The truth about hyper-documentaries Exclusive Interview with Jimmy Chin for FREE SOLO

Interview & Text Yuko SHIOMAKI



Photo:Cheyne Lempe
© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


National Geographic’s climbing documentary, on which they staked their company’s reputation, made its long-awaited world premiere a year ago on September 9, 2018 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where so many American movies vying for that year’s Academy Awards make their debut. The documentary? “FREE SOLO,” the latest tour de force from climber and official National Geographic photographer, Jimmy CHIN. Of the masterpiece, TIFF documentary and Mavericks programmer Thom POWERS said that it was the most suspenseful movie among this year’s entries. It broke US box office records.(※1)


Photo: Samuel Crossley
© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


“FREE SOLO,”a sweaty-palms-inducing film for many of its viewers, won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Afterwards, it was nominated for 52 international film awards, of which it won 23, including the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award for Best Documentary as well as the ultimate in recognition: the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Garnering accolades from audiences and film professionals alike, it is proof that National Geographic and the production team’s belief in their project was not misplaced.

The crew sort and pack up all the ropes and climbing equipment used to document Alex Honnolds free solo climb of El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Four years ago in 2015, Jimmy CHIN, director and member of the three cameramen team including himself for “FREE SOLO”, made his directorial debut with “MERU”, which chronicled the first successful climb – where he was one of the world’s 3 best climbers – of the uncharted Shark’s Fin, the direct route up Mt. Meru in the Himalayas. It won the US Audience Documentary Award at the Sundance Film Festival that year, catapulting him into top-ranked documentary filmmaker status.


© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


What made the mountaineering movie revolutionary was its incorporation of a cinema verite style and the game-changing variety of angles shot during the climb. Not only is Chin an official photographer for National Geographic magazine in the still photography genre, but he is also The North Face’s Global Athlete. He spends 10 months a year on the go shooting in remote areas as one of the world’s top nature photographers. Otherwise he spends most of his time in Teton County, Wyoming.


Like Alex Honnold, the protagonist of “Free Solo”, as a student Jimmy spent seven (!) years at the base of Yosemite as a “climbing bum” (a term that climbers use to refer to themselves). A picture he took as a young climber sold to a magazine for $500, starting him on a career as a professional nature photographer. Afterwards, he met legendary international mountaineer Conrad Anker and joined Anker’s alpine climbing team. His first film, “Meru”, was a chronicle of their ascent. Jimmy had been battling the climb up Meru Peak himself for nine years, and it was his relentless recording of the team’s efforts as a climber himself that distinguishes this film from many of the climbing movies that preceded it. He was able to create a story and project their friendship on-screen in ways a non-climber wouldn’t have been able to do.

What is free soloing?

For a free soloist, finger strength can mean the difference between life and death. Leading up to his climb, Honnold performed a 90-minute “hangboarding” routine every other day in his van, which for years has served as a home and mobile base camp. (Jimmy Chin)

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In traditional rock climbing, the climber is tethered to a rope in case he falls, belaying with a partner, whereas free soloing is a type of rock climbing where the climber goes without a belay. In other words, it’s a specialized climb where the climber ascends without a rope, on his own, using just his body.There are only a handful of climbers worldwide who are free solo climbers.

Alex Honnold climbs the Salathe Route with Conrad Anker on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


In the movie, we see that the part of Alex Honnold’s brain that processes fear doesn’t show much activity when he is scanned, making it clear that compared to the average person, he doesn’t register fear the way an average person does. I interviewed Alex when he visited Japan in 2018, and I could tell that he wasn’t just a daring and fearless young man. In fact, he is shy and reflective. His conversion to free soloing stemmed from the fact that with his personality, he didn’t have the courage to ask anyone to be his belayer (the grounded partner who secures the climbing rope), so he decided to go it alone. Alex is highly intelligent, as well as a cautious and precise athlete. Jimmy Chin, who built up trust among his fellow mountaineers, is the same: he goes in fully prepared and has thought everything through – a calm climber and photographer with presence of mind.



© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


El Capitan’s tallest rock face stretches for nearly a kilometer and would take a professional climber about a week to scale, but in 2002 a pair of international rock climbing legends, Yuji Hirayama and Hans Florine scaled it in 2:48:55, setting a speed record of under three hours. Sixteen years later in 2018, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell broke the world record at 2:37:05.


