There's not a lot that Jimmy Chin hasn't done. While he's most famous for co-directing the Academy Award-winning documentary "Free Solo," his personal achievements are impressive in their own right: He's skied off the summit of Mount Everest, was part of the first team to climb Meru, has been on climbing expeditions to Antarctica, and has crossed the Chang Tang plateau on foot, just to name a few. Most recently he collaborated with Disney CreativeWorks and Ford to co-create the three network reveal stories about the all-new Ford Bronco. We sat down with him to discuss that project and what the Ford Bronco means to him.
Christopher McGraw: How did you get involved with the Ford Bronco on this project?
Jimmy Chin: Well, Ford came to me to talk about putting together a few films on the relaunch of the Bronco. And, you know, obviously, I knew it was a huge opportunity. I'm very excited about it. But with any sort of project that gets, you know, this kind of attention, there's also a lot of pressure. So fortunately, that's a space that I spend a lot of time in.
Like, it's the classic feeling on an expedition where you're really motivated to climb something, whether that's in the Himalayas or around the world. But there's also that nervous energy of like, OK, we got to — we really got to step up and make this great. But Ford's been an incredible partner to work with. And we had some really talented people. And we just dove into it and wanted to do something that was special.
CM: Normally, your subjects are human beings, which I think still rings true with the three videos that you produce here. But I was just curious if there are any unique challenges that shooting a car brought to the production that perhaps you hadn't encountered before.
JC: Well, I mean, I think that what we are really trying to achieve here is just to, A, tell a great story. You know, we had obviously great talent, Kip Moore, a really successful and amazing country musician. Brooke Raboutou, who is representing the U.S. in the Olympics as a climber, and then myself.
But I think the idea behind these films was really related to what the Bronco was representing in this moment — a vehicle that could, like, really get you back outdoors to reconnect with the wild places. And all three of us — the characters in each of these films — have a really special relationship with outdoors.
We found a lot of inspiration in the outdoors. Kip's not just a great musician, but he's actually a great climber, a great surfer, finds a lot of inspiration in the outdoors for his music. Brooke grew up climbing outdoors. That's where her love for the outdoors came from, traveling with her family on climbing trips.
And then for me also, obviously, I spend a lot of time in the mountains and in the outdoors. It's a really important muse for a lot of my work. So it's really kind of combining these stories and telling each person's story but also tying in how the Bronco in a lot of ways is able to get us to the places that we love.
CM: When I got the one-line email of what each of these videos were about, I could definitely take a guess at how your personal branding would come through on both your video and Brooke's video. But personally not being as familiar with Kip Moore, I was curious to see how your personal branding would come out on that video.
Obviously once watching the video was very clear, I mean, with these three videos, they could take your name out of the titles, and people familiar with your work would know that this is a Jimmy Chin collaboration, at least, in my opinion.
JC: Thank you.
CM: How do you kind of balance keeping your personal branding consistent, as well as staying on message for brands and companies that your work is highlighting? Do you just only accept work from brands that you care about and speak to you?
JC: Sure. I mean, I am very discerning about the people I work with and the brands I work with. The Bronco for me was a natural fit. And I think it's such an iconic vehicle. And it's such — it's got such great heritage. For me, that is exactly the type of partner I want. It just really makes it a lot easier for me to do the work because it's real, and it's authentic. I don't have to try too hard.
It just made sense to me. But when I think about the kind of work I aspire to do, it's really about kind of telling human stories that have a universal thread. And I think that with Kip and Brooke and myself, a lot of people see the success of the careers. But they might not necessarily appreciate how hard it was to get there — the sacrifices you have to make — the grit, the hard work that goes into it.
And that process of getting to where we have all gotten to is so important. But also, oftentimes when you get to the place you're going to, it's because you've loved the process of getting there. You've had to embrace the hard work and the challenges to get there.
And that to me was a really good metaphor for the Bronco, because this is the vehicle that can handle all the challenges on a very potentially hard road to getting to where you want to get to. And that was how I was thinking about it is like, crafting those two stories so that we didn't have to be overtly constantly being like, this is the vehicle that will get you there. I wanted people to feel it.
CM: Now, you're probably best known for directing "Free Solo," but your personal achievements are incredibly impressive as well. You're part of the first team to summit Meru, you skied off the summit of Mount Everest, crossed the Chang Tang Plateau on foot carrying everything behind you.
JC: You did your homework.
CM: Yeah, I read Rick Ridgeway's book.
JC: Oh, no way. That's awesome.
