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Interview: Alex Honnold and Jonathan Griffith on Free Soloing & Virtual Reality

“The Soloist VR” is a two-part series (available on Oculus TV) that chronicles Alex Honnold’s free soloing exploits in the Italian Dolomites and the French Alps in the summer of 2021.

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“When people think about alpine climbing, most people think of planting a colorful flag on the top of Everest. … You couldn’t get further from the truth.”

So says Jonathan Griffith, a longtime climbing photographer and filmmaker and the main force behind The Soloist VR. “When you’re suffering for five days on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses in winter, spending five nights sitting on a bum seat for bivy ledge, basically sitting in your harness—that is fucking gnarly. But [when I first got into climbing] no one really knew what that looked like, because the media didn’t really exist. That’s why I got into my work.”

Want to know what watching soling in VR is like? (Or the extent to which it might change the climbing media landscape?) Read our review of The Soloist VR

Griffith built a career around capturing those mountain extremes in traditional media, working with greats like Ueli Steck and Marc-André Leclerc. But then, six years ago, he put on a VR headset (“an old Google Cardboard”) and watched some extremely basic VR footage of a man walking across a glacier. “I completely fell in love with VR right then,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is the most powerful way to bring people into my crazy world.’”

Honnold on the classic American Direct. This image shows the film cover.
Honnold on the classic American Direct.

The Soloist VR, produced in partnership with Meta Quest and Red Bull Media House (who put out a three-part series about how The Soloist VR was made), certainly embeds viewers in the mountain experience to a far greater extent than your conventional film. When in episode one, for instance, Alex Honnold free solos Gelbe Mauer—a steep and chossy-looking 11-pitch 5.12a on the stunning Cima Piccola in the Italian Dolomites—the viewer drifts up the wall alongside him without music, without voiceover, and with only a bare minimum of angle changes. And in episode two, the same techniques play out on the Aiguille du Dru’s spectacular American Direct (6c/5.11; 1,050 meters; first ascended by Royal Robbins and Gary Hemming in 1962) and Mont Maudit’s Kuffner Arete on the Mont Blanc Massif. 

“I want you to feel at times like he could fall,” Griffith told Climbing, “because it’s so live and real that it’s not happening in the past.”

Climbing caught up with Honnold and Griffith over Zoom to chat about their new film. Our conversation ranged widely, discussing everything from film theory to Honnold’s decision to solo in the Dolomites (which is almost as famous for its bad rock as its amazing views) to Griffith’s feelings about shooting free soloing in the first place. Honnold, a new father, had his sometimes-crying daughter on his lap and excused himself from the conversation halfway through, but Griffith and I spoke for a full hour. The resultant interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Griffith setting up the VR camera on the Yellow Wall, Dolomites. The photo demonstrate how big the camera is and how hard rigging can be.
Jonathan Griffith setting up the VR camera on the Yellow Wall, Dolomites (Photo: Renan Ozturk, Jonathan Griffith Productions)

THE INTERVIEW

Climbing: How did you pick the Dolomites for a free soloing project? The rock seems pretty friable… was it just a second pick after being snowed out in Chamonix?

Honnold: It wasn’t quite a second pick. The Dolomites have a rich history of soloing. And the rock on that route is better than it looks. It’s fractured but surprisingly compact and in some ways the limitations of the rock are made up for by the style, which consists of down-pulling edges, which is easier to solo than friction slabs in the Valley. It’s the kind of climbing where the greater your level of fitness, the more secure it feels. If you can hold on for a long time, it’s not that crazy.

Griffith: The route is pretty steep and sustained, though. I got pumped just jumaring up it.

Climbing: Did you do any specialized training for this project, Alex, or was it something you were just ready for?

Honnold: I was sort of just ready for it. I was physically and psychologically prepared. We’d been planning this film for a long time, so I was psyched to make it happen. It’s like showing up on an expedition that you’ve been planning forever: You’re like, “Okay, it’s game time.”

Climbing: What’s it like to shoot a free soloing piece, Jonathan?

Griffith: I wanted to make a film about Alex, but I wanted it to be Alex’s story. I had ideas of what I wanted to shoot, but this is soloing, right, so there’s always a bit of a fine line between what I want and what the athlete has to do. Because if I suggest he do something and then he falls—that would be horrific. So it’s not normal stuff. When I’m on normal photo shoots with athletes, I’m like, “Go do this thing. I don’t care if you don’t want to do it. You’re doing it. You have a rope on and we’re making media.” But when you’re filming soloing, you’re like, “Alex, it would be really great if you could consider this plan, because it would be great to shoot it, but it’s also totally up to you.” Luckily, Alex is really easy to work with. [In the Dolomites] one of our guides came down the first day and said it was going to take Alex weeks to work the route before he was ready, and I was like, “Oh crap,” but then Alex came down and was like, “Yeah, I’m going to give it a shot in a couple of days.”

