'Everest' Cinematographer Recalls "Very Difficult Shoot"

Everest BTS - H 2015
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest ranks as Earth’s highest mountain and attracts the world’s most seasoned climbers. It was also used as the filming location for a portion of Universal’s Everest.

“It was a very difficult shoot, physically challenging, with weather you couldn’t control. You had to keep adapting,” director of photography Salvatore Totino told The Hollywood Reporter.

“We filmed in Kathmandu and then we went to Lukla — one of the 10 most deadly airports — where climbers fly to begin their trek to base camp,” Totino said. “We filmed at Lukla and then at a suspension bridge, which was about an hour and a half trek from Namche Bazaar. Then we filmed at Namche Bazaaar, at 1,200 feet, and at a temple in Tengboche. And then we helicoptered up to 1,500 feet, where the memorials are for climbers who have perished on the mountain.”

Director Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest retells the 1996 tragedy during which eight climbers perished when they were caught in a storm near the summit. Totino — whose credits include The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon and the upcoming Concussion — photographed the movie with ARRI Alexa XT cameras, using the Arriraw format.

The challenges of the production were very real. “It’s very physical, working at higher altitudes and not having time to climatize your body. You get out of breath and dehydrated very quickly,” said the cinematographer, adding that moving to different locations on the mountain was also tricky. “We needed to airlift equipment and people; we didn't have a lot of time. We had a crew of 75 Sherpas — plus donkeys and yaks —carrying all of our equipment.

“We were brought to a certain point, and then we had to trek and carry equipment — a quarter-mile, a half-mile — to a location on the side of the mountain. And we had to be harnessed in because we were working on some steep slopes in 3 to 4 feet of snow. Underneath the snow was loose rock.

“There were times when you were moving from one area to another and you had to clip off one rope and clip on to another,” he continued. “I could climb that cliff because there was a great shot there. I’d climb with the camera and get the shot. The actors did the same thing. That was hard, but it was fun.”

Before they arrived on the shoot, safety measures started with rabies vaccines before visiting Kathmandu, and the crew was encouraged to take Diamox to help adjust to the altitude at Everest. Totino recalled that during one location scout around Lukla, “it felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat to my head. I never had a headache like that. [When we shot] I took the Diamox, I didn’t want to take a chance.”

Additional portions of Everest, including scenes that take place just above the icefall to camp 3, were filmed at 10,000 feet at Val Senales in Italy.

Then the team moved to studios. Base camp exteriors were filmed on the backlot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where bright sunlight could be achieved to resemble the lighting at base camp.

Everest’s Hillary Step, camp 4, icefall and the summit were built on the 007 stage at London’s Pinewood Studios with greenscreen for CG backgrounds. “It was very challenging because we had to re-create the sun, which at Everest is so incredibly sharp and crisp," Totino said, noting that creating sun on the summit, Hillary Step and icefall involved the use of SoftSun lights. "They were 9 feet long and 3 ½ feet in diameter and 100,000 watts. They had to be moved around on cranes because they are very heavy.”

To photograph one scene during which expedition guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is stuck on the mountain in the storm, Totino recalled: “We tented off a portion of the set with some very heavy plastic and brought in these giant refrigerating units, half the size of a semi truck, and we cooled that part of the stage down to about 26 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit and brought in real snow. Baltasar really wanted the actor to feel like he was frozen. You really see and feel that.”