Movies are based on illusion.
The National Film Unit short film “Aspiring” has some interesting glimpses into how mountains were climbed before the advent of helicopters, low tech un-natural fibres, lightweight everything, and digital everything else.
Please watch the movie or the following words won’t make a lot of sense.
Now please continue……
Even the film-making process itself has transformed and democratised the production of movies and made them accessible to all. We are very accustomed to GoPro movies these days. Shot in a single trip, climb, or paddle, edited in an evening at home, and published on YouTube the next day. It wasn’t always that way.
A GoPro with no housing weighs 74 grams and can record hours of high definition video. An Arriflex movie camera weighs 10,000 grams and the lead acid batteries weigh the same again. Each 2 minute film canister weighs 3 kg. The film itself cost a fortune, in dollars per second, had to be sent to the USA to be developed, and the editing process involved hours in a dark room clipping and glueing, surrounded by coils of film on the floor. Then another lengthy and expensive process was required to make the positive finished print. Months or years intervened. To view the film involved “going to the pictures.” The projectors had carbon arc lamps and were hideously tricky to operate and you had to factor in buying a chocolate-coated icecream at the Nibble Nook during the interval.
What’s an ‘interval?’
Sorry. The shorts were shown in the first half, before the main feature.
Nope, still don’t get it.
Aspiring was meant to be a “short”.
It’s worth watching the film twice. Once just for the vibe, and the second time to notice the detail. The climb of Mt Aspiring – in the film – starts in the Matukituki valley as it should do, but diverts to the Blue Pools track in the Makarora, then back onto the head of the Matukituki, where, yes, we did carry all our film gear up the waterfall route and thence to Bevan Col. The climb itself was filmed in a number of unrelated locations, including at Tasman Saddle, for the crevasses, then the brief section on rock was filmed on the Whataroa face of Hochstetter Dome, a very sheer drop. Intercuts follow variously on Mt Aylmer and Hochstetter Dome and the NW ridge of Mt Aspiring. We climbed the Whataroa face of Hochstetter Dome in reverse by climbing down from the summit. Film can diminish scariness so you have to get very scary to even hint at any danger. On another project I had to ride a motorbike at 160 kmh and it looks like I’m searching for a parking space on the film.
The signs for the cognoscenti to observe lie in the snow characteristics. Easter on Hochstetter Dome is quite different to Mt Aspiring in late spring. In some shots you can see the shadow of Mt Aspiring far below on the Bonar Glacier and the clouds.
Bruce Jenkinson and I spent many days at Aspiring Hut, swagging big loads of tinned goods and other film gear up to a stash at the bivvy rock at the head of the Matukituki. On our first trip into the Matukituki we counted 150 wild deer in a single mob in Shovel Flat. We heard and saw our first helicopter that season and never will anyone see a sight like that again. We had flown some gear in by fixed wing earlier, but the plane crashed in a whiteout on the Bonar Glacier, and the pilot’s (Don Middleton) last words to us were,
“You can f****g well walk out. I’m not coming back”.
The summit ridge climb shown in the film was the real thing. What doesn’t show is that the NW ridge wasn’t accessed direct from Colin Todd hut. We put in fixed ropes on the Therma face of Mt Aspiring because the director ‘didn’t want any footprints’ on the ridge. The whole crew dropped off the NW ridge into the Therma, traversed, then went vertically up the NW ridge. We tried the ramp but ice lumps whizzed down as soon as the sun rose and it was literally a shooting gallery. The Therma face is very steep and with new snow it was hard work. The cornices were tunnelled through.
With film work you spend more time sitting around doing nothing than you do working. One shot of three seconds took us a week to get. I was at Franz Josef when I got a call to head to Mt Cook, which meant one day in a Land Rover and two days in a bus. Franz to Hokitika was mostly unsealed, Arthurs Pass has unsealed sections and fords, and Tekapo to Mt Cook was unsealed. On arrival the crew headed off to Haast which was 100% gravel from Hawea and no road at all north of Knights Point. We shot a number of scenes cursing the sandflies, waiting for the light through the trees to be the ideal “Dapple Factor”, then back to Wanaka, then to Christchurch, then back to Hokitika, then on muddy unsealed roads to Franz Josef.
Then there were always early members of the Taxpayers Union self-appointed to look after the public interest.
We were all sitting around near a bridge on the Pukaki – Mt Cook road waiting for the clouds to roll over the Main Divide into the Hooker valley. Perfection was the only standard we worked to. We had been sitting around Mt Cook Village waiting for the weather to clear for about a week. This window between NW and SW systems was our only chance to get that iconic shot.
