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Filmmaker Interview: Sean White, “Beyond Gravity”

February 24th, 2010 by Jocelyn Matsuo Asst Video Editor

Filmmaker Sean White’s documentary, Beyond Gravity is a visually stunning look at the experience of mixed climbing (on both rock and ice). Currently, White is on a new adventure in the Philippines, but patiently spent time and effort working with local internet to answer some questions about himself and his film over email. — Jocelyn Matsuo, Content Editor

Hulu: Which came first, you as a climber or you as a filmmaker? Did one influence the other?

White:The mountains came first! Everything else was a natural progression. After high school, my friends and I got interested in mountaineering and climbed peaks all over the Pacific Northwest. We learned to climb technical rock and ice in order to improve our skills in the mountains. We’d photograph our trips on 35mm transparency (oh, the old days of film) in order to share our experiences with others, often in slide shows put to music. Inspired by magazine and outdoor gear catalogues, myself and Aaron Black enrolled in a year-long professional photography program to learn the art of the stills image. Our backgrounds are as stills photographers; we never took film school. So I guess climbing influenced the photography which influenced the film making. Evolution!

It was in photo school where we met Aaron Jackson who was also studying photography so he could apply it to his surfing passions. That was 1997. Two years later, I bumped into Jackson and he told me how he was making his first film using “prosumer” [a cross between professional and consumer] video cameras. This was the start of the digital filmmaking revolution, where wannabe filmmakers could afford a quality video camera and a computer and could create something professional in their basement. Jackson went on to complete Canada’s first surf movie, 5mm Canada, an instant classic and our inspiration for making Beyond Gravity.

What is the story of the project, how did it come to be?

In 1999, I was working as a photojournalist for the daily newspaper in Victoria, British Columbia. Aaron Black was photographing climbing and snowboarding for magazines in Whistler, where he was heavily exposed to the action filmmaking scene. Aaron Jackson showed us what was possible with a small investment in video equipment and lots of determination. Black recognized the opportunity to combine our photography and climbing backgrounds to create a film. My inspiration stemmed from combining all our passions and applying my journalistic background to create a groundbreaking movie. Beyond Gravity would be our film school.

What is your vision for the project? What do you want your audience to take from it?

From the beginning, we wanted to create a film that captured and celebrated our passions for the lifestyle of climbing. This meant having to cover a range of climbing disciplines and to weave them together in a coherent story. It had to be action-packed enough to satisfy the cravings of hardcore climbers, but also informative enough that non-climbers would be inspired into the sport or at very least take away some insights into the lifestyle. The concept was to bring the world of climbing to the masses.
It was also the perfect vehicle for meeting, interviewing and climbing with some of the best athletes in the world.

How did you find the other climbers for the project?

Many of the climbers in the film were friends from the climbing scene in Squamish including Matt Maddaloni, Andrew Boyd, Conny Amelunxen and others. We met Sean Isaac in a parking lot and he invited us to film with him. Isaac introduced us to many of the ice climbers in Canmore, Alberta, including Jim Gudjonson and Abby Watkins. We also cold-called some of our climbing heroes like Peter Croft, Barry Blanchard and Lynn Hill as well as then-young star Katie Brown. Everybody we approached and filmed was genuinely excited about the project and gave generously of their time and energy for the film.

Are there any anecdotes you’d like to share?
So many … how to choose?

In California, we filmed Peter Croft free-soloing the Cardinal Pinnacle in the Sierras. After scaling the peak, I rappelled several hundred feet down to capture him on a crux move beneath an overhang. As I hung above Peter with the camera, both of us several hundred feet off the deck, the rope above me rolled over to a sharp edge and began to fray away at the protective sheath. I didn’t notice at first, but when I started to ascend the rope with my jumars [mechanical devices used for ascending on a rope] to position for another shot, I could see the nylon core above slowly ripping apart. I untied, then free-climbed to the damaged section with the camera, then re-attached the ascenders above the wrecked rope for the rest of the ascent. To this day, I honestly believe that if I had stayed filming for another few minutes, the rope probably would have failed and sent me to my death.

How has the project influenced the climbing community? How would you like it to?

I’d say people were really stoked about what we had created, especially in terms of the level of cinematography and the style in which we edited the film. It’s probably the first climbing movie that has transcended from the action-only genre into an exciting and insightful documentary for the mainstream public. Certainly it’s a timeless piece that still resonates with viewers, even years after its release. I hope Beyond Gravity will carry its message of inspiring people to get out and climb, explore, and have heaps of fun in the process!