongue amidst the mayhem. It's only a moment but it makes me laugh every time I see it.
Everyone says that they hate seeing climbing films that are a procession of route re-runs or ascents with a guaranteed outcome. But when you film situations with factors unknown you enter the realms of reality TV. During Slate, when Nic Sellars is on Gin Palace, near the top, he looks fleetingly directly at the camera. He is in extremis, possibly he knows there is every chance he is going to fail. That look is all about vulnerability. Personally it makes me feel like a voyeur and I'm not quite sure whether I have any right to be watching.
In terms of the film though it is pure gold, it is a moment further reaching than any of the climbing on display.
Probably, when we were at the crag, we were thinking 'shut that bloody dog up' it's going to be ruining the sound. But when Ben slotted the barking dog in to the edit of James Pearson's film the whole piece suddenly came alive. The dog seems to be barking in to space, at nothing, like there is an unknown evil force assaulting its senses. It gives the start of this little film a touch of the horrors. That's no bad thing and, in fact, I'd go as far as saying that I think every climbing film from now on would benefit from the odd mad barking dog.
(Another nice moment in this film is when James is talking after he's just topped out on The Zone. His age really becomes apparent, his floppy flapping wrists are those of a boy, not a man!)
Steve McClure had this little tic, massaging his knuckles and fingers. I don't think it is a nervous tic, just a comforter, like putting your hand in your chalk bag when your hands aren't sweaty but you need an excuse not to press on up straight away. So really his film is just a series of intermissions between the serious business of fiddling with his fingers. I like that. Being close to him you want to know what it is that's different, what makes him so much better than the rest of us. Fingers are really the climber's tool and Steve's on close inspection look far from remarkable. They are chipolata sausages not prime bangers. They look a bit dry and prematurely aged with those wrinkles. The way he uses them in the every day is slow, they even seem a bit rigid. So for all the looking and filming, I only leant that the old adage rings true, you can't judge a book by its cover. In this case the cover being fingers and the book being a bloody awesome climber.
When I took the final disk round to Nic's to check the buttons worked on the DVD menu we stumbled in to watching the deep water soloing section. Neil Gresham had taken numerous plummets into the sea on his project at Berry Head. As he heads off back down the cliff for one last attempt he turns to the camera and says 'I'm climbing out this time'. At this point Nic piped up 'Oh no you're not!'. Had our editing become so predictable? Or is it there's always pride before a fall?
It was only after it was all finished that I sort of got to thinking about HardXS as a collection. The focus had been so much on capturing all aspects of British climbing that maybe any greater context was forgotten. However I guess things seep in that you're not totally aware of and in the end the film is very much about process. What it takes to get up these routes. Talent, mental games, insanity and perhaps in Neil's case shear bloody mindedness.
Editing is all about what gets left out. The atmosphere of the couple of days I spent with Gaz Parry bouldering in Parisella's Cave was really special. Both days were mid-week and for much of the time we were alone. It was ridiculously tranquil in between the bouts of brutality the climbing in the cave offers. Each day we left the cave battered but calm. When it came to editing I wanted to capture this dichotomy; the stillness of the environment and the ferocity of the problem Gaz was attempting. In the end though as all the different short films started to take shape we realised Cave Life needed to be short and sharp and much of the tranquillity got left on the cutting room floor. Also left on the cutting room floor was the moment Gaz realised how to do the problem. It was to not use his thumb on the crucial right hand hold as he spanned the roof. On his successful go, if you look carefully, just as he releases to take the swing he stops pinching with his right thumb.
Another thing that hit the cutting room floor but in the end got resurrected at the last minute was Toby Benham on Soul Doubt, the E8 at Froggat. We knew that HardXS was getting long (and that often less is more) but we argued there was no better piece of natural climbing talent in the whole film than Toby's. It is pure precision and grace. It had to stay in.
Head pointing is a journey to a point of certainty, a certainty that you will succeed, not fall. Viewing this ascent you are absolutely in no doubt that Toby is going to get up this route. It's brilliant and a neat trick if you can pull it off.
HardXS is the follow up to Slackjaw's iconic Hard Grit.
Slate – Grit – Sport – Snow – Esoterica – Trad – DWS Chalk – Bouldering – Choss
10 short films >> that provide a rip roaring ride in to the heart and soul of the British climbing experience. Travelling far and wide across our magical isle we've searched out the best climbers on all types of rock in all sorts of peril. Whilst full of first ascents and hard core fear the films also offer a rich blend humour and touching observation. It's vintage Slackjaw.
Hombres caught in the act include Steve McClure, John Arran, Pete Robins, Nic Sellers, Tim Emmett, Chris Cubitt, James Pearson, Ian Parnell, Gaz Parry, Dave Thomas, Neil Gresham, Sam Whittaker plus many more.
Includes OverShadow 9a+, Great White Fright HXS, Breakaway HXS, Extinction E8 6c, Equilibrium E10 7a, The Zone E97a, Make it Funky 8c, Clyde Font8a+, Bobby's Groove 8a+, Pic 'n Mix M9, Appointment with Death.