A middle-aged couple drove past with a caravan in tow. They peered at us very intently. About an hour later they returned. The car stopped down the road a bit and a man walked back to our little group of camera-man, sound technician, producer, and four “actors”. Now include a pile of gear and two official ‘government’ vehicles.
“What are you lot doing?”
“We’re working for the government”.
This was our standard reply so we didn’t have to explain ourselves for the tenth time that morning.
“What will all this be costing for you lazy bastards to sit on your arses doing bugger all, and I’m paying your wages!”
Then the killer.
“I’m a taxpayer!”
Brian the sound tech was a big, tall normally quiet guy. He got up and asked each us for a penny, got about 4 pence and sauntered over to Mr Taxpayer Union and slapped the coins in his hand.
“Here’s your share of our wages for the day. Now f#ck off, we’re busy!”
The clouds failed abjectly to roll over the Copland Pass or anywhere, so about 3 pm we dragged our bored selves back to Mt Cook to spend our daily food allowance on over-priced beer at the Hermitage bar.
In the last two years we have become enamoured of drone shots, especially to convey the sense of space and location that simply does not get through with head cams and ground level pans. Grant Foster was 50 years ahead of his time and the finale sequence of the Aspiring film still looks stunning today. If you are even a little bit nerdy or just like it when you read about Murphy’s Law events, here’s what it took to get this shot. No drones, no Go Pros, no helicopters.
“I want to do a shot where we focus on your elated faces, then zoom out into a huge panorama of the summit of Mt Aspiring surrounded by peaks in every direction.”
No-one said it in those days, but if we did we would have said
A year after the real time real life summits had been shot, the film crew found themselves in Wanaka. There was an NZAC Climbing Meet on up the Matukituki. Three guys were persuaded to wear the right coloured parkas and take a radio up Mt Aspiring. The weather was looking settled. A day into Aspiring Hut, a day up to either the Quarter Deck or Colin Todd Hut, and a day to the summit.
“See you guys at 8 am on Thursday”.
A single-engined Cessna 170 had been chartered, and the crew spent some time fitting a camera to the wing strut. To get it function at the cold temperatures at 10,000 feet (it was in the 60s) it was fitted with electric elements heaters and a big insulating jacket. The camera man and director were rugged up as the door had to be removed to operate the camera. Two minutes of 35mm Kodachrome was duly loaded. That stuff didn’t like cold either.
Off they flew to the mountain. Yes! The climbers were sitting on the summit!
“Film Unit to climbers. Are you receiving me, over”
Schhhhcccceiiiing ssss scccrrr.
“Film Unit to climbers. Are you receiving me, over”
“Shit! There are four of them. What the hell do they think they’re doing.”
The director instructed the pilot to do a low pass over the summit. The climbers sat and watched.
“Go around again”
No action. Then the climbers started to escalate the relationship by firstly using their ice axes as machine guns and then, considering the location, doing a rather brave and chilly down trou.
Pilot: “Do you want me to stop them playing silly buggers”.
The pilot was an ex-RAF fighter pilot who reached deep for his inner Biggles. He launched the plane into a full noise dive and swooped over the climbers’ heads with about a metre to spare. This caused them to firstly hit the deck then bunch up and freeze in position.
“It looks like only three of them from this direction. One more dive. Switch on the camera!”
With the money this one shot had cost, the director thinking his career was over, the camera rolling, batteries depleting, the crew freezing, the plane dive bombed one last time, and then headed back to Wanaka. As they got out of the plane two guys wandered over.
“We couldn’t get hold of you, but Jim* is crook and we didn’t do the climb”.
To this day none of us know who was on Mt Aspiring that day. They are probably still wondering in their dotage who the hell it was that tried to knock them off the summit that day over 50 years ago.
It was Grant’s idea to load the film in the camera backwards so that the shot would be that super wide zoom that you see today. The zoom starts on the roof of my garage in Carlton Mill Road Christchurch, cuts to the actual summit medium shot, and then to the dive bomb shot. You can’t see the joins. A cast of many were wittingly and unwittingly involved, some at the taxpayers’ considerable expense.
I doubt if a single overseas visitor resulted, but I believe it was worth it.
I hope you agree.
*Possibly his real name.
Author’s note. Some of the crew that contributed to this film have sadly passed on, and some now occupy positions of esteem in society. The only named person lives in the USA, so that’s his lookout.