When the news that the free soloing world’s superstar, Alex HONNOLD, had ascended the route named “Free Rider”, the sacred spot for rock climbers, the biggest granite monolith in the world, know as El Capitan, he sent shockwaves throughout the world, taking the sport-climbing to a whole new level in that instant in 2018. Jimmy CHIN, admired by top climbers everywhere, rose to the challenge of”capturing friendship and death side by side.”


© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Yuji Hirayama, longtime friend of both Alex Honnold and Jimmy Chin, commented, “This is a major achievement in the history of climbing.” From this statement alone it’s not hard to imagine just how big a challenge the climb presented. Jimmy Chin filmed Hirayama in “Free Range Turkey – Dispatch 7”, a mini-documentary of Hirayama’s on-sight climb of Turkey’s most difficult route. Hirayama said, “To be filmed by a climber of Jimmy’s caliber is wonderful for a climber. He understands and is mindful of a climber’s needs – that feeling of “just in case.” And during filming, he can see things from the climber’s view, like if I thought it might be good to shoot from a certain viewpoint, he would get it.”



© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.



Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Chin prepares to interview Jimmy Chin as Clair Popkin frames up the shot. They are in Jimmy's van in Yosemite.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Interview with Jimmy CHIN

“FREE SOLO” presented “constant challenges exceeding human comprehension.” To correspond with the Japanese premiere of “FREE SOLO”, HOTSHOT conducted an exclusive interview covering the planning and shoot prep, the equipment used, and the cinematographer’s psyche in such an extreme environment.


© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


What progression of shooting equipment or cameras did you feel while shooting “FREE SOLO” compared to when you shot “MERU”?

In “MERU”, the footage from our first expedition in 2008 was filmed on a Panasonic Lumix LX1 point-and-shoot camera, and a pocket Canon HF10 camcorder. We were always intending to make a film on that first expedition, and that was the technology available at the time, so that’s what we used.

The progression of camera technology from 2008 to 2011, with the rise of DSLR cinematography, had a big impact on what we were able to capture on the second expedition, and how we were able to capture it. We filmed the 2011 expedition on a Canon 5D MKII, which gave us a much more cinematic look and feel, compared to the raw point-and-shoot moments from the first expedition.

Obviously there were even more new waves in technology from when we filmed “MERU” and when we filmed “FREE SOLO”. On “FREE SOLO”, we really liked the Canon C300 MKII, for its ability to shoot in 4K, and because we could use it in numerous scenarios, from climbing on the wall to shooting cinema verité scenes.


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Alex Honnold being interviewed in El Capitan Meadow after free soloing Freerider. Clair Popkin and Jim Hurst document for the Free Solo documentary. Image by Samuel Crossley.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


What is the most important aspect when you choose your cameras?

The most important aspect in choosing the cameras for “FREE SOLO” shoot was versatility. The C300MKII had the quality we needed, while also allowing us to transition easily from filming the climb, to filming in the van. We were able to use both cinema lenses and EF lenses when we needed to go lighter. And it’s always great to have the audio inputs built in.

Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


What are your most frequently used lens(es)?

And how did you choose your lenses for this project? We used the 17-120mm the most but also used the 35mm and 50mm primes quite a bit as well. It really just depended on what we were shooting. We used the 17-120mm a lot for it’s versatility both on the wall and for cinema verite shooting.

Production during National Geographic Documentary Films Oscar nominated feature documentary "Free Solo". (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)


What was the Log settings on Canon C300 Mark II?

And what were the benefits of Log?

The majority of the Canon footage was XF-AVC 4K @23.976P Log 2 and Log 3. We have used Avid Media Composer 8.8.5 to edit and DaVinci Resolve for online/conform. It was helpful in all scenes we shot with the C300 particularly for the shots of “FREE SOLO”.

Honnold, 33, listens to music while brushing his teeth as he prepares for a day of climbing in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, one of several foreign locations where he trained for his attempt on El Capitan. (Jimmy Chin)

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Alex Honnold climbs the Salathe Route with Conrad Anker on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


To shoot “FREE SOLO,” I imagine your emotions and/or motivation changed enormously during Pre-Production, In-Production and then Post-Production. What was the biggest emotional conflict you experienced?

How did your emotions shift from the beginning of this project through its completion?

