Evan Kay has a made-up job here at Ibex. It’s not fake; he literally created his own job description and pitched it to our CEO. His pitch went a little something like this: Why don’t I travel around for Ibex and I’ll make films about what I see?
Bold pitch. It worked because Evan is a creative and extraordinarily talented storyteller. Our opinion of Evan’s work is substantiated by the acceptance of his film, The Black Canyon: The New Black Project, to the celebrated Adventure Film Festival in Montrose, Colorado.
With The New Black, Evan and his team broke from the traditional line of most climbing and sports films. It’s not a story of redemption or success. It’s a story of failing: not failing because a goal couldn’t be achieved, but rather because the protagonist wouldn’t degrade his integrity in order to achieve it. We cornered Evan and peppered him with questions about The New Black and the process of making a really great short film.
Ibex Question (IQ): Congratulations on The New Black being accepted into the Adventure Film Festival! Not only was it the world premier of the film, but the organizers also asked you to take part in training sessions for aspiring outdoor filmmakers. What was your path from Chicago boy to film festival doyen?
Evan Kay (EK): When I was a little kid, my dad produced different types of videos – most of them were educational and documentary work. One time, I auditioned for a part [in a kid’s film he was doing], and I got it, but I had to work for free. Well, actually, that’s not true. I worked for a puppy. So I grew up around my dad’s work. In high school, I made movies with my friends – Jackass kind of stuff. When I went to college, I had a clear direction and I didn’t want to focus on anything except film. After college, my focus [expanded to include] the outdoors. I started my own freelance production company, called Climb High Productions, in order to focus on outdoor, documentary style videos.
IQ: You’re tasked with a broad range of video topics. How do you keep a 30-second promo for a base layer as compelling as a 30-minute story of travel and adventure?
EK: That’s a great question! I think:
A. Who’s the audience?
B. Get straight to the point for those shorter stories. Start with an intro, add in some pretty images and get to the points you need to get across.
It’s hard to tell a story in 30-seconds, but you can do it. You can tell a good story in any amount of time with good imagery, good music [and knowing your audience and the point you want to make].
IQ: The point you were trying to make with The New Black changed from conception of the idea to actual filming. What happened?
EK: Actually, Joe [Mills, an Ibex-sponsored climber] had brought up the original idea over a year ago. Originally, Joe wanted to be the first person to free climb The Hallucinogen Wall (an aid line) in the Black Canyon. When another guy ended up freeing it two weeks before Joe, he couldn’t stop thinking that there must be another route on this amazing wall. He thought of this old aid line that had never been freed and hadn’t even been climbed in 30 years.
A week before we were set to shoot, Joe went to check out some of the early pitches and to set fixed lines we’d be rappelling down (for filming). He came upon this blank roof – really low on the route. The only option through it would be setting a bunch of bolts. In the Black Canyon, there is a big debate about whether bolting is accepted. It’s a National Park and there is really no rule that says you can’t bolt as many bolts as you want, but there’s an unwritten rule that only 15 bolts per year can be added as a climbing collective. If that number is exceeded or abused, they could enact a rule to ban bolting completely in Black Canyon. So in order to get around this blank roof, Joe would have had to place a bunch of bolts, and he wouldn’t do it. He has a lot of integrity in his climbing, so he threw in the towel.
IQ: So you’re all set to film this amazing climber free a route that hasn’t been climbed – let alone ever freed – in 30 years. And your climber says no?
EK: Yes. He called me up the two days before I was set to fly out to Colorado and he told me that he wasn’t able to do the route. He would have had to set too many bolts and he wouldn’t do it. [Ed. Note: As Evan explained, it would be against the ethics of Black Canyon climbing community.] The story Joe and I were planning to tell changed overnight.
So I thought about our stories and about all climbing stories that make it to publication. Climbing is my background and it’s the main sport that I love to do. I’ve seen [nearly] every climbing film, and I’ve never seen a story – like the one that was setting up before us – where in the end, the climber is going to fail. [Irrelevant of skill] there’s no way Joe can do the route. His integrity as a climber is guaranteeing that he’ll fail in his physical goal.
I thought this would be a good opportunity to tell a story about a climber who had put in all this effort – nearly a year’s worth of work to do a single route – and leading up to the end, he realizes it can’t be done without forcing it or without jeopardizing the relationship between the Black Canyon and Park Rangers. That was it. It became a story about integrity, about ethics. It became about relationships between climbers and National Parks and Park staffs.
IQ: By definition, the story in documentary filmmaking has to unfold organically. But it still takes a skilled observer to foster the most compelling storyline – especially when the story is changing rapidly. Now that all of us have video cameras on our phones, do you have any advice – creative or technical – for creating something watchable?
EK: Get creative with your angles. Try multiple angles and different perspectives. That makes [the raw footage] more interesting, especially if it’s shot with a lower quality camera like an iPhone.
Always set an establishing shot. And, in editing, learn how to weed out the crap. You don’t need to put in every clip you shoot.
IQ: Worthy advice for just about everything in life! A few last rapid-fire questions.
- What was the first movie you remember buying? My first DVD was Tommy Boy. I love that movie.
- Which mainstream filmmakers do you admire? I love all the John Hughes films. I like Wes Anderson films for aesthetics. He does a really good job. I love Rushmore. It’s a really good film.
- What about filmmakers in the outdoor adventure realm? Eric Perlman, who filmed the Masters of Stone Series. I love Masters of Stone V. Every climber should watch that movie. Josh and Brett Lowell of Big Up Productions do a really great job. Jimmy Chin for photography. Renan Ozturk of Camp 4 Collective for storytelling and visuals. I like the guys at Sherpa Cinemas, too. And definitely Fitz Cahall. He’s one of my top filmmakers as far as storytelling.
Thanks, Evan! Congrats again on the world premier of The Black Canyon: The New Black Project. We’re proud of you and look forward to your next production.