The force of "G"

Filmmaker Rolf Gibbs smashed more than a few camcorders while making a film that replicates a 30,000-foot free-fall.


Janelle Brown
February 8, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

As the film opens, you have a bird's eye view of the murky browns and faded greens of what appears to be a topographical map. The theater fills with the shrill whispers of an intense wind. The image spins slightly, and you realize that you are descending toward a country landscape from an insane height -- a distance so high that it hardly seems that you're descending at all. A minute passes while you fall, and details in the landscape become clearer -- a house, some trees. The descent seems to accelerate. Suddenly, you are moving toward the ground so fast that you barely have time to mentally prepare before -- Bam! -- you hit the ground and everything goes black.

If you've ever wondered what it would feel like to free-fall from 30,000 feet -- a height taller than Mount Everest -- then run to get yourself a copy of "G," a new short film from the critically acclaimed short filmmaker Rolf Gibbs. This five-minute film, which premiered earlier this month at Sundance and is now available through Atom Films, was a test of both digital filmmaking and aerodynamics. The result is simultaneously simple and thrilling.

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Gibbs -- the director of short films such as "The Last Guy To Let You Down" -- says he came up with the idea for "G" back when, in film school, he was asked to conceive a film with no soundtrack and no dialogue. It took four years and $25,000 in equipment to finally find out what it would look like when you dropped a camera out of an airplane and filmed the result.

"Everyone's always wondering what it's like to fall from the sky," says Gibbs. To find out, he teamed up with SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, Calif., the only high-altitude skydiving company in the world. While most skydiving is done from 14,000 feet -- going any higher is a dangerous task that requires oxygen tanks and acclimation -- SkyDance's Dan O'Brien was able to take Gibbs' camera over 30,000 feet in the air and drop it.

Getting the camera high enough was one difficult feat; helping it survive the fall was another. Frank Schlosser, a local rocketeer, helped Gibbs design a bomb-shaped casing that would both protect the camera and keep its descent steady (i.e., camera lens first without too much spinning). The crew went through 18 prototypes and seven cameras before finding one that survived the fall.

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The winning contraption consisted of two palm-sized Sony PC-1 camcorders strung together. The camera in the nose of the bomb was attached to the camera in the rear via FireWire, a high-speed video transfer technology; the front camera shot the film and absorbed the blow of the fall while the cushioned rear camera recorded the action. (To this day, says Gibbs, he is still using that rear camera.)

Now that the film is complete, Gibbs' new challenge is getting his experimental film distributed -- plummeting cameras aren't exactly mainstream theater fare. To this end, he's turned to the Net. On his new Web site, RolfGibbs.com, fans, distributors and the merely curious can now order free video CD collections of Gibbs' films, including "G."

There's a fresh buzz surrounding short films, thanks to the sudden rise of the dot-com film companies like Atom Films and iFilm, which gives Gibbs hope that his experiment will reach other outlets as well. Gibbs has inked a new distribution arrangement with Atom Films. His film doesn't screen particularly well online, thanks to that grainy two-inch window (one Atom Films viewer described the experience as "watching a map with bumps! BORING."); but Atom Films plans to sell DVDs of Gibbs' work, and license "G" to other media outlets -- television, cable, even in-flight videos on airlines.

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Chuckles Gibbs, "If they can sell this film to an airline, they're brilliant."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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