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November 19, 1999
Everest Scales Down to Small Screen
Arthur J Pais
One of the finest films ever made on mountaineering in the IMAX format, Everest, still continues to pack audiences nearly a year after it opened and grossed over $ 100 million worldwide.
This Saturday, it makes its debut on the TNT channel.
While the full thrill of seeing this adrenaline-pumping film on the huge screen will be missing on the small screen, TNT will bring the movie to millions of homes that are not near IMAX theaters. And oh, there are less than 100 theaters in America with IMAX screens.
In just about 30 minutes, the film-makers offer us the gripping efforts of the Viesturs/IMAX team to reach the top of the mountain. A simple and direct narration read by Liam Neeson (written by Tim Cahil and Co-producer/Co-director Stephen Judson) explains the demands and dangers of thin-air climbing and the techniques required to cross a variety of terrain. The lucid explanation makes watching the film even more interesting.
Everest provides dazzling and suspenseful imagery of climbers using ladders to bridge a deep crevasse (the Khumbu fall), battling shortages of oxygen, and wading their way through some of the toughest terrain, illuminated only by the battery-powered lights attached to their heads.
But it is not just the spectacle that makes the film special.
The human stories are compelling too, particularly the one about the attempt by Jamling Norgay, a key part of the team. In 1953, his father Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first people to climb Everest and lived to tell the tale.
Jamling Norgay has many interesting and harrowing stories to tell too.
The film shot during the May 1996 expedition offers many insights into the life-threatening challenges in today's mountaineering world. Eight Everest climbers lost their lives that year. The IMAX crew, led by Ed Viesturs of the US and Jamling Norgay, was on the mountain at that time.
The tragedy -- which has been retold in a number of books -- slowed down production of the film for a period of time, as Viesturs and his colleagues assisted in rescue efforts.
The movie is a tribute to the film-makers who had to fight huge odds to carry the IMAX cameras with them.
Very different and far more thrilling than the 16mm films we have seen about mountaineering, the IMAX format movie has changed an industry and made international stars out of its featured climber, Viesturs, and its film-maker, David Breashears.
The movie has proved, among other things, that IMAX is meant not just for nature films.
Breashears told The Mountain Zone that he is "blown away" by the film's success.
Viesturs said, "it just never occurred to me that we were in for that kind of success."
Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air, about the tragic expedition, became an international bestseller and was on The New York Times bestseller list for over a year. On the big screen, Everest continues making history.
"I am the first to give credit where credit is due," Breashears said. "Jon Krakauer's book drove the reality of the drama home to people everywhere, and that raised the interest level for Everest to a point no one could have predicted. All the publicity emanating from the tragedy created such an awareness of the subject and a really unbelievable curiosity that people were just waiting for this film."
"Clearly," Viesturs said, "the tragic events on the mountain during those weeks we were there contributed to the phenomenal success. I undertook the film project to have fun, to do something different in the mountains, and to this day I cannot really comprehend that millions of people are seeing the film every week."
When Breashears first saw the enormous IMAX camera, he told producer Greg MacGillivray he would have to design a smaller and lighter one, if there was to be any hope of getting 70mm film footage on Everest. MacGillivray did not flinch and, by 1995, Breashears was on Everest testing a newer, lighter and completely redesigned IMAX camera. But carrying even that camera was not easy.
"There was even some question, after the tragic deaths near the summit, of whether we would continue," Breashears says, adding that MacGillivray told him that whether to go or stay was his decision.
"But the whole team wanted to make this movie, and it shows."
"This movie is about the human spirit," Breashears said. "Sure, we had to lug a 42 pound camera and a 70 pound tripod for every single shot, and that is on top of the usual physical problems climbers have at that altitude. But it was the commitment of the Sherpas that put us where we needed to be, and the emotional strength of the team that kept us focused."
Looking back, Breashears compares making Everest to climbing Everest: "While you are there you think, what on earth am I doing here? But in a few months you start to remember it more fondly, to forget the hardships, and you begin thinking about your next climb there. When I was making this movie, I wrote off ever using this cumbersome format again. But when I sit in an IMAX theater and see the power of those images, I have to admit that it gets to me."
"We did not set out to make such a powerful movie," he said. "What makes all of us associated with the project so pleased is that it is not a climber's movie -- people from all walks of life, of all ages, find much to enjoy in that film. What more can you ask?"
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