Alex Honnold prepares to rappel off the summit of El Capitan in order to climb certain sections of Freerider.
Colorado-based climber, mountaineer, skier and photographer Jimmy Chin can now add the title “Academy Award-winning film director” to his already-prestigious resume and ever-growing list of accomplishments.
That’s because when Jimmy Chin, along with his wife, co-director/producer Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and an elite high-angle team descended into Yosemite Valley, they were ready to document Alex Honnold’s ropeless attempt to scale El Capitan in the National Geographic film “Free Solo,” which won this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Chin is no stranger to acrophobic experiences, having done everything from climbing and skiing Mt. Everest from the summit to making first ascents on big walls and staggering mountain towers in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan and the Garhwal Himalayas of Northern India. Chin will be the first to acknowledge that Honnold’s achievement—of scaling “El Cap” without a rope—puts him in a different class.
But in terms of filmmaking, Jimmy Chin is remarkable in his own right. For instance, when he began his cinematographic efforts in 2003 under the mentorship of Rick Ridgeway, it resulted in the National Geographic special “Deadly Fashion,” which revealed how Chin has often played double roles—shooting stills or video or both to document high altitude expeditions.
Yet, as Jimmy Chin and his team moved into position on June 3, 2017, to record Honnold’s free solo 2,900-foot climb up El Capitan, it was clear from the start that this project would undoubtedly present a host of new challenges for all of them.
Digital Photo Pro: From a non-climber’s perspective, it looks like “Free Solo” documented the greatest athletic feat ever accomplished.
Jimmy Chin: There’s an argument to be made for it. I think the greatest athletic achievements and the greatest athletes are remembered by how well they performed under pressure—when the stakes are the highest—and what level of execution was required in order to succeed.
I think the stakes were very clear with Alex’s attempt on El Capitan—it was life and death. So, it’s not like losing the Super Bowl by dropping the ball in the end zone or missing a last-second shot in the NBA championships.
The thing that makes it unique is that the technical difficulty of the actual endeavor was extraordinarily high. It’s already world-class climbing with a rope. You could equate it with a world-class endeavor like the Super Bowl or the NBA championships or the World Cup, except that at any given moment you could die with a single mistake. That’s one thing.
But knowing that you have to execute perfectly throughout and not make that mistake…the stakes were something you could not ignore. They were all around you.
So, the mental strength required is almost unfathomable, as well. Have you ever witnessed anything like this? You’re no stranger to extreme dangers.
I’ve been working with some of the greatest athletes in the outdoor world, whether that’s snowboarding or skiing or mountaineering or climbing for 20 years. But I’ve never seen anything close to this.
How did you go about capturing what Alex was doing on El Capitan? It seemed like a balancing act, so to speak, between getting into the best positions but not interfering with him.
Alex has been dreaming about this for many years, and I’ve known him for over 12 years. He’s been systematically preparing, soloing bigger and bigger routes, and I’ve worked with him documenting these routes.
We’ve also climbed all over the world together, and I’ve seen the decisions he’s made throughout his career on climbs and in life. We know each other very well. The trust that has built up between us over time was really critical.
Over the course of production, he was practicing for two years how he was going to do the climb, and we were essentially practicing how we were going to shoot it.
I was also shooting stills for a National Geographic assignment on top of that.
Did the National Geographic magazine shoot come first?
The movie came first, and then National Geographic magazine said, “Well, we would love for you to also shoot a photo assignment.”
How were you able to do both?
It’s very difficult. They have different agendas. I literally had a camera for stills bolted to my cinema camera. You have to make a lot of hard decisions.
Try to imagine shooting a movie and stills simultaneously, and you’re trying to pick up a vérité scene that’s really critical to the narrative of the film, yet it’s an amazing photo and you’ve now positioned your own DP in the position you want to shoot.
It was a major juggling act. We spent 35 to 40 days on El Cap filming while he was practicing.
On the day he decided to “go for it,” where did you position the cameras?
