The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
Sundance 2015
Shaun the Sheep
Christmas Again
Meru
Tangerine
The Visit
ASC Close-Up

Meru


by Patricia Thomson


Directors: Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi

Cinematographers: Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk


In the Himalayas, there’s a peak that has enticed and defeated more elite climbers than any other, a siren song called Meru. At 21,850’, it’s not the Himalayas’ tallest, but it is among the most technically challenging, especially at its summit, a sheer 1,500’ wall of smooth granite dubbed the Shark’s Fin. “It’s the point where heaven, hell and earth all come together,” says author Jon Krakauer in the feature documentary Meru.

The fact that Sundance viewers rallied behind this film, giving it the Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition, proves it’s much more than a climbing doc. It’s also a nail-biting, emotional saga in which friendships are tested and near-death experiences intrude. Failure, as much as breathtaking beauty, is part of the mix, and fate throws in an avalanche, a skull-crushing fall and a stroke.

What’s not visible onscreen is the added challenge of shooting. “Taking pictures makes the climb harder,” says Krakauer in the understatement of the year. Meru was shot by two of the three climbers: Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, both veteran expedition cinematographers. (Chin also co-directed and co-produced with his wife, E. Chai Vasarhelyi.) Leading the trio was Conrad Anker, a renowned alpinist who was the catalyst behind the expedition. Success on Meru, he believed, would be his magnum opus.

The trio made their first attempt in 2008, but a prolonged snowstorm pinned them down for days, diminishing rations. They ultimately turned back with just 100 meters to go, knowing one extra night could prove fatal. “It’s an ass-kicker,” Chin said of Meru on the descent. “Maybe it’s not meant to be climbed.”

The film goes on to show Chin and Ozturk continuing to work together as cinematographers. One gig took them to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a snowboarding/skiing project. Ozturk skied over a cliff, cracking his skull open. Worse still, a spinal fragment severed an artery to the brain, making him vulnerable to suffering a stroke at high altitudes — and it wasn’t even clear whether he’d ever be able to walk again, let alone climb.

Chin returned to the Jackson Hole shoot, and four days later he was entangled in his own hell: a massive avalanche. “It’s like a complete loss of control,” he later recalled. “You’re getting moved around by car-sized blocks.” Miraculously, he was neither torn apart nor smothered, and at the end of the ordeal he popped up like a cork. Though intact physically, he struggled mentally and stopped climbing for a period.

Anker eventually convinced Chin to have another go at Meru. Ozturk, too, was game, but whether he could or should climb was a question with which the trio struggled. They acquiesced, and one of their fears was indeed realized mid climb: Ozturk suffered a stroke. But the effects were temporary, and the trio reached their goal, becoming the first ever to scale the Shark’s Fin.

On their initial trip, the team’s filmmaking ambitions were modest: document the climb, make a slide show and get some footage for vignettes or a short. “We had a laughable production budget,” says Chin. On more commercial expeditions, he’d have “a train of 400 yaks” carrying gear and supplies. On Meru, it was just the threesome after they left base camp.

Every item they carried was measured to the gram. “There was a lot of technical prep just figuring out logistics, which started with finding the latest lightest camera,” notes Ozturk. Chin adds, “Of course, there were also power issues, storage issues and bandwidth issues. And you try to balance getting the rest you need with being up all night to download and back everything up.”

Mountaineering cinematographers also have to think about tethering gear. “If you drop anything, it’s gone, whether it’s a boot, a camera or your SD card,” says Chin. Switching SD cards with frozen hands is inevitably precarious, but for everything else, the duo made customized tethers that could be secured with carabiner clips.

In 2008, they took two video cameras: Panasonic’s first-generation Lumix DMC-LX1, which offered a 16:9 CCD sensor for recording onto SD cards and a 28-112mm Leica zoom lens, and Canon’s Vixia HF10, an HD handycam that recorded to 16GB internal memory and SDHC cards. For power, they jerry-rigged a primitive solar setup, two Brunton solar panels coupled with a motorcycle gel battery that Ozturk found in New Delhi. But even that was left behind at base camp. “Once you leave the ground, you’re living with whatever battery power you have,” Chin notes. “You ration your power like you ration your food.”

By 2011, however, they were keen to step up their game photographically. For the climb proper, they still kept to two main cameras, and by then Canon had introduced its HD-capable DSLRs. “The DSLR transition was really big for us,” says Ozturk, citing the cameras’ “shallow depth of field and [increased] low-light sensitivity.” Additionally, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II could do double-duty as Chin’s still camera. Two lenses made the ascent: a Canon EF 24-105mm f4 L IS USM zoom and an EF 24mm f1.4 L II USM.

