Samuel Crossley is a filmmaker and photographer specializing in adventurous filmmaking. Crossley graduated from the SF State School of Cin-
ema in 2016 and has since been a part of the Academy Award-nominated film “Free Solo.” The film has earned its nomination for “Best Documentary Feature” for its documentation of Alex Honnold, a rock climber who climbed El Capitan, an over 3,000-foot-tall rockface in Yosemite National Park, without ropes.
On the set of “Free Solo,” Crossley was assistant to Jimmy Chin, co-director of the film and a world-renowned filmmaker and National Geographic photographer. Besides being Chin’s assistant, Crossley’s other duties included being a data manager and production assistant.
Crossley became part of the widely successful project through a decision he made in May 2016, weeks before his projected time
of graduation. Crossley, a climber himself, had been avidly capturing climbing in the work he produced for his college courses throughout
his four years at SF State. From his interest in climbing and filming climbing, Crossley was friends with Honnold. When an opportunity came about for a film to be made about Honnold, Honnold reached out to Crossley and Crossley soon received a call from Chin asking him to be part of the project. The catch: they had to begin filming in three weeks.
The decision to be part of “Free Solo” at first placed concern on Crossley on his ability to graduate, but after speaking to his professors, they understood the gravity of the opportunity and allowed him to complete coursework in alternative manners so he could pursue “Free Solo.”
SF State cinema professor Pat Jackson granted Crossley this permission.
“Sam’s conscientiousness about his schoolwork and his obvious care and concern about learning as much as he could in every class made it a good gamble to encourage him to say yes to the gig,” Jackson said.
“This is what we want our students to do, we want our students to go out and find jobs in the industry,” said Johnny Symons, another cinema professor teaching Crossley at the time. “I’m really thrilled at his success.”
Crossley appreciated his professors’ understanding nature and care for their students’ real-world success.
“It’s a testament to the professors at SF State and a testament to how they really do care about their students and want them to succeed,” he said.
Crossley expressed deep appreciation for his professors encouragement, and for their own personal relationships prior to the project that set him up for success. Crossley saw professors like Symons as mentors. Symons, a professor with an extensive background in documentary film-
making after traveling to about 30 countries for filming, was an inspiration to Crossley.
“He’s one of the professors that made my college experience worth it,” he said. “He genuinely cares about the individual student and he has this breadth of experience in documentary filmmaking that allows him to be helpful.”
Going into working on “Free Solo,” Crossley describes feeling perplexed, excited and nervous at the opportunity. Soon Crossley was on set working closely with Chin doing various tasks.
“I wore many hats on this job because the crew had to be very small and intimate, because [Honnold] had to trust everyone that was working around him,” Crossley said. “The crew became a working family.”
Chin believed greatly in Crossley’s filming abilities and also thought the trust and friendship between Crossley and Honnold would be an asset to the creation of “Free Solo.” This trust cultivated by Crossley, others on the crew and Honnold proved to make for a successful film of a nerve-wracking action.
“If someone dropped a lens cap and they were working around [Honnold], that could kill him, so there’s this trust that happens,” Crossley said.
Crossley describes how although some filmmakers afraid of their filming negatively affecting Honnold’s success in a climb, he was not.
“I was never put in that situation where I would feel negative feelings about what I was doing,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid of my filming affecting him cause I knew it wouldn’t.”
Crossley was the youngest member of the crew working on “Free Solo” and learned much from those surrounding him. Crossley describes Chin as his mentor, being firm with instruction and having valuable expertise.
“I owe a lot to [Chin] for allowing me to assist him, but also the way he went about leading me through his work was very respectable,” Crossley said.
With all that he has learned from “Free Solo,” Crossley describes his experience as extraordinary. He has continued to work on other films since its production, however, he hopes to direct more of his own films in the future.
“Working for other people I’ve learned a lot, but I also want to start doing my own stuff,” Crossley said. He has recently directed and released a film on two women climbers’ ascents of rocks in Liming, China.
SF State will host a free screening of “Free Solo” on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Coppola Theater. Crossley will be part of a Q&A after the screening.
Crossley hopes that the screening and his success as a filmmaker shows students that anything is possible if they follow their passions.
“I just want students to know that if you want to do something, you can do it,” Crossley said. “A lot of SF State students are working toward their dreams, and it’s just really nice to know that it will work out if you keep at it.”