General Film Corporation, New Zealand
This doco/drama was a NZ 3D film about our own famous Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing’s ascent of Mt Everest. Guy Cotter was approached to advise on the project in its early stages, initially spending time with the producer to ensure the script was workable and authentic and to help with the storyboarding of the action scenes to ensure these could actually be shot in an economical way. From there Guy collaborated with the director, art department, wardrobe, props and production in the pre-production phase in the build-up to the shoot taking place.
Any film project in the mountains requires permitting of some sort. Our National Parks in New Zealand have a high degree of environmental protection that requires a systemised approach to negotiating access. The regulations have high standards for safety and environmental effects and a production must factor in a reasonable lead-in time for permissions to be secured. Guy met with the National Park authorities in the early stages of the project to ensure the project was within the parameters of the management plans for the locations being sought and well before the application was prepared to provide a degree of confidence that the project wouldn’t be scuppered later on. The permit application process was then completed by Guy and the Line Producer with a degree of certainty of the outcome.
With the story boards finalised Guy and a small crew undertook location scouting to match locations to the script in the mountains around the Mt Cook region. Due to Guys intimate knowledge of Mt Everest from making four ascents of the mountain himself, he could easily match locations to the `look’ that was required. What is equally as crucial in the mountain environment is to have locations that were workable for a moderate sized crew that would have areas that would remain out of shot where equipment could be cached, emergency shelter could be erected, and most of all was safe from hazards. A small crew has significantly more flexibility than a large crew and can generally achieve more shots in a day due to speed of access and set-up time between shots. A large crew will require more helicopter ferry time before the camera can roll and will therefore miss early morning and evening shots.
The `money shots’ in mountain films require jeopardy and that is easy to find. However managing a crew in extreme terrain requires considerable set up time, good weather for helicopter access, and a limited crew size to cope with small locations. Alternate locations were identified in case of unsuitable conditions that would curtail filming at the highest locations so at least filming could continue despite the location being the secondary with less attractive elements.
Most `high’ mountain film projects require the use of helicopters for lifting cast, crew and equipment into the mountain environment. It is imperative that only highly experienced pilots with state of the art helicopters are used for this task. Guy developed an aerial plan that that incorporated resources, number of machines required, budgets and timelines. Then he and the Line Producer negotiated a contract with an appropriate operator to secure the aircraft with the most favourable conditions and budget.
A very important component of the pre-production for the mountain filming that was respected on this project is the planning and preparation for crew health and safety in the mountain environment. Oftentimes this is seen as a chore on film sets but for a crew to be productive in the mountains it is imperative that their clothing and footwear is up to the task. This involved hire and purchase of specialist mountain gear for each crew member. Each crew member was asked to complete a health questionnaire as a medical emergency in the mountains without prior knowledge of a person medical history and medicinal requirements being available can have much more serious consequences than when filming in a city with immediate medical facilities nearby.
A crew of qualified mountain guides with film experience was brought together to rig and prepare the locations around the Mt Cook region before preparing for the actual mountain filming. Locations needed to be checked for crevasses and rigged with anchors and ropes for safety. In some cases the cliff overhanging a shooting location needed to be cleared of loose rocks and checked for other hazards. Equipment areas need to be established and emergency shelter erected. The initial location preparation took five days for thirteen locations being used then additional rigging was added to each location prior to filming taking place.
In order that they looked authentic on camera in the action scenes, cast were taken into the mountains for training in climbing techniques appropriate to their roles. Naturally the Ed Hillary character received the most training as he was to be the main focus.
With the crew assembled, equipment was issued and safety briefings and training took place including helicopter safety training. It is very easy for the uninitiated to make a mistake in the mountains so strict codes of conduct are enforced. Helicopters have a very limited payload and every load of around 800kgs that would be underslung on a long line below the helicopter would take around 28 minutes turn around to our furthest locations. It doesn’t take long to realise the impact that will have on a filming day if too much gear is carried to each location. Each unit was instructed on what would be required for each day and encouraged to not bring more. This discipline starts with the director who would plan ahead what will be shot and therefore what equipment would be required. This is a shift away from departments having trucks full of all their gear at their fingertips should it be asked for so a considerable rationalisation took place. Even so, on this project we would lift around 10 loads in and out each day.
The filming took place in March 2013 and this coincided with a fine weather spell that lasted most of month so little weather cover was required. On any mountain project weather will be the major hurdle in any mountain range around the world. As long as there is weather cover planned for 3 days a week over the period of a project, it is highly likely the project will be completed. Due to good production understanding of the need for flexibility, we managed to make use of the best weather days to shoot the highest, most complicated and difficult locations when the forecasts were indicating the timing was right and as a consequence the `money shots’ were achieved and the shoot was a complete success.
One day of wrap was needed to clear all the high locations of rigging gear and to complete national park environmental obligations.