Cinematic climbing

Boulder filmmaker works to combine climbing and art

Craig Muderlak
Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

As if projecting rock climbing routes — the multiple attempts climbers put into mastering a particularly tough route — weren’t enough of a challenge, local filmmaker, artist and rock climber Craig Muderlak has set a goal to visually represent more than the physicality of climbing. He wants to capture the climbing life, and to represent, in his art, that life as a work of art.

“I’m not concerned with cutting edge climbing, but more the human experience of climbing and how that is an art form in a way and trying to show that human experience,” he says.

Longstanding interests in combining art and climbing, or music and video, are colliding in his ongoing film project, The Backyard Project, a film he’s making on climbers who bicycle to climbing routes, and a parody film, Our Office, that is in the amateur film contest for this year’s Reel Rock Film Tour, which premiers in Boulder on Sept. 15.

“I think a lot about humans and our connection to adventure and how that is lost in society right now,” he says. “We don’t have, necessarily, adventure in our daily lives. … We have to seek it out, so I think climbing is kind of like our a contemporary way of replacing the adventure that’s lost. And I think biking kind of has broadened that adventure to make it more full circle, like the bike to the climb is kind of an adventure.”

He has released an early cut of The Backyard Project on his blog, It shows Muderlak preparing his meal, drawing, sorting his gear, packing up and pedaling out to a climb, then projecting that climb. The mood for the video is set by music Muderlak composed and plays.

“I think at some level it’s about thinking of life in general as a work of art,” he says. “That whole process of getting ready, biking to the route, that adventure is kind of like a work of art, it’s not just the climbing, it’s the whole process.”

He patches in time-lapse photos of himself drawing the route he’s projecting, using a chalkboard, anything to get his hands into the film, literally and figuratively.

“I’ve always despised digital media, and I still kind of have a love-hate relationship with it, but it seemed to be a way to capture all of my interests,” he says. “But it seemed like a way that I could like. I could paint, write music, draw, do all this stuff and capture it on video.”

Muderlak and his friends Tim Davis and Josh Merriam discovered the Reel Rock contest just weeks before the deadline.

Muderlak had been spending days out at Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon, projecting a series of routes there — Country Club Crack (5.11c), then Englishman’s Home (5.11 ). He started to refer to the place as his “office,” and suggested making a video about those climbs. But while he was thinking of the area’s historic boot-shoed climbers like Royal Robbins, his friends were thinking of staplers in Jell-O.

“Then we heard about the Reel Rock Tour two minute film series. We had two weeks, and we decided to go for it,” he says.

The experience, he says, was frustrating.

“We have hours of footage and making a two minute film was almost impossible,” he says. “There’s so much footage that we have that wasn’t used and is super funny. We put a lot of effort into it, and I think all of us who worked on that feel like the video does not do it justice.”

He says he hopes to do a five-minute cut of the 80 gigabytes of footage on his computer that will better tell the story.

Only the winners of the people’s choice and judges’ choice categories will screen at the festival, two of about 10 films on the Reel Rock tour’s website, open to voting until Sept. 10. In addition to being seen at more than 200 locations around the world, the winners will receive a package of prizes that includes tuition to the Outside Adventure Film School.

On the grand scale, Reel Rock Film Tour screens the latest films by Big Up Productions and Sender Films in an event designed to draw the local climbing community together to scream and cheer for these films. In 2010, the films played to more than 55,000 audience members around the world, often in partnerships with retailers, gyms and university clubs, or as a fundraiser for the Access Fund or the American Alpine Club. This year, it’s expected to show at 250 locations.

“It all launches here in Boulder, so the Boulder premiere is really the biggest show globally and the launch of the tour,” says Pete Mortimer, creator of Sender Films, who co-founded the festival with Josh Lowell, creator of Big Up Productions. The amateur contest started as a way to get more people involved.

“It’s been great. Every year we get a diversity of films,” Mortimer says. “The ones we had last year probably elicited the biggest responses from the audience.”

This year, almost everything entered in the festival took a humorous spin on an otherwise often take-yourself-too-seriously sport. They received more than 20 submissions and posted half of them on their website.

“The ones that we’ve been really liking… they’re really low budget and homemade, but they have this quirky, funny feel, sort of like The Office,” Mortimer says.

The featured films cover the latest push for a record-setting ascent on a Yosemite cliff, explore the relationship of a young climber and her coach, and showcase the craziest of the crazy daredevils doing backflips on lines hundreds of feet off the ground.

Visually, capturing climbing gets tough because it’s small details — the size of the hold or the slipperiness of the rock — that make the difference between good climbers and great climbers. Climbing filmmakers have to look beyond the sport for compelling cinema.

“The biggest thing about climbing is that each climb is this incredible story that anyone can relate to,” Mortimer says. “You come up with the goal and you come up with the vision and sometimes these guys spend years and years trying to achieve this one climbing dream. And I think that is something that everyone can relate to… You have to tell that story to make it at all interesting, and I think in that conflict, in that challenge, in that struggle are amazing stories.”

Progress on The Backyard Project is expected to be slow, Muderlak says, both because he’s an amateur, working around his schedule as a NOLS instructor, painter and graphic designer, and because he’s working with other climbers on a volunteer basis. They’re his friends, which takes some of the pressure off, he says, but “climbers usually just want to climb. They don’t necessarily want to do video.”

Boulder is uniquely positioned to make the film possible; Muderlak has biked to climbs in Eldorado Canyon, Boulder Canyon and on the Flatirons.

The final film is likely to include footage of three climbers, including Muderlak, working on their climbing projects, and then culminate with the three of them bicycling to Longs Peak and climbing a route up the Diamond.

“I kind of treat my photography and climbing as like a professional hobby. I sometimes think it would be awesome to make a living doing it, but simultaneously I think that it would ruin it at some level,” Muderlak says. “It would change my style, and I would like to create a body of work that I can look back on and be proud of and more treat as like a diary I think than become somebody who makes a living full time as a cinematographer or photographer. I think it keeps my work fresh, and … I don’t get sick of it. I take breaks because I can, and then it allows me to come back to it when I’m psyched.”

And sometimes, he says, that means setting down the camera and just climbing.

Amateur films in the Reel Rock Film Tour are at Muderlak’s work is at and a link to his Kickstarter campaign to fund the Backyard Project is at

The Reel Rock Film Tour premieres at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Boulder Theater.