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Go Climb a Rock: The Filmmaking Feat of ‘Free Solo’

Following Alex Honnold as climbs the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park ... without a rope.

The new documentary Free Solo “chronicles rock climber Alex Honnold’s rope-less ascent in 2017 of Yosemite’s El Capitan, a vertical cliff face twice the height of the Empire State Building,” explains Joe McGovern.

“The feat, widely considered the greatest in the history of rock climbing, required years of preparation,” McGovern continues. “Free Solo takes viewers into that process and ultimately right alongside Honnold for the climb itself, which was filmed from multiple angles. 

“It is impossible not to look away from dizzying shots of Honnold spidering his way up the cliff—including a section 1,800 feet high called the ‘Boulder Problem,’ more or less a glass-flat granite wall. The risk of death becomes a meta-narrative.” To read the full article click here.

“In the back of my mind I thought of making a feature film about Alex, but I was conflicted because free soloing is dangerous, and a film about Alex would obviously involve a lot of free soloing,” explains Free Solo co-director (with Chai Vasarhelyi) Jimmy Chin. “I knew exactly what such a film would entail, the kind of pressure it would put on myself and Chai and our crew because there’s not a lot of room for error and the stakes would be extraordinarily high.

“I said to Chai, ‘I need you to think about it.’ Like me, Chai believed that the film could be very interesting because the choices you have to make in life to be a free soloist really point to some very hard decisions—in a way, to the essence of some of the hardest decisions that a person has to make in life. How does one make those decisions? That’s interesting.

“At this point, we were only talking about a film about Alex because he had never said to me that he wanted to free solo El Cap. So Chai had a conversation with Alex. She just wanted to get a sense of whether he would be an interesting character to make a film about. And in the conversation, he told her that he was thinking about free soloing El Cap. So when I talked to Chai after and asked, ‘How was your conversation with Alex?’ she said, ‘It was great, and he told me that he would love to free solo El Cap.’ “I just stopped in my tracks. At that moment I thought, ‘I don’t think I can handle that; I don’t think I can make that film.’

“Clearly the danger and the ethical questions around the danger [posed the biggest challenge],” says Vasarhelyi. “Is this film something we even want to do? And if so, how do we to negotiate those lines in a way that both honors Alex and the way that he would love this climb to be captured? And how do we get the emotional moments that we know are needed so that this is more than just a climbing movie? As a filmmaker you know you’re there for those real moments, and they’re sometimes the most difficult moments for the subject.”

“As a climber and a filmmaker, your mind just goes to one place: imagining Alex falling and the fact that I would probably be there, and we’re talking about a good friend of mine,” says Chin.

“And of course in my field of work you’re very conscious of ‘Kodak courage,’ when people do something they wouldn’t normally do because they’re being filmed. I specifically don’t work with athletes I feel make decisions that way. In a lot of ways that’s what being a professional is: being able to make good decisions, not to feel the pressure.

“But honestly, it’s impossible not to feel the pressure if there’s a film happening and a lot of people working on it and money involved and everybody’s spent weeks getting in position. That said, if there’s one person that I trust more than anybody I’ve ever worked with to make the right decision, it’s Alex. He’s just wired in a way where he manages external pressure very well. He doesn’t let it affect his decisions … but we’re all human.”

“If by the act of being filmed, did he seem more likely to fall? We totally trusted Alex,” Vasarhelyi tells Valentina Valenti. “We believed in his decision-making. We believed that if it didn’t feel good to him while we were shooting the film, he would turn around. Otherwise, making this film was impossible. Early on we made a pledge that the needs of the film would never trump the needs of our subject; the production did not come before Alex.”

“Before you start, you have to check your basic assumptions: Do I trust Alex to make the right decisions? And remind yourself: Yes, I do,” says Chin. “Once you’ve done that, you have to put it away and go on to autopilot and focus on what you’re doing because there’s a lot going on. You can’t make any mistakes either. You can’t drop a lens cap that could fall 80 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet and hit him. You could kill him. There’s plenty to think about.

“And, of course, you’re hanging off a huge wall yourself so you have to be focused on your own personal safety as well. And you have to keep your camera equipment dialed in and know what lenses you’re going to use. And you have to have enough water and food for the day. Things are happening for you as a climber and as a filmmaker. I say to my crew all the time, “No mistakes, and stay focused on the task at hand and don’t get distracted.” It’s really easy to get distracted when someone’s free soloing 1,000 feet off the ground in front of you.

