Charlie Woodburn has arguably the coolest job of any climber, but it comes at a price: he has No Time to Climb. Whether it's on the set of the latest James Bond film, Batman or Bridget Jones' Diary, he films aerial shots for major productions in exciting locations across the globe. Long periods spent away from home, unpredictable work patterns and a lack of routine are not typically conducive to ticking-off dream routes, but Charlie isn't one to let disruption and uncertainty get to his head. Shaken but not stirred, etc., etc.
'Mostly rocks and celluloid,' Charlie's Instagram bio reads. When he finds the time between filming jaunts, Charlie is among the best of British trad climbers with first ascents up to E9 and quick repeats of lesser-travelled classics in all corners of the UK to his name, including Rare Lichen E9 6c, Something's Burning E9 6c and Meshuga E9 6c.
Alongside balancing his demanding job with training, Charlie has achieved this impressive ticklist while managing Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of chronic arthritis (UKC interview). A meticulous approach to time management and nutrition while playing to his strengths by choosing bold traditional routes with lower physical difficulty has given Charlie the upper hand over the disease.
In recent years, the emergence of his 19-year-old cousin-in-law Hamish McArthur — a double World Youth Champion and 9a redpointer — as a formidable climbing talent has further motivated Charlie to make the most of every training session. Having introduced Hamish to climbing when he was a kid, Charlie unfortunately can't complain about his younger relative now burning him off.
In light of the record-breaking release of the latest Bond film No Time To Die, Charlie described the highs and lows of occasionally rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars, drinking whisky with David Attenborough and what he thinks the future of big budget adventure films might look like...
On the next Bond: James Bond is fundamentally sophisticated, effortlessly cool and is an immaculate dresser. This rules out all climbers. Fact.
How did you get into film work?
My Dad was a director of TV commercials in the '70s, '80s and '90s, so I grew up on film sets. I never had a particular interest in getting into that line of work as a kid. Film sets can appear boring with lots of people standing around apparently doing nothing if you don't understand the process, and as a kid I expected Star Wars style magic to be happening all the time, which of course it isn't.
Later in life when I became obsessed with climbing and had a slightly naive idea that I could just go climbing my whole life with no money, I dropped out of Sheffield Uni where I was studying maths and was so skint I moved back in with my parents in London. I then started working with my Dad's production company Park Village Productions to help out in the studio while I tried to get a job. I then found I could get paid to be a 'runner' making tea and running errands. I wrote to all the commercial production companies in London and got freelance work as a runner and slowly worked my way up.
Which films have you worked on over the years?
Since I now specialise as a technician in the Aerial Unit on productions, mostly we come in and do a small number of specialised shots on a film and so generally move from film to film pretty quickly. Sometimes, though, we're needed for months on the bigger films and these have tended to be the most enjoyable to work on regardless of how the film turns out. Some of the best ones have been all the Harry Potter films, Black Hawk Down, Spy Game, Tomb Raider 2, Body Of Lies, Blood Diamond and No Time to Die. Other jobs where I've just been in for a day or two doing one or two shots are Bridget Jones's Diary, Austin Powers, 28 Days Later, 1917 and the forthcoming Batman film.
What does your role generally involve, and what did you do in the latest Bond film specifically?
No Time to Die was my first Bond film. Since I work in the Aerial Unit, this means I assist with any shots where the camera needs to fly. This can be helicopters or drones, but the vast majority of my work is with helicopters. The camera and lens are rigged into a gyro stabilised system called an Eclipse which is attached to the nose of the heli via a bracket system. The total weight of the system can be as high as 250Kg (depending on the camera and lens) and this completely disrupts the centre of gravity of the aircraft. So to compensate we add weight to the back of the aircraft by adding weight below the tail boom and removing the tail cone and replacing it with a much heavier one. The control console, video playback and monitors are rigged inside the aircraft and operated from there.
My job is to rig, balance, tune and calibrate the Eclipse with whatever camera and lens configuration is required. It's more common these days to shoot with digital cameras, but on Bond we were shooting with film which was like a trip down memory lane for me. We alternated between 35mm and IMAX cameras. Each unit on a film has its own camera crew which breaks down into the Director of Photography or DOP, camera operators, 1st Assistant, 2nd Assistant and trainees. Because the Aerial Unit is small, I work as both a 1st and 2nd Assistant as well as the Eclipse tech. This means taking care of all the focusing considerations (although this is rarely an issue shooting from helicopters) as well as loading the film into the cameras, keeping notes of all the scenes and take details as well as everyone's favourite job: doing the clapperboard.
Tell us more about your travels while filming No Time to Die. Where did you shoot your aerials?
No Time to Die was a dream job. We started shooting in Norway in March 2019, then spent a month in Jamaica, then back to northern Norway, then three weeks in Scotland with perfect weather. Then we made two trips to Italy to Matera and Sapri, and two weeks in the Faroe Islands. People tend to think that when we shoot in glamorous locations it's like being on holiday, which very often is as far from the truth as you can get. It's generally 14 hour days, 6 days a week and very hard work. On NTTD it was all of those things, but so much fun with a truly brilliant crew. Being on a job that is badly organised or underfunded can be like pulling teeth, but on this production it was slick and everyone on the job was at the top of their game.
