Sébastien Montaz-Rosset: Filming MountainsInspiration
Sébastien Montaz-Rosset is an award-winning adventure filmmaker, famed for his pioneering production about high-lining group the Flying Frenchies. His most recent film, which follows endurance runner Kilian Jornet on a rescue mission in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes, was featured in the sixth issue of Sidetracked. He talks to Suzy Bennett about the challenges of his job, what inspires him – and the heartache of losing a friend.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I was working as a mountain guide and started filming my clients to give them a memento of their trips. Then I started filming days out in the mountains with my friends, and turned the footage into something I called the Chamonix Snow Report. When I began publishing clips on the internet, a couple of outdoor brands asked me to film projects for them. Eventually Salomon got in touch asking me to make a film about the trail runner Kilian Jornet. This led to the Kilian’s Quest series, and then his Summits of My Life project.
In 2011, I made a film with some friends who were developing the sport of high-lining. Our film, I Believe I Can Fly, gained a lot of attention and led to further projects for all of us. The guys went on to form the group the Flying Frenchies. A lot of clients say they first noticed my work through that film.
You’ve filmed base jumpers, high-liners, skydivers and wingsuit flyers. What do you think drives people to do such risky sports?
The people who do these sports don’t really see them as risky. They are highly talented athletes, and have extensive experience. They’re often looking for different and more creative ways to spend time in the mountains. This leads them to push the limits of existing sports, and to create new practices. They are often very driven people, who spend a lot of time training to be good enough to do the things they want to do.
For some of them, the mountains are simply the environment they’ve lived in all their lives. If you have spent your life in the mountains, and are a very capable skier, you might start looking for new places to go in the mountains, new lines to ski – and if you’re good at what you do, this might lead you to ski lines that have never been skied before. It would be a huge risk for a person with a different ability level or experience to do the same thing, but with their experience and skill, the risk is relative.
You filmed Kilian Jornet making a rescue expedition in Nepal during the earthquakes. How do you look back on this experience, and what did you learn from it?
It didn’t start out as a rescue; we were supposed to be going to Everest on an expedition when the earthquakes happened. Jordi Tosas, who was with us, had been to Nepal a lot and had friends in Langtang, so when we saw that things in Kathmandu were under control, we decided to go and see if we could help in Langtang. I just filmed whatever I could as we went along, but the main focus was to see what we could do to help.
The lasting impression from the trip was the resilience and generosity of the Nepali people. People had lost everything – and they didn’t have that much to begin with. But they would still give us food, provide shelter and were already trying to get back on their feet. It was incredible to see how they were just getting on with their lives, not wasting time feeling sorry for themselves.
Which mountain sport do you think is the toughest, and why?
Anything that involves going into the mountains can be tough. I don’t think of one sport as tougher than another, they are just different and use different skills and require different types of fitness. Some of the things that Kilian is starting to do in the mountains are pretty tough – combining mountaineering with running and endurance to link up several mountain routes. Ueli Steck has done some incredible ‘enchainements’ (link-ups). Combining a high level of mountaineering skill with speed is something else altogether.
What do you think makes you a successful filmmaker?
That depends entirely on how you define success! I’m always looking for new ways to film things, trying out new equipment and techniques. If you just reproduce the same thing again and again, it isn’t that interesting. So you have to try and do something different. I think people like what I do because I try to put the viewer into what’s happening so they feel as if they’re there. That’s always the biggest challenge – to try and make something authentic, so the viewer feels as if they are part of the action.
What kind of personalities do you like to work with the most?
I get the best results working with people who have a passion for what they do. Or for the place they’re in. If a sport or a place excites your subject or makes them emotional in some way, then it’s very easy to get great images. It’s harder to work with people who don’t react much to situations.
How do you set about capturing shots in challenging conditions?
Filming in difficult conditions often gives the best results – when you’re having to push yourself to keep going, despite the weather, or whatever. I just try and keep shooting as much as possible. Over the years I have had all the experiences – of losing cameras, dropping flash cards, not having enough batteries. Everyone who films in the outdoors will probably say the same. So I try to pre-empt everything that can go wrong, but I only take the gear I need to get the shots I want. Having less gear means I can be more adaptable and move around more easily.
What has been hardest scene you’ve ever had to film?
Filming with Kilian has been quite hard, as you can’t shoot something again if you miss the shot. You learn early with Kilian that you have to get a head start. Other things were difficult to film for different reasons. Filming the aftermath of the Nepal earthquakes was difficult because it was hard just to get to places physically, quite apart from the emotional side of seeing such devastation and how people’s lives had been ripped apart.
Have you ever been seriously injured during filming?
Just the odd twisted ankle here and there.
You filmed Tancrède Melet, from the Flying Frenchies, attempting the first ever crevasse highline in Chamonix’s famous Vallée Blanche. Tancrède died recently in a ballooning accident. What are your memories of him?
Tancrède was a one-off. We filmed together a lot and did many projects together. He was incredibly talented and was extremely thorough, planning any stunt and researching everything to the last detail. He was an innovator, and a real creative genius, always looking for new ways to do things. He has left a massive hole behind for everyone who knew him.
You’re a mountaineer, rock climber, runner and skier. What is it about being in the mountains that you enjoy so much?
I grew up in the mountains, so it’s my environment. I love the feeling of freedom when you go into the mountains – there are no constraints or boundaries. And the challenge of finding your line or overcoming an obstacle using whatever means of travel – skis, running, climbing – is really enjoyable. I like the feeling of ‘glisse’ as we say in French, and you get that in any sport that uses gravity. The combination of speed, sliding, gravity – you can’t beat it!
Describe your perfect day
Waking up on a mountain as the sun comes up, then climbing and skiing something new with a couple of friends. Those are the best days.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m experimenting with new filming and production techniques, and trying out new ways to get up and down mountains. I have been trying out 360° virtual reality filming and applying it to action sports. The results are pretty incredible. There are a few projects coming up that will feature some of these new ideas, so watch this space!