It’s been a month since Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR launched on Oculus TV, giving viewers unprecedented access to the world of free solo climbing from the safety and comfort of home. Recently, we had the chance to speak with Honnold himself and filmmaker Jonathan Griffith about their experience making the film and what they hope audiences take away from it.
Describe what soloing is and what it means to you.
Alex Honnold: Soloing means climbing alone, but to me it just means adventuring in the mountains. It embodies all the freedom and fun of climbing—being able to wander around a landscape and go where you want.
What was your first impression when you watched The Soloist? How do you think this film will change people’s understanding and perception of soloing?
AH: I was blown away by how immersive it is—it really does feel a lot like the real experience. I was engrossed by it, which was interesting because normally climbing films don't really capture the essence of a climbing experience. I felt like The Soloist came as close as is currently possible.
I hope that it will allow people to experience some of the beauty and pleasure of soloing. Normally, media focuses on the negative sides of soloing—the fear, the risk, the danger, etc. But The Soloist shows a lot more of the beauty and tranquility of the experience. The viewer can look around and appreciate being in the mountains, and the scenes are long enough that a viewer can really see how slow and meditative free soloing can be.
Jonathan Griffith: What I really love about this film is the live action nature of it—I spent a huge amount of time trying to craft the narrative beforehand so that the viewer really felt like they were on this adventure with Alex and Nicolas Hojac in real time. In that way it doesn’t actually feel like a documentary—what you’re experiencing doesn’t feel like it has already happened. The overall experience is just a very powerful personal one that doesn’t force the viewer to feel fear or panic but lets them bond to the piece however they choose.
What were the challenges with filming in VR, both technical and environmental?
JG: What I love about VR is that there are so many challenges. If you manage to replicate reality in the headset, then the viewer will think you’ve done nothing at all because it just feels “real,” which just feels “normal” to them—but recreating reality is incredibly complicated. Trying to respect the rules of 3D and 360° capture and audio in a vertical high mountain environment really pushes me to be honest. There’s the physical aspect, of course, of being able to carry and rig such heavy equipment, but the mental side is the most taxing. I want to be able to shoot a story in as few clips as possible so that I can leave the viewer in each scene as long as possible, which makes it more comfortable for them. That means that it’s all about quality, not quantity—the shots have to be perfect in every way.
Alex, how did the experience of filming in VR differ from your past film experiences?
AH: Filming in VR is much harder than conventional filming since it takes a lot longer to set up the camera and the technology is a little more finicky. But that’s balanced by the fact that we generally would only shoot something once, no extra takes or re-shoots. We just shot each scene once and called it good. For conventional films, you often re-shoot things over and over. So VR was more complex in some ways but simpler in others. It’s a very different experience than filming in 2D.
And Jonathan, how did The Soloist build upon your earlier work in VR? In what ways is it a departure from what came before?
JG: Good question. The Soloist is a dramatic departure from my previous work. I really sat down and thought to myself, “OK, let’s forget everything I’ve learned in the traditional film world and focus on the strengths of VR as a medium.” This might sound obvious, but it’s really hard to do in practice, partly because the power of VR comes with simplicity. In traditional film media, we have so many tools at our disposal in terms of storytelling and capture—we can jump around in different timelines, we can have multiple characters, we can move about geographically, we can have quick-fire clips of just a couple of seconds, we can have voiceover, we can have interviews to camera, we can have music, we can have visual effects. In VR, we actually don’t want to use any of those things because they break the reality of the moment. The best VR experience is one that is completely stripped back—one where you can tell a story in as few clips as possible, one that is linear, one that is simple in terms of story, one that has no music, no voiceover, etc. However, once you start stripping all of that away, you can easily just end up with a very boring film as well, so it’s a really delicate balance to play.
I think everyone has a very different experience in this film. You genuinely feel like you bonded with Alex and were by his side in real time during this adventure. It makes the soloing far more gripping because you really care about Alex.
This project has been in the works since 2020. What was it like working on a VR production during a global pandemic?
AH: The pandemic obviously complicated the project quite a bit—travel was restricted, so we had to push our dates around many times. The pandemic didn’t wind up affecting all of the final climbing. It just delayed everything by almost a year or so.
JG: Aside from the constant delays due to travel restrictions, it was also very hard once we could get going. We ended up having to shoot the film back to front since US citizens could come to Europe before we could go there. I ended up having to quarantine in a non-EU country for two weeks a couple of times in order to enter the US as well. It all meant that when it came to shooting Alex in the US, we were having to do it in the middle of summer, and on top of that it was during a blistering heat wave that sparked the Calder fire and others. So all through the US portion, we were having to get up insanely early just to be able to shoot in the early morning before the sun came out and it became too hot. The opening scene where Alex is soloing at sunrise was particularly tense as it was over 90°, so really sweaty conditions for soloing that kind of terrain.
What role do you think VR will continue to play in the world of adventure tourism in the future?
AH: I think VR has an incredible opportunity to share experiences with people who will otherwise never see certain places or do particular things. It just feels so real, so much more so than watching something in 2D. It’s almost like the real thing. I hope it allows people to experience broader parts of the world.
JG: I think a lot of people wonder if VR will replace going into the outdoors, but if anything it just helps propel people to get outside and inspires them to go do something. I don’t think The Soloist is going to inspire anyone to go soloing, but hopefully it will energize some people to dust off their bike, find new laces for their old walking boots, and go enjoy the world outside the city. VR is a great way to bring people closer to those places, but it will never replace the actual experience—that’s a good thing though because I want to encourage more people to get outside and engage with the world and environment around them. There’s a lot of work to be done right now if we’re going to help heal the planet, and it starts by everyone taking that first step to those wild places outside our concrete jungles and appreciating and understanding that it’s worth saving and protecting.
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
AH: Well I just had a daughter, so that’s a pretty big update. My focus for most of the rest of the year is being a good father and being around home. But this summer I’m filming a National Geographic television program in Greenland focused on climate science and climbing.
JG: We’ve been working on pre-production for a few other VR films but have been waiting for The Soloist to launch since it was taking up all our time (and rightly so). These aren’t mountain-based but are still fantastic and powerful films that are made for VR, so I guess watch this space.