Cedar Wright is a master of not taking life too seriously (an infectious attitude that spills into his work), as well as creating content of professional athletes dangling from rocks, high above the ground. But what makes his approach to photography and filmmaking so successful? And what's the secret to winning award after award for his climbing films?
Growing up in the rural California foothills of the Sierra, just an hour outside of Yosemite National Park, it's difficult to not blame destiny for Wright's eventual discovery of rock climbing. However, this discovery didn't happen right away. Although his parents exposed him to the natural world and hiking, he wasn't fully aware of rock climbing as a child. Wright found climbing while studying English and creative writing at Humboldt State University.
Photography and cinematography, for Wright, follow a similar story. While in high school, he dusted off his dad's old DSLR and began teaching himself the craft. Although he took positions as the photo editor of the senior yearbook, as well as a photographer for his school's paper, photography did not immediately infatuate him.
Rather than follow a conventional lifestyle, Wright followed a classic climbing lifestyle by moving into his truck after college graduation, and split his time climbing in Joshua Tree and Yosemite. It was during this time where he mastered the art of delicately dancing up granite walls, which led him to establish mind-numbing first-ascents around the world. This unconventional skill eventually landed him sponsorships, including a spot on the highly regarded North Face Team, and also exposed him to an inspiring community of creatives in the outdoor-adventure photo and film industry.
While climbing and traveling as a sponsored athlete, Wright often starred in adventure films. Here, the connection between climbing and filming sparked. “The process of working with Sender Films, as well as Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, is what interested me,” said Wright. “The climber and filmmaker have to work together to get good material and good shots. I really enjoyed the process and became more interested in doing it myself.”
So doing it himself is what Wright did. He bought a small 1CC video camera (shot to tape), and began capturing and logging every adventure and outing. Wright never took a class in cinema or film. Instead, he immersed himself in the vast video world.
It turns out dedication and hard work go a long way. Wright's big break came after filming an adventure with his good friend, Alex Honnold. Wright and Honnold's unique, human-powered adventure of climbing all of California's 14,000-foot peaks involved biking more than 700 miles, hiking at least 100 miles, and climbing over 100,000 vertical feet, often while free soloing (climbing without any rope or protection). Along the way, Wright brought his Sony RX100 to document the trip. Wright enjoys the RX100 because of its ability to not be noticed due to its small size, which in turn doesn't intimidate the subject as a larger DSLR might. While reviewing the footage after completing the adventure, Wright realized he had something special.
“The edit led me to create the first ‘Sufferfest’ film,” said Wright. “The film toured with adventure/outdoor movie festivals like the Banff Mountain Film Fest and the Mountainfilm festival.” The success of the first Sufferfest film launched another, which gained more traction and led Wright to explore the ins and outs of starring, directing, and producing a movie. “Sufferfest 2,” which won awards for best climbing film, again featured Honnold and Wright on a ridiculous adventure, this time climbing 45 desert towers, linking them all by bike.
The Sufferfest Film series gave Wright the motivation and confidence as a filmmaker to keep creating more films, and to not put down the camera. “As a creative at heart, being able to tell stories is addictive,” said Wright. “Being able to inspire people and share stories is intoxicating. You just want to keep it going.”
So what's the secret to creating a successful film, adventure-related, or in any other genre? “In filmmaking, nothing is as important as the story,” said Wright. “People get very caught up in the latest technology and newest gear, but that isn't as important as character development and telling a compelling story.”
Although you may have big dreams of far-away places, Wright says it's important to start photographing and recording what you have access to in daily life. Some of Wright's favorite personal projects — the two recent films “Stumped” and “Safety Third” — were both created basically in his backyard. Both films were featured in this year's traveling Reel Rock Film Tour, one of, if not the, largest outlet for climbing films in the world. This only proves that you don't have to travel far to find compelling content. You simply need to tap into your creativity.
Free-soloing — climbing without a rope, harness, or any protection besides climbing shoes and a chalk bag — is a topic not foreign to Wright. Being an extremely accomplished free-soloer himself, Wright also films fellow climbers performing probably one of the most dangerous pursuits anyone can do. In most films of free-soloers, like in “El Sendero Luminoso,” much of the recording is done in recreations only after the actual climb was completed. But in recording rope-less climbers, Wright wants to further explore the idea of documenting actual events in real time, a factor that usually adds unwanted stress to a free-soloer. The key to making this happen, Wright said, is to have full trust in the climber-videographer/photographer relationship, and making sure each person is fully comfortable with the other and the position they put themselves in.
The crux of “Safety Third” (spoiler alert) happens when climber Brad Gobright falls and rips protection out from the wall, breaking his back. For Wright, showing this scene was necessary for the film. Although it's a brutal and queasy moment to include, it only adds to the story and help shows the risk climbers take. This moment, combined with other sketchy but candid moments Wright has filmed, only proves his philosophy and advice to other photographers and filmmakers: you need to take out the camera exactly when you don't want to. “When it’s uncomfortable, scary, or you're worried about weather harming your camera, that’s when something real is happening and drama is unfolding,” said Wright.
Wright's next soon-to-be-released film will feature his recent expedition with the North Face Team to Antarctica. This trip was a lifelong dream of Wright's, as he's been thinking of the other-worldly landscape and massive, unclimbed peaks basically since he first began climbing. Helping to capture footage of the team's expedition was simply the icing on the cake. After viewing “Of Choss and Lions,” Wright's classically humorous movie featuring himself and Honnold tackling first ascents in Kenya, the North Face was convinced that Wright was the person to spearhead the directing and recording of the team's climbing adventure to the big, cold continent. “The movie is going to feature an all-star team in an all-star place,” said Wright. “I also hired the incredibly talented Pablo Durana as director of photography to help with the film.” Shooting in freezing temperatures presented unique obstacles, like keeping the electronics warm and usable. “Pablo spent most of the trip sleeping with a huge pile of hard drives, batteries, and cameras to keep them warm,” said Wright. “We usually offloaded and uploaded footage in the warmest part of the day.”
One of Wright's biggest inspirations is Galen Rowell, a notable climber, photographer, and pioneer of Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters. “Rowell was Jimmy Chin's mentor,” said Wright. “He was also a badass climber.”
If you run into Wright, you'll probably also be on a crazy adventure of your own. After the Antarctica expedition, he traveled to Kenya for a personal paragliding expedition. He wanted to accomplish his goal of paragliding a 100-mile flight. And that he achieved. He also documented the entire trip, so another adventure film is definitely in the works (you can watch one of Wright's previous paragliding movies below). In the future, Wright also hopes to tackle social issues through his art, which will include a film about a transgender climber.
In the end the biggest takeaways from Wright's success in the creative field is to surround yourself with motivated people, find humor in the mundane or painful, find your passion and constantly work to improve it, and post lots of videos of your dogs on your Instagram story. Lots.
All photographs used with permission of Cedar Wright.
*Correction: changed Telluride Film Fest to Mountainfilm Fest regarding the first Sufferfest.