By Ben Church, CNNVideo produced by Amy Li, CNN
Honnold is the star of a new two-part virtual reality (VR) series that follows him as he demonstrates his skills on unforgiving mountains in the Dolomites, Italy, and his familiar stomping ground in the United States. .
Audiences, who need Meta headphones to watch the series, can see Honnold climbing rock faces using only his hands and feet. Look down and viewers will get a very real sense of how far it is from the ground.
“I had never done anything in virtual reality, so this felt like an opportunity to do something new and interesting,” Honnold told CNN Sport, speaking about creating “Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR.” .
“The real strength of virtual reality is that it allows people to really be there.”
Honnold was joined in the adventure by a number of climbers, as well as series producer Jonathan Griffith.
Griffith had already demonstrated the art of virtual reality in a stunning project focusing on Mount Everest, but the opportunity to work with the famous Honnold was an exciting prospect.
Griffith had worked with many professional climbers, but was impressed with Honnold’s method, which helped the producer feel more comfortable filming the sometimes death-defying routes.
On occasion Honnold clings to the rock face with one hand, at other times he is seen hanging upside down with nothing between him and the ground.
While viewers can take in stunning sunsets and the beautiful orange light they cast on towering mountains, the series also shows Honnold climbing through mist and clouds.
At one point, viewers appear to be standing in the clouds as the mist falls with Honnold climbing through an almost dreamlike setting.
The show allows for a new appreciation for the strength, flexibility and mental toughness that made Honnold such a name.
“They’re very thoughtful human beings,” Griffith told CNN Sport when asked what it was like to work with free soloists — those who climb without ropes.
“And when they’re going to do something solo, they don’t just show up and go crazy. There’s an awful lot of planning and training and everything that goes on before they even set foot on solo.
“So when you watch people like Alex solo, he’s always in control. He never freaks out and is never terrified. I mean, that would be really terrifying to watch. But he’s so calm on the rock when he is alone.
“He just exudes confidence and chill when he’s solo so you never freak out.”
‘Sharing with my family is the most important thing’
Griffith had his work cut out trying to capture Honnold and world-class mountaineer Nicolas Hojac – who helped guide the team through the Dolomites.
The equipment needed to film in virtual reality is not light and was carried up and down the rock faces everywhere they went. The crew would then hide behind corners or rocks so that viewers would have an unobstructed view of Honnold climbing through these amazing backdrops.
The camera itself, which weighs around 5.5 kilos, is actually made up of eight different cameras, allowing Griffith to shoot in 3D.
Next is the rigging system which aims to get the camera as far away from the rock face as possible while keeping the very expensive equipment secure.
Griffith said it took the team more than a year to design the complex rigging system that can be set up while hanging from the side of a mountain.
But the result, Honnold says, was worth the extra effort.
“I’m not normally impressed with solo footage because usually the memory of experiencing something is more powerful than watching it on film,” he says.
“But the VR experience is pretty close.
“Sharing with my family is the most important thing, having people close to me who really understand what we do, where we are and how we feel.
“My mother-in-law watched the movie for five minutes at a time. She’ll watch five minutes and be stressed and put it away. And then the next day she’ll watch five more minutes.”
Given his status, Honnold is invited to appear in many projects around the world but, it seems, working in virtual reality with Griffith has captured his imagination.
The pair seem excited to be collaborating again and Honnold, appointed as the show’s producer, has some ideas for what might come next.
“I’ve already pitched some ideas to Jonathan,” he laughs.
“I’m very proud of the end result. I think it’s great. You know, honestly, if someone wanted to get us, I’d gladly do it again.
“The whole experience was great and I was able to do a month of great climbing. I’m very, very happy with it all and would happily do more.”
Griffith, who spent hours painstakingly going through the footage in post-production, said he would also be thrilled after taking a break from such an intense and time-consuming project.
“I feel like it would be really hard now to improve on it because my brain is like tons of sponge cake after this project,” Griffith said.
“But I know, in about two months I’ll look back on it and think ‘we should have done better and it could have been better’ and I’ll be totally excited to do another one.”
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