DVD Reviews: Never Ending Thermal, The Race and The SAT Team

Sunday 26 September, 2004

Three of the latest flying DVD releases reviewed by Hugh Miller

The Race Produced by Uli Wiesmeier

Uli Wiesmeier is a sadist. A brilliant pilot and a revered photographer, but an unflinching sadist too. Ask the subjects of his recent torturous project – climber Stefan Glowacz and pilot Rob Whittall – and they will agree wholeheartedly that Uli’s capacity for evil knows no boundaries.

The Race is a short film fuelled by Uli’s fascination for the impenetrable rocky spires of the Italian Dolomites and sponsored by Red Bull. It’s fitting that such a hard taskmaster can find such beauty amid some of the world’s steepest, most inaccessible peaks.

The concept of the film is simple: a race between Stefan and Rob to the summit of Piz Pordoi. But the film’s qualities lie not in its plot but in its tempo, cinematography and in its conveying of the competitive ambition of two men as they both tackle unique challenges in their bids to scale a mountain.

The film opens with a ’50s cinematic feel. A lazy trumpet solo and wide sweeping shots of the grey pock-marked faces of Piz Pordoi convey the mountains’ majestic appeal, while also revealing its harsh nature – high, and dry, barren, totally devoid of life as it is.

Far below, in the early morning, a climber cracks his finger knuckles, staring up at the summit with anticipation written all over his face. Rob Whittall plays the part of the cheeky, casual paraglider pilot well. Wearing an anonymous hiking rucksack and boots, he proposes the race to Stefan, shakes his hand, wipes off the chalk dust on his trousers before rushing off round the corner to set up his glider.

The ensuing race sees the tempo build with the increasing layers of tension and drama. Uli pulls out all the stops to get you right in amongst it, employing every point-of-view angle known to free flight – including helmet cams, leg cams, harness long shots that capture the pilot’s speed, and even the ’ass cam’ as first pioneered by Jimmy Hall and Stefanie Brendl.

This is where the camera lens is mounted on a swivelling boom that rotates around the seat of the pilot to show the full panorama of his position. I remember Uli interrogating Jimmy and Stef on their invention at the Garmisch Free Flight expo a couple of years ago – his use of thumb screws on his fellow film makers obviously paid off!

All the while, the athletes’ vulnerability to danger and exposure to the elements is at the forefront of your mind. A highlight is when a chunk of limestone cracks loose and Stefan is left dangling, screaming, from one hand, thousands of feet above the valley floor (my toes actually curled from the vertigo at this point).

Robbie suffers an asymmetric collapse, just pulling out in time to avoid becoming people-paste on the cliff. Soon, Robbie overtakes his companion, and Stefan flinches like a frightened vole as the Raptor-like shadow of Rob’s paraglider swoops over him.

Both summit at the same time, Stefan running the last steps as Rob’s feet raise the dust as he top-lands. They share the moment of glory together, and you realise that their competition has not been against each other, but in overcoming the different natural challenges posed by Piz Pordoi.

The Race might have taken over two summers to complete, and Rob and Stefan may never speak to Uli again, but Uli has demonstrated that you must suffer for your art. The result: a technically brilliant film that hones right in on the emotions experienced by two flesh and bone, utterly fallible creatures taking on the mother of a mountain – and winning.

Awards: Grand Prix St. Hilaire 2003, 1st Prize International Mountain Film Festival, Tegernsee, Germany 2003, Grand Prize and Public Award, Free Flight Film Award, Garmisch, Germany 2004
Length: 11 minutes.

Never Ending Thermal Produced by Outside Television

Of the three DVDs, I found Never Ending Thermal infinitely the hardest to write about. You see, it’s an extremely ambitious project, and the end product is a multi-layered, lavishly produced epic of a film that defies easy summary.

The film’s ambition is hinted at in its title – Canadian producer Sean White makes no secret that his goal was to make an ’Endless Summer’ for free flying. Bruce Brown’s travelogue film of 1964 followed two young surfers as they tripped round the world searching for the next perfect point break.

Endless Summer not only reaffirmed the surfing lifestyle to the tiny core of riders at the time – it also opened up the beautiful simplicity and riches of travelling to surf to a much wider public, propelling surfing to new levels of popularity.

Already broadcast on Outside TV, the DVD is released with several extras, including a fascinating ’Making Of’ feature, in which we see the camera mounts being designed, an opera singer hired for the musical score, and Sean and his team pour months their lives into the project.

Sean swaps surf sticks for paragliders, but the mission remains the same. Two relatively unknown Venezuelan pilots (Herminio Cordido and Jorge Atramiz) are the film’s stars. As they experience a myriad of different flying sites in Europe, Africa, Nepal and South America, their contagious enthusiasm and dry wit make them ideal choices. Flying tandem among the flying masquerade of the St Hilaire festival, they are baffled by one of
the costumes…

’It’s a cat.’

’No, it’s a lion.’

’A cougar’.

’No man, it’s a cow!’

(Pause) ’The cow is getting higher.’

’I know. We’re flying worse than a cow!’

