Could Documentary Feature 'Free Solo' Break Through Oscar's Category Barriers?

The ambitious film about climber Alex Honnold required its cameramen to be both climbers and shooters, a virtuosic achievement — but it faces equally complicated challenges (its genre, its multiple DPs) on the path to a cinematography nomination.
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

When the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' cinematographers branch fill out their Oscar nomination ballots between Jan. 7 and Jan. 14, they are likely to remember the gorgeous black-and-white of Roma (Alfonso Cuaron) and Cold War (Lukasz Zal), the sun-hued vistas of The Rider (Joshua James Richards), the period palette of If Beale Street Could Talk (James Laxton), the sweeping shots of Black Panther (Rachel Morrison) and other magnificently — albeit somewhat familiarly — lensed projects.

But there's another film that merits their serious consideration: National Geographic's Free Solo, a documentary feature unlike any you've seen before. It centers on Alex Honnold, one of the world's greatest free soloists — or ropeless rock climbers — as he attempts to become the first person to free solo Yosemite National Park's 3,000-foot El Capitan wall. To give you some perspective, that's a height greater than that of any man-made structure in the world, which is why Honnold's successful summit of El Cap in 2017 — not a spoiler, as he has been promoting the movie — has been called "the lunar landing of the free soloing world."

Free Solo was directed by the husband-wife team of Jimmy Chin (an extreme climber and skier in his own right) and Chai Vasarhelyi (they previously co-directed the 2015 climbing doc feature Meru), and its credited DPs are Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer. But it took a village to shoot Free Solo — in particular, the death-defying climb at its center — and it could be argued that the resulting footage is as stunning as any in this season's awards race.

Can a documentary feature be nominated for an Oscar other than best documentary feature? Absolutely — in fact, it has happened 24 times, twice in the cinematography category: with With Byrd at the South Pole (1930), another nature-centric doc, at the third Oscars, and with Navajo (1952), which was also nominated for best documentary feature, at the 25th edition.

(Note: Academy rules state that a film, if nominated for best cinematography, can identify no more than one DP as its Oscar-eligible representative, so the Free Solo team would have a tough decision to make. And the fact that three cinematographers are credited on the film could work against its prospects of landing a nom, because some cinematographers feel that having multiple DPs means there was no clear auteur, or author, of the film's look. Alternatively, though, each of the cinematographers presumably has friends and supporters of his or her own in the membership, which could help to attract more votes.)

The truth is that doc cinematography probably should have been Oscar-nominated a few other times as well — certainly worthy of serious consideration were The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975), something that, incidentally, Chin subsequently did; Fires of Kuwait (1992), an early Imax production; Winged Migration (2001); and March of the Penguins (2005). The fact that they weren't is probably attributable to the unfortunate reality that Academy members from outside the doc branch don't tend to see very many docs. But perhaps after hearing what went into shooting Free Solo — especially the last 20 minutes of the film, which depict portions of Honnold's 3-hour, 56-minute climb of El Cap — they will make the effort to watch and consider this one.

First, let's note that Free Solo required cinematographers who were not only world-class DPs, but also world-class climbers, since several of them would have to shoot Honnold from high-angle positions up and down El Cap — an uncontrolled environment where they could encounter animals, wind or any number of threats. "We talked a lot about how everyone had to be climbers first," Chin and Vasarhelyi told me in a written response to questions about their work. "There is a very small pool of people in the world who fit both of these criteria. Most of them were people Jimmy had worked with and were friends of Alex and Jimmy." The filmmakers continue: "They needed to be able to move quickly and independently on the wall, carrying all of their equipment, lenses, batteries, food, water and ropes for the day. This often meant carrying 50-pound loads up to the top of El Cap, then adding the weight of the ropes before they dropped over the edge, thousands of feet down the wall. As you might imagine, there were no focus pullers, ACs or craft services up there. Everyone had to be able to do everything on their own, on top of maintaining utmost safety on the wall."

Then came the shoot itself. "There were a lot of logistics on the wall," Chin and Vasarhelyi point out. "Moving around is not simple on an ocean of vertical granite, so there was plenty to think about just as climbers. Once in position, the team had to build their cameras while hanging off the wall and obviously not drop anything." Moreover, the cinematographer-climbers had to be proficient enough to capture everything in just one take (there would be no do-overs on this project) and to remain out of Honnold's eyeline and hearing throughout his entire climb, since any disturbance from them — a dropped piece of equipment or even a sneeze — could throw off their subject and cost him his life. Usually when cinematographers talk about "life or death" stakes, they're worried about daylight running out or something like that and are speaking hyperbolically. This was something else entirely. "Probably the biggest stress of the shoot was the idea that someone would do something that would cause Alex to fall," Chin and Vasarhelyi acknowledge. "That idea was always present. Everyone lived with that for two years."

Twelve cameras were in operation during Honnold's climb. "We chose to shoot remote trigger cameras for 'the Boulder Problem' [the most dangerous portion of the climb] so there wouldn't be any distractions for Alex," the filmmakers explain. "We had to stay out of Alex's way, but we also had to find positions or move after shots so we would be out of other people's shots. This often meant pulling yourself around a corner, hiding behind another rock or cramming in a body-sized crack." Another consideration: conveying the scale of the climb. "El Cap is huge," the filmmakers emphasize, "but it's difficult to grasp the true size of it. How we were going to do that was a constant point of discussion. We focused on choreographing a very specific variety of shots and angles for the day of the climb in order to try to make it feel intimate yet grand in scale."

The filmmakers chose to shoot in 4K and made technical decisions with the goal of the final product being seen on the big screen. "We knew we wanted it to play well for a cinematic theatrical experience," Chin and Vasarhelyi assert. "Those shooting on the wall had stripped-down Canon C300 MIIs, and we also had a number of fixed Canon 1DX MII cameras set up for remote trigger shooting in some of the most precarious spots where we wanted to give Alex the most space. We used a traditional jib arm where we could but also built a stripped-down wall-climbing jib arm we could use up on El Cap. For the aerial shots, we had a helicopter 3,000 feet above the valley rim, with a mounted ShotOver gyrostabilized system and a Canon Cine-Servo 50-1000mm lens. We also had a Canon Cine-Servo 50-1000mm lens shooting from a distance on the ground."

On June 3, 2017, everything came together for Honnold and the Free Solo production team — a feat of cinematography that could be regarded as no less impressive than the trickiest shots in a Mission: Impossible, Bond or Bourne movie.

"While Alex spent two years perfecting his climb, we spent two years perfecting how we were going to shoot it," reflect Chin and Vasarhelyi. "On the day of the climb, we knew exactly where everyone was going to be, what shots they were going to get at each spot, how they were going to move — and to make sure to give Alex enough space to do his climb. The directive was for everyone to stay focused on their job and their shots and not to let their mind wander into the what-ifs.

"The goal was to give the audience a visceral experience, to bring them up on the wall, have them feel the exposure," the filmmakers add, "but also to witness the intricacies of the climbing, so they could understand it instead of having it explained to them."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.