Intrepid rock climber Alex Honnold is the star of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, and rightly so: Climbing El Cap without any ropes or safety gear is a mind-boggling feat. But filmmaker Jimmy Chin deserves some credit, too—shooting the film from the side of a granite cliff while watching your friend tackle an incredibly dangerous climb is no small task, either. Now the spotlight is turning toward the man behind the camera. On an episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel last night, correspondent Jon Frankel interviewed Chin about what it’s like to film in such extreme situations.
“I always felt like, as the director and producer, I should carry the burden of shooting the spot that he was most likely to fall,” Chin said during his interview with Frankel.
Shooting the film was a huge logistical challenge. Chin and his four-person team documented Honnold’s climb by transporting cameras and equipment up the 3,000-foot granite rock face using their own system of ropes. This allowed them to get as close as 10 feet away from Honnold as he climbed, but that also presented another issue: Chin and his crew had to avoid distracting him, since one slip meant his certain death. To solve this, they chose positions where they would remain out of his line of sight. And on particularly difficult pitches, they used remote cameras to cut out the pressure of a live audience.
As Chin told Frankel on Real Sports, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. “The burden is seeing your very good friend die in front of you,” he said.
Thankfully, Honnold pulled off the epic climb, and with their inventive camera work, Chin and his team came away with unbelievable footage and an Oscar-worth documentary. Check out the teaser clip from the Real Sports episode below, or you can catch the whole show on HBO.