Herminio and Jorge are not just endowed with humour and joie de vivre – they possess huge talent for flying, and the film’s focus is firmly on their mini-adventures with different pilots across the world rather than embarking on huge distance expeditions.

In the Italian Dolomites, the crew all thermal up to land high on a grassy slope. They walk along an arte to a mountain refugio to share lunch with a local Italian pilot who drops in to join them.

After spaghetti and beers, Herminio and Jorge glide back down to the valley floor, leaning back in their harnesses and resting their heads in their hands as they admire the towering rocks around them. OK, so after watching The Race and this, I really want to fly there now.

The sophisticated flying culture of Europe is then contrasted with the harsh reality of exploring unknown sites, as the crew cross the Mediterranean and voyage deep into Morocco in search of the Zagora basin. ’We read about a huge ridge here,’ says Jorge, but sandstorms and crosswinds keep them grounded for a week.

Then finally the winds subside, and Jorge and Herminio kite their gliders gingerly up razor-sharp rock-strewn slopes. As they launch the panorama opens wide around them – the vast browns and yellows of northern Africa stretch out to infinity around them. I felt thirsty just watching it.

’Three dimensions, no rules – just go where you want,’ says Jorge of the place. It’s moments like these that the film really excels at portraying the essence of travel.

But there’s plenty of action too. The pair are acro fiends, and drop into dynamic stalls and helicopters in the most radical of places – not just over the lakes of Italy and Slovenia in organised contests but right in close to truly breathtaking scenery that I couldn’t help but feel was a long, long way from the nearest hospital.

The film’s finale is a mission to Venezuela’s Angel Falls, unflown since 1993, and after all the hard travelling of the film, drinking in the lush forest and sparkling river scenery of La Gran Sabana national park is like sipping a hot chocolate in an outdoor centre after a hard day’s hiking.

The 3,000 ft vertical waterfall plunges so ferociously that thick mists rise up like smoke from a burning building right up to the cliff top.

When Herminio finally succeeds in launching in the turbulent air of the flat table-top like cliff and bursts over the edge – it comes as a pure shot of exhilaration. But not content with just the glory of the scenery, Herminio throws a SAT right down next to the cascading water, his trousers and on-board camera lens wet with spray.

Never Ending Thermal is more than a well-crafted introduction to many of the world’s most intriguing flying sites. It’s more than a showcase of a lifestyle. And it’s more than a masterpiece of cinematography. The film is a major exploration of free flying’s many elements and is a beautiful contribution to our sport.

Length: 47 minutes.
Extras: 32 minutes

The SAT DVD Produced by Safety Acro Team

I should coco … Onboard with Raul Rodriguez

Now I’ve got absolutely no idea what lights your wick, but if you’ve got a beating heart and are remotely interested in flying then it’s a safe bet that the SAT boys’ new offering will come as an absolute flamethrower of a DVD.

It’s a safe bet that you will have heard of the SAT team. They’re the nuts that invented the SAT, their signature rodeo-spiral move, and have toured the world for the past five years throwing it down at acro events and festivals, converting the public to the excitement and drama of paragliding aerobatics.

This DVD combines eight of their nine previous video releases with thirty-five minutes of fresh footage to make a whopping 99-minute long DVD.

In some ways The Sat DVD’s lower production values and occasionally shaky low-res footage make for a polar-opposite to Wiesmeier’s cutting-edge ’The Race’ – but it all gels well into the overall loose vibe and Latino lunacy of the film.

The soundtrack is a well-selected smorgasbord of house, funk and break beats (that includes The Chemical Brothers, Macy Gray and The Prodigy) adding a huge amount of style to the sections. A favourite for me is the Midfield General’s ’Reach Out’ over the synchro segment- with Raul Rodriguez and Hernando Pitocco locked down into their spiral, occasionally bouncing leading edges as they wind in tighter and tighter until Raul’s leading edge breaks Hernando’s canopy in two, forcing him into a stall.

The SAT boys have earned their reputation through their progressive flying and continuous redefinition of paragliding’s physical boundaries, and this DVD is much more than a record of their achievements to date. The snowboard section is a total mind-blower.

We see Raul tear up a ski resort, flying his 12 m glider like a snowkite at times, then launching and flying across to another slope, ollieing and riding his snowboard switch in the fresh powder. For anyone who’s experienced snowboarding and paragliding as separate magical experiences, watching this is like seeing a symbiosis of the two into one natural conclusion.

At one point we see Raul fly serenely out, 500 ft above the mountain, the scenery slowing to a crawl with the height, his lines spread out like a spider web over the frame from the line-cam.

He then spirals down tight before converting over a 10ft high fence, snowboards past several astonished skiers at Mach 5, brakes hard to swoop over the piste’s opposite fence and then screeches to a halt in front of the ski station, spraying the outside diners with snow.

’Como esta?’ (How are you?) asks a booming public address system.

’Bien, bien!’ (Good, good!) replies Raul.

I should coco.

Awards: La Maniobra, Attack, Republic and Elements have won various awards at St Hilaire and El Yelmo Film Festivals.
Total Length: 99 minutes. More info at

All these DVD’s are avsailable to buy on the XC Shop

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