Climbing the Mountain of Success

By Dan Verderosa, March 21, 2019
IC alumnus Clair Popkin worked on Academy Award-winning documentary “Free Solo.”

Update - September 18, 2019: At the 71st Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, Popkin won an Emmy for outstanding cinematography for a nonfiction program for his work on “Free Solo.”

Clair Popkin ’07 was working as a cinematographer on the Netflix series “Abstract: The Art of Design,” when he casually mentioned to the director that he had hurt his neck skydiving. Her response surprised him: “You might just be the right kind of crazy to work with us.”

One lunch meeting later, Popkin joined filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and a team of rock climber-cum-cinematographers as director of photography for the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo.” The film follows rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to complete the first free solo ascent — that’s a climb with no ropes, no protective equipment — of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot, sheer granite wall in Yosemite National Park.

Popkin is no stranger to adventure sports — in addition to skydiving, some of his favorite downtime activities include rock climbing and scuba diving — but compared to the team of professional climbers and mountaineers working on “Free Solo,” he was an amateur athlete. While other team members shot Honnold’s monumental climb from preplanned positions on the wall, Popkin shot much of the rest: interviews with Honnold and others, drone shots, beauty shots, etc. But that doesn’t mean filming was a walk in the park. After shooting Honnold approach El Capitan and begin climbing, Popkin had to race to the top to film him reach the summit. With no road to get there, Popkin had to hike more than hour with 30-plus pounds of gear before ascending a fixed rope 1,000 feet up the wall, then trudge another hour to the top of El Cap.

“You don’t get a second chance when you’re shooting a film like that,” Popkin said. “Alex isn’t going to repeat anything. He’s not going to do a do-over.”

Shooting “Free Solo” was a marathon undertaking. Popkin and his team shot more than 700 hours of footage during the course of two years of filming, and traveled around the world, from Yosemite to Las Vegas to Morocco.

Popkin is no stranger to hard work. After unsuccessfully applying to Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications to study film, he enrolled at IC without a major, and proceeded to spend every summer working low-paying gigs or volunteering on film sets in New York City in order to learn and teach himself about cinematography. “I think not getting into Park made me work a little bit harder just to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

After graduating with a degree in politics, Popkin began working as a camera assistant. Today, he works as a cinematographer on commercial shoots and documentaries all over the world. In 2018, he spent weeks in the U.S. Senate filming Senator John McCain during the last year of his life for the HBO documentary “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Taking international politics courses at IC helped Popkin better understand the world, he said, and filming documentaries appeals to his never-ending desire to learn more.

“I think one of the points of life is to learn and gain knowledge,” he explains. “I miss the organized learning that came with school, and this way through documentaries, I’m just constantly learning.”

Popkin is also dedicated to telling stories that make a difference. He’s shot documentaries on subjects ranging from the 2008 financial crisis, the life of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and journalist James Foley, who was killed by Islamic State fighters while reporting on the Syrian Civil War.

“Some of the stories that you tell feel like they matter, which is something that’s important to me,” said Popkin. “I want to make a difference in some way, and if I can tell a story that matters, hopefully that makes a difference.”

Popkin was in the audience at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood when “Free Solo” won the Academy Award for best feature-length documentary. So how did Popkin — whose idea of a relaxing day off is jumping out of an airplane — feel when the project he spent two years working on won the biggest award in filmmaking?

“I was super stoked.”