Filmmaking on the Edge

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Keith Partridge

Keith hangs within the mouth of a moulin to film Steve Backshall climbing an Alaskan glacier.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of InStudio magazine. Learn more about the magazine here. 

Adventure filmmaker Keith Partridge is eternally upbeat. But his quirky sense of humour and fun disposition belie his profession as an extreme adventure cameraman who has filmed in some of the world’s most hostile environments.

He is the cinematographer behind the award-winning documentary Touching the Void, and is the acclaimed author of The Adventure Game: A Cameraman’s Tales from Films at the Edge.

When he’s not chasing adventure, descending the world’s highest waterfalls, or filming at 20,000 feet in minus-20 degrees, Partridge is faculty for the Adventure Filmmakers' Workshop at Banff Centre, which takes place every year during the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. We caught up with him to talk about pushing limits, great loves, and close calls. 

LH: You lead the Adventure Filmmakers' Workshop at Banff Centre. What is the biggest misconception about adventure filmmaking?

Keith: I think it’s the actual reality of filmmaking. The entire process is very complex, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that when you add on the adventure elements to it — the logistics, technicalities, safety and risk management, and researching a good story with captivating characters — you’ve got a very big can of worms. With the Adventure Filmmakers' Workshop we help join all of the dots up for the participants. 

Yes, it’s a brilliant lifestyle, but if you think it’s a holiday, you need to think again.

What’s a reminder even experienced filmmakers need to hear?

Always remember your past experiences. As an adventure filmmaker, I look at every scenario as a worst-case scenario, examine everything that could possibly go wrong, then try to mitigate potential hazards in the most stringent way. We always rely on experience because when things do go wrong — which they inevitably do, because you’re working in a highly dynamic adventure environment — what you reel back through is years of experience being in similar situations. In an instant, managing the risk becomes the most important factor and the actual filming becomes second nature.

Tell us about a difficult situation you’ve found yourself in while filming.

We had a situation a few years ago in Alaska where we were filming in sea kayaks and got mixed up in a ‘bubble net’ with about 12 30-tonne humpback whales. The whales located a shoal of herring and swam around underwater in a circle, blowing bubbles out of their blowholes to bring the fish to the surface. Then [the whales] came up through the middle of the water, like ballistic missiles launched from a submarine, with their mouths wide open to swallow everything. We were caught in the middle of this and all I thought was, "oh s**t." But I quickly realized I couldn’t do anything about it, so my instincts kicked in and I just turned on the camera. The footage was spectacular.

How do you cope with being vulnerable while you’re working?

Vulnerability is essential because it keeps you on your toes. One of the most important things is knowing your limits, because the minute you overstep your limits then that’s when catastrophe has the potential to strike. And no matter how experienced you are, you’re always going into situations that are new because that’s the nature of adventure. When you display vulnerability as a filmmaker, I think it shows a certain type of confidence and strength. 

Tell me about one of your heroes.

I’m currently working on a project on the famous British mountaineer, Sir Chris Bonington [whose career has included 19 expeditions to the Himalayas]. It’s about love, life, loss, legacy, and risk. And it’s the question we all ask ourselves — how far are you willing to go to risk everything? I’ve known Chris for 27 years and I worked with him back in 1990 on one of my first major climbing films in the Himalayas. It’s been a dream ticket to spend time with him, to get to know him, and to try and encompass his life into a film. He’s been there across the generations to see how mountaineering, climbing and expeditions, and adventure have developed over more than half a century, and yet, he’s still at it — and he’s over 80 years of age. What better role model could any adventurer like myself have? 

The world premiere of Keith’s film, Bonington: Mountaineer, will open the Banff Mountain Film and Book festival October 28.