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Pixels, peaks and pitons! Shooting ‘The Citadel’ in 4K

Pixels, peaks and pitons! Shooting ‘The Citadel’ in 4K

© Alastair Lee/Posing Productions

September 2015

Mountaineering filmmaker Alastair Lee has been breaking new ground shooting climbing expeditions. CPN writer James Morris caught up with him as he was in post-production for his latest film, entitled ‘The Citadel’, the first mountaineering movie shot entirely in 4K...

Alastair Lee’s previous film, The Last Great Climb, met with considerable critical acclaim. “From a visual and technical standard, The Last Great Climb set a benchmark,” Lee explains. “It got a five-year deal with National Geographic, and they only show very high quality things.” So for this production he wanted to raise the bar yet again. Like the earlier film, The Citadel is about an ascent that had never been attempted before. In this case, the mountain is located in Alaska, USA. “It had been climbed by a technically straightforward direction in the late 1970s,” Lee explains, “And there had been a couple of other expeditions in the area, but nothing major. This was the first time for the north-west ridge.”

© Alastair Lee/Posing Productions

Please click on the image above to view the the trailer from Alastair Lee’s new film ‘The Citadel’, the world’s first 4K filmed ascent using the EOS C500 digital cinema camera.

Preparing for the trip required a quick turnaround. “Six weeks beforehand I didn’t know I was going,” explains Lee. “The climbers – British alpinists Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey – wanted to do this, they’d committed their lives to it. They asked if I wanted to make a film; a picture arrived in my inbox and from the moment I saw it I wanted to go on the trip. It was inspiring and the timing was right. They knew my work and I had made a film with them before.” Not wanting to be a spoiler for his film’s finale, however, Lee is keeping quiet about how the expedition actually turned out. “We set the challenges high, and the odds were stacked against us,” he explains enigmatically. “We had to live a story there; it’s a good narrative.”

The 4K Challenge

Lee had opted for 4K because it is now essential for saleability. By choosing to shoot in 4K, though, before the release of the most recent generation of digital cinema cameras, such as the EOS C300 Mark II, Lee faced a number of problems. “There was a technical challenge on two levels - the climb, and the shooting,” Lee argues. He was shooting with a Canon EOS C500, which he had purchased after The Last Great Climb, where he had used a pair of C300s. “The setup used a lot more power and a lot more memory. Logistically in a remote area when you don’t have power, you have your work cut out for you doing two copies of everything.” This was with just two people on production, including Lee.

© Alastair Lee/Posing Productions

Behind the scenes during the making of ‘The Citadel’, the world’s first 4K ascent of an iconic Alaskan peak. Filmmaker Alastair Lee (pictured) communicates with the climbers with the aid of walkie-talkies.

He chose the C500 after his experiences in Antarctica with the C300. “It was very good on power, and uses the same lens set as my EOS 5D Mark III,” Lee continues. “As a result, I invested in a C500, giving me the ability to shoot high frame rates. It wasn’t ideal in every respect, as it’s better on a tripod, and has no handle. But it coped brilliantly with the conditions, it was great on power, and brilliant on the tripod. The image you can’t argue about. It is fantastic. It looks as good as anything off a RED.”

Some of the shooting challenges came from the necessity of using an external recorder. Lee was capturing footage to an Odyssey7Q recorder from Convergent Design connected via SDI leads. This provided RAW recording at 100fps. “But we also recorded in high quality ProRes to get the most out of the memory, rather than RAW all the time.”

Aerial Shots

Lee did most of the filming on the ground, with his other production crew member only filling in for a few shots. “The biggest challenge was getting the helicopter in the sky in the right place when the climbers were doing something interesting, the weather was good, and so on. I wasn’t hanging on a rope facing death for this film, but still really involved. I guessed when the helicopter had to come, then used a satellite phone to book it. This was a bit like calling in an air strike! These sequences were shot by the operator in the helicopter. I had a two-way radio to the climbers, and a ground-to-air radio to the chopper pilot, to coordinate the shots. With the sunset evening light, I had to gamble when that would happen, and book the chopper in advance. The difference between 9 and 9:30pm could be huge, and once you've booked, you can’t change it.”

© Alastair Lee/Posing Productions

British climbers Jon Bracey (left) and Matt Helliker (right) set out to climb ‘The Citadel’ in Alaska, USA.

The EOS C500’s performance also proved to be a revelation. “I haven’t been this excited about footage for years,” Lee enthuses. “It had really good performance in extreme cold. I would love to know what temperatures the manufacturers think it can be used at. I’ve used it down to -12C. It needs more power than the C300, but it’s not ridiculous. I take a lot of batteries with me, which is expensive. The fact that you have to have the side open and connected to SDI could be a problem in bad weather, but we didn’t have any issues. The firmware and robustness of design are really excellent.”

The practicalities of shooting in snow

There were still many logistical issues with the shoot as a whole, but the small size of the C500 kept the amount of kit required to a minimum. “We didn’t have flight cases,” explains Lee. “We flew with one 23kg checked bag, one large piece of hand baggage, and one smaller hand bag each. There was no weight restriction on the larger hand bag. Our large bags were around 30kg, but as long as they could go into the overhead compartment, we were fine. These contained the lenses, cameras, and laptops. We had just one Lowepro equipment bag with the tripod and slider checked in and five additional check-in bags, weighing about 150kg.”

