Saturday, October 1

New HBO Action Sports Documentary ‘Edge Of The Earth’ Will Make Your Palms Sweat


“Is the pursuit worth the risk?”

Professional snowboarder Elena Hight posits this question early on in the first episode of the new documentary from HBO and Teton Gravity Research, Edge of the Earthwhich debuts Tuesday.

Hight is talking about her plan, along with fellow snowboarder Jeremy Jones and skier Griffin Post, to ride a line on Mount Bertha in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park that no one has ever skied or snowboarded before.

But the question might also apply to the process of filming on location in the farthest-flung locales on planet Earth in the middle of a global pandemic. And that’s exactly what this four-part documentary series entails, as four groups of athletes attempt to ski/snowboard, kayak, climb and surf terrain that has never been touched before.

The team at Teton Gravity Research (TGR), one of the world’s leading action sports media companies, first began talking to executives at HBO about the idea that would become Edge of the Earth in the summer of 2019. The two companies had just partnered on the Lindsey Vonn documentary The Final Seasonwhich would premiere in November of that year, and the streaming giant was eager to hear what else TGR had up its sleeve.

Edge of the Earth is “really the culmination of what Teton Gravity Research has been and represented over the last couple of decades,” says producer Drew Holt. Cofounders Todd and Steve Jones, brothers to Jeremy, have mastered the art of action and adventure films over their two-plus decades in the industry, but many of those have been either self-released or done in partnership with Outside.

“The ability to take what we do, our primary expertise, and going to the edges of the Earth and being able to follow these athletes and tell their stories is a dream come true—and doing it on the HBO stage, one of the premier platform for content and content creators,” Holt said.

But the team behind the series could never have imagined what was to come in those early planning days. In January 2020, one of the first planned shoot locations was in China. When Covid-19 exploded a couple months later, filming was put on hold to ensure it could be done safely and successfully.

In April 2021, the team traveled to Alaska to film the first episode—but then the production of all four episodes stacked up as the crew traveled to Llanganates National Park in Ecuador, Pik Slesova in Kyrgyzstan and the West Coast of South Africa.

“It was quite the exercise in operational movements and getting everything coordinated,” Holt said with a chuckle. The production team—which, including the edit teams, counted 60-plus people—underwent a rigorous testing regimen to ensure the athletes and filmers didn’t bring Covid into any of the locations and also had to navigate major ports of entry and travel bans .

The second episode, “Raging Torrent,” follows kayakers Ben Stookesberry, Nouria Newman and Erik Boomer as they try to attempt a descent from the potentially impassable Chalupas River in the vast Ecuadorian jungle.

Episode III, “Reaching for the Sky,” sees climbers Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger, who were married earlier this year, attempt to accomplish the first individual free climb ascent of a daunting free route on Pik Slesova.

And in the final episode, “The Great Unknown,” surfers Ian Walsh and Grant “Twiggy” Baker pursue never-before-ridden big waves along the remote West Coast of South Africa.

In each location, TGR relied on experts in their respective sports to get the shot, especially in kayaking and climbing, which are somewhat outside the production company’s typical subjects. In action sports, filmers are frequently elite athletes in their own right—and when they’re filming in such dangerous, inaccessible locations, they have to be.

In Alaska, filmmaker Leslie Hittmeier filmed Jones, Hight and Post all the way to the top of Mount Bertha. “When my father watched the first episode, he asked, ‘How’d she get back down?’” Holt said. “I said, ‘She skied with them!’”

In Ecuador, Chris Korbulic and Sandy McEwan, elite kayakers in their own right, were able to capture the story under Steve and Todd Jones’ direction. In Kyrgyzstan, it was climber/cinematographer Austin Siadak and climber/videographer Colette McInerney who went behind the lens. In South Africa, director of photography Mike Ozier, who has a surfing background and also works on Hollywood film sets, helped the entire series develop a consistent look in its talking head interviews. Robin “Gumby” Moulang, a South African native and Twiggy’s go-to filmer, also slowed down his expertise.

In each case, Holt said, it was wild to see what the crews were able to capture with the gear they could carry with them in extreme conditions.

Throughout the entire series, the production team never stopped pursuing that delicate balance between holding the interest of the non-core audience while not putting off the core audience. “It’s important for the entire genre of outdoor storytelling for us to get that right. If we can get that right it opens up doors, because that bigger audience shows up,” Holt said.

Rather than disrupt the project or its focus, the recent mergers of WarnerMedia with AT&T
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and, most recently, Discovery actually strengthened that commitment to marrying action sports and narrative documentary storytelling. After the AT&T acquisition, HBO Sports was nested under HBO Documentaries, but that didn’t mean executive producers on the HBO side took Edge of the Earth any less seriously.

HBO has established itself as an apex of action sports documentaries; in the last few years, it’s been home to the aforementioned Lindsey Vonn: The Final Seasonthe Emmy-nominated 100 Foot Wave and the seminal Tony Hawk documentary Until the Wheels Fall Off.

“They didn’t dismiss us as just ‘action sports’ filmmakers; they embraced us as documentary filmmakers,” Holt said. “It’s an elite club.”

The end result treads that line beautifully. Those in the know in the action sports industry will appreciate seeing some of its most compelling athletes take on another new challenge, testing their physical and mental capacities. Those who don’t follow these sports that closely but enjoy documentaries about people pushing themselves to the limit will come to root for the athletes, aided by crucial but not overwhelming backstory and narration.

If you haven’t experienced a good palm sweat since watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park in the 2018 documentary Free Solo, Edge of the Earth is for you. Its first episode, “Into the Void,” opens with an aerial shot of Jones, Hight and Post looking shockingly tiny as they summit Mount Bertha using pickaxes and crampons, boards and skis strapped to their back. It seems impossible they won’t go careening off the icy face of the mountain as their climb turns near-vertical.

Is the pursuit worth the risk? Absolutely.

The series debuts Tuesday, July 12 at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max. Each subsequent episode of the four-part series will air over the next three Tuesdays at the same time.


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