A Peek Inside the Extraordinary Life of Fred Beckey

Photo by Dave O’Leske.

Unless you’re a climber, the name Fred Beckey may not ring a bell. But an award-winning crew of producers and editors set out to change that with the movie Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey. The film premiered at Mountainfilm in Telluride in 2017, with the man himself, then 94, in the audience watching his life’s adventures unfold before him.

After playing in more than 40 film festivals and scooping up 20 awards along the way, the film is now in the midst of a world tour and is slated for mainstream release on iTunes and other platforms on July 1, 2018. But it was a long climb to this point.

Fred Beckey overlooking the Cascades. Photo from Fred Beckey Archives.

Fred Beckey started doing serious climbing by the age of 15. He went on to become the most prolific climber of our time, ascending peaks on all five continents, authoring 13 books, and becoming a hero to climbers around the world. He has a mountain named after him in Alaska and “Beckey routes” for many difficult ascents.

At the 2012 world premiere of an earlier documentary K2: Siren of the Himalayas, produced and edited by Jason Reid and edited by Darren Lund, Jason had an opportunity to hear Fred Beckey speak. Awestruck and inspired by what he heard, he thought that his story should become a film, but it took a few years before he discovered there was already a film in the works. As luck would have it, their soon-to-be partner, Director Dave O’Leske, had already spent a decade filming Fred, following him across various mountain terrains around the world and wanted to partner with a team to put the film together.

Fred Beckey in China 2013. Photo by Dave O’Leske.

“We raised $100,000 on Kickstarter, and secured a sponsorship from Patagonia,” explains Jason. “Then it took us a couple of years of post-production work to create the documentary.”

Jason and his co-editor Darren—who have collaborated on award-winning projects such as Sonicgate: Requiem for a Team, Mr. Irrelevant, and Backfire: How to Destroy a Presidential Candidate—sifted through Dave’s footage from the past 10 years, as well Fred’s own recordings.

“The film goes back to the 1930s, so we went through just about every video format that has ever existed,” laughs Darren. They dropped all of the footage, including scanned archival content, into Adobe Premiere Pro, and cut Dirtbag. Fred Beckey never loved the nickname, but to his many admirers his is known as the “original dirtbag” climber, a man who always did what it took to get up the mountain.

Fred Beckey at Hunter Summit. Photo from Fred Beckey Archives.

The seamless integration of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects into the Premiere Pro timeline was key. “I could build the credits in Photoshop and then drop them into Premiere Pro,” says Darren. “When I changed the font size by two points in Photoshop, it would automatically update in Premiere Pro. That saved us a lot of time from having to change individual files, which is cumbersome.”

Jason and Darren were also heavy users of the new Text tool and labeling features to organize their sequences in Premiere Pro. “We lay all of the content down on the timeline, and then do all the editing,” says Jason. “It’s like a leveling system, where we literally do it in video layers of different quality levels of clips. It’s an unconventional process, but it works for us.”

For example, text bars were visually laid on top of select timelines. As they neared the final cut, they used the timeline markers to note small changes, such as an audio note. All of the audio notes would be the same color, so they could easily filter them and check them off when completed.

Fred Beckey with Eric Bjornstad. Photo by Lin Ottinger from the Eric Bjornstad Collection.

While much of the audio editing was done in Premiere Pro, the tight integration with Adobe Audition enabled the team to do a full stereo mix. “We could take the audio work done in Premiere Pro, bring it into Audition, and continue to make adjustments before dropping it back into the timeline,” says Darren. “We then set out to build a full surround 5.1 mix using the same media, which is compatible with the theaters, Blu-ray, and for any streaming services that pick up the movie.”

The team also used the Lumetri Color panel in Premiere Pro for additional color work, including fine tuning the brightness and contrast.

“We live our lives in Premiere Pro,” says Jason. “We spend a huge chunk of our time using Adobe products.”

Fred Beckey at Shiprock in 2016. Photo by Dave O’Leske.

Fred Beckey passed away in October 2017, but the crew hopes that his legacy will live on with Dirtbag.

“Fred was coming to terms with the aging process, but still adamantly wanted to keep conquering peaks,” says Jason. “This is something that people outside of the climbing subculture can relate to, and we’re honored to be able to tell his story to the rest of the world.”