The brightness of the conditions caused problems for the cameraman. “One of the things you don’t think about when you see the footage is that you’re shooting in white snow, but you can’t wear sunglasses,” argues Lee. “You have to wait a minute before you can see the image after you’ve taken your sunglasses off. It’s incredibly bright. You’re looking into a dark hole reading tiny numbers.”

© Alastair Lee/Posing Productions

‘The Citadel’ climbers, British alpine specialists Jon Bracey (left) and Matt Helliker (right).

But the bright conditions didn’t pose any particular problems for the C500. “I mostly left it on ISO 850,” explains Lee. “I had it cranked down to 400 when we were in Antarctica (for The Last Great Climb). I was generally using a 180 degree shutter, but 45 degrees for high action, setting the aperture between f/5 and f/8. The built-in ND filter was essential.” All footage was shot in Canon Log. “The 4K ProRes stuff comes out looking really flat, really good for grading. We didn’t find the contrast with the bright snow that challenging. If you’ve got the experience you know what you’re doing. You just have to watch for clipping, and if you’re using zebras it’s not that difficult. The C500’s low light capabilities were fantastic. For the low light shots I cranked ISO up a bit to about 2,000, but it’s not noticeably noisy. You still see the dynamic range when the scene is lit with head torches - the colours in clothing, the texture in faces. We shot early morning dawn stuff this way.”

During the shoot, the workhorse lens for the C500 was the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM. “With image stabilisation, it made everything look like it was on a tripod,” argues Lee. An EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM with a 2x converter was also employed for distance zoom shots. “This had an insanely shallow depth-of-field, so it was hard to get sharp, with not much difference between in and out of focus.” He also used an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and a couple of EF14mm f/2.8L II USM lenses, plus an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. Lee had a pair of EOS 5D Mark III cameras for shooting stills, too, which could share the lenses. An EF50mm f/1.2L USM was called upon for interviews, although he never had the aperture fully open. Audio was captured via a Rode NTG2 plus a wind muffler, crucial in the exposed snowscape. Lee left the audio settings on Auto, hardly using his headphones to monitor sound.

Sub-zero workflow

In extreme conditions away from a mains power source, the workflow logistics were particularly important. “We had these massive cards in the Odyssey recorder,” explains Lee. “They were 1TB each, and really expensive. We had a reader for these, a laptop, and five 4TB hard drives, although we only used four in the end. We were forced to take risks. We would let a card fill up, and look after it, not rushing back to copy the data. The BBC would not let you to do this! We had enough cards for the whole trip. We made two hard drive copies and kept the cards, giving us three copies. We didn’t necessarily back up data every day. We would wait until a card was full. Any high-speed footage would need backing up on a daily basis, though, as this took up more space. In the end we had 8TB of footage, but that doesn’t include the helicopter footage, which was another 1.4TB. We couldn’t preview stuff or edit, as the laptop wasn’t quick enough to play 4K. The Odyssey recorder has a lovely screen on it that you can use to check footage, but we couldn’t do it with everything. There wasn’t time.”

© Alastair Lee/Posing Productions

A Robinson R44 helicopter with a stabilised housing was used to shoot the stunning aerial footage, directed by Alastair Lee from the ground via walkie-talkie link between pilot and climbers.

So how does Lee rate the EOS C500 after this monumental mountaineering shoot? “Looking at things the way it’s all going and the other cameras now on the market, the C500 didn’t have a very long life. When it was launched it was on the cusp of what was possible, but the firmware to really make it all possible only just came out. I needed to shoot in 4K and high speed, so it was the only choice for the Antarctica shoot. Now I would be looking at the C300 Mark II as the logical next step. Like the C500, it’s light, it’s good on power, the image is brilliant, and it takes EF lenses that can be used with DSLRs as well. It wasn’t out at the time of the Alaskan shoot, though. It would have been perfect. But I've still got a section to shoot in Chamonix so I might get one for that!”

What is certain is that Lee’s love for capturing the wonders of mountain expeditions remains undiminished, and we will be seeing more ground-breaking climbing films from him in the future. “The primary thing is the passion,” he enthuses. "My passion and engagement with that kind of environment is a fresh as it ever was.”

• The Citadel is due for an October 2015 release, and Alastair Lee is talking to Sky Vision and the Discovery Channel for licensing.

Alastair Lee’s mountaineering kitbag:

EOS C500 with Convergent Design Odyssey7Q recorder
2x EOS 5D Mark III

EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Rode NTG2 microphone with Deadcat windshield
10x BP-955 C500 batteries
13x LP-E6 EOS 5D Mark III batteries
Manfrotto tripod

Biographie: Alastair Lee

Alastair Lee

Alastair Lee became fascinated with climbing at the age of 19, but soon realised that taking pictures of his exploits and presenting them at mountaineering clubs could earn a living. He has since published two climbing guidebooks and five photography books. In 2001, to go with his slideshows, he edited camcorder footage into a 20-minute documentary, which proved even more popular. He has since made 11 mountaineering films, including the acclaimed PSYCHE and On Sight, both of which won awards at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival, plus The Asgard Project and The Last Great Climb, both of which have been broadcast on the Discovery Channel. He has won over 60 international awards, including the prestigious Grand Prix at the 2013 International Alliance for Mountain Film festival, and was nominated for a Golden Frog in 2014 for The Last Great Climb.


British climbers Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker are dwarfed by the impressive peak known as ‘The Citadel’ in Alaska, USA.