Roger Cox: the growth of outdoor action video

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WITH two mountain film festivals coming up this month – in Edinburgh from 14-16 February and Fort William from 19-23 February – now seems like as good a time as any to reflect on how films about the great outdoors have evolved over the last decade or so. Or rather, how they’ve been transformed out of all recognition. “Evolved” doesn’t really cover it.

Not so very long ago, making serious films about climbing, skiing, mountain biking and the rest required truckloads of expensive equipment and a small army of experts who understood how to operate it all. And that was before you even got into the editing suite. Now, though, thanks to the development of miniature high definition video cameras, digital SLRs that shoot video, and easy-to-use editing software, this hitherto closed world has been opened up to anyone with a laptop and a couple of hundred quid to spend on camera gear. It’s telling that these days, in even the most extravagantly funded backcountry ski and snowboard films – the ones with helicopters filming the athletes and yet more helicopters filming the helicopters filming the athletes – the skiers and boarders themselves are equipped with exactly the same model of clip-on camera as the one the spotty 16-year-old kid at your local ski hill just got for Christmas. The technological playing field has been well and truly levelled.

A still from 'Five Months', a film by Peter MacKenzie which is being screened at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival.

A still from 'Five Months', a film by Peter MacKenzie which is being screened at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival.

So how has this change affected the films that get shown at festivals like Edinburgh and Fort William? Well, one big advantage has been the way it’s suddenly allowed a lot of people who have been doing extraordinary things in the mountains for years to start recording their exploits in big-screen-friendly high definition. The local hero who skis steeps as well as any sponsored pro isn’t just showing off to an audience of a few bewildered ice climbers any more – chances are he’s putting together a short film in his spare time that will eventually find its way into a Mountain Film Festival or three, to be gawped at by a couple of hundred enthusiasts or – potentially – viewed online by thousands.

From this point of view, then, the advent of affordable filmmaking gear is a Very Good Thing. Take, for example, Peter MacKenzie’s film Five Months, playing at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. As hinted at by the title, the film was put together during five months last winter and features talented homegrown skiers like Gavin Carruthers and Blair Aitken launching themselves down some of the gnarliest gullies in Scotland. A decade ago, their exploits might have been recorded in a few blurry photos, stashed away in a shoe box and forgotten; now, though, we all get to see what they’ve been up to in pin-sharp detail.

There is another, even bigger advantage to the advent of cheap extreme sports cameras, though, and that is the way the sheer volume of high quality footage now available online has forced filmmakers to raise their game.

Ten years ago, multinational ski and surf and snowboard companies could put out jaw-droppingly unimaginative films and get away with it. I used to think nothing of spending ten or 15 quid on a “surf film” on DVD, back in the days when when a surf film was usually little more than an hour of randomly assembled clips of sponsored pros doing their thing in exotic locations around the world, with an equally random soundtrack blaring in the background. Now, though, 15-year-old kids can do that. Heck, five-year-old kids can probably do that. So in order to make themselves heard over all the internet white noise, the multinationals – and even the committed, mid-market, one-man-band filmmakers – have had a rethink. Money can only buy you so much technological advantage nowadays, so – refreshingly – we’re starting to see more and more films that try to tell proper stories. The line-ups of this year’s Edinburgh and Fort William mountain film festivals bear this out: great story after great story after great story. Grab a programme and dive in…