Honnold: I never mind having a little nudge to do something that I’d want to do anyway. Everything we did in the VR film is something I’d be proud of regardless. Basically, someone else is facilitating me doing something that I’m psyched to do. So I’m like, “Oh, wow, this is a tremendous opportunity.”

Climbing: Was the history part of that psych?

Honnold: Yes and no. There’s been cutting edge free soloing going out in the Dolomites since like 1910 or something. Alex Huber has soloed some big routes there. Hansjörg Auer  soloed The Fish. So it just seemed like a place that, as a soloist, you have to visit eventually. And I have to add: One of the beauties of VR filming is that, if you haven’t been to the Dolomites, you can look around and be like, “Oh my God, the Dolomites are stunning.” 

Climbing: You can literally turn your back on the action but still be inside the experience. 

Honnold: Exactly. People are always asking about the negative side of soloing—what happens if he falls? What happens if he dies? Isn’t it scary? All those kinds of things. But it’s hard for people to appreciate the beautiful side of soloing: being able to look around, being in these beautiful places, taking in the landscape. With the VR experience you’re able to take in the landscape in a way that viewers of conventional films can’t. You can watch the climbing if you want, but you can also just look around and be like, “Wow, look at this place,” and then you can watch the climbing some more. It gives the viewer a more realistic experience.

Climbing: What are some of the narrative techniques or tricks in making VR film that people aren’t necessarily thinking about?

Griffith: Well, there’s no rulebook with VR because we’re still in such early stages with the technology. But with this project I was trying to remove voiceovers and remove music. The idea is I’m trying to create reality; I’m trying to trick your brain so you’ll think you’re there. And a voiceover is, you know, it’s a bit like the voice of God. But when I walk around in my everyday life, I don’t hear the voice of God. And I don’t hear music. So I wanted to mimic that. The problem, though, is when you try to make things as simple as possible, you run the risk of being boring. So the editing takes a lot of work. 

When you watch a good VR piece, you’re not coming away with the sense that we’ve done anything clever. You’re just like, “I was just watching Alex soloing.” But making it so you aren’t bored when you’re just watching Alex soloing is incredibly complicated. In the Dolomites episode, you’re watching 14 or 15 minutes of footage where you don’t hear a single human voice. And no music. That’s kind of crazy. But we did play with the sound design. We toyed with bird sounds. And we added in the sound of Alex’s heartbeat. It’s not like a drum in your ears. It’s not overwhelming. It’s just the right level where you’re not really aware of it. But since it’s a noise we know so well, you can click into it. You don’t even really hear it, but your brain is completely aware of it.

Honnold: I think one of the best sound design moments—and it’s a scene that really highlights the beauty of VR—is in the Dolomites when I break a little rock off while I’m climbing and drop it off the cliff. You as the viewer instinctually turn to watch it fall for a second, but then you can’t see it because it’s too small and you’re too high, so you go back to watching the climbing, but then several seconds later you hear it hit the ground, and you’re like, “Oh wow. That little rock just fell for like six seconds.” It gives a sense of scale in a way that the normal film just doesn’t really do.

Griffith: We spent a lot of time on that scene. We recreated the sound of the rock coming down and then, just as you lose sight of it, we inserted the sound of Alex coughing. He didn’t actually cough in that moment, but we inserted the sound so that your attention would be drawn back to Alex. And then a second later, [when] you’ve almost forgotten about it, you hear the rock hit the ground, and you’re like, “Oh crap, that took a long time.”

Climbing: What about the visual considerations of the medium?

Honnold:  Well, in VR, there are these transitions where I’ll be running or biking and you’ll follow from one side of the frame to the other, but then the action in the next scene starts behind you. So if you’re in a swivel chair, you’re constantly moving around along with the world. The film sort of re-centers you in different scenes.

