Imagine climbing the world’s highest mountains, thousands of feet in the open air, hanging on by your fingertips with nothing to catch you if you fall. Not for the faint-hearted, Free Soloing is a niche technical form of rock climbing performed without ropes or harnesses. For Academy Award® winning free solo rock climber Alex Honnold, surviving on the rock face is just another day.
Thanks to the immersive nature of virtual reality, for the first time, we can experience the perils of free solo from the comfort of our own couch. “Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR” is an immersive two-part documentary film available in the US in Oculus TV on the Quest platform.
Produced by Jonathan Griffith Productions in partnership with Red Bull Media House and Meta Quest, the film transports you to some of the world’s most remote and beautiful climbing locations captured using the latest in high resolution 3D 360° cameras.
Filming the action in the mountains of Europe and US was a tough assignment for even the most experienced of climbers. For Adventure Cinematographer Renan Ozturk, heading into extreme environments requires the highest levels of focus and gear preparation.
“We try to prepare ourselves for success, on the wall itself - every gram matters, and that is why you do not want to be worrying about your gear in those scenarios because you must be worried about your safety and survival. You must know that all your gear is going to be up for that kind of a test.”
An essential part of filming was having enough power. Renan says “Batteries are the keystone of our entire operation and are what we go to first. We are in the most remote places on the planet so we cannot charge batteries. We have had cheaper battery brands fail and we have had them taken away at the airport, it is something we do not take lightly, especially with the trips we have coming up this year if the batteries fail, we have nothing.”
Cue Anton/Bauer’s Titon Base. The IATA certified travel friendly 68Wh Base offers filmmakers portable power they can take anywhere. Usable in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Titon Base is the power of choice for adventure filmmakers: Renan says “I love the Titon Base, I found it super useful as I am a time-lapse junkie. We used Titon Base for landscape time-lapses every day. And when we are doing lighter-weight stuff, in the mountains with Alex Honnold, it powers the full frame Sony camera perfectly.”
At 14V/8A continuous draw, the 68Wh battery delivers hours more runtime than the standard batteries supplied with cameras. With the built in LCD display you can know your runtime down to the minute which is perfect for time-lapse shooters like Renan.
“It is cool just to be able to get into the mountains, pop the camera up, and run time lapse for hours at a time not having to worry about battery failure. We had no way to charge on the mountain at all. Every little bit of power is precious.”
Don’t Look Down
Filming Alex Honnold is an intense as it gets. For Renan, he had to balance high-level climbing and filmmaking with no margin for error. “There are certain times where it is horrifying and you do not want to watch and you are just hoping nothing falls off the mountain and kills him, including like the camera equipment. And then sometimes it just feels like another day in the office; because his demeanour is so relaxed.”
Balancing is not the only concern. The mountains offer up their own unique challenges, Renan explains “We were on the biggest walls which were crumbling and falling apart as the ice melts out of them and there is falling rock, you cannot go up and rehearse it. Every time you go up and you must do it all what we call ‘on-site,’ which is figuring it out on the fly. So that makes it more dangerous with factors out of your control.”
In “Soloist VR” the crew utilized the Insta 360 Titan, one of the biggest VR cameras available today. Renan and the team were mounting the camera on the walls as Alex Honnold was free soloing past. As a viewer immersed in the VR environment, you will be seeing him free solo past you as a bystander on the wall.
“It is going to be a ground-breaking new way to look at climbing in general. And the fact that Alex is without a rope on these crazy objectives just makes it that much more captivating, and it is pretty insane how you can watch him climbing for five minutes and not take your eyes off him.”
Capture the moment
During the shoot Renan and the team were up against extreme weather conditions. “We’ve been taking the OConnor 1040 system & Titon Base battery to the highest, coldest places in Europe, on glaciers, and then throughout the US during the time period where there really crazy forest fires raging across the US, and extreme 120-degree heat in Las Vegas”.
“I just know that I can get shots and not miss moments. It helps me take that that expedition style filmmaking into these commercial productions. To have OConnor 1040 & Titon Base flow seamlessly with gear that I know, and trust is imperative.”
During the Free Solo shoot the pairing of Anton/Bauer’s Titon Base with the OConnor 1040 flowtech system provided a reliable adventure setup. The Titon Base quick-release ¼”-20 mounting allowed Renan to snap on and off the OConnor tripod in seconds. For Renan and the team having reliable gear in the extremes is essential.
Renan says “The OConnor 1040 flowtech system is the perfect intersection between high-end feature films and high-end adventure Cinematography. Now we have ultimate stabilisation for our cameras. The 1040 technology is the same OConnor technology that people shoot the biggest feature films, we are now proving that you can take these tools to the most remote places in the planet, and they function just as well if not better, from scorching heats in the desert to -40 below zero in Antarctica.”
Filming “Soloist VR” there was no room for compromise and no margin for error: “Just like when you are climbing a mountain and you are not going to skimp on the rope that you use that will save your life.” Says Renan. “It is the same thing with your camera equipment, it is worth every penny to invest in gear that is going to survive from base camp to Summit. You do not want to compromise on new gear, because everyone has been in a position where terrible gear lets you down. Choosing the right gear removes that element of doubt and fear.
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“My advice for younger filmmakers is really focus on investing in reliable power, it does make a significant difference. If you do not have power, you have nothing. Especially if you are shooting documentary style, you cannot afford to miss a moment.”