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filming Imax The Making of an IMAX/IWERKS Film
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Everest's First Photographers
The only known photographs of Mount Everest at the beginning of this century were distant shots from such well known viewpoints as Tiger Hill, Darjeeling. Claude White had taken shots from within Tibet of the East Face from Khamba Dzong, during the Younghusband Mission of 1903-4, but that too was from nearly a hundred miles away. No outsider approached the mountain at close quarters until the British Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921 trekked through Tibet to Everest and brought back a mass of valuable photographic material. This was given a great splash in the newspapers and illustrated periodicals of the day. At the same time George Mallory and other members of the Everest party travelled around England giving lantern-slide lectures. Public interest was quickly whetted and movie film followed close behind. The next year's expedition to Everest included a cinematographer on the team. Captain John Noel's "Climbing Mount Everest" illustrated the long journey from Darjeeling, highlighting aspects of Tibetan life and the spirited mountaineering effort.

John Noel was an entrepreneur of considerable invention, and absolutely dedicated to the 'conquest' of Everest (as he and most other people put it in those days). He was encouraged by the modest success of his film and the progress of the climbers, who he felt sure would crack the problem at their next attempt. As preparations for the 1924 expedition were being made and finance solicited, John Noel approached the Mount Everest Committee with an astonishing proposal. He would pay $8000 for complete photographic rights to the expedition—an enormous sum for the time. Somewhat bemused, the Committee wasted no time in accepting the generous offer, which solved all their financial problems at a stroke.

film slate In 1922, Noel had been operating on a shoestring budget, developing his own film at Base Camp in tanks lined with nickel-silver inside a specially designed tent, which he kept heated with a yak-dung stove. This time he built a permanently-manned laboratory-hut in Darjeeling to which a team of mail runners delivered all still and movie film from the expedition. His camera was a clockwork Newton-Sinclair, adapted as much as possible to cold temperatures. At Advanced Base Camp he scaled a little hill, his "Eagle's Nest,"which afforded a good view of the route the climbers intended to attempt. With his 20-inch telephoto lens ('resembling a baby Lewis gun'), he was confident of being able to follow all the mountaineering action at long-distance whenever not physically with the climbers. The heavy camera was also taken as high as the North Col.

Unfortunately, the lack of summit success meant Noel's film "Epic of Everest" was not the commercial success he had hoped for. He had captured poignant footage of the blanket signals sent up and down the mountain after the loss of Mallory and Irvine on their summit attempt, but he had insufficient footage of the right personal material, and perhaps lacked the inclination, to make the film a full blown tribute to the missing heroes. Ultimately his company, Explorer Films, folded. Nonetheless, today, this archive footage is in great demand with Everest film makers.

Some 'home movie' footage was shot by climbers attempting Everest during the 1930s, but the only commercial film of the decade was "Wings Over Everest," made for the Gaumong-British Picture Corporation by Geoffrey Barkas. This semi-'talkie' documented the first flight over the world's highest mountain in 1933 by two flimsy biplanes.

When Nepal opened its borders after the Second World War, among those in the first trekking party to approach Everest was the American mountaineer and avid amateur cinematographer Dr. Charles Houston. He took the first 16mm film of the Khumbu Glacier and Everest region.


Photos: (1) courtesy Robert Schauer; (2) Liesl Clark.

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