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Unless you’re a world-class sport climber (though possibly not even then), you can’t do what Chris Sharma does. But thanks in part to a new rich media project created by filmmaker Josh Lowell and photographer Corey Rich, you are now closer than ever to understanding why.
Sharma, age 26, is generally recognized as the best climber in the world, the king of the king line. “I’ve always been dreaming of finding the biggest, most badass line you can imagine,” he says. “The line that’s just calling out to you, beckoning to be climbed. That’s the king line.”
And for the past decade, Sharma has traveled the world chasing that line, living out of a backpack, cars on two continents, hotels, and the houses of friends, with very occasional stops home in Santa Cruz, CA. In his pursuit he has redefined sport climbing, bouldering, and deep-water soloing by relentlessly attempting “unclimbable” lines and frequently, impossibly, climbing them.
To capture Sharma’s quest, Lowell, his brother Brett, and co-producer Peter Mortimer, worked closely with Sharma for nearly two years, documenting some of his most impressive ascents in the movie “King Lines,” an independent film (now also on DVD) that has played recently to packed theatres of climbing enthusiasts. The film, shot in HD and cut on a Mac running Final Cut Pro, follows Sharma to spectacular locations “covering all different styles of climbing on all kinds of rocks and environments,” says Lowell. Rich’s still photo coverage of some of the same efforts — downloaded and edited on location on MacBook Pros running Aperture — have appeared in Climbing magazine, the bible of the sport.
But to tell Sharma’s story outside the closed circle of climbing enthusiasts, Lowell and Rich decided to collaborate on a mixed media project that would combine the best of each of their digital assets — video, still images, sound — and take the story of Sharma’s vertical exploits horizontal.
“Josh and I are really good at touching that inside-the-game audience,” says Rich. “Our goal with this rich media profile of Chris Sharma is to broaden the scope of our audience so that my mom can watch this piece and sort of get a better feel for who Chris is and what he does and why his life is special.”
Neither Lowell nor Rich doubted that Sharma’s story would carry to a broader audience. Raised a Buddhist in Santa Cruz and discovered as a climbing prodigy at age 14, the freakishly strong, spiritually centered Sharma was seemingly born to the task of finding the toughest way up in a sport notorious for taking down even its best athletes — daily on the face of impassable rocks, or over the course of a career through physical injury and psychological burnout.
“It’s pretty much accepted that he’s the strongest climber in the world,” says Lowell, “known for just phenomenal strength and phenomenal flow in his climbing, but also for single-mindedly pursuing climbs. Sometimes he’s made 6 trips back to his objective over the course of a couple of years, eventually climbing one route that redefines the difficulty for that style of climbing.”
Sharma’s preternatural abilities are fully enhanced by his Zen-infused attitude, which has not hindered his ascension as a literal rock star. “He’s very charismatic, with a laid back attitude that’s unusual for top athletes,” says Lowell. “He’s known for not really having a rigorous training routine. When he talks about climbing he talks about having fun and pursuing your passion and being true to yourself rather than succeed, succeed, succeed. His Zen approach to life and climbing has made him iconic within the sport. People really admire his outlook.”
Friends in High Places
Capturing high-end video, audio, and stills to feed their rich media project required the absolute cooperation of Sharma, with whom Lowell and Rich have enjoyed a long working relationship, as well as some Sharma-like physical adjustments by the crew.
“We’re in an environment that inherently is very challenging to operate in, oftentimes dangling from a rope on a cliff, sometimes after enormous physical exertion to even get to the location,” says Rich. “So it’s not quite as simple as just making great video or great pictures.”
And even arriving at those optimal precarious shooting and recording positions can be logistically difficult for both crew and climber. “If we got up at midnight, Chris also got up at midnight,” says Rich. “If we’re going to hike six miles in the dark, he’s also going to hike six miles in the dark.”
And because he is the generally the sole star of the production, it was on Sharma not only to climb virtually impassable routes but, in a more practical sense, to hit his marks. “For lack of a better example, we’re working with the Michael Jordan of rock climbing,” says Rich. “And we’re asking Chris to perform a slam dunk over and over again at the absolute highest level, jumping to the rim at the limit of where man is capable of doing it. And he’s doing it with cameras rolling.”
Lowell, who’s been making films with Sharma since he was a 15-year-old phenom, says that they learned together over the years how to how to make Sharma’s exploits translate onto the screen: “Climbing can be really spectacular visually, but also it’s a quite subtle sport. It’s not necessarily as easy to understand as say a skier flying off a hundred-foot cliff or a Motocross guy doing a back flip.”
To bring the story out, Lowell depends on the naturally articulate Sharma to describe what is going through his mind. He also worries the details of ambient sound capture. “It’s important that we get really good audio so that we can hear the fingernails scratching behind the flake of rock trying to get a purchase.”
And given the goal of reaching out to a broader audience, Lowell felt it was important as well to capture another side of Sharma’s world. “Climbing’s really a lifestyle sport like surfing,” says Lowell. “It’s about beautiful places, traveling, having adventures, meeting fascinating people from different cultures. It’s one thing if Chris just goes and climbs something; it’s another story when he puts in that extra work so he can share that experience with people all over the world who are maybe watching at home or checking the web during a work break, dreaming along with him.”
Besides making the logistical and creative adjustments required to shoot Sharma at work, Lowell and Rich needed to establish field workflows that allowed them to efficiently complete their own.
For Lowell that meant shooting in HD video entirely on the Panasonic HVX200, a camera that records HD video onto P2 cards. After each shoot, he’d capture and log all the day’s footage in the field on a laptop running Final Cut Pro and dupe the files onto multiple FireWire drives. “Some times we do rough cuts at night to figure out which angles or which aspects of the story we need to cover the following day,” he says. “The majority of the hard editing is done later in the studio but every night we’re checking footage, downloading it, organizing it, naming clips and planning. You couldn’t have worked like this ten years ago.
“The video editing’s all in Final Cut Pro,” says Lowell. “I’ve been working with Final Cut since version 1, and I’ve never looked back, never looked sideways.” Lowell discovered even more reasons to like Final Cut Pro while assembling the rich media project. “For this particular project, it was a little different than normal video editing because we’re working with so many still photos. I really like that it’s so easy within Final Cut to work with stills, go out to Photoshop and back, and have the changes reflect in Final Cut.”
For still photography, Rich also deploys an all-digital field workflow anchored by his MacBook Pro. “We do a lot of our editing and basic tonal adjustment after a shoot in Aperture.”
On multiday or multiweek shoots, Rich downloads the pictures to laptops in the field using Aperture and then transfers the backups onto hard drives. “I would say 50% of the process in terms of downloading the assets takes place in the field whether that’s sitting in a tent somewhere, in the mountains, or in a hotel room.” And Rich’s digital workflow extends seamlessly into his studio, a networked Mac-driven office running multiple terminals, Xraid and Xserve.
For Rich, the choice of a Mac-based workflow was simple: “My passion is creating compelling content. What I’m least passionate about is how to use complex tools, whether that’s a camera or a computer. For me, the Mac is the tool that requires the least amount of thinking yet does the most amount of work.”
After years of work planning and producing their first foray into rich media production, both Lowell and Rich are sold on its possibilities. “If there’s really any question among creatives about whether rich media offers an opportunity to tell a story in a new and interesting way that has potentially more power than just a film, a print piece, or an NPR-style audio piece,” says Rich,”I think the answer is, almost unanimously, yes.”