Adventure Film 101: Risk, Tragedy, and Filmmaking

Michael Brown weighs the risks, rewards, and lessons he's learned shooting, literally, on the edge.
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Michael Brown weighs the risks, rewards, and lessons he's learned shooting, literally, on the edge.

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure." Helen Keller

Tragedy reminds us so well that the adventures we undertake while making films can be dangerous. I used to try to argue the point with our insurance agent that if 40,000 or more people die in car accidents every year in the USA, then how could adventure filmmaking be worse?

Sadly, I was wrong.

We operate in a dangerous world but its fragility is what makes it all the richer.

I’ve lost friends in the mountains and what I’ve taken from those loses is that we owe it to ourselves, and our departed friends, to squeeze everything we can from the time we have.

Many of us in our small community are still in pain from the recent loss of dear friends Jonny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson in the mountains of China.

Wade was making a film about their adventure and at 24, his life had barely started. The fact that he was filming the expedition brings it close to home for me. Over the years there have been all too many times when we had to say goodbye to friends. In time, the loss of these friends will become part of what makes the mountains, and the experiences we had with them there, sacred to us. For now however, it doesn't make sense and I wish it had gone differently and we could now be celebrating their success on the climb. These were the very best people and it just plain hurts to know that we will never enjoy their company again.

What do I take away from this? Adventure filmmaking is a part of the celebration of living. It is as dangerous as it is meaningful and the loss of friends causes me to reflect on what I do, the risks I take, and how to keep myself, and the filmmakers working alongside me, safe.

The other day I got to rappel of the front of Hoover Dam— actually the rocky ledges to the north side— to film with Sean Riley of National Geographic's “World's Toughest Fixes.”

It was an extremely controlled environment with amazingly elaborate safety. I had two ropes and countless redundant systems; the only real concern was that one of our ropes would drag across loose rocks and send them down onto our lines or onto our colleagues below. It went well but later, we scouted a location on the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas and it brought back a chilling experience I had fourteen years ago during the tower’s construction.

I was riding the construction elevator up the outside of the tower and I leaned out to get shots looking up and then down the steel framework. I was relaxed and I felt that I had enough footage, so I calmly pulled my head, arm, and the camera back inside the car.

Just then, a structural girder flashed by, clearing the edge of the car by about an inch. If I hadn't moved inside, that girder would have cut me in half and dropped the 30 lb camera some 650 feet down the tower, injuring who knows how many people.

I let my guard down.

We do things with cameras to get interesting angles; it can, and does, put us in extraordinary danger. Remembering that close call gave me a queasy feeling for years and what I learned is that you can never let your guard down.

Sometimes, the danger is obvious and we mitigate what we can. While on Everest, or other big mountains, there’s a mental switch that flicks on the moment you step above Base Camp. It’s a heightened awareness; an intensity of focus, and it has to be there to keep you aware of immediate danger. It is almost subconscious and you don't even realize how intense it is until you step off of the mountain and feel an intense relief.

This winter I got a strong reminder of just how important it is to keep that focus until you are truly off the mountain. We were descending from the Monch in Switzerland and were a mere ten feet from our skis and relative safety. I was wearing a heavy pack and made a bad step between two rocks. I don't even remember how it happened but in a flash my crampon was firmly planted in the snow, my body twisted around, and my knee made a chilling noise as I fell.

The pain was intense and immediate and the ski down was pure agony that made me want to vomit. By some huge amount of luck and a long history of knee strengthening bicycle riding I made a full recovery.

I’ve been doing this for 20 years and the danger was right there waiting for me to let my guard down. It’s like danger always has your scent.

I repeat: Never. Let. Your. Guard. Down.

In a future blog I’ll write more about loss in the mountains. Today it’s too close and the emotion too raw. I’m still trying to process recent events.

We continue planning our next film school adventures looking for ways to make them as exciting as possible without putting people at risk. Hopefully, with our controlled expeditions we can foster a respect for the wild places and the real risks that exist there; both the risk of taking unnecessary chances and the worse risk… of doing nothing.

—MICHAEL BROWN


Addendum:

Our Adventure Film School has been a great experience and it just keeps getting better from both the instructor and student participant perspective.

Earlier in June we wrapped up another schools at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado. For next year Teva is actually giving away an expense paid (air fare, hotel and tuition) to our Adventure Film School at the games. There is a week left in the contest and it is well worth posting some air, even if it is just something fun.

Also we are proud of one of our previous students film being accepted as a finalist in the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival. Anthony Claudia made a film called Welcome to the Backcountry. It is a hilarious look at etiquette in the outdoors.

Interestingly Anthony, who we call 'Magnifico' shot his film with a digital still camera's video feature.

We will be holding the second annual Backcountry Avalanche Safety Film School from January 25th till February 1st of 2010. Hope to see you there!

PHOTOS COURTESY MICHAEL BROWN AND DAVID D'ANGELO