Clair Popkin knew there was a chance that the man he had his camera trained on could die.

Popkin, a Maine native, was one of the cinematographers who filmed pro climber Alex Honnold as he became the first person to scale the 3,200-foot rock known as El Capitan with no ropes or help of any kind. The resulting film, “Free Solo,” won the Oscar for best documentary Feb. 24.

But Popkin said he felt remarkably calm watching Honnold inch his way up the sheer rock face in California’s Yosemite National Park. That’s because Popkin spent more than two years filming Honnold, including countless hours of practice climbs and personal moments, as well.

“We all knew that was a real concern, but most of the time I was pretty at ease watching him,” said Popkin, 33, a 2003 graduate of Deering High School in Portland. “I got to know him, and I trusted him to make the right decisions. He’s not crazy, he’s one of the most logical people I’ve ever met.”

Working as a camera operator and director of photography on documentaries over the last decade, Popkin has gotten to know a vast variety of personalities through his lens. He was director of photography for HBO documentaries on U.S. Sen. John McCain, businessman Warren Buffett, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and journalist James Foley, who was beheaded in 2014 by Islamic State forces.



But his passions for cinematography and adventure had never melded so perfectly until he got the chance to work on “Free Solo,” a National Geographic film that was released in theaters last fall. The film is not currently scheduled for theaters in Maine.

Growing up in Maine, Popkin developed a love of the outdoors and adventure, and is an avid climber, scuba diver and has 400 sky dives under his belt. Of the three directors of photography on the film, he was the only one who was not a professional-level climber. He landed the job because of his eye and his ability to tell a story with his camera; plus, his fitness and outdoor experience convinced the film’s directors he was up to the challenge.

“We wanted professional climbers who were great shooters and had great nerves,” said Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed the film with her husband, climber and filmmaker Jimmy Chin. “Clair’s work is visually excellent, he’s so calm and thoughtful. And we knew that even though he’s not a pro climber, he could certainly keep up.”

Popkin spent a lot of time during the two years he worked on “Free Solo” filming Honnold, 33, in the moments he wasn’t climbing. He watched Honnold fall in love and start a relationship. He filmed Honnold dealing with injuries and doctors, and after long days of climbing had left him grumpy and nontalkative. Vasarhelyi said that Honnold is much more comfortable on a cliff than in a social situations, or talking to a camera. So Popkin’s relationship with him, the fact that he made him feel comfortable, was very important to the film.

Vasarhelyi thinks Honnold was a little in awe of Popkin’s skydiving experience.

“I think Alex had a lot of respect for what Clair had done, skydiving,” said Vasarhelyi, who had worked with Popkin on the Netflix series “Abstract: The Art of Design.” “I think he was like, ‘This guy is a little crazy.’ ”


During the days when Honnold climbed – in practice sessions in California and Morocco, as well as one aborted attempt at El Capitan before the successful one – Popkin filmed Honnold at the bottom and the top of whatever he was climbing.

Clair Popkin, in the mountains of Morocco to film free climber Alex Honnold on a practice climb, is himself an avid climber, scuba diver and sky diver. Born in Brunswick, Popkin’s interest in photography began as a middle schooler in Rockport. Photos by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

At El Capitan, he filmed Honnold at the bottom of the rock getting ready. Then as Honnold ascended, Popkin would don a backpack with about 25 pounds worth of camera gear, and climb to the top using ropes in about 45 minutes. There’s no road to the top, so he had to climb. Then he’d set up at the top and film Honnold as he got close.

In “Free Solo,” Popkin is seen filming Honnold as he nears the top of his historic climb. Then as Honnold reaches the top, Popkin high-fives him.

“We became good friends during the filming, and it helped the film,” said Popkin. “Mostly, you don’t want to break down that wall (between subject and photographer), but we were all so excited when he did it.”

Honnold made his historic climb on June 3, 2017. It took him 3 hours and 56 minutes. According to the website, at least 25 people have died climbing El Capitan in the last 50 years, even when using ropes.

