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The makers of 'Meru' on how to photograph a mountain while climbing it

Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi talk about their doc "Meru," which was shot while the former scaled the intense Mount Meru.
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    DirectorsJimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi attend a screening of the mounta|Getty Images

There have been mountain climbing films for ages, but few have been as realistic and as harrowing and as jaw-dropping as “Meru.” The doc details a pair of attempts to scale Mount Meru, which towers over India and whose vertiginous walls make it even more feared than Everest. Jimmy Chin not only climbed it with two of his colleagues; he did it while filming it with a new-fangled camera. It’s all in “Meru,” which Chin, who has a long history of documenting other climbers and athletes, directed along with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who also made “Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love.”

First off: Jimmy, how on earth do you shoot video while climbing?

Jimmy Chin: It took a long time to develop that integration — to on one hand focus on the safety and the risk assessment, but then also access that part of your brain to think about composition and light and sequences. You have to think clearly while under environmental stresses. A big part of that is familiarity and comfort with climbing. That has to come first, especially if you’re shooting high-end athletes. The climbing has to be second nature. I’m literally carrying a camera and a camera case over my shoulder while climbing, then pulling it out and shooting. I didn’t want to interrupt the climbing, because that was the priority.

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Were there things you wish you could have shot but, for whatever reason, weren’t able to?

Chin: [Laughs] Yes. There are a lot of moments when you’re trying to deal with something and then there’s some outrageous sunset and your partner’s in this golden Alpine light. You might see what could be the most poetic photo you’ve ever seen and you can’t shoot it because you’re stacking the ropes or you’re trying to make it to the next pitch before you can rest.

Technology certainly made this easier to shoot.

Chin: There’s been this upsurge in interest in climbing in the last few years, probably in part because the technology has made it a bit more accessible. Between 2008 and 2011 the DSLR video [camera] revolution happened. All of a sudden we had the ability to shoot much more cinematic-looking footage. And the video camera could double as a still camera as well. That was a game changer.

Given how difficult it can be to shoot everything, how often were there times in editing where there were gaps in the story — things you hadn’t been able to shoot?

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: We had the story. The filmmaking achievement is what they shot on the mountain. There have been climbing movies, but a lot of them are reenactments. I had never seen footage this authentic and real. You had to work with the footage you had, but you do get to see them experiencing these emotions. The focus in the editing room was to find their emotional experiences and what motivated them. It wasn’t so much about what we didn’t have; it was about how to enrich it.

Especially after watching “Meru,” it seems most mountain climbing films — especially fictional ones, like Clint Eastwood’s bizarre “The Eiger Sanction” — don’t come terribly close to getting it right.

Chin: We were trying to break the stereotype of mountain climbing. Most people’s ideas of it are very stereotypical — guys beating their chests and trying to conquer the mountain. I never think of it as conquering a mountain, because the mountain will always conquer you. [Laughs] It may allow you safe passage, but you’re not conquering anything.

Vasarhelyi: It’s a very understated culture. You have to bring an outsider’s perspective to that, and break down the motivations. It could seem to outsiders it’s only about getting to the top. But it’s not, really. The top helps, but it’s the bond of friendship that motivates them.

Chin: When I hear people saying climbers are crazy or insane, I think of the successful climbers around me and how they are the most calculated people, with the most refined sense of risk, that I know. They’re capable of dealing with very complex logistics as well as being athletically high-tuned machines.

There’s been a revolution with smart phones to document everything not just in words but in images. There’s the phrase “pictures or it didn’t happen.” Photographing and shooting climbing seems to go beyond that.

Chin: I can’t imagine going on an expedition without shooting it. I love photography. I love filming. That’s an equal passion [with climbing]. I love capturing a moment when the light is beautiful and we’re in some outrageous position. Are there days when I want to throw my camera off the mountain? That happens. There are days when you’re too tired and you feel it’s an obligation to shoot.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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