Time for a new entry in my ongoing series on visual storytelling. In this series, I analyse a video that I feel is strong in visual storytelling. For this entry, let’s consider a slightly different genre that is close to my heart: a climbing film!
In climbing, a ton of films are produced that show how a famous or not so famous climber completes a route. Some of these films are very short and only show the actual climb, while other films take more of a storytelling approach and show the process the climber went through to be able to complete the climb. Some films opt for a very American approach, filled with superlatives and outbursts of emotion. At the other hand of the spectrum is this film with the Irish climber David Fitzgerald, which is probably one of the best short films I’ve seen in a very long time. The film was done by Puzzleglass Films from Sheffield.
Fitzgerald has set his sights on the super classic boulder problem Voyager, located in the Peak District near Sheffield in the UK. Boulder problems are short routes on large blocks that are climbed with no protection other than so called crash pads, which are foldable mattresses climbers place at the bottom of the block to catch their fall. Voyager is a legendary line first climbed by the British climbing pioneer Ben Moon, now the owner of his own apparel brand Moon. This is the hardest problem in all of the UK, and a fairly high one as well. To fully appreciate how hard this is, play close attention to the start of the video. First, let me treat you to a vintage video that shows the original ascent by Ben Moon. Do keep watching till the end for some hardcore old school UK climbing culture.
A thing you should know about Peak District: it rains a lot there and the exposure in insane. Winds will blow through the hills, mornings are foggy and the sun is rarely seen. This video does a terrific job of showcasing the typical atmosphere of these Northern moors.
Focus on story and process
The interesting thing about this video is that for the most part, the visuals aren’t all that spectacular. It is precisely this simplicity that makes it work for me though. No prolonged slow motion takes, no fancy light or elaborate camera movement, just simple shots of Fitzgerald climbing, training and talking. The story trumps all other aspects here, and really drew me in. The process of climbing a boulder problem like this can take an insanely long time. A climber only needs to execute 10 moves or so, but fine tuning every single move can take ages. These moves are right at the limit of what human bodies are capable of. The process of climbing a very hard route is one of repeated failure, dealing with bad weather, small injuries to fingers and going back to the climbing gym after you realise you need to be even stronger. It is this process the film perfectly captures, without making it seem one bit more spectacular or epic than it really is. The truth presented here feels liberating and authentic and is captivating. What also helps is that David strikes me as an incredibly kind person and listening to his soft and gentle Irish voice contemplate his process and progress is a true feast.
Another aspect I really liked was the use of music. For the better part of the film, hardly any music can be heard. Then when Fitzgerald heads back into the gym to train, we’re all of a sudden treated to a laid back jazz song. I’ve never seen this music style used in a training sequence before, but it works insanely well, which was quite unexpected. Finally, when Fitzgerald heads back to the boulder once more for his final attempt, a feel good song starts playing that transitions into sort of atmospheric sounds, which makes the sequence feel a bit surreal, divine and climactic. The sigh of relief as Fitzgerald finishes the problem is a lovely contrast with Moon’s abundant screams, which marked a turning point in UK climbing history.