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.
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.