A big film is always shot with multiple units. The main unit shoot all the principle acting and dialogue scenes with the stars and so on and then there is a 2nd unit who shoot all the stuff that doesn't require the main actors. On a Bond film that means stunts, car chases, explosions etc., basically all the fun stuff. Main unit mostly shoot with sound for obvious reasons and so helicopters don't generally work with main unit. 90% of our work was with 2nd unit so we spent a lot of time shooting car chases, stunts etc. It's challenging because you often don't get another chance if you get it wrong, but it's definitely the most interesting work, to my mind anyway.
What's your favourite shot/sequence that you worked on from No Time to Die?
Probably the Land Rover flipping on the side of Loch Laggan or the trawler exploding in Jamaica.
What did you make of the magnetised abseiling scene in No Time to Die?
This is how I've been abbing into Pembroke for years. I think DMM are pioneering this technology...
How do you keep up with training and general fitness when you're away for long periods?
In short, I don't! I almost always take my Beastmaker and rings with me and clamp it up above my bathroom door in my hotel room. It always starts with the best intentions and some fingerboarding in the evenings, but very often I'm just so tired from work that I just need to wind down. Once the consistency goes it really seems a bit pointless. But that's probably why I'm not climbing 9a!
There was one Sunday in Jamaica on our first day off in a while where I started a finger boarding session and then just realised how stupid it was when I could be on the beach under the palms drinking Rum and Ting!
Freelance work is always periods of feast and famine. I'm very lucky to be able to train and go climbing whenever I want when I'm not working. But the flip side to that is that work can get offered at the last minute and all plans for projects etc. get shelved. I got the call to work on NTTD in mid February and started in early March. Even then I was told it was just that week's work, but found out about the Jamaica section whilst in Norway. Slowly they added more and more aerial work and I was pretty much non-stop on it until November. Because of the nature of this work, I have found most of my climbing over the years to be trad onsight mid-grade mileage. Getting strong takes a lot of time and consistency and often those are things I don't have. Bold slabs? You can climb them when you're weak and unfit, and that's probably why I've done quite a lot of that style of climb.
COVID has been especially tough on the film industry. How did you manage during lockdowns? Were you able to focus a bit more on climbing?
A freelancer's life involves periods of feast and famine when it comes to working. I've always been a freelance worker and so it's ingrained in my DNA to save enough for a rainy day. I had bought a new van in Feb 2020 and started converting it, expecting to fit it out in-between jobs, but as it happened I had all the time in the world. I was set to get on a flight to Egypt to film Death On The Nile, but the production pulled the plug on it. There were many productions that got put on hold and a few started up again in September 2020 between lockdowns.
During the first lockdown I trained on my board a bit and got out running on the scar behind my house. The weather was amazing and I felt lucky to just be in one place watching the season change. I was pretty content actually. I find that sometimes when I'm not able to climb and I see endless Instagram stuff of friends or colleagues going out and doing some amazing climbing, I get a bit of FOMO. But in lockdown there was none of that. It felt strangely soothing.
Is there some crossover in the technical aspects of aerial filming and the technical elements of climbing, do you think? Both require a lot of kit!
Very little, apart from the fact you can't really bluff it in either. Safety is a huge consideration in both and if you opt to wing it without learning a proper apprenticeship it's unlikely to go well. Confidence in your equipment and your partners are equally important in both.
Which location has been your favourite to visit/work in? Do you get much down time just to explore (maybe even climb?)
I think my favourite location to work in was Kenya. I worked on David Attenborough's Life Of Mammals for the BBC. Not aerial work, it was a crew of six plus the great man himself. We toured around the Maasai Mara filming all the wildlife and stayed one night under the stars at the bottom of the Rift Valley in a tiny oasis a hundred miles from the nearest road. An old expat army Major brought in all our food and water, which involved an 11-day camel ride. We sat cooking zebra on the campfire with scorpions running around whilst looking up at the Milky Way. He'd decided to not bring as much water as needed because he wanted to make more room for Scotch. So at the end of a long day in 42 degree heat, we drank warm 12-year-old Balvenie to rehydrate. Good times!
How close do you get to the big-name actors? Who's the coolest star you've met?
It's rare to be working directly with the actors. Usually they are staying in much posher hotels than us too, so we don't get to see them off set. On occasion, we end up in the same hotel and see them around. One of the most memorable experiences for me (which without doubt will have been the most forgettable for the star) was when I was in a lift in a hotel in Genoa whilst shooting on a film called The Island. I was alone in the lift when it stopped before my floor and Scarlett Johansson walked in, looking absolutely beautiful and dressed up for dinner. In that moment I thought "OK Charlie this is your big moment to say something unbelievably cool." And so I managed to just stare at the floor and say nothing. Later that evening I was sat opposite her at dinner. She told me she was single and looking. I grinned like an idiot and probably started talking about the weather or something. We remain strangers.
