For NatGeo’s Free Solo, co-directors and producers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, it was all about chronicling the first-ever free solo climb of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park and they did it in a way that was both breathtaking and suspenseful. But to get the cameras next to rock climber Alex Honnold without distracting him, as any false move would send him plummeting to his death, was an art unto itself.
The film was four years in the making. For some of the most incredible shots, the filmmakers could not use drones as they didn’t want anything to bother Honnold. Rather, they utilized helicopters and cameras stationed up and down the steep, almost completely vertical 3,000 foot-high wall of the mountain, plus a camera crew on the ground.
“We probably had six people on the wall and a bunch of remote-triggered cameras and several filming from the ground,” said Vasarhelyi. “Helicopters were not permitted in the park but they were flying 3,000 feet above the valley rim and we were shooting a red dragon with a 1,000 mm lens.” The result was truly incredible footage — and an Oscar nomination.
This was their first nomination after many years in filmmaking — Vasarhelyi, 20 years and Chin, 15 years. What drew them to the story, however, was Alex Honnold himself. It started when they started to learn all about Alex.
“There is a story about Alex as a kid as he began to climb without rope. This was a kid who was scared of so many things — of eating vegetables, of hugs — but who pushed himself to overcome it. He shows in the way he lives that with determination and hard work that anything is possible,” Vasarhelyi told Deadline. “He set out to better himself in every way.” Honnold is in a relationship now, but is more introverted than extroverted as was revealed during the film, and seems to be on the spectrum, which makes his achievements all the more inspiring.
“What was very appealing to us is facing your fears and overcoming those fears to achieve an impossible dream to show that anything you set your mind to possible,” added Chin.
For Free Solo, hearing from audiences has been a real joy, both filmmakers said. “The outpouring from audiences who says it inspires courage in them is just great. One of our dreams is realized today,” said Vasarhelyi who watched the nominations with Chin and their kids.
The film is the second documentary for Chin who said: “I always thought it was about the work and the process and never really focused on necessarily the awards, I guess, but it is very satisfying to be recognized by your peers for the work that you do.”