British climber and filmmaker Ben Pritchard has played a key role in the UK's climbing scene over the past twenty years. Working alongside Rich Heap, he captured the development of British bouldering by the likes of Jerry Moffat, Ben Moon and Malcom Smith in films such as One Summer, Stick It and Stone Love. These set the tone for much of the bouldering movie genre you can find today on mass online.
You were one of the early pioneers of what has now become the modern bouldering movie genre. How did those early films come about and what kind of equipment were you using?
I think it was Ben Moon’s idea initially that set us off with making One Summer (1993). Bendcrete, a climbing wall company that sponsored Ben, loaned us a hi-8 video camera. It was about as good quality as you could get in a consumer camera at the time but looking back the pictures are pretty much just mush. We bounced loads of ideas about and started shooting without much of a clue except that we wanted to show bouldering as a legitimate activity within climbing.
We shot in a very rigid way, just different angles on problems, no actuality. Then we set to editing in a very linear way on an analog edit machine that was basically 2 video machines. I say we shot in a rigid way but a couple of bits where Ben got the camera had a bit of humanity to them, having no background in film meant I missed that element completely. Warp records also got behind us. They gave us a pile of music and just said you can use whatever you want. We were like ‘er... ok, thanks’. If that happened now I’d be jumping for joy but it seemed like it was normal at the time.
It came out to some mixed reactions, one review was particularly scathing and we got really incensed but on reflection it was fair. I think because we were so out of our depth we had to struggle a lot to make the film but somehow imagined that struggle made the film worthwhile.
Stick it really was an era defining film; there weren't many bouldering films around back then. What inspired you to make it in the style you did? It feels like it set the scene for what you'll now find on Vimeo or Youtube.
Stick It (2001) was probably my idea and it was a lot of fun to make. Rich Heap and I just spent a year travelling about filming various bouldering. We were still shooting on DV and editing on Rich’s Avid system that had 8 whole GB of storage. I’m guessing that around that time Final Cut was around but we hadn’t cottoned on to that particular revolution.
I think the magazine style or whatever you might call it came from Rich and I wanting a break from trying to do narrative stuff. Whilst we avoided narrative I feel we tried to bring something different and sympathetic to each section. Obviously some segments are stronger than others but the strongest ones have very different feelings or atmospheres. My particular faves are the Earl Crag and the Porth Ysgo bits. Earl seemed like a good rendition of what it is like to be out with a bunch of mates on a freezing day and having a ton of fun. Porth Ysgo is the Summer counterpart. with respect to current YouTube and Vimeo stuff I hadn’t really made that connection. I’d love to take credit though.
We missed one notable ascent in Stick It. I’d been out with Ben to Gardoms quite a few times but I think the filming was possibly not super conducive to settling him down enough to climb it. Rich and me were on our way to Wales and Ben called and told me he’d just climbed 8ball. I must admit we were pretty gutted but I think the sequence we cut for that problem says more about the activity of bouldering than any amount of successful ascents and is another bit of the film I like still.
Stone Love (2002) was another film that I really liked making and Rich’s editing was an eye opener for me as he managed to make such a strong narrative piece out of what was ostensibly just a load of bouldering. I think we’d realized after Stick It that we wanted to make films with a bit more humanity in them and this idea heavily influenced how we shot this.
How much did art school affect your filming style? Splinter in particular has a real art style about it rather than just a traditional climbing film. There really hasn't been many climbing films like that since.
I am still pretty psyched about Splinter (2000). There was so much that went right with that movie it’d be hard to beat for a genuine moment of joy. I think the combination of esoteric behavior and intense effort and reward makes it a pretty satisfying movie. It might be hard to match that actually. Rich’s editing is excellently paced and Malc’s excitement after he climbs the problem really made it. I think if he hadn’t done the problem while we were there or if he’d done it more recently and done it again for the camera it wouldn’t be such a memorable film.
Art school will certainly have informed my approach to film making but we’re not making art films as such. I think you could characterize Rich and I’s approach as an interest in the people rather than the activity. Climbing is generally just a backdrop, the same as running or any other stuff we film now are. I like climbing for the way people's characters come out in their approach and I think the breadth of means of engagement allows for huge variety of scenarios.
Actually that concentration on the character rather than the activity is a slightly disingenuous statement as we are totally into seeing hard climbs climbed.
It has been a rich vein for us but there aren’t many aspects of climbing left we haven’t had a stab at filming. The one glaring omission is a film about high level mountaineering but it seems to me that the only way to make that movie is to be the mountaineer like Jimmy Chin or somebody and I’m definitely not.
Your focus on the people within climbing is interesting. It's now so easy to quickly shoot and produce a bouldering short: Do you think that has led to a lot of filmmakers losing sight of the narrative and reason people climb?
Maybe a lot of climbing films are a bit trite, but I’d say that is true of films about any number of things. There are original and great things out there - my particular favorite was a recent Mammut movie about Anna Stohr and Antoine LeMenestral revisiting la Rose et le Vampire. That film had humor, humanity and a kind of joy that is pretty rare. I think it was almost perfect but it came from a pretty conventional film making approach. I think its success is almost 100% due to the chemistry between the protagonists and obviously the camera/director to spot that and film it in a useful way. I think numerous factors have to combine to make a successful movie. I expect those things happen more often than we notice though - and that is where good film makers shine through, in their ability to spot those things and shoot them because they are quite fleeting.