Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Concussion,” “Inferno”) now has a greater understanding of what the real-life climbers encountered when they were hit with one of the fiercest blizzards during their final ascent toward the summit of Mount Everest in 1996.
“It was hard for all of us,” recalled Totino who was forced to take Diamox for altitude sickness, which felt like being hit on the head with a baseball bat. “There were days when we wouldn’t break for lunch, which was fine because it goes by quicker. I wore these mountain climbing boots but my feet froze and I wound up getting nerve damage in both of my big toes after the shoot,” he said.
“You had to be really loose in a lot of ways because the weather was constantly changing and you couldn’t control it. We filmed in Italy on the Austrian border at 10,000 feet and they had the coldest winter in 25 years. There were times in the script that called for sunny days and other times there was stormy weather. We’d be scheduled to do a sunny day scene and all of a sudden a storm comes in and we had to change gears and move from one side of the mountain to the other. You start filming something until everything else arrived, which could be hours.”
The expanse of this beauty at nearly 30,000 feet serves to show us how
small the climbers are in relation to the mountain, enhanced greatly in
IMAX 3-D. Using ARRI Alexa XT cameras with Angenieux zoom and Cooke S4 prime lenses lenses, Totino shot in Nepal, Khumbu Valley, Kathmandu, the town of Lukla, Namche Bazaar and the Everest Base Camp. And nothing is more iconic than the precarious suspension bridge extending over the Khumbu River.
“What was so incredible is that these cameras were work horses at high altitude and freezing temperatures,” Totino continued. “We were on very steep slopes in three feet of snow with lose shale beneath us or on ice. We were in Italy and we all had be harnessed up and roped in and clipped in, wearing clip-ons on your boots to get traction.”
At Pinewood Studios in London, where they recreated sunlight with SoftSun lights so heavy they had to be moved on cranes, “the cameras didn’t respond. The set was made mostly of dehydrated salt to simulate snow and when blowing the salt around in creating the storm, the salt got into the cameras [despite heavy plastic covering] and six were destroyed. Not only that but a techno crane had to be disassembled after being full of salt and 500 lights in the ceiling had to be disassembled too.”
The project was at one point suspended when financing fell through, which meant little prep time ahead of production. Working with director Baltasar Kormákur was challenging because there was no creative courtship. “A lot of it was done on the fly. If I had it to do over again, I really would’ve gone out of my way to spend more personal time with Baltasar to get to know him so you could start to develop that unspoken language. But it was a good learning curve and I’m proud of the way it turned out.”
Finally, Totino said, “My life was never threatened at all, but it was just a lot of challenges to work through. They created this environment that was very real. If it was a real life situation, you could rely on everyone for your help.”