CM: Yeah, I loved that book. I'm working through all of his right now. I got two left.
JC: He's a great mentor of mine. He's the one who actually taught me to film. And if you watch any of my films in the acknowledgements and thank you's in the back, he's always very high on that list of thank you's.
CM: Was that trip the Chang Tang Plateau? I hope I'm pronouncing that right, that was one of your first video trips, right?
JC: Yes, that's actually the trip that, you know, kind of started me off as a filmmaker. And Rick literally-- well, if you read the book, you know I'd never filmed the before that trip, really. And he was the one that said, you know, look, I know you haven't filmed before, just commit and figure it out.
And he basically mentored me for a few months while I was making that film and then came back after the trip and really worked with me on crafting the story. And that's how I got started. And it was a big breakthrough expedition for me because that's how I got my foot in the door at "National Geographic." And that was the first time I published images in the "National Geographic" magazine, which is as a photographer, as you know, is a dream.
CM: Yeah, definitely. I guess, like, along those lines, most of your outdoors achievements are probably considered human powered. What kind of role have cars played in your life growing up and even now?
JC: I think I mentioned in the film, when I finished college I moved into my car and lived on the road for over seven years. And the open road for me really represented freedom. And especially for me and the American West, some of my fondest memories, that create that sense of nostalgia are just driving down the big open roads of the West, sometimes not exactly knowing where I'm going but just out for an adventure.
And I think the Bronco really embodies that spirit for me because it's about going on an adventure, going to less explored parts of the country. It gives you that access. ... to the places that I love going to climb or to ski.
And I actually really appreciate that time in the car. Sometimes it's with your friends having great conversations. Sometimes it's just listening to music, driving down the road by yourself just being reflective on life. And so I guess you could say it's been a big part of my life.
Christopher: Your next major project is a documentary about Doug and Kris Tompkins and the work that they've done along with Yvonne Chouinard down in Patagonia. Doug, who founded the North Face, he and Yvonne and three other guys drove a Ford Econoline in 1968 from California down to Patagonia surfing and mountain climbing and all that along the way.
Jimmy: I am so impressed, by the way, with how much you know, you've done your homework.
Christopher: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that very much. How do you think the Bronco would fare on a trip like that? And do you have any plans to replicate that trip in a Ford Bronco?
Jimmy: Oh, man, that would be a dream, dream trip. I think the Ford Bronco would be the perfect vehicle. You know, I mean, especially back when they did it, I mean, there was-- I bet they were driving down roads that you wouldn't really even consider a road.
Yeah, down through Central America and down along the coast of South America, I mean, it's kind of considered, you know, the ultimate road trip. So, yeah, you'd want a vehicle that can handle a lot for sure.
Christopher: I was able to film Alex Honnold talking about Rivian last year at an event out here in Denver. And now with your involvement with the Ford Bronco, there seems to be quite a bit of crossover between climbing and outdoor athletes in cars. In the 20-plus years that you've been a professional climber, what are some of the changes that you've seen and experienced now that climbing is getting more popular and is being brought into the mainstream?
Jimmy: Yeah, I mean, some people say that I'm responsible for some of that.
Christopher: I would agree with those people.
Jimmy: Sounds like there's been quite an uptick since "Free Solo" came out. But, you know, I think climbing is such a great activity. It's great individually. I think, you know, it's something that you do that really forces you to be present and in the moment. There is a lot of, you know, obviously physical challenges. But there's also the mental challenges.
You have to be, you know, have a kind of adventurous spirit and want to have that kind of space in your life. But it's also very introspective. And like, you know, you're managing your own fears. You have to push through those fears. It's a process of kind of failure and redemption. You know, you're always trying routes that are just a little too hard for you.
You fail on them. And then you have to improve in order to do the climb. And you kind of cycle through that process over and over again. And I think that that's a good experience to have. And it's also great, I think, to be able to spend time with your friends. And it's a great social activity too. So I think, like, people have really embraced that. And, you know, it's a nontraditional kind of sport. When I started, it was kind of a very fringe activity.
I think it's great because it gets people, especially if you want to climb in the mountains or outside, you know, it gets people outdoors, which I think is great because, you know, I think that when you spend time in the outdoors and you really appreciate the outdoors and there are places around that you climb in that your local crags that you really fall in love with are meaningful to you.
I always believe that you take care of the things that you love. And so in a way, it's kind of a good step for people to pay attention to the environment and hopefully get to a place where they want to protect and preserve the environment. So I think it's great.