"As a climber in 2013, most of the world has been explored," explains Lee. "So climbers are engaging in more contrived stuff now like speed climbing and base jumping, because the climbing has already been done. Ulvetanna’s north east ridge is one of the finest of all rock ridges at over a mile in length and hadn't ever been climbed until we got there. The stunning ridge is the longest, hardest line, and very appealing for a climber. The film is called 'The Last Great Climb' because its about setting yourself seemingly impossible challenges."
Lee interviewed Sir Chris Bonington, to provide the historical climbing context. "None of the 8000m peaks had been climbed in his day. His generation was lucky," Lee recalls.
A band of brothers
This was the third film Lee had made with the same team of climbers, so he could draw on their history together for the back story, too. "We did not have an idea what the film would be beforehand. The story is about what happened - how these guys climb a mountain," he explains. The documentary follows a fairly traditional route, using interviews to provide a build-up.
"There are lots of interesting things about this particular route to climb this mountain. It was a childhood dream for the guys involved. Ulvetanna is so expensive and difficult to get to, and only first explored in 1994 by a Norwegian expedition. So I went up to Norway to visit the climbers concerned and got some of their stories."
"The film tries to present something that is genuinely epic, but somehow done by a bunch of guys who are quite ordinary," argues Lee. "They're just having a laugh – they are keen amateurs besides Leo Houlding, who is a professional climber. This is one of the film's strengths. I'm always trying to bring specialist stories to a wider audience."
The shoot didn't encounter any particular surprises. "Nothing catastrophic happened and we succeeded. Nobody got frostbite, nothing got broken or left behind." But the subject matter has a huge amount of visual appeal, and this is where the abilities of Canon’s EOS C300 digital cinema camera really scored.
The Cinema EOS advantage
"The C300 was ideal for 'The Last Great Climb' for a couple of reasons," explains Lee. "We had to do stills as well as videos because of the way these things are funded – primarily by our sponsor, Berghaus. It's really valuable for them to have stills that they can use in marketing. It's hard enough shooting a film in a location like the Antarctic, but having a list of still shots to get as well makes it even more complicated! This trip had the best setup we've had - the C300 digital cinema cameras and two EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs - because they share the same lens mount and EF lenses."
Not for the faint hearted, or for vertigo sufferers. Alastair Lee films Leo Houlding on the side of Ulvetanna. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 28mm; the exposure was 1/30sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.
Lee took a selection of lenses for the video and stills cameras, all of which used the EF mount. The primary choice was between an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and an EF50mm f/1.2L USM. "If I had to use just one lens I'd use the 50mm," explains Lee.
His kit bag also contained an EF14mm f/2.8L II USM and an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, providing a full range of wide angle to telephoto options. But the most unique lens in the arsenal was an EF600mm f/4L IS II USM, although this was exclusively used for distance shots by the second cameraman, Dave Reeves, who remained at ground level.
"The cliff was over a mile in length," explains Lee. "So the cameraman was up to a mile away from the climbers. Yet we still got super-sharp, clear pictures. The C300's sensor is a bit smaller than [full-frame] 35mm so makes the 600mm lens more like 850mm. It was a real asset, and brought a new dimension."
Shooting whilst mountaineering takes considerable dedication, however. "It's difficult climbing with all this kit round your neck!" Lee laughs. "It's very physical. Everything is handheld once you're on the cliff. It's inconvenient; it's very time consuming. But I put myself through that to achieve the end goal."
As well as reducing the number of lenses, the C300 is also smaller than camcorders Lee has used before. "Looking back I'd use the same again, it was brilliant. Miles lighter, great for generally carrying. The picture quality is amazing, no doubt about it. Power consumption is really good. Once you've got a fully charged battery, I was amazed how long it lasted."
The equipment used in the film was brought in by large transport aircraft. Here we see Alastair setting up a ‘crane’ which imparts a type of motion that alters the audience's perception of a subject, in this case the stunning mountain of Ulvetanna. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 100.
The extreme temperatures caused fewer problems than might have been expected. "Both the C300s and the EOS 5D Mark IIIs were fine. It's not really an issue now there are no moving parts," Lee argues. He had experimented before the Antarctic trip in Greenland. "It was brutal. We're not polar explorers, not used to extreme cold. I had an EOS 5D Mark II with me, and was really harsh with it to see where the limits were. I left it in a bag outside overnight. But it still turned on and worked straight away." The bigger enemy was moisture rather than cold, as it makes lenses mist up. "It's actually better to leave cameras outside in a bag, to avoid the change in temperature when moving from the warmer tent to frozen outdoors."
