I often get asked about the process, planning, gear, etc. for some of my shoots. A few weeks ago I was in Yosemite directing a web piece and commercial spot for SquareSpace, the website platform. I thought it would be a good shoot to deconstruct.
High angle, high stakes shoots while working with world class athletes and highly specialized crews are my favorite types of shoots. On this shoot in particular, we had several lifestyle scenarios but the main highlight action of the piece would be Alex Honnold freesoloing (climbing unroped) the severely overhanging route “Heaven.” It would require a complex set up with two camera crews hanging over a ledge several thousand feet above the valley floor rolling on Alex Honnold as he climbed the route.
There are endless factors and decisions to make on a shoot like this. While I can’t cover all of them, below are some of the details surrounding the shoot.
Squarespace reached out to Alex Honnold and I a couple months ago about doing a commercial spot and brand vignette on Alex for the company’s “Squarespace Presents” series. They had heard Alex was a Squarespace user and brought us in to find some overlaps between their product and Alex’s lifestyle and passion for climbing. I met with the Squarespace creative team at the NYC headquarters and we discussed some concepts and locations. Among other details, I was told Squarespace was under an extremely tight deadline and we’d only have two days for the shoot. I called up Alex and we decided Yosemite would be the perfect spot to get what we would need based on the creative.
Yosemite is big and there are a lot of great routes we could have picked for Alex to climb that would have given us some pretty spectacular shots of the valley. While Half Dome or El Cap would have been epic, I knew we only had two days for shooting. On top of the climbing sequences, the shot list included a long list of lifestyle shots as well. It would have taken too long to haul the gear, get into position, rig etc. on Half Dome or El Cap, so Alex and I decided to shoot on Heaven, a route that was high above the valley floor but had relatively easy access to move in gear and personnel.
The client was expecting high production value but getting a Cineflex shot from the air or using drones was out of the question since both are prohibited in Yosemite. On most climbing shoots, we’d rig one or two cameramen hanging from a rope to shoot from above the climber. I really wanted to bring back something different and decided, for better or worse, we would try and rig a crane above the route to shoot Alex climbing out the severely overhanging pitch. I knew positioning, anchoring, and operating a crane on steep, exposed terrain was going to be a bit of a nightmare but I also knew the effort would really bring some additional motion to the sequence and much higher production value. (You can see the set-up below.) Which brings us to the climb itself…
Alex is famous for his free soloing feats, but going into the shoot I told Alex a number of times that there was no pressure for him to solo….at all. Having Alex roped up would make it a lot easier to shoot multiple angles, repeat climbing sequences for the camera and, needless to say, a lot less stressful, but Alex was pretty set on free soloing the route. This was a very personal decision on Alex’s part, but it has to be said here: we’re talking about freesoloing a 5.12d and a route that’s only been free soloed twice - once by Dean Potter and once by Alex himself. It’s insecure to say the least and the top out is a difficult mantel on a sloping ledge while reaching for a rattly fist jam. In climber speak, that means it’s scary. If he soloed it, we’d have one — maybe two — chances to get all the shots we needed, and as Alex says in the vignette, if you blow the climbing sequence on Heaven you bounce once and then fall 2000 feet to the valley floor. The stakes really couldn’t have been higher.
As you can see in the photo, we’re not shooting on a set and there’s not a lot of room for a big crew. So I chose to go with a tight, specialized team. I needed a dependable crew experienced in high production / high pressure commercial shoots and comfortable working in high-angle terrain. I brought along TGR co-founder Dirk Collins (DP), Shawn Corrigan (DIT), Wynn Ruji and Rob Frost.
I had worked with Dirk before on a couple other high stakes shoots, he is one of the great action sports filmmakers in the business and works well under pressure. I’d also worked with Shawn on several shoots - reliable in any situation and extremely tech savvy. We would tech the cameras, the Movi and manage all the equipment. Wynn came on as our AC, focus puller and did just about every other job in the book too. Rob brought significant experience filming climbing and big alpine expeditions. He is very comfortable filming in high angle terrain and would be critical for rigging…and humor. Essentially, it was all hands on deck, all the time.
It was definitely the A-Team. There’s no room for error up there, and since we’d have Alex doing the route two times max, everyone needed to be able to nail their part(s). Which they did….beautifully.
It’s hard to overstate the pressure you feel on a shoot like this. You’re pretty much getting one take to get what you need and the talent is in a do-or-die situation. The talent also happens to be a close friend.
It took us about 5 or 6 hours just to rig the crane set up. We didn’t want to use bolts so we had to get creative with rigging the anchors to get the crane into position so the arm, MOVI and Red Dragon on the end of it were hanging over the lip. It took three people to get the crane shot — one to operate the crane, one to pull focus and one to operate the MOVI and camera. I split the crew split in two teams so we could shoot from two different angles. Shawn, Wynn and Dirk on the crane, Rob and I set up at a different angle.
Alex is a true professional. It’s not everyday that someone solos 5.12d, to be able to do it on demand is beyond my comprehension. Not only did he float the route once, he topped out, turned to me and said “give me twenty minutes and I’m going to do it again,” and then did the route a second time. Anyone who knows Alex knows that it takes a lot to get any sort of rise out of him. That’s one of the reasons he can do what he does. I knew we got something special when he finally got a chance to review the footage with the team and seemed genuinely pleased.
As you can see from the vignette below, we shot a bunch of lifestyle footage as well, but getting Alex freesoloing Heaven was definitely the highlight.
Given that this was a high production commercial shoot we opted to go with two Red Dragons. We planned to shoot most of it in 4K but knew we’d also shoot some 5K in case we wanted to punch in on some of the interview footage. Our main lens was the Red Pro 17-50mm 2.9, but we also had a stack of Canon Cinema Primes as well.
Obviously the crane set up was important for the shoot. Because of the environment we’d be using it in, we couldn’t go for a really stable / heavy crane, but VariZoom Snap Crane definitely wasn’t the lightest either.
The MOVI was great for the crane shot and for getting nice stablized motion in the lifestyle shots.
We also used a Cineslider to add some camera movement.
Check the full gear list and vignette below and keep an eye out for the commercial spot, coming soon!
Full Gear List
Red Epic Dragon Package (2)
MoVi M10 Cinema Gimbal Kit
Varizoom Snap Crane
3 ft Kessler Cineslider with tripod
Sachtler Video 20 S1 Fluid Head 100m
RED Pro 17-50mm T2.9 Lens
REDMag SSD 256GB (3)
Red Volt Battery (8)
Anton Bauer Battery Mount for RED
Red Volt Quad Charger
Litepanels 1×1 Daylight LED Kit (2)
Anton Bauer Dionic (4)
Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2 Nikon Mount
Canon CNE 24mm T1.5 L F Cine Lens
Canon CNE 35mm T1.5 L F Cine Lens
Canon CNE 50mm T1.3 L F Cine Lens
Canon CNE 85mm T1.3 L F Cine Lens
Nikon Lens to Canon Camera Adapter
Nikon G Lens to Canon Camera Adapter
Sachtler 0742 FSB8T Tripod System with DA 75L Tripod (2)
BoomMate Boompole Holder
KTek Aluminum Boompole with Internal Coiled XLR Cable
Zoom H6 Handy 6Track Recorder with Interchangeable Microphone
Kessler Hi Hat Accessories
Anton Bauer Battery Mount for Litepanels (2)
Lectrosonics 100 Series Wireless UHF Lavalier Mic Set
Sennheiser EW122p G3 Hotshoe Wireless Lavalier Mic
GoPro Hero3+ (4)
GoPro Battery BackPac (4)