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The Asgard Project: A Q&A with Alastair Lee
Posted on: April 8, 2011
The Asgard Project trails an expedition, led by Leo Houlding, to make the first free ascent of Mt. Asgard's North Tower on Baffin Island. Houlding teams up with Sean "Stanley" Leary in hopes of making a wingsuit descent from the summit, while filmmaker Alastair Lee and his crew tag along to capture the adventure on film. Hauling 30-plus pounds of equipment up the 1000-meter face, Lee foregoes light-and-fast style in order to produce a film that is visually outstanding and leaves the audience with sweat-drenched palms and a hankering to seek out an epic of their own.
Recently, Alpinist interviewed Lee to learn more about the behind-the-scenes grunt work involved in the production of Asgard Project.
What is The Asgard Project?
The Asgard Project follows the story of Leo Houlding's dream of free climbing one of the steeper faces of Mt Asgard and then making a wing suit descent from the summit. On route to Baffin we follow Leo on various training trips to Riglos in Spain, Brento in Italy and El Cap. We also meet the main characters of the film during these warm-up trips.
How did you come up with the concept?
The concept is entirely Leo's. Only Leo's ambition, skills and location knowledge could have come up with something as crazy as this!
What was your original vision for the project?
I wanted to make a great adventure film. One of the main reasons I loved the idea for this project was because the outcome was so uncertain. This kind of adventure is exactly why I make climbing films. I also wanted to make a high quality production, which is very difficult on a big wall. We took a ground cameraman and made the extra effort to film what climbing we could from different angles on the wall. I also used a depth-of-field adaptor on my HD camera to achieve a more filmic look. Of course working with a heavy piece of kit like that on an Arctic big wall was a total nightmare, but there's no denying the results!
How does that vision compare to the final product?
It turned out way better than I could have ever imagined—particularly because most of the time it didn't look like we were going to do it. We were getting hemmed in by the cold weather and the difficulty of the route meant progress was painfully slow. A lot of the time on the wall I felt quite depressed about the film, as we thought we'd be freeing climbing amazing pitches in the sunshine. But we spent most of the time in our sleeping bags hoping things would improve. But all this gave the film a classic narrative arc, and whilst there's not much actual climbing in the film, it's got a great story.
Flimmaker Alastair Lee hangs in a web of rigging systems on Mt. Asgard. Lee hauled more than 30 pounds of camera equipment up the 1000-meter north tower. [Photo] Alastair Lee
What were the challenges of filming in such a remote location? How did you handle these challenges?
It was very challenging filming on and around Mt. Asgard. We're not just talking about taking a couple of handycams that you can fit on a waist belt. We had two Sony Ex-1's with big tripods, medium and large format still cameras, attack cameras and plenty of low-res action with our mobile phones. I also used a depth-of-field adapter on my EX-1. Not only does that make it bigger and heavier, but it also meant I was carrying a full set of Nikon prime lenses with me.
I had a bunch of expedition batteries for filming with the EX-1's, which worked really well. They were a bit heavy and it gave you no warning when they ran out, but they had some advantages; you could keep them in your jacket pocket and connect to the camera via a wire. This kept them warm and helped preserve their power and took the weight off the camera.
How were you able to get shots of Leo and Stanley climbing from above?
On the majority of the pitches, the climbing was hard aid (A3 to A3+) so Leo and Stanley would have to aid climb first before they could try and free a pitch. On the few pitches they free climbed I would jug up the fixed line first then pull it out of sight for the shoot. With Leo's onsight of Pitch 4, he simply climbed it again once I was at the top of the pitch so we had two angles.
What was the best part of creating The Asgard Project?
The whole thing was immense and life changing. I loved working with Leo and filming in all those amazing places. Filming the BASE jumping and wingsuit flying was great too because I'd never done it before. The best bit was being on the wall, and the highlight of that was seeing the northern lights on the face itself the night before we summited. That was really special. That's when you know that being rich has nothing to do with money.
What's next on the tick list? Are you working on other filming projects?
I'm taking it a bit easier this year, but still getting out a bit. I've been filming out in South Africa and Spain, developing different ways of filming climbing. Things are really moving on with cameras, booms and all kinds of new techniques. No major expedition this year, but I might have a Psyche-style DVD out later in the year.
Sunset on Mt. Asgard, Baffin Island. [Photo] Alastair Lee