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Alex Honnold: A Videographer's Perspective

posted by dpm on 12/04/2013

Click the image to watch Goal Zero's commercial featuring Alex Honnold.

Try explaining to a non-climber why bouldering is impressive and you'll likely receive a roll of the eyes and a response along the lines of, "Yeah, but you're like four feet off the ground." When a 'normal' person watches a professional climber dance up a rock face, or out the ceiling of a little cave, it looks easy and just doesn't have that visual zing that they're accustomed to from watching police chases, gun fights, and high-speed crashes on network television.

The one tiny facet of climbing that everyone gets, though, is free-solo climbing. It's immediately apparent that if the guy falls, he dies. People love that life-in-the-balance drama which makes it watchable and morbidly entertaining for a mainstream audience; which is why Alex Honnold is, quite possibly, the most famous rock climber alive today.

Honnold hardly needs an introduction. His outrageous accomplishments, like his solo ascents of Half Dome or Moonlight Buttress, have been thoroughly covered in climbing media; but his celebrity status reaches beyond just the small world of climbing media. He's been featured on CBS' 60 Minutes, the cover of National Geographic, and in Esquire Magazine as "one of the best athletes right now."  This coming spring he'll really be in the mainstream spotlight as National Geographic plans to air live footage of Alex free-soloing a 1600+ foot skyscraper in Taiwan.

With celebrity status and fame come sponsorships and endorsements. Goal Zero is one company that's joined forces with Alex to get the word out about their line of solar products. The company teamed up with Alex and Curious Beast, a content studio based out of Oregon, to create an online commercial showing Honnold casually soloing Fine Jade, a classic 5.11 in the Utah desert. Watching the commercial, as well as the behind-the-scenes footage, had us wondering what it took to capture some of this remarkable footage. We shot a few questions over to Colin Brown, the owner of Curious Beast, to find out a little more about what it takes to get quality footage of Alex Honnold cruising around ropeless on vertical walls.

Click the image to watch behind-the-scenes footage including Honnold's speed ascent of Fine Jade.

Colin, thanks for speaking with us. Tell me a little about Curious Beast and what you guys do. Have you worked in the vertical world before?

We were hired by Goal Zero to create a commercial for their Guide 10 kit. Curious Beast HQ is in Portland, Oregon, and we do influencer marketing for brands like Nike, EA, Skullcandy, and 20th Century Fox. 

Before the Honnold spot, my work hadn’t taken me into the climbing world-- but I’ve worked with some extraordinary professional athletes. At the heart of what we do at Curious is to pay tribute to authenticity of culture. Sometimes that cultural space is in music or art, but athletes build their own culture as well. Their work requires such focus and drive that they’re set apart—you know, in order to climb these long routes or drop in on a massive wave or convince themselves that it’s a good idea to run head on into a 300-pound lineman, they’ve got to build their own language and meaning.  What we try to do is take people there.

So even though this was a first-time gig in a lot of ways, I wasn’t surprised that we ended up there.

 

When I see videos like the one you created with Alex Honnold, I get lost in the isolation of it all. I imagine Alex being up there all alone, ropeless, and comfortable in his element. But then I remember that it’s not that way at all. There’s a camera man just feet away and that person had to get all their equipment up there. Describe how the team gets into position and some of the challenges faced with rigging.

Well, the isolation isn’t a trick—I mean, that’s partly a function of ropelessness, and partly a function of Moab, and it’s partly execution of vision on the part of Jonathan Green, the director. 

But it truly was the kind of remote place that comes across in the piece, and that made it a challenging production from a logistics standpoint. We knew that it would be—we needed a location that would communicate a story about staying connected out past the edge of civilization. Fine Jade is a world-class route with views of a sprawling western wilderness, so in that sense it was perfect. But it meant a commitment to some physical challenges. You may have been out there before—to reach the Rectory we ascended 1800 feet over 2 miles of switchbacks before reaching the first shooting position, and that’s with a few thousand pounds of camera and support gear. It took us a full day just to get in position.

As for the wall photography, we were fortunate to work with a real veteran climbing photographer, Boone Speed. We leaned on Boone for technical and safety protocols for all the wall shots; he worked with a four-person rigging crew that established separate lines for the photographers alongside Alex’s route. So there’s a lot of unseen climbing that had to happen. Boone had to climb with a 15-pound Red Epic (camera) clipped to his body, and our DP was at the base on a wireless monitor working with Boone over a walkie to design shots. Our DP, Jeff, would call out notes on framing and they’d discuss what was possible, and then Alex would climb through the frame.

 

What’s it like watching Alex complete these climbs? Is he as calm and relaxed as he appears? Who’s more nervous, Alex or the crew? As you’re filming, do you have this terrible feeling that he might fall in front of your cameras? Are you worried that you or someone might swing over and accidently boot him off?