Read more: Peak Performance: Free Solo Tests the Wills of Filmmakers and Protagonist Alike

“Vasarhelyi and Chin wanted a grand scale that required shooting in 4k with cinema cameras and lenses, including a large 17-120mm zoom,” explains Chris O’Falt. “Each cameraman had to be his own independent unit, serving as rigger, AC, and focus puller, while also carrying his food and the supplies needed to shoot and climb for the day. Figuring out how to climb and shoot with a large, fully loaded Canon C300 was a challenge.”

“These were real big cinema cameras, it’s incredible we only smashed two [camera] bodies and lenses,” Chin tells O’Falt. “When you first drop in, [the cameras] are in packs. Then you get into position, pull it out of the pack, put the camera together, shoot, and you don’t want to pull it apart again to put it in the pack because you don’t have enough time.”

“When possible, they would just clip the camera to their belts,” O’Falt reports. “For longer moves, Chin and his crew came up with a system in which the camera would clip to the harness and shoulder sling. That made it possible, although still difficult, to climb to the next shooting position in time.” To read the full article, click here.

“The level of intensity on this shoot was very different. I’ve shot in very high pressure situations before, but the stakes here were totally different—and so sustained,” Chin tells Brian Pernicone . “Our crew had spent 30-plus days over a few years on El Cap, and with that level of exposure, the numbers can catch up to you. You have to be careful not to get complacent. Every day before we would shoot, I’d say, ‘This is day 28. This is when mistakes happen.’ You have to stay on top of it.”

“There were four cameramen on the wall, including myself. Most of us were up high. There were two remote triggered cameras above the Crux. Alex didn’t want anybody there because if he was going to fall that would be a very likely place, and he didn’t want to fall in front of a friend. We had one long-lens camera on the ground and we had a cameraman on top for when he popped over.” To read the full article, click here.

“When we actually climbed El Cap, we’d all learned where the best positions were and what the best angles were, but it didn’t feel like it was in the way at all,” Honnold tells Eric Kohn. “Nobody was too close. A pretty good analogy is running a marathon and you have friends on the sides with signs. You run by and it’s like, ‘It’s good to see you!’ but it doesn’t change how you’re performing, and that’s what it felt like every time I passed one of the cameramen.”

“For free-soloing, it’s pretty easy to ignore distractions,” Honnold tells McGovern. “On El Cap, I think there were seven or eight cameras but spread out over 3,000 feet, so I still felt very much alone up there.”

“As [Honnold] makes his way through a delicate, technical sequence 2,000 feet off the ground, someone aims a camera at Mikey Schaefer, a pro climber and member of Chin’s crew, who can’t bring himself to look through the viewfinder of his own camera,” reports Peter Vigneron

“As Honnold finally grasped the top of El Capitan’s sheer wall and pulled himself up to the summit, Chin said the crew finally got a well-earned reprieve from the emotional burden they had been carrying,” reports Brian Pernicone.

“It was a huge sigh of relief,” Chin said. “I think we weren’t necessarily prepared for that moment because we had been so focused for so many years on the filming and him climbing safely. We never even allowed ourselves to think of that moment. I was overwhelmed and really emotional, just so relieved and so proud of Alex. 

“It’s arguably one of the greatest athletic feats ever. There’s nothing in my world that comes close to it. It was that grand and that huge. People weren’t even talking about it in a way that it was imaginable before he did it.” To read the full article, click here.

“When Honnold finally climbs over the final ledge of El Capitan to safety, completing a years-long dream and possibly reaching the pinnacle of his climbing career, we see him from above,” recounts David Thorpe. “Gradually and seamlessly, the camera recedes from Honnold, revealing first the immensity of El Capitan, then the majesty of Yosemite Valley. The perspective captures the seemingly incomprehensible scope of the moment.

“How to get the shot? They stationed a helicopter with a gyrostabilization system 3000 feet above the valley floor, with, essentially, a 1500 meter lens, and shot in 6K. ‘I wanted the helicopter far enough away where Alex couldn’t hear it or see it— I didn’t want him to have any distractions,’ Chin says. The shot is so wide yet looks so crisp, it’s almost unreal, an echo of the unreality of Honnold’s miraculous feat (completed in under four hours!). ‘It was real,’ Chin says. ‘We knew that was a really important shot for us.’ To read the full interview, click here.