Whilst turning cameras on in the cold conditions didn't prove problematic, keeping them powered was. Lee took as many batteries as he could and shot accordingly, with 10 batteries for the C300 and 15 for the EOS 5D Mark IIIs. They did have a solar setup at base camp, which could charge five C300 batteries in five hours. But they couldn't charge them when on the mountain. "We needed to be more disciplined with batteries and memory," explains Lee. "But we actually came back with half the batteries still full, because we were quicker with the climb than we expected."
Light wasn't an issue, either. Although Antarctica was experiencing 24-hour daylight at the time of the shoot, Lee simply set the C300 at ISO 100. "It was so bright, with the snow, but we had really good weather. The C300's built-in neutral density filters were tremendously useful as well."
A logistical challenge
Despite the economy of shared stills and video lenses, bringing all the kit necessary for a shoot that was part of an Antarctic expedition called for some creative thinking. The team for the trip consisted of six people, with four climbers and two production crew, although Alastair had dual roles as climber and filmmaker. Their travel baggage allowance included a golf club bag each, so this was used to bring the jib, tent, and tripod. They had around 1,700kg of food, fuel, and other kit. But they had to bring the main camera kit in hand luggage, as flight cases could not be used.
The sheer scale of Ulvetanna’s challenge is shown very clearly in this image. Mountaineer Leo Houlding makes his ascent up the 2,930m granite peak in eastern Antarctica by its north-east ridge. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 100.
"Once the plane lets you off you're on your own for 35 days," explains Lee. "So we had to make absolutely sure we had everything we needed." Aside from the pair of EOS C300s for video and EOS 5D Mark IIIs for stills, Lee also brought an EOS 5D Mark II to capture time lapse sequences.
Two Manfrotto tripods were employed - one carbon fibre and one aluminium - although once on the mountain Lee was only able to shoot handheld. They also brought three consumer-grade handicams for climbers to film themselves as much as possible during the ascent. Some of the most dramatic establishing shots in the film were produced using a 4.5m jib, which Dave Reeves, a professional grip, had built himself. Rocks found at the location were used for counterbalancing.
Audio capturing required some compromises. Although the formal interviews had been captured using lavaliere radio lapel microphones, these weren't viable for shooting in the Antarctic. They would have added another level of complication and point of failure. So, instead, Sennheiser directional microphones with wind protectors were employed. "The microphones had to be pointed whilst climbing to pick out sound, which wasn't easy," explains Lee. "But we were only going to use the best shots visually. If that one doesn't work we will use another one. It was the same with sound."
Working under duress
The workflow needed to remain disciplined, despite the harsh environments. Lee brought eight flash memory cards, and the footage was backed up after each shoot onto a quartet of 2TB portable hard drives, via a laptop. "We would fill a card, log it and label the footage. But there was only two of us, and this would normally be two people's jobs on its own. We could watch footage on the Canon utility on the laptop, but there was no point trying to edit it in the field. Footage looked blue due to the use of Canon Log, but we could see whether it was in focus."
Lee shot all the Antarctic footage in Canon Log mode. "It gave us more scope for grading. We used this the whole time. Despite the blue appearance when we looked at the rushes, we just had to have the confidence it would work out, which it has. We didn't have any trouble recreating the correct colours in post production. In fact, the colours are fantastic."
Alastair Lee frames up a shot on Ulvetanna. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.
Although Final Cut was used for editing, DaVinci Resolve was called upon for grading. "It's amazing," Lee recalls. "The results are so much better than anything else I've used." Just importing the footage took a long time, as there were around 80 hours of it wade through. "It has been huge process putting the film together. We have spent eight months editing editing the project, and before you can think of the story, there's the mind-numbing task of looking through all the footage."
But it was worth it. "The footage is brilliant," enthuses Lee. "Anyone that could turn a camera on would have got half decent stuff, because this is arguably the most impressive mountain range in the world. But I think we did it justice. Even if you don't like climbing, or the characters, or the filmmaking, you would look and think 'this place is amazing.' I can't believe the BBC didn't go there for The Frozen Planet! It's a really unusual aesthetic - massive granite spires that are 1100m high coming out of pure white pristine snow."
The end results have been so good that Lee would definitely use a Canon EOS Cinema camera for future projects. "I would like to try the EOS C500 because it does the higher frame rate. But 4K is not of interest to me, for where my films end up. The higher frame rate gives more creative possibilities." But even the C300 managed to take Lee's video production to a new level. "The end product looks like a five million quid film, but we are actually on a guerrilla budget. The star of the show is the mountain. It's easy climbing but it's so exposed and so aesthetic. The C300 really helped us bring that beauty out so anyone can relate to it."