I recently had the opportunity to watch the 89 films for the 2013 Banff Mountain Film Festival back to back with my fellow Jury members. The experience was amazing. I was among a team of experts, our butts and eyes were challenged watching 8 hours of films per day with only coffee and chocolate to sustain us, and our discussions were insightful and enlightening. As the week went on, we started to notice trends and clichés. Here is my top ten list of clichés and trends in adventure / climbing films that should be used carefully, used sparingly, or avoided at all costs.
1. Open with the sound of water, bring in the piano music, then white text on a black title card. – Cliché and predictable. Try something new.
2. Use of VO narration to create artificial tension. – There were too many descriptions of all the ways you could die. This is a movie, not a lecture. If we can’t see it in the footage, you need to recut. VO is to give insights into inner thoughts or events happening elsewhere that impact your subject and story. Please avoid end to end narration. Save it for your slide show.
3. I hurt my mom and friends – There are too many scenes where the athlete is describing that they know they hurt and scare their parents, friends, etc. Even if the audience is thinking about that, do not state it. It makes the subject look very dislikable and I’m no longer rooting for you. For a proper use of Mom, look to “Heaven’s Gate”.
4. Don’t state the obvious. – When you’re 1000’s of feet up an overhanging cliff, free-solo, you don’t need to tell us that “one slip and you could die.” We can see what you’re doing from the video.
5. Show emotions, don’t state them. –If you have to say “This is crazy” or “I’m scared” and I can’t see it, then look to other devices. Music and sound is one of the best devices for telling us how to feel. Combined with the footage and the natural tension of the subject onscreen, we should get it.
6. Music is the cue for the audience how to feel. – Just because the subject was listening to light fiddle music and polkas during the intense free-solo doesn’t mean that’s the right choice of music for the film. If your scene is light and playful, don’t use the music from Psycho. Conversely if death is a distinct possibility, then circus music is also inappropriate. This is not a music video.
7. Rotating Star shot – Overuse of time lapse and slow motion shots. – Both look cool, but they have an intended storytelling use. When they appear every five minutes because they’re cool, it loses the impact of those used correctly. Time lapse is to show the passage of time in an artistic way. Slow motion is used to emphasize something cool and noteworthy. There is too much of a good thing.
8. Overuse of visual effects and transitions – Again, a cool thing stops being cool when used 26 times in a 45 min film. It becomes predictable. The sunglasses reflection shot is cool until it’s used more than once in a film.
9. Action is not enough! – Thanks to YouTube, there is no longer shock and awe. Eric Pearlman videos rocked about 20 years ago. You need to develop a character and have a story. If I don’t care about the character, I don’t care what happens to them.
10. Inappropriate product placement –In “The Road From Karakol”, Kyle Dempster’s backpack strategically covers his masculinity. Without that strategic product placement, we would have been exposed to images (due to the extreme cold temperatures) would have scared us and embarrassed Kyle. The pack solved a problem which had very high stakes! The Red Bull wind chime gets my prize for the most overt use of product placement.
My parting advice is to know who your audience is. Are you making this film for your peers or are you trying to reach a wider audience. If only for your peers, you’re going to likely focus on technical aspects and sacrifice certain story telling devices to maintain absolute authenticity, showing what a badass you are. If you’re making a film for a wider audience, you may have to depart a bit from reality to enhance emotion and tension for those who don’t understand the technical. Your peers may accuse you of being melodramatic, but your film will be accessible by everyone. With a great deal of thought, care, and planning, you can potentially serve both masters. When meticulously planning your adventure, take a few moments to also plan your film. Create a loose map of how you’ll shoot it and be sure to have a general shot list. It’s much easier to get your footage the first time. “North of the Sun” raised the bar on what is possible for adventure filmmakers. I look forward to see what is created in 2014 and beyond.
CEO – Film Festival Flix