We had two long-lensed Canon EOS C300 cameras on the ground. One with a 600mm lens with an f/1.4 extender and one with the Canon CINE-SERVO 50-1000mm.
Then we had six fixed cameras on the wall and four people on the wall also filming. We had another camera on the ground filming Alex approaching the climb and when he left the bottom. We had two people on top filming, as well.
We used the Canon C300. The remote trigger cameras were Canon 1D Xs with a range of lenses, including the Canon 24-105mm f/4, the Canon 24mm f/1.4 and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. We also had an ALEXA Mini at the top and bottom as well as a RED Dragon in a helicopter that was shooting from 3,000 feet above with a 50-1000mm lens. You can’t fly drones in national parks, but we also didn’t want a little buzzy thing flying around Alex. Most of the camera angles are from us hanging off the wall.
That shooting position must have been extremely intense on a number of levels.
Basically, everyone on the high-angle team had to be a world-class climber as well as a world-class cinematographer. There are only a few of those in the world, and they were all on the team.
Our top high-angle team member, Mikey Schaefer, was hurt in [an unrelated event] to our production. He was my high-angle DP, and he and I were up on the wall for 99 percent of the production. But he couldn’t be on the wall the day Alex actually went because he had blown an ACL. So he shot from the ground since we needed someone there anyway.
He was the one that couldn’t bear to look at Alex at a few points on the way up. The high-angle members were Mikey Schaefer, Cheyne Lempe, Sam Crossley, Josh Huckaby, myself and a rigging team.
Did you hang off the face of El Capitan for the almost four hours it took for Alex to do the climb?
A little less. We let him get off the ground but wanted to be ahead of him and not leave anything to chance. It takes a couple of hours just to get into position.
There was one particular move Alex had to do mainly with his thumbs. That seemed to be shot fairly close with not that long of a lens.
That was with one of the remote-triggered cameras. He didn’t mind the cameras there. He just didn’t want his friends there. There’s this weird reflective thing. He can feel us being scared.
At one point, he does encounter some people up on the wall. One, strangely enough, dressed like a unicorn. They seemed to have no clue he was coming up.
No. This whole production was made in secrecy. That area was probably 5 feet wide. I think Alex might have said, “Good morning” when he passed by.
Your wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and you teamed up to make “Free Solo.”
We were co-directors and co-producers, but we bring very different skills to the table. She was managing and directing all the footage on the ground, including where you see Mikey. She was also the mastermind behind the edit. We all sat in the edit bay, but there are so many different aspects to filmmaking. I get the hero role of, “How did you get up there and film it?” But she actually does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to filmmaking.
All of the vérité scenes, making it into a love story, the narrative structure— there are 10,000 decisions to be made on the edit, and it’s very subtle because obviously, you don’t want to have people thinking about the filmmaking when they’re watching the film.
The audience was definitely questioning the relationship Alex had with his girlfriend when he ran into some climbing issues on the run-up to the big free solo day on El Capitan. That was a strong thread that ran through the film thanks to great editing. Regardless of the outcome of Alex’s attempt, would the documentary still have been released?
Most people watching the film know the end, yet you’re able to convey all the suspense that everyone involved was going through at the time.
That was a lot of the craft of filmmaking and the storytelling and the editing and the music and the graphics. There are so many elements. The whole soundtrack was original, including a song performed by Tim McGraw and written by him and Lori McKenna called “Gravity.”
I don’t want to tell people what they should get out of the movie. I think everybody gets something different. I think it was a remarkable intersection of Alex bringing the best of what he could bring and a production team that absolutely brought the best of what they could bring. That’s what made the film special.
Is there going to be a “Free Solo II?”
Ah, no. I don’t think I could survive another one. We’re working on another nonfiction film, and we’re looking at a lot of scripted films as well. The next documentary is about Kristine Tompkins, Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard and their story. Doug started The North Face, Yvon started Patagonia. They’re the greatest conservationists of our time, and Kris is the glue that made all of it happen.
For more on Jimmy Chin, his crew and “Free Solo,” go to nationalgeographic.com/films/free-solo.