Free Solo the El Capitan wall with Alex Honnold in 360°
Sometimes I see a 360 experience that blows my mind and reaffirms the magic of this medium. This is one of those experiences. All I can say is to watch it, first click on the link below, save it to your 360 playlist (so you can easily find it in YoutubeVR once your headset is on) put on your Oculus Go (or other headset), fire up YoutubeVR and watch this. There are no words to describe it. For anyone into adventure and climbing, this alone is a reason to buy a headset.
Immerse yourself in the experience of free solo climbing Yosemite's famous El Capitan alongside Alex Honnold in this breathtaking 360 video.
I had a hard time understanding how this piece was shot because the cameras on the wall were so stable, and there are four beautifully slow tracking shots (starting at around 3:17) that I can’t reverse-engineer. It obviously wasn’t shot with a drone, and the rig removal postproduction work was so perfect that I was perplexed. It turns out that they put in years of pre-production work and had a lot of time to figure out some very gnarly details. I’m sure that one day we’ll get more info on some of their specific techniques, but once I found this explanation from the website of Director of Photography Justin Bastien, it started to make more sense: “This short film debuted at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival and is part of the critically acclaimed feature documentary Free Solo, which captures the experience of free soloist climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock, the 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park…without a rope. The climb was completed without any safety equipment, and required years of training, planning and unwavering endurance — both physical and mental.
The record-breaking climb that is featured in the full-length documentary, was re-created for the 360° short film to give users the full experience of climbing alongside Honnold. Virtually standing in his place, viewers are transported to Yosemite and they ascend the granite monolith with him, feeling the magnitude of the rock’s size as well as the anticipation, fear and accomplishment of every step.
For the feature documentary Chin, his wife and partner Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and their team spent nearly three years climbing the route with Honnold; to prepare for the 360° film Chin’s team and Director of Photography Justin Bastien worked several days on El Cap (with proper safety measures), placing cameras in the right locations and anchoring tripods up to 3,000 feet above the valley floor on the sheer granite wall. Despite the unique challenges this project faced, the climb proved to be a natural fit for a 360° storytelling approach.
360 Director of Photography Justin Bastien worked with Jimmy, Alex, Mikey Schaffer and the rest of the team climbing El Capitan for several days hanging from the side of the wall on ropes, rigging cameras and selecting the best angles to capture the wild action and big exposure below. Each day Justin would return to the ground and review the footage with Aron Hjartarson, executive creative director at Framestore, who was overseeing the development of the 360° film.
The main challenge for this project was for Justin and the team to figure out a way to tell a “narrative” 360 story which has rarely been done before in this new medium. Generally, 360 or Virtual Reality films are a single take in a single environment. In traditional, 2D films, there is an established format and way of doing things in regard to camera movement, cutting from one scene to the next. In a full 360 environment it’s completely different, the camera placement is critical to the viewers perspective, the camera movement must be minimal in the direction of view and where you enter and exit each scene with a focal point of interest is very important. All of these techniques had to be figured out on the fly, 3,2000 off the ground with Justin operating on his own suspended from the side of a cliff. As you can imagine, this was quite an undertaking and Justin and the team had to be very careful not to disrupt a hopeless Alex on the wall.
The final outcome is a short interactive 360 film that really gives you the sense of what it is like to be next to Alex as he completes one of the most incredible athletic feats of all time. No one, but this great team that Jimmy put together could have pulled of a project as incredible as this 3,200’ off the ground.”
Here’s a New York Times piece about the filmmaking process that goes into more detail (focussing exclusively on the 2D “Free Solo” feature but it’ll give you a sense of how careful everyone was about Alex.
Now, once you’ve watched the above you may also want to see an earlier project, created in 2017 by Jaunt and the Camp4Collective, that features Alex Honnold as he ascends a peak in the Needles of Southern California. One of the big differences between this project and the El Capitan piece is that in the Needles we visualize Alex mostly through aerial drone work, compared to the fixed cameras used for El Capitan. The moving camera definitely is more vertigo-producing, but at the same time it provides a bigger perspective on the place. I think optimally there would’ve been a bit of drone work in the El Cap piece as well, but given how hard it is to get a permit to fly a drone in the National Parks, I’d guess that that was a non-starter during the production.