Radical Reels 2014: Filmmaker Celin Serbo brings stills to life

With his first feature-length adventure film — “feature length” in the adventure genre meaning more than four minutes — Celin Serbo admits he didn’t have much of a plan going in.
“It was definitely thrown together,” says the Boulder, Colo.-based adventure photographer and cinematographer. “We had no detailed story board. We just wanted to see what we could get.”
What emerged was 2011’s “Cyclocross Colorado Front Range,” a mix of race footage and interviews that looks like it did indeed set out with a purpose: to explain the allure of this quirky cycling hybrid that involves carrying one’s bike as much as  riding it. The five-minute video includes footage from about a half dozen races shot in a local amateur cyclocross series.
“These were people doing whatever they were doing during the week, then coming out there to hammer it out on the weekend,” Serbo says.

Telling the story

It’s that desire to tell the story behind the image that lured Serbo, a professional still photographer, to expand into video about five years ago.
“I noticed that most of these videos where short on storytelling,” Serbo says of his motivation. “I mean, how many super slow shots of powder flying can you watch?”
It was that same desire to tell a story that lead to a six-minute film on off-width climber Pamela Shanti Pack. “Off-width Outlaw” is one of 11 films in this year’s Radical Reels Tour 2014, which plays Sept. 4 at Winston-Salem’s Hanesbrands Theatre, and Sept. 5 at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill. The Tour features some of the top short feature films of the year in the adventure world.
Serbo spent his formative years in Northern Arizona. After graduating with a business degree from Northern Arizona University, he moved to Denver and immediately put his business degree to work — as a mountain guide. Someone gave him a camera, he started shooting on his trips. Someone else said his work was good, he should enter contests. He did, quickly winning a competition sponsored by Patagonia. In 1993, he added still photography to his professional resume.
In 2004 he decided to commit to his photography so he quit guiding and, for the next five years drove a school bus for the Boulder Valley School District. “It was the perfect job,” says Serbo. “It was steady money, I had health care and I had the middle of the day free for my photography.”

Meeting the ‘outlaw’

Boulder is a magnet for creative types, creating a competitive market for, among others, photographers. Serbo says that proved to be a plus: there’s a lot of give-and-take, a supportive environment. Plus, for an adventure photographer Boulder is nestled in Colorado’s photogenic Front Range and is crawling with high-performing athletes. Athletes such as Pamela Shanti Pack, whom he met at breakfast one morning a few years back.
“I’d heard of her,” says Serbo, “but didn’t know that much about her.” There was, he knew, a lot to learn. For starters she holds a degree in surveying from Yale University and has an extensive off-width resume, with more than 50 first female ascents throughout the West.  She seemed a natural subject for Serbo’s first feature profile.
“Off-width Outlaw” grew out of a pitch Serbo made to profile Pack for Outside Television’s “Dispatches” segment. Serbo was interested in doing more than the minute-long Dispatch, so he invested his fee into a more extensive shoot, including helicopter shots and more cameras. He, Pack and his crew spent three days filming in the Canyonlands of southern Utah.

Getting the shot

“Off-width Outlaw” has plenty of up-close footage shot several hundred feet above the canyon floor. Footage showing Shanti Pack cramming her fists into a five-inch crack, of her inverted and wedging her feet into the sandstone’s narrow cleavage, of blood seeping through her taped fingers. At first, you marvel at her skill and endurance. Eventually, it dawns on you that there’s someone sharing this precarious perch while operating a camera.
Serbo dispels some of the man-behind-the curtain mystery of getting such challenging shots.
“We weren’t necessarily up there climbing,” Serbo says. “Her partner was a big help, setting a fixed rope with a mechanical ascender.” Instead of climbing, they were hanging.
The real challenge of this kind of shoot, he adds, is the light. There was keeping track of the usual sunrise and sunset, but also the sun’s arc throughout the day at that time of year (“Off-width Outlaw” was shot in April, of 2013). “The walls go in and out of sunlight throughout the day,” he says. “For the bigger cracks, the sun is a real challenge” trying to catch Pack’s hands in good light as they jam into a crack.
Mixed in, of course, is the story of Pamela Shanti Pack as told by herself. “Move maybe an inch, then hyperventilate for about 30 seconds, then move maybe another inch. … There’s a tremendous amount of pain involved in off-width climbing and I really do thrive on that pain.”
That pain is key to appreciating “Off-width Outlaw,” says Serbo.
“To really appreciate this video,” he advises, “you need to get out and climb some off-width yourself.”

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Radical Reels 2014
When: Thursday, Sept. 4, doors open at 6:30 p.m., show is at 7 p.m.
Where: Winston-Salem: Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N Spruce St.
Cost: $15 in advance at Great Outdoor Provision Co., Thruway Shopping Center, 402 South Stratford Road, Winston-Salem; $17 at the box office

When: Friday, Sept. 5, doors open at 6:30 p.m., show is at 7 p.m.
Where: Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theatre, 123 East Franklin St.
Cost: $15 in advance at Great Outdoor Provision Co., Eastgate Shoping Center, 1800 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill; $17 at the box office.

The films

For information on each of the films, including a short teaser, go here.

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