Is Alex as calm and relaxed as he appears? Yes. Dude’s like a mountain goat. When we were preparing for the big wall section of the shoot, we worked with him to establish safety spots that would allow him to rest as he climbed and re-climbed through frames, and what he picked out for himself as those “safe places” were probably a couple of inches of ledge, at most. He would just hang out on those things and small talk with the crew between shots like it was nothing.

As for the crew—we hired who we hired because they are the best at what they do. We had veteran climbers on the rig and the production crew was aided by a team of local climbers who helped get us in position.  For them, 1800 feet of elevation over 2 miles was no big deal, and Fine Jade—they’d seen that before. But most of them hadn’t seen Alex. So yeah, there were butterflies. But, that was really only in the beginning. After a few takes of watching Alex on the wall, the incredible skill that he has becomes really apparent, really fast. And that quickly instilled ease throughout the whole team.   

Personally speaking though, as someone who was new to freesoloing, I’ll admit that I definitely started that first day watching the climb through the monitor. It was just too intense to watch through my own eyes.

How many times did Alex have to do the route for you guys to get the shots you wanted? Did you have him climbing up and down some?

He did two complete ascents, and then we did close-ups of different sections that required some up and down. He’s a remarkable athlete. World-class. And I’ve worked with a lot of world-class athletes.

 

So, “during the break in between shoots,” Alex could have chilled out and rested, but instead he decided to run up the route in 8 minutes and 10 seconds just for fun. Describe watching that.

We shot the whole thing in two days and this was the day when we weren’t shooting climbing. It was all the campground footage. And we had some quiet periods—we were only shooting during the mornings and evenings because of the quality of light that we needed for the piece, so midday was down time. But we’re in a remote spot, so you can’t just take off and run to the deli.

After a couple of hours of this, you can see that Alex is getting a glimmer in his eye. He starts speculating with the other climbers that were on the shoot about what sort of speed record could be set on Fine Jade. Before you know it, he’s getting a hall pass from production to leave set and do this speed climb. Dude grabs his shoes and jogs out with this giant grin on his face. 

I think everyone knew it was going to be something really special. There were plenty of informed estimates thrown around. Three or four pitches, about 400 feet—that would take an experienced team  a few hours. Maybe Alex could do it in 30 minutes? 20? 20 felt extraordinary. We started the clock when his hands touched the wall and he blew everyone’s estimate out of the water.

I know “chilling out and resting” might sound like what someone would want to do, but I think this was what Alex wanted.  This was going to the deli for him.

 

Tell me a bit about the technical challenges you run into with bringing camera equipment into a sandy ‘no power outlet’ wilderness.

We were using a lot of cinema-grade digital equipment that is not designed for remote operations, so the Goal Zero kit was critical. The only other way we could have powered the cameras would have been to shuttle batteries back and fourth between location and base camp all day, and because of the remoteness and the type of terrain we were dealing with, that just wouldn’t have been feasible; the only way this type of shoot works is to maintain battery charges on location.

 

How have Goal Zero products allowed you to expand what you’re capable of creating? In what ways have they improved your ability to be creative in the backcountry?

Well, without a doubt the Goal Zero products enable us to go further. Technology has come a long way in terms of the advances to make production gear smaller and more portable. But, those advances have also generally been toward the digitization of the workflow for us. That means a significant amount of power is required to run a commercial production. The Goal Zero products allow us to unplug from the grid and free us up to take the production were the real stories are actually happening. We don’t need to be limited by logistics when we’re developing treatments for the work we do. We can be free to create the most authentic work possible, and now we know that the gear is going to keep up with those demands.

 

A lot of people see a contradiction in bringing technology into the backcountry and filming wilderness experiences. As a filmmaker, what are your thoughts on that? Is there value to sharing these wild experiences with others through social media? What impact do you think that has on the life of the viewer?

There’s no contradiction; it’s not the same thing. We know that filming wilderness experiences is not the same thing as having an experience in the wilderness—what we had at the Rectory for two days was not a wilderness experience, and what you see on your laptop or TV is not a wilderness experience. Do I think people should go out there and experience wild places themselves? Of course I do.

But this is about imagination—you’ve got to be able to imagine something before you can want it. We’re not looking to give people a 2-minute spot about rock climbing so that they can feel like they just climbed Fine Jade. We’re hoping to give them a taste of open spaces, of freedom, of dreaming big, and of what might be out there if you put on your shoes and go out and look. 

It’s a core value of our agency to communicate a disruptive vision: a world that pushes boundaries. We hope that people who see what we make are inspired to dream bigger, because imagination is at the heart of freedom.

 

Are there plans to work more with Alex in the future? How about next projects for you…anything interesting?

Alex is part of the Goal Zero family, and we’re looking forward to working with him again. As for Curious Beast—we’ve got a couple of projects that are taking us out of the country—stay tuned.