Everest meets Existential Crisis: the story behind “The Climb”
(We are proud of our guys and the passion that led them to this Vimeo staff pick. Here’s motion designer Alex Deaton’s story of how it all came together.)
At the design conference FITC Toronto (Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity.) in 2015, I attended a panel with artists Ash Thorp and David O’Reilly. O’Reilly is known for making batshit crazy unclassifiable animated shorts. I’m into them. Maybe too much.
I had an opportunity at the end of the talk to ask him how he kept the fire of his ideas alive through the laborious process of design and animation to which he responded: “Every time I have a really weird or interesting idea, I write it down in a notebook. If I keep thinking about the idea months or even years later, I set the time aside and make it.”
At that moment, unbidden, an image emerged from the fog of my subconscious..
A tenacious climber clings to a perilous mountain face. With grit and determination, he pulls himself to the summit, striding forward in full confidence towards the center of the peak. Triumphant, he thrusts his fists in the air and bellows “I HATE MY LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!”. As the echo dies out, a look of defeat washes over his face. He walks off the mountain.
I scribbled it down, not exactly knowing what the hell to do with an idea like that. Two years later, I was still turning it over in my head. Why? Who knows. Is it pointless? Yes. But it kept coming back. So I sketched this up:
And decided I would make it. I asked my good friend Preston Gibson if he would be interested in lending his 3D prowess to the project, and he surprised me; “Sure, and also how about we go way overboard on this. Like, wayyyyy too much.” (<- paraphrased)
Well, why not? I drew up a character schematic, and he started to model our character out in 3D.
We gathered reference images from all over to nail down the look. Overcast and blustery, blue-grey, dusty snow, and ominous clouds. Our hero wears a leather sherpa jacket, blue jeans and boots. He’ll get to the top of that mountain, proper attire be damned.
I drew up a rough storyboard and cut it into an animatic so we could get a sense of timing. The shape of it was becoming clear.
Meanwhile, Preston was closing in on the look.
Once the character was rigged, clothed, and textured, I worked through a few test animations to see what I was up against to get this guy moving.
At this point, I had told several people about the idea and roughly one quarter asked me “What’s the point, again?” or “That’s depressing.” Naturally, both Preston and I felt like we had gotten ourselves in over our heads, but like out titular character we pressed on to the summit without stopping to think if it was worth getting there. #determination #blessed #pleasehelpus
From this point forward, we were in full on production mode. I was animating on 2s (12 poses a second), a laborious process that gave us the handmade stop-motion feel we were aiming for, while Preston went absolutely batshit on shaders and textures, churning out sherpa fur, mottled leather, scuffed rubber boot soles, weathered rocks, blowing snow, and countless other minutia.
Our coworker Jim helped us build out the rock dynamics for the fourth shot, as well as the smoke dynamics for his chilly breath. We’re all about that atmosphere, but visuals aren’t everything, so we enlisted the help of 90’s sound wizard Mark Bartels. He cooked up a score worthy of a Christopher Nolan film and crafted an expansive soundscape to boot. Without his contributions, the short would be emotionally flat. He ran with the idea far beyond what we were imagining and made something profound. Well, profoundly silly, anyway.
If the start of this project was basecamp, we were above the clouds now, within reach of the peak. Preston and I were putting final touches on the animation, compositing, and glowing neon letters.
Countless late nights, weekends, and stressful render crashes later, we had finished the piece. Months of our lives, poured into a minute-long animated short that exists solely as a delivery mechanism for an absurdist punchline I half-imagined three years ago. I’m proud of our ability to persevere against logic and good sense.
A day after it was posted, we were awarded a Vimeo Staff Pick. Vindication! I felt relief, identifying just a little bit less with our mountain climber.