I met Bono once while working as a runner on the pop video for U2's single Discotheque. I was in my bohemian phase and was sat outside the studio smoking and wearing a bowler hat. Bono came out, asked if I'd seen The Edge anywhere and then said "I love your hat, very cool." Six months later I saw U2 in concert supported by Oasis. Bono was wearing a bowler hat. This is irrefutable evidence that the only reason Bono was ever cool is because of me.
But the coolest? It'd have to be David Attenborough or Steven Hawking.
Have you ever had any disasters on set?
In my early days as a 2nd Assistant Camera tech, I was working on a commercial with my dad directing. I was loading the film into the magazine for the camera which has to be done in complete darkness in a changing tent, which you put your arms into and do everything by feel. Similarly when the film is exposed you have to 'download' the film back into the film can in the changing tent so it can be shipped to the laboratory for developing. Clearly the most important thing for a 2nd AC to do is not expose the film to daylight….ever. You can guess what happened — much to the amusement of the whole crew because I was the director's son. The whole sequence had to be shot again and put the shoot well behind schedule. It's a mistake you never make twice.
How does it feel to watch a film after having played a part in its creation? (and No Time to Die was delayed...that must have been frustrating?)
Often the Aerial Unit's contribution to a feature film in terms of screen time is very small. So when I see the film it doesn't necessarily feel like I have much of a connection to the finished product. But for those films where I've spent a large chunk of my time involved in the whole process, it feels very satisfying to watch them. Even if I don't particularly like the film itself I can still be proud of it. It's a bit like new routing really. If you do a new route which took vision and time and commitment to clean, work and climb, it feels very satisfying even if the route is only one-star in quality. I suppose the difference with films is that I don't have a clue about the plot or script of the film. Often I arrive on set and don't know who's in the film or anything. So seeing it is like the big reveal. It finally makes sense how all the things we've been working on fit together. NTTD was very much like this. The plot was kept very secret.
As drone technology advances, is there a possibility that helicopters won't be needed for aerial shots in future?
There is only a small overlap between drones and helicopters. Sure drones have taken a bit of the heli work away, but mostly they have just added to aerial capabilities, doing what helicopters can't do. Drones are cheap, quick to set up, require less permissions, can fly low, can fly closer to objects and people and produce less air downwash disturbance. However, they can't take bigger cameras, can't take zoom lenses, can't fly as long, as high, as fast, as far, are less reliable, can only fly by line of sight and can't fly in strong winds. The company I work with - Marzano Films - are constantly working with both. It's a bit like when cams first came out, they didn't replace nuts, they just add to the possibilities for a trad climber's options.
Have you worked on any climbing-based films?
Before I started aerial work, I tried to get onto Alien vs Predator which was shooting in the Himalayas. They needed a Camera Assistant with climbing experience and I spoke to a few people to try and get on it, but didn't get the job.
It seems like outdoor/adventure films are growing in budget and popularity, with major production companies taking an interest (see Dawn Wall, Free Solo, The Alpinist and The Rescue). What do you think the future of adventure films will look like?
I think Hollywood-style depictions of climbing and the outdoor world have become a bit more authentic over the years, but clearly there's a huge discrepancy between film drama entertainment and real life. This isn't unique to adventure themes though. I'm sure if I was a policeman watching a cop film I'd be laughing myself stupid. People forget that the number one thing for a film is to make money and that requires a lot of people to go and see it. The general population mostly like to see escapism — that's pretty much why we go to the movies. They like to see the kind of things that they fantasise about, which is why all film stars are good-looking and films have happy endings, generally. Since they are more acclimatised to what many people would consider to be 'extreme', I think climbers and 'adventure personalities' have a tendency to assume that everyone has a thirst for authenticity when it comes to the entertainment-style films and I don't think that's true.
That said, there is an emerging breed of big-budget, feature-length documentary style films such as Sherpa or The Alpinist that have been very successful. Perhaps the reason for the growing interest in these type of films is to do with a huge global understanding of the importance and beauty of nature and our planet in general due to the climate change epoch, coupled with a year and a half of lockdowns teaching people that freedom and resilience are very important aspects of life in general. These films deliver those themes better than any Hollywood Cliffhanger-type film ever could.
Have you got any big jobs coming up?
There are always potential dates for things and I've got used to not taking them too seriously until they've been confirmed as there are so many factors that can change the schedule and COVID is only adding to that. It keeps me living in the moment because it'll all be different tomorrow. Next week The Crown series 5 is confirmed and then possibly the new Wonka film. But who knows, I'm not the best at long-term planning.
What's your next climbing goal?
I've had a new route project on Pavey for a while. I hadn't been on it in a long time until Gresham found his adjacent line (which recently became Lexicon) and got me motivated to train for mine. I trained over the lockdowns and finally managed to toprope it clean at the end of May. But then sure enough the work started again and now I can't do any moves on it again. It's a peach though, so I'll keep at it.
Who in the climbing world could be a contender for the next Bond, in your opinion? (!)
James Bond is fundamentally sophisticated, effortlessly cool and is an immaculate dresser. This rules out all climbers. Fact.
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