I think our biggest emotional conflict was the question of whether or not our presence would make it more dangerous for Alex, if our being there would increase the chance of him falling.

The question Chai and I were always asking ourselves was: do we trust Alex’s decision-making process? Is the pressure of the production going to push him to do something he would not normally do?

Clair Popkin, Director of Photography on the feature documentary Free Solo, getting the shot of Alex Honnold topping out El Capitan after free soloing the Freerider.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Of course our emotions shifted over the course of the project, because we all had to prepare ourselves for every possible scenario from the best to the worst, but we always came back to the fact that we trusted Alex. It is hard for us to imagine we might actually lose our best friend during the making of a documentary film.

It is also hard for us to feel the tension that you and your crew experienced during the shoot.

Jimmy Chin and Alex Honnold atop the summit of El Capitan just after Alex solo Freerider. Image by Samuel Crossley.

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Photo:Samuel Crossley
© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


How did you overcome that fear and why do you think you were able to accomplish such a big mission?

Not a day went by that I did not think about the worst happening.

That sounds really morbid, but it was also our way of making sure the worst did not happen. What helped the most was that Alex and I had built up a lot of trust. He trusted me, and the rest of the crew, to film him safely, and I trusted him to climb only what he wanted to climb, and only when he was ready.


As a documentary filmmaker, what is the most difficult thing when shooting climbers?

What drives you to shoot climbing?

The amount of planning and choreography we needed to figure out in order to shoot Alex’s climb was a big challenge. Over the course of the two years Alex was practicing the climb, he sometimes purposely did it incorrectly so that if he ever did make mistake, he would feel at least familiar, that was how in detail he would not do it. While he was practicing for two years, we were essentially rehearsing how we would shoot it. It’s a 3,000 foot wall and there are sections you need to get a camera person a thousand feet down the wall.


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We were all carrying our camera equipment and building cameras on the wall, so figured out what we wanted to capture from each section of the climb beforehand. In terms of our crew, the first criteria to be on a high angle team was you had to be a professional climber, for just a volume of works we were going to do at a high-stage shoot that I just could not worried about them making bad decision on the wall.

The other criteria was of course you had to be a great cinematographer, meaning there is like tree people in the world that I can call them. For the technical layer, obviously that we had to move very quickly all the time (on the wall), we were all pro-climbers on both side of the camera, meaning we all were very sensitives what it feels like when someone else is filming you, and what we hate about is that slow camera team.

Jimmy Chin ascends a fixed line up Freerider on El Capitan after shooting Alex Honnold. Image by Samuel Crossley

© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


We always had to be fast and on-time, never had to have him wait that always felt natural for him whenever he was moving. And then I think one of the other big challenges of filming in such a high-stakes situation was isolating Alex from the pressure of the production.

Our drive really came from Alex’s drive. It was a lot of work, but to film a climber with both the physical and mental ability Alex has, combined with his desire to take on something so ambitious and scary – it was the project of a lifetime.



From the climbing world to Hollywood

Jimmy was the DP on “Dawn Wall”, a documentary about Alex’s close friend Tommy Caldwell, who had also climbed El Capitan around the same time, but via free climbing (with a rope). Like on “Meru”, Jimmy co-directed with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, his partner in life as well as in filmmaking. At the world premiere at TIFF, when asked about her feelings upon finishing the shoot – that is, when Alex completed the El Capitan climb – she said she thought, “Our filmmaking career ends here. Beyond this, there’s nothing more to do.” Of course that simply meant that they had achieved their goal without any regrets. 



© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

Jimmy and Elizabeth are slated to co-direct the feature-length action thriller “The Helicopter Heist” based on Jonas Bonnier’s book, to be released as a Netflix Original production. The lead in the film will be Hollywood star Jake Gyllenhaal. The teaming of Jimmy, who has over 20 years’ experience and an approach to shooting that focuses on the heart of climbing, with Elizabeth, who is an acclaimed documentary film director known for her storytelling talent, has garnered high praise. With this film they will break free from the documentary framework to face a new challenge: fiction.


Photo:Samuel Crossley
© 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.


Jimmy Chin continues to grow and adapt quickly as he combines the entertainment power of reality and dynamism in film expression, and it will be exciting to see how he addresses the challenges of new technologies and the evolution of equipment as an international master of film technique.