Griffith: That’s actually an especially tricky part of the planning. The viewer always has to recenter between clips, so [as the filmmaker] you’re hoping you know roughly where the viewer is looking at the end of each clip and so you can find a way to reorient them. But in VR you can’t always control [where people are looking]. It’s especially hard in climbing because there’s a lateral and also a vertical plain of view. So it’s a total nightmare because you might follow Alex going up something, but then in the next shot, he’s down below you. So that’s why we use audio cues. I’ll start the next scene and inject a grunt, so you can turn and find out where the sound came from. Audio is such a really fun part of VR and it’s something the viewer doesn’t even know is happening. It feels real but it’s really all injected. All the birds are injected. It’s almost a bit embarrassing, because I keep talking about how honest and real VR is but there’s so much injected.

Honnold: But they are real bird sounds. And it’s also true of every normal documentary. In Free Solo it’s the same thing. There’s sound mixing and sound design. Every bird you hear in Free Solo is a real species that lives in the Sierra Nevada. It’s all things you could hear and see while you’re climbing. But they don’t necessarily happen in that moment. That’s sound mixing.

Climbing: The narrative challenges in VR seem a lot like the narrative challenges you might encounter in a play, where you don’t have music and you don’t have voiceover and the story has to somehow be related by the participants themselves. And I was wondering, were you just shooting a ton of film and then editing a narrative into it, or were you staging scenes and then enacting them as if it was a play?

Honnold: It’s more akin to the play. We joked through the entire shoot that John was “one-take John.” Shooting in VR is incredibly laborious, so unlike other types of documentary filmmaking, you don’t just shoot a ton, you don’t just roll all the time. When you watch the [Redbull Media Film about the making of The Soloist VR], you’ll see that Renan [Ozturk] is the opposite. He’s shooting all the time. He’s got a chest cam, his own camera, a GoPro, and he films nonstop for hours. That’s one way to make a documentary film: you just roll on everything and capture the key moments. But with VR that’s not really possible technologically. It’s too much data. It’s too hard to move the cameras. So for the VR scenes we had to be more composed. That’s the funny thing about VR: in some ways it’s more honest, because when you’re watching VR, you can look around and see everything around you, so it’s impossible to cheat anything. But on the other hand, the scenes have to be more composed, sort of by definition. It’s this weird juxtaposition. It’s just a totally different way to make a film. 

Griffith: It’s also hard to capture candid moments, because setting up takes a while, and you’ve got this frickin’ massive camera with eight lenses right next to you. Luckily, Alex is a very good actor. It’s not Alex’s first rodeo on camera, thankfully.

In normal documentary filmmaking, you have a lot of data, and you do a lot of cuts between short clips, moving every few seconds. In VR you can’t do that. I can’t have a clip that lasts five seconds then cuts to a scene that helps explain what’s happening, because it’s really disorientating for the viewer. So it makes it even harder to tell a story. I can’t jump around the timeline. Instead you need to deliver the information in a very succinct block. That’s your take. And you can’t cut that take into short little pieces because in VR it’s disorienting. So, yeah, it is tricky to try to make it all feel natural and still get the information across, and not for it to ramble… which is what I’m doing right now.

Honnold: To me that was part of the appeal of doing this VR film project: it’s very different. It’s like nothing I’ve done before. And it’s a way to capture climbing and climbing media in a way that really hasn’t been done. So the whole project winds up feeling fresh.

Climbing: Your choice of free soloing seems kind of the perfect way to take advantage of the medium. You might have to compose those other scenes—and to a certain extent the fact that Alex gets on the wall is a composed scene: there’s a plan, a narrative, he’s going upwards, etc.—but there’s also no faking it. When you’re there watching, you’re seeing what you’re being told you’re seeing, and it feels incredibly visceral. I was straight gripped for a lot of the film. When I finished, I messaged one of my coworkers and said, “I think I just got traumatized by Alex Honnold soloing in VR.” It hits your body in a really weird way.

Honnold: Even in Free Solo, which is a really honestly shot climbing documentary, they still use a lot of traditional tactics like using music, cutting between wide shots and close shots, like here’s the foothold, here’s the handhold, here’s the body—shots that draw you in and out as the viewer to show you different things. But with VR film, I’m just climbing. You can watch it if you want, or you can turn away and watch the scenery. 

Griffith: I wanted it to feel like [the viewer] is on this personal journey with Alex. I just put you in the spot and Alex tells you the story and you feel like you’re on this live adventure. I want you to feel at times like he could fall because it’s so live and real that it’s not happening in the past. But I also wanted you to feel like you’ve bonded with Alex in whatever way that you chose to do it. Because, again, I didn’t force you to interact with it in one way or another via music. I wanted people to emerge having had this deeply satisfying journey and experience. It wasn’t just watching Alex trying to kill himself.