Popkin and the other crew members, including some camera operators suspended from ropes along the sheer rock wall, had to do their best to not impact Honnold’s climb in any way.


Alex Honnold free-soloing El Capitan during the filming of “Free Solo.” Photos by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

“If someone dropped a lens cap it could end up killing (Honnold),” Vasarhelyi said.

As a director of photography on the film, Popkin had to help set up remote cameras along the climbing route. The crew practiced filming the climb of El Capitan about 30 times.

Honnold, free soloing the Scotty-Burke offwedth pitch of El Capitan during the filming of “Free Solo.” Photos by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

The idea for the film started with the friendship between Chin and Honnold, climbers who’ve known each other for years. When Chin and Vasarhelyi first approached Honnold about filming his preparation and attempted free solo of El Capitan, they made it clear there would be no timetable. The crew filmed Honnold off and on for two years, waiting for him to decide when and if he was ready to free solo El Capitan. They felt it was important to never pressure him in any way, Popkin said.

“You couldn’t ask him when he was going to do it or if he was going to do it, you had to be an observer,” said Popkin.


Born in Brunswick, Popkin remembers taking family trips to Mount Katahdin and spending summers at adventure camps. He also spent a lot of time in the woods around Wiscasset and Whitefield, where he lived during the early years of his childhood. Popkin said he didn’t realize until he was older, until he began scuba diving and skydiving for fun, how strong his love for outdoor adventure was. And he credits that to growing up in Maine.


He went to middle school in Rockport, at the Riley School, a private school that had a print photography program. Popkin said he and his brother, August Popkin, both became interested in photography and built a dark room in the family’s basement. Today, August Popkin is a lighting professional for film and TV projects, and the brothers have worked together from time to time.

Popkin was fascinated with nature programs and National Geographic specials as a youngster, and his interest evolved from still photography to film. He moved to Portland as a teenager and was attending Deering when he applied to the film program at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. He didn’t get in but went to Ithaca anyway and majored in political science. He worked on his film skills on his own and got himself internships with filmmakers each summer in New York City.

“He bought himself manuals and books on photography and just continued to teach himself,” said his father, Michael Popkin.

During his summers, Popkin worked whatever film jobs were available, sometimes for free, helping with lights and camera work. He developed a lot of contacts that helped him develop his career once he graduated from Ithaca in 2007.

He started working on projects soon after graduating. He was an assistant camera operator on the TLC reality series “Table for 12” and then camera operator on the comedy TV series “The Onion News Network.”

Over the years, he’s worked on dozens of TV and film projects, notably documentaries. In recent years, he’s worked as director of photography on several HBO documentaries, including “Jim: The James Foley Story” in 2016, about the journalist who was beheaded. He was also director of photography for “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” (2018), “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” (2017) and “Becoming Warren Buffet” (2017).


Alex Honnold peers over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. He had just climbed 2,000 feet up from the valley floor. His accomplishment was documented in the Oscar-winning film “Free Solo.” Photos by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

He’s also done commercial work, where his skydiving experience has come in handy, shooting people falling through the air from airplanes, including some notable ones for Toyota. He filmed those while falling through the air himself.

Though he is respected in his field and constantly working, being part of a film that won an Oscar was a whole new adventure.

“You kind of hope for it, but you can’t really expect it,” said Popkin, who attended the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood. “I basically just started clapping as hard as I could. It was surreal.”

Popkin said he can’t talk about projects he’s got coming up, but he was just in western Canada doing some filming and will be in Maine this summer working as well. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, spends a lot of time in Los Angeles and is looking at buying a house in Maine.

Popkin said working on “Free Solo” was an intense experience, one that he learned from. “For me the big takeaway was to live your life with intent, with purpose, to really commit,” said Popkin. “It was not just a climbing story; it was a story about following your dreams.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @RayRouthier

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