Big-wall climber and cameraman extraordinaire, Glen Denny, in action on the Nose route of El Capitan.
Above—Glen maneuvers into position on a fixed rope, festooned with camera gear.
Below— Suspended on the wall, Glen films with a 16mm Arriflex camera.
In addition to filming El Capitan, during his years as an active big-wall climber Glen Denny was a prolific still photographer, documenting the climbs and climbers of the "Golden Age" of Yosemite Valley rock climbing. Glen's black-and-white climbing photos from that period have been published in the stunning book, Yosemite in the Sixties, by Patagonia Books, available at www.Patagonia.com
El Capitan, the film
Rock climber and photographer Glen Denny and I started planning The El Capitan Film during the first part of 1968. Ever since he had climbed it, it had been Glen’s ambition to make a film documenting a climb up the legendary El Capitan in Yosemite Valley He assembled a group of climbing friends to film: Gary Colliver, Richard McCracken and Lito Tejada-Flores, the first two El Cap veterans; and arranged to start filming in May of 1968, before the weather got too hot.
I was determined that we should capture "live sound," believing this would provide a depth beyond the usual voice-over narrative. Wireless microphones were very primitive at that time and limited to transmitting less than a 100 feet. But we needed them to transmit over half of a mile to the base of the cliff, so I delayed the start of filming for almost a month while I had our wireless microphones modified to function well beyond their design limits.
Filming the climb was a major challenge, and Glen, the cameraman and his team of climbers experienced numerous complications and delays including Gary Colliver's fall (a fall that broke a couple of his ribs) and one of the investors abandoning the project. But with Glen’s unrelenting determination and the perseverance of the three climbers, we managed to document the entire 3,000-foot climb.
After we were done filming, Glen and I spent a few months starting to organize the footage and the recorded sound. Then Glen had a change of heart and resigned from the project, handing everything over to me. At this point I had several hours of raw footage and only a vague notion of what Glen might have had in mind. One of the climbers, Lito Tejada-Flores, helped me edit a rough-cut about three hours long into an accurate chronological progression of the climb. At this point it might have held together with a voice-over narration as in a conventional documentary. But I knew there was more potential than this with Glen’s remarkable footage, so the challenge was on. Another one of the climbers, Richard McCracken, helped reduce over 100 hours of wild sound down to about an hour of the best material, revealing some wonderful moments of verbal banter, exclamations, and personal feelings.
Now that there was a manageable amount of material, I was more encouraged but still had no solution. The footage sat in cans for almost eight years during which time, with the help of an American Film Institute grant, I paid off all the production debts and pondered how to make something unusual out of the footage. By 1977, I was finally able to cut the film down to about an hour. I knew that if the sound could be made to work, the film would be special. Finally, in 1978, ten years after it was filmed, El Capitan was completed and premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Glen came to see the premier. His presence was incredibly important because his approval would finally resolve the whole experience for me. El Capitan was well received, won several festival awards and for the next 25 years remained very popular. But the story didn't end there.
By 1995 El Capitan was only available on VHS tapes. The 16mm film prints were fading and already damaged from the wear and tear of many projections. The internegative, a kind of composite master copy, had also been damaged, so new prints could no longer be made. By that time, digital DVDs of much better quality had begun to replace VHS tapes, I made the decision to discontinue VHS and took the film out of circulation.
Still, even though El Capitan was no longer being distributed, I continued to get inquires and requests for the film. When very poor quality, bootlegged copies started showing up on the Internet, I knew I had to do something. I decided to look at the original film that ran through the camera, and to my surprise, after almost 45 years, it still looked pretty good. I had it digitized (scanned) in high definition. But the new technology is of such high resolution that every little scratch and bit of dirt on the film showed up crystal clear. In order to restore the film to its original condition, over 86,000 frames, one frame at a time, had to be digitally cleaned and repaired. With digital software we were able to reconstruct the film with all the original effects, restore the color, and make it look even better than the original 16mm film prints.
Produced by Fred Padula Photography + Film
Distributed by Western Eye Press