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“Filming on Everest is much harder than climbing Everest.”

— David Breashears

Producer/co-director Greg MacGillivray and cameraman Brad Ohlund filming scenes with the IMAX camera.

Filming On Mount Everest

For 10 years, producer/director Greg MacGillivray dreamed of capturing the first ever IMAX images from the top of Mount Everest.  He had long been fascinated with the spectacular beauty of the Himalayan Mountain Range and knew it would make a sensational subject for the giant IMAX screen. But in order to put this story on film, MacGillivray knew he’d need a particular cameraman.  Someone with specialized filmmaking skill to operate a camera in low oxygen conditions, particularly when the wind was blowing and wind chill temperatures dropped to minus 40° degrees below zero.

Few men could have been better suited for the job than David Breashears.  Breashears was both an accomplished mountaineer and an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker.  In 1985, he became the first American ever to reach the summit of Mt. Everest twice and he had participated in nine filming expeditions on three sides of the mountain.  Arguably, no one knew the problems and poetry of capturing Everest on film better than Breashears. 

Breashears may have filmed on Everest before, but not with IMAX equipment.  No one had.  At first, the logistics of it seemed beyond the realm of even Breshears’ experience.  The standard IMAX camera weighs 80 pounds – impossible for even the fittest and most acclimated human to lug to Everest’s oxygen-depleted “death zone.”  A single 500-foot roll of IMAX film – enough to capture just 90 seconds of action – weighs five pounds. 

From the beginning, Breashears and MacGillivray knew that keeping the weight of the equipment down would be vital to the project’s progress.  The team worked intensively with engineers to create a specially modified IMAX camera weighing only 35 pounds and designed to withstand Everest’s extreme temperatures.  Plastic bearings and synthetic drive belts replaced metal parts to provide greater flexibility in cold temperatures and the camera was powered by a special lithium cell battery, which can operate in temperatures well below freezing.

In the spring of 1995, Breashears led a team to Nepal to test the new, pioneering light-weight IMAX camera.  They discovered that filming with the camera was different from anything they had attempted before.  “You don’t just pick up this camera and start shooting,” Breshears explains.  “It takes many people to move the camera and equipment, and it takes time to set up every shot.  Also, you have to be very careful when shooting because a 500-foot roll of film lasts only 90 seconds.”

The test also revealed that the IMAX camera cannot be loaded while wearing gloves – a daunting notion at 20 degrees below zero!

“Filming on Everest is much harder than climbing Everest,” said Beashears.  “Your job is never done; you’re up in the evenings talking about shots, downloading film, cleaning the camera, repairing the camera, writing shot lists, recording dialogue and preparing.  During the day you’re constantly looking for good shots, trying to make the proper decisions:  Is it safe to stop here?  Is this good light?  Do you demoralize the team by stopping too many times?  By stopping to get this shot, do we lose good light up higher, or risk not reaching camp?  From the beginning it was clear that, if we succeeded, this would be one of the most epic achievements in Himalayan filmmaking.”

Despite the obstacles, Breashears and company came down from their test expedition with steadfast faith.  The images were stunning.  The expedition could handle the weight.  All systems were go.

On Wednesday, May 22, 1996, just before midnight, the EVEREST climbers sipped their last hot drinks and piled on their down suits to begin the final push towards the summit.  In the best of conditions, the trek to the summit takes at least ten hours — ten hours of constant struggle to stay moving over steep, rock-strewn ridges fighting for every breath. 

Just before the summit, the climbers came to the treacherous Hillary Step, a 40-foot-high thin crack named for Edmund Hillary, who was the first to ascend it.  The step requires technical expertise and total concentration at a time of extreme fatigue and oxygen deprivation.  But the team stayed right on schedule.

At 10:55 a.m., David Breashears and Ed Viesturs reached the very top of the world, followed shortly after by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Araceli Segarra, cinematographer Robert Schauer and five Sherpas.

“We have performed a miracle today,” said an ecstatic David Breashears from the top.

Indeed, the footage that Breashears and the team brought back from the mountain is some of the most stunning cinematography ever captured on film and became the first ever IMAX images captured from the top of the world. Now, digitally remastered in 16k resolution, the footage has never looked more spectacular, allowing a new generation of moviegoers to enjoy this ground-breaking film.

Barehanded at 21,400 feet, David Breashears reloads film with help from Robert Schauer.

Everest is a MacGillivray Freeman Films production in association with Arcturus Motion Pictures with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation and the Everest Film Network. Presented globally by Milliken and Polartec.

Directed by: Greg MacGillivray, David Breashears and Stephen Judson

Produced by: Greg MacGillivray, Alec Lorimore, Stephen Judson

Written by: Tim Cahill, Stephen Judson

Narrated by: Liam Neeson

Including music by George Harrison

Original score and music by: Steve Wood and Daniel May

Editor: Stephen Judson

Director of Photography: David Breashears

Additional Photography by: Greg MacGillivray, Brad Ohlund, Reed Smoot and Gordon Huston