The second camera, considered their “failsafe,” was a Panasonic HDC-TM900K HD camcorder with 32GB internal flash memory. “You don’t have to worry about focusing,” says Ozturk. “For climbing, it’s a lot easier to manage with one hand. You just point it and it’s focusing, and you can zoom one-handed with your thumb.”

Lastly, a GoPro HD Hero2, which made it partway before the battery died, captured some vertiginous POVs, such as Chin’s perspective from a rope while he was free-hanging.

The team also brought some other accoutrements to base camp on this second expedition. In addition to a full quiver of Canon lenses, they had a 20’ lightweight aluminum ABC crane, which captured Hindu holy men near the waterfalls, among other shots. A Kessler Oracle system allowed for more sophisticated motion-control time-lapse, which was helpful in sliding out from behind a rock for a wide shot of Meru, for instance. But on the climb, they lacked even a tripod for time-lapse. Instead, they’d chop out a ledge of ice and clip in the camera with a piece of climbing protection. “You’d just hope the wind wouldn’t blow it off,” says Ozturk. “And that the horizon line would be straight!” Chin adds.

No helicopter can fly at that elevation, but the film needed establishing shots to convey Meru’s awesome, intimidating scale. The answer was high-resolution plates melded with a Google Earth-based 3-D rendering. Using a 50mm lens on the 5D Mark II, Chin divided the mountain into a grid. “The resolution is huge!” he enthuses. “Instead of having a 24-megapixel shot of this whole thing, you’ve got 20-by-24 megapixels. Then, this genius friend of ours, Marty Blumen, did a 3-D rendering of the plates. We don’t know the exact science, but Marty did a Google Earth search of that area, figured out the dimensions laterally through the frame and then rendered it so we could move through the frame with a virtual camera.”

Ozturk adds, “We sent him actual helicopter shots we’d done from other productions so he could study how the camera moved and make it seem natural. Sometimes he’d say, ‘The shadows in this plate aren’t looking right. Did you shoot that plate in another lighting situation?’ Or, ‘Do you have stars in the shot from that location?’ Those shots were used a lot throughout the film.”

A Red Epic MX entered the picture in 2013, when the team reshot interviews. Between expedition footage, interviews, backstories and archival material, they had some 10 terabytes of footage. To ready it for editor Bob Eisenhardt’s Final Cut Pro 7 sessions, everything was transcoded to Apple ProRes 4:2:2. “That was a huge effort,” says Ozturk. “Everything from 5K Red interviews to a Lumix point-and-shoot — it was the biggest spread you can have.” Color correction took place at Goldcrest Post in New York with colorist John Dowdell. The finished film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

Chin has three rules for expedition cinematography: “Shoot when you can, don’t hold up the climb, and don’t drop the camera.”

But Meru was more complicated than other shoots because the cinematographers were part of the story. At times of high stress or physical injury, they’d be asking themselves whether it was appropriate to pull out the camera. In the hospital with Ozturk, for instance, Chin was reluctant. But Ozturk encouraged him to shoot, even helping dial in audio from his gurney. “It’s what’s baked into us,” Ozturk explains. After getting that consent, Chin found the camera became a shield for him, a tool for coping with his friend’s frightening state.

“It’s a self-conscious feeling that sometimes holds us back,” Ozturk admits. “That’s for sure,” Chin confirms. “There could be tense moments where it almost feels irresponsible to film because you’re actually part of the tension. How do you shoot that? It’s like reality TV, except that you are the reality.” But, he adds, “some of the best footage comes when you least want to pick up the camera.”

The camera could be a happy release as well, distracting from the pain of -20°F temperatures. “Sometimes when you look through the lens, it’s an escape,” Ozturk says. “You get to enter your creative happy place.” One such moment resulted in his favorite shot in Meru: “It’s just before sunrise in the Himalayas, and Jimmy is hanging at the top of the Shark’s Fin. It’s a simple pan from the mountain to him, but you can see the whole glacier and the wall dropping off below. It was one of the times I took out the camera to be creative and escape the suffering.”

Chin’s favorite moment was one he didn’t want to shoot. When reaching the summit, he just wanted to live the experience. Instead, he got out the 5D and captured his partners’ bliss. “That was one of the hardest times to pull out the camera — I just wanted to be in the moment. But when I got down, I was really glad I got it. It kind of closes the film.”

 

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