Storytellers: Josh & Brett Lowell of Big UP Productions
by Abbey Smith
Over the last 15 years, whenever one of the super stars like Chris Sharma, Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Dave Graham, Jason Kehl, and Ashima Shirashi make a significant ascent, Big UP Productions’ Josh and Brett Lowell are always right there, capturing high quality footage. Their high flyin’, clairvoyant climbing films Rampage (1999), Pilgrimage (2003), King Lines (2007), and the Dosageseries continue to fire up the climbing community and set the benchmark in cinematography and storytelling.
When they aren’t shooting at exotic crags all over the world, they’re at home with their families, bouldering at the Shawangunks, and editing in a two-story cottage surrounded by quiet woods, just across the lawn from Josh’s residence in Pound Ridge, New York. The Lowell brothers collaborate with many talented editors, graphic artists and cameramen including Alex Lowther, Alex Russek and Mark Palkoski. Since 2006, Big UP and Sender Films (check out our interview with storytellers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen) have partnered on several commercial projects including the international REEL ROCK Film Tour, which, now in it’s seventh year, is the world’s biggest platform for climbing media.
Here, Josh Lowell shares his story and insight into filming with AAC friend Abbey Smith.
Abbey: What started your love affair with climbing and the outdoors?
Josh: We were raised in the woods an hour north of NYC, and were always into being outside. In high school I had a couple of great earth science teachers who took students on backpacking and peak bagging trips to the Adirondack. Then, on a family backpacking trip to Jackson Hole, I watched some rock climbers and was fascinated. After that I started learning to climb in the Gunks when I was 16. It was an instant passion.
Abbey: When did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Josh: Our dad was a cinematographer and filmmaker, so we always had cameras around as kids and used to make fun home videos, like the one where our other brother and I hung Brett by his ankles from a tree when he was 7. In college I made silly videos with friends, mostly drunken antics. Post college, I started to play with filming bouldering. After a couple initial attempts, I started to wonder if there could be a future in it.
Abbey: How did Big UP begin?
Josh: In 1997 I was a full-time climbing bum. I injured my finger in a competition and couldn’t climb for several months. So instead of going out bouldering with my friends in the Gunks, I started filming them. I made a video called Big UP: Bouldering in the Gunks. It was a personal project I did for fun, but people loved it and I started wondering what I could do if I really tried. That winter I went to Hueco Tanks for three months and made Free Hueco. In 1999, Brett graduated high school and we took off in a crappy old RV with Obe Carrion and Chris Sharma and filmed Rampage. This was Brett’s first time doing a lot of shooting and the first film that really made a big impact.
Abbey: What is your vision?
Josh: From the beginning it has been to share our passion for climbing with as many people as we can reach; to grow our audience while keeping the material authentic; to celebrate the awesomeness of climbing!
Abbey: How do you choose what climbers and stories to follow?
Josh: In recent years we are more and more focused on telling the deepest stories that we can rather than just the raddest action. This is what sets the REEL ROCK films apart from any old web clip. Sometimes we follow stories for a couple of years before they come to fruition. And some end up being dead ends. Lots of phone calls, lots of emails, lots of creative meetings…
Abbey: What does it take to capture those rarified sending moments like when Sasha DiGiulian climbed Sharma’s 9a Era Bella or when Alex Honnold bouldered/soloed the first ascent of Too Big to Flail?
Josh: It takes patience and luck. We spent six weeks shooting Sharma and Ondra trying La Dura Dura and didn’t get a send, but the story works without it. We’ve spent three seasons on The Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell and I’m sure there will be more. I think when Chris, Tommy, and Dave Graham broke on the scene there was a lot of room for them to make big advances quickly. Every trip we went on with those guys, there was guaranteed sending. Now I think the limits have been pushed so far that the advances are coming more slowly, requiring more dedication. The mega achievements are farther in between, but the stories are still always there.
Abbey: What is your favorite piece of camera equipment?
Josh: For the REEL ROCK 7 film, La Dura Dura, we worked with Matt Maddaloni to develop a new vertical cable cam system that is remote controlled and can track smoothly up the wall with the climbers. The images are amazing.
Abbey: What is the most challenging part of your work?
Josh: The editing—months of hell, so unhealthy.
Abbey: How do you balance being a father, husband, climber and filmmaker?
Josh: I’m still working on that one. Usually at any given time I can do a great job at one of them and pretty OK at another, but it’s hard to stay on top of everything. In the summer, which is usually our huge edit push, I’m sure to make some time for the kids (I have a six-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy), but pretty much everything else falls off. During less crazy times of the year I try to make it up to my wife and get back in shape for climbing. It is really hard to do it all well, but that is my main goal for the future.
Abbey: How do you attempt to translate the esoteric nature of climbing through film so that a broader audience understands why it is we dedicate our lives to ascending rocks?
Josh: It’s difficult to do justice to climbing on film. It’s a very subtle, internal pursuit. It’s not like snowboarding where you can aim a camera at a guy hucking a huge cliff and everybody gets it. We have had to work harder at telling the story of what these people are trying to accomplish. All the effort and frustration and, hopefully, joy of ultimate success. We have to capture people’s inner dialog about their own doubts, the sounds of breathing and fingernails scraping rock.
When all of that comes together I think the result has the potential to be much deeper, more human and universal than what you usually see in other sports films. Climbing has an inherent tension between success and failure. In skiing you can always make it down, it’s just how cool you look. In climbing you put everything on the line and 99% of the time you fail. If you succeed, you reach the summit, which has this incredible symbolism to it that any person can grasp.
Abbey: Your film Origins featuring Ashima Shiraishi and Obe Carrion won Best Film at the 2012 5 Point Film festival and Best Climbing Film at Kendall. What made this film so powerful?
Josh: It’s about a powerful relationship between this surprising odd-couple. Ashima is providing the action, but it’s Obe’s story that holds it all together. He’s trying to teach her the personal lessons about having a healthy life in climbing that he had to learn the hard way.
Abbey: What valuable lesson have you learned along the way that you can share with aspiring filmmakers?
Josh: You have to collaborate to grow. No matter how much of a genius-artist you may think you are, one person can only do so much. Put away the ego, learn from others, and work with the best team you can assemble. Also, edit your films shorter!
Abbey: Besides the REEL ROCK Tour, what are you guys working on?
Josh: We’re always working on commercial projects for a bunch of outdoor industry companies. It’s fun to work on creative short-form projects with quick turnaround time. It’s a great excuse to experiment with new ideas.
We’re also developing our YouTube channel. This seems like a great outlet for launching short new films in between the big REEL ROCK projects. We just launched a sweet little vid that was shot and edited by Jason Kehl called Ashima: Return of the Warrior Ninja Princess, which is sort of a follow up to the Origins film. She goes back to Hueco the following winter and sends V13 at the age of 10.
And we’re just rolling out our new website, bigUPproductions.com, which has been totally rebuilt. This will give us a great forum for rolling out new content and keeping up with our audience. We’ve made most of the old films available as downloads for the first time, so anybody still hanging on to those VHS collectors’ items can finally upgrade…
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