Honnold: So, I’ve got to drop off, but I just want to wrap up by saying this whole thing was a total pleasure. If you go watch the [Red Bull Media] film you’ll see how much heart and soul went into this project. I’m pretty proud of it. I think it was quite the experience. But, yeah, so sorry to drop off here, but, you know, I’m learning how to be a dad.

Alex exits.

Climbing: So… what are some aspects of working in VR that we might not originally think about?

Griffith: In VR there’s a lot that goes into how you set a scene up and how close you can be to the camera. In climbing, for example, the classic non-VR climbing shot is top down: You’re looking down at whoever’s climbing up and you can see how steep and exposed it is and blah, blah, blah. But you can’t do that in VR, because if you do, the viewer has to crane their neck and look down at their feet, and then instantly they’re like, “Oh, shit, I can’t see my feet, that’s weird,” and they’re thrown out of the experience, they’re reminded that it’s not real.

So there are all these things that, as a filmmaker, you have to re-learn—or not even re-learn, just learn, because no one has done this. Eventually I found that the best—the most comfortable—way for someone to watch someone climbing in VR is to be as far out from the cliff face as possible and watching at a 45 degree down angle. That way you’re aware of the drop in your peripheral vision, but I’m not forcing you to look down. You can be comfortable and watch them climb and look down if you want to—but you’re still always aware of that drop, that exposure, in your peripheral vision. And it’s not painful in your neck.

Climbing: I never even thought about that: the ergonomics of the viewer is something that you have to consider when crafting each shot.

Griffith: Oh, dude. It’s crazy. The camera weighs eight kilos. That’s like 16 pounds. And the further you put it out from the cliff, the bigger the leverage. And this is not Hollywood, right, so the rigging systems have to be things that [a small team] can personally carry. It’s super complicated. But I love it because every time I do a new project, I find myself with these new ideas about how to shoot something. It takes so much problem solving. 

I think the simple fact that we didn’t use music or voiceover is really groundbreaking for VR. The viewer is tricked into believing that there’s nothing clever going on, that it’s all natural. Of course, creating “natural” is insanely complicated. And, you know, I’ll probably look back at this film in six months and be like, “Holy shit, why was I doing that?” Even though I’m dead proud of everything now, in six months I’ll be like, “Well, that was a terrible idea, we can’t do that again.”

Climbing: What does it feel like to shoot Alex soloing?

Griffith: I was totally not bothered, even though I thought I’d be quite scared. He just exudes confidence. If he started freaking out, you’d be like, “Oh shit,” but he doesn’t do that. I’ve worked with a lot of soloists—[including] Marc-André [Leclerc] and Ueli Steck—and I’ve lost a lot of the climbers I used to work with. When I was watching Alex, when he was climbing and I was right next to him, it was super calming. But when I watch in a headset, I still get sweaty hands. I think it’s because of the way we did the sound design, with the heartbeat, it just brings you to that next level.

Climbing: How does your work with Ueli and Marc-André play into the way you think about making these types of projects?

Griffith: As I said earlier, I had these ideas of what I wanted to shoot, but I had to talk to Alex in such a way that the actual decision to climb them was his idea. Not because I was trying to be crafty or anything. I just think that’s the way you have to do it with soloists. But with Alex, you know, it’s kind of obvious to say, but he’s a really fucking good climber. And I know everyone reading this is like, “Yeah, no shit,” but he’s actually a really, really good climber. It’s down to how much training he does. He’s not just a psycho. I think people forget that he’s soloing so far below his limit. Even El Cap, which was pretty gnarly, is pretty easy for Alex.

Climbing: Any final thoughts?

Griffith: [Alex] was just such an asset to this project. The opening shot—of Desert Gold [a roof crack outside Las Vegas]—was shot during a heat wave. It was like 100° Fahrenheit all day. We were getting up at like 3:00 in the morning and doing really early shoots because we could only work on Desert Gold for like thirty minutes before you were basically going to die of dehydration. Most athletes would be like, “Jon, this is ridiculous. It’s 100° outside. I’m not going to solo a roof crack that’s all grimy and disgusting because no one has climbed in months.” But he was like, “No, this’ll be awesome.” He’s one of the easiest people I’ve ever worked with, which is a credit to who he is. He’s super humble and lovely and he works super hard. That’s why he’s down as a producer in the film. It wasn’t the plan, but in the end I felt I had to. He totally produced.