Jimmy Chin didn’t set out to make movie history. When he was dangling off Yosemite’s 3,200-foot El Capitan rock face, filming climber Alex Honnold’s attempt at the site’s first ropeless ascent for a documentary called Free Solo, he was just hoping Honnold made it up alive. But when the film debuted, in September 2018, it earned the highest opening per-screen box office of any documentary ever—and then became the most-watched National Geographic Documentary Films premiere in the history of the NatGeo Channel when it premiered in March, drawing 1.45 million viewers. It also won an Oscar. Free Solo, which Chin codirected with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, embodies Chin’s human-first approach to nature photography, which he’s honed over almost 20 years capturing images for National Geographic and such brands as Apple, Chase, and the North Face.
Fast Company: Where do you find new ideas for your projects?
Jimmy Chin: I find a lot of inspiration in the mountains. Sometimes I get pigeonholed as a climbing photographer, but the ideas I want to share are much broader. If you’re throwing yourself at an impossible dream and not taking shortcuts to get there, you come away with an experience in being human. The mountains strip a lot away.
FC: What makes a great shot?
JC: You have to think big, and you have to think small. That applies to a climb as much as shooting a scene. With a climb you’re thinking about the big objective, and then the route to get there—down to the minutiae of the individual moves. Building a scene in a film is similar.
FC: Do you approach creative and commercial endeavors differently?
JC: The reason Free Solo works is that I have an intimate knowledge of mountain climbing—the characters, culture, and ethos. I wanted to bring truth to the subject and not sensationalize what Alex did. That honesty comes through and people feel it. I try to bring that to all of my work.