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Climber Alex Honnold talks The Soloist VR, film’s future

Alex Honnold has dominated the world of climbing since 2007, when he made a name for himself by climbing Yosemite Valley’s Astroman and the Rostrum in a single day, breaking records and establishing the Californian as one of the premier free soloists in the country. His achievements eventually attracted filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who profiled Honnold in their 2018 Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo.

Honnold is back in front of the camera in Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR, a two-part film on Oculus TV that takes the realism seen in Free Solo further by fully immersing the viewer in several of his challenging climbs in America and Europe. Along with director and executive producer Jonathan Griffith (The Alpinist, Everest VR), Honnold showcases the beauty of rock climbing and reveals, without words, why he risks danger time and again to reach almost impossible heights.

Honnold sat down with Digital Trends to discuss the pleasures and dangers of rock climbing, how The Soloist VR came to be, and why VR is the logical next step in cinema’s evolution.

Alex Honnold climbs a rocky mountain outside in The Soloist VR.

Digital Trends: How did this project come to be? Can you tell me the origins of The Soloist VR?

Alex Honnold: Jon Griffith, the filmmaker behind [The Soloist VR], has done quite a bit of filming in VR. He’s probably the pioneering force for VR filmmaking in the climbing world … and he had filmed this VR Everest piece where he’d climbed Everest and filmed from the summit and everything. [He] basically reached out to me about doing a film project together. And so he sent me the headset with noise-canceling headphones and everything preloaded. And so I watched his Everest piece and I was very impressed. I was like, “This is the future.” I mean, basically, since I was 18, I was like, “This is the future of media.” This is way better and more immersive than anything I’ve seen. This is totally, totally next level. And I agreed to do a project with him.

What dictated where you were going to film? Was it your desire to go to these places and climb certain mountains? Or was it more Jonathan and production needs?

A little bit of both. Part of the reason I agreed to do the project was because I wanted an opportunity to climb in these places that I hadn’t really climbed before. And John is a very experienced climber in the Alps. He had a plan to film on [specific] routes, and he had a whole list of things we could potentially do. And for me, [these locations] are all new. They’re all exciting. You know, he’s the perfect guide for that kind of thing. I was like, “This is a great trip, you know?” And so there is the sort of personal side of the project where I felt like it’s a great opportunity for me to do a lot of climbing that I’d like to do anyway. And then there is the other side, which is just knowing that it would create a more impressive final piece.

[In watching the film], I felt like I was in your shoes right next to you and encountering the dizzying heights, the altitude, the weather, and the euphoria that you must experience. It was almost overwhelming but that’s what it’s supposed to be.

I’m so happy to hear that because I feel the same way when I watch it, this is as close as it gets to actually doing the thing, right?

I’m not a climber, but I felt like I went to these mountains, these beautiful places I’ll never go to in real life. I mean, come on, let’s be honest, a lot of people won’t. [With The Soloist VR], it’s a type of transformative media, [wher] it allows people to experiences things that they normally wouldn’t. And that’s what [ultimately] drew you to this project, right?

It’s something that I’ve talked about [concerning] the VR film before. With normal media, the questions around soloing are normally focused on the negatives, like what if you fall? What if you die? Are you afraid? Like, you know, how do you overcome the fear? It’s all sort of like focused on the negative side of it. And I feel like when you watch [The Soloist VR], you get a much bigger dose of the positive side because you’re like, it’s so beautiful and it’s so immersive and light. The places are so incredible and the experience is so incredible. And so I feel like by doing the VR film, it’s a way to share why I solo basically. This is the positive [and] you can experience the upside of it all.

Alex Honnold climbs a mountain edge as the sun sets in The Soloist VR.

Well, I think what Jonathan does really well with framing the shots is that he’ll just leave it on you for a while and we can watch you sort of solve this puzzle of getting over these rocks. There’s a lot of thought that has to be put into it. You’re not just exercising your body; you’re exercising your mind.

I actually think that’s one of the real strengths of VR. You can show the viewer, not tell. You can just allow the viewer to be there and they can just experience the whole thing. Whereas like in conventional documentary filmmaking, even the most honest, raw documentaries, [they] still cut to close-ups, cut to wide shots, turn the music [on], they’re still sort of telling you what to feel. [With The Soloist VR], there’s no music.

You’re watching it unfold and you can take it in how you like it. And I’ve heard from some people that in the soloing sections, they look away for a lot of it because it’s too intense watching the climbing. [So they can] look at the mountains and enjoy the scenery for a little while. And I feel like that’s a real strength to VR filmmaking is that the viewer determines their experience.

What was different about filming [The Soloist VR] versus filming Free Solo?

The main difference is that the VR camera is a lot more finicky, it’s much bigger, it’s much heavier, and it’s much more temperamental. I think it [has] eight lenses. It’s filming in all directions and each camera has a lens facing every way as you have to make sure that everything’s clean. You have to make sure that the different camera are synced [and] everything’s connected. The camera operator, in this case John, has to make sure that it’s all working remotely. That’s the interesting thing with VR filmmaking is that in some ways, it’s way more honest because, you know, you look around and see anything that’s going on in any given shot. So it’s like you are there and you are seeing what’s happening.

On the other hand, it’s way more composed than a conventional documentary. With VR, the sheer amount of data you [have to] process is just crazy. It’s a different approach of capturing honest moments. It takes a while to set it up, to get everything ready and be like, “OK, now we’re going to do a scene.” But then, once that scene happens, you are seeing exactly what’s happening.

One thing I wanted to comment on in the first episode is you encounter some blood on the rocks.

It’s not that uncommon in climbing areas because other people cut their hands. It’s just blood from other climbers. It’s not that crazy. But it is always kind of funny if you see, you know, like bloodstains on something.

So it is from a human. It’s not an animal.

It’s very normal. Like certain types of holds might cut your finger and then for the rest of the climb, you’ll be leaving a bloodstain.

I really think [The Soloist VR] is an amazing experience. As somebody who loves cinema, I agree with you that this is going to be the future of how we experience [media].

Can you imagine if you could watch The Batman [in VR]? But you could also look around and see all of Gotham around you?

That would be amazing. It would be really expensive, but I would love that.

In some ways, I wonder if it would be that much more expensive because instead of doing like the crazy CGI and crazy effects, all you really need is like a couple more people [in the shot]. In some ways, a much simpler production could still be more immersive than the crazy CGI in a normal Hollywood movie.

I agree.

Did you see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings?

Of course.

I thought that was it was pretty good, and it had really nice personal stuff [in the first act]. And then at the end, it all just went crazy when they turned everything up to 11 and the CGI [became] insane and it was like this epic battle. I would have been happy with a normal kung fu battle instead of some crazy gods descending [from the heavens] and dragons [flying]. With the same budget for the CGI, you could just have a kung fu battle where you have like 20 people doing kung fu around you. With VR, if you just looked around and saw all kinds of people fighting, that would be the craziest thing you’ve ever seen.

Like that scene in Shang-Chi where they’re on the building at night and the ninjas are coming [to attack]? That scene in VR would be absolutely epic.

It would be insane.

OK, we need to get you to Marvel Studios and [in front of] the director of The Batman and you need to pitch them on this VR technology. You can tell them “I’ve done this.” And also, “I can be a great Batman villain and I can be called The Climber.”

If you talk to anyone, tell them that I’m available for technical expertise. You know, I’m happy to help out.

Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR is available on Oculus TV now. To learn more about the film and experience behind the scenes content, please visit www.thesoloist-vr.com.

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