Music, attitude... action!
Ski and snowboard films have become a force in the industry
By Oona Woods
The more you look at them the more they remind you of porn... but the music’s better. Ski and snowboard flicks are all action, light on plot, sensationalist, over-indulgent and, with admittedly a growing number of exceptions, aimed towards young men.
But they are a force in the ski and snowboard industry — and a thousand times better than ski movies with actual plots (see Aspen Extreme) and storylines that only look as far as the college dorm-esque aprés scene for inspiration in between the hero’s periodic episodes of high alpine performance anxiety.
For some reason it’s all the more acceptable if there’s no ill-fitting plot to flap loosely around all those action-packed sick shots. Ski and snowboard films are a series of episodes set to music.
But why would someone want to watch rather than do? Who are these films aimed towards? How do you make one? Would you even want to?
There is a whole industry in Whistler based around action/adventure film-making. Lord knows there is skiing and snowboarding talent here, but there are also cameramen and women, guides, helicopter companies, cooks and shoot co-ordinators who all find employment with local filmmakers or some of the increasing number of American filmmakers who come to the Coast Mountains to make movies.
The finished product looks great on a TV screen, but for every skier taking face-shots on extreme first descents there could be a reverse shot of a camera operator lugging 65 pounds of camera-equipment, tripods and film around the lines. And for all the epic, awesome, superlative-sucking days there are days that just plain suck. The shots look sick because they are sick, so someone also has to go take the risk.
Whistler director Christian Begin of Radical Films (who produced the Kranked series and No Man’s Land) says adventure filmmaking is made much more "on the fly" than Hollywood productions.
"Sunny days with good powder are rare. You have to shoot all day. You’re there on the spot, there’s no acting and you have to get the shot. You have to improvise.
"You also have to get in these high risk situations and get used to dealing with what is there from moment to moment. There’s no script, no catering, no big crews, no make up, no managers. We are working with nothing, just what’s available. It’s guerrilla film-making. Every time the rotors of the helicopter’s spin it’s costing you more money," Begin says.
"There are the logistics of radios, cameras, safety, avalanches, falling, cornices, crevasses. You can’t make one wrong move. Everyone in the crew is under your supervision. Everyone looks to you and you have to have an answer. It’s really, really important to be honest with yourself."
But Begin loves the creative process of taking scenes and making a film.
"It’s another dimension of filmmaking, you come back with these amazing images from no script, using your feelings and intuition the whole time. You’ve created something interesting and different."
Making it on celluloid is an indication that you’ve arrived as a skier or boarder. When local star-skier Shawn Nesbitt returned recently from filming Global Storming in the Chilcotin Range (20 minutes north of Pemberton by helicopter) with Matchstick Productions, he sounded like he’d just seen heaven.
"There was a whole pile of Whistler athletes, all airforce, staying in this cabin for a week. We’d walk out of the cabin straight into the helicopter to ski down the sickest lines. We flew six out of seven days and it was sunny every day. There was dry snow and it was a little dangerous... We’d come back down, the place was all cleaned up from the night before and this guy would be cooking up a dinner."
Nesbitt described the skiing action in the vernacular of the genre. It sounded like: "Something, something shed ramp 40 feet, drifted out the back side 80 feet, overexposure, took the 20 footer, took the 30 footer, the backflips, sticks it two turns of double shots. He stuck it, stood up and walked away."
There’s no wet spot in these flicks either.
Nesbitt says the whole point of these films is simple.
"It’s just entertainment. A whole movie of stunts is basically what it is."
Freeskier Chris Winter says he looks for something original in a ski or snowboard film.
"Almost everything’s been done already but I like a film to be unique. A new take, or twist or a theme to the story, like going to shoot in Iran or Greece, maybe some other stuff apart from skiing those big lines. That’s just my opinion but I think a lot of other people agree.
"Teton Gravity’s Uprising had a boat with a helicopter on it up at the Panhandle in Alaska. They were able to fly off as the skiers took lines down to the ocean. These were 3,000 foot first descents. That’s unique.
"In snowboarding I think it’s the consensus that the TB Series is the best, TB 1, TB 2 and 3. Disciples (by Jamie Houssian, son of Intrawest president and CEO Joe Houssian) is another good film. It is a political film about chaos in the world, everything wrong with society, compared to skiing and snowboarding as religion. That’s a unique film, storyline or whatever."
Ed Pitoniak, senior vice president of Resort Enterprises for Intrawest, says that a lot of the ski and boarder films without substance are made by people who haven’t yet come to terms with two things:
"One, that I’m going to get older and two, that someday I’m going to die. They have a heedlessness and an arrogance that can be pretty breathtaking to behold."
Pitoniak says the essence of these films is probably beyond the scope of the uninitiated.
"They are only for the faithful. It’s analogous to walking into a hotel room if you’re agnostic or atheist. The Gideon’s Bible is in the drawer but, it’s only for the faithful."
Pitoniak, who recently made a presentation to Intrawest resort operators based on ski and snowboard films, says the history of action film development has bred this phenomenon.
"In the pre-video days if you made it (a ski film) no one would see it unless you took the film on tour. You had to find a venue, a loft, ski shop, college auditorium. You had to go out on the road. Pre-cable there weren’t enough outlets or time to show it on TV."
Warren Miller, acting as publicist, promoter and exhibitor, in addition to being the filmmaker, set up an industry machine that was able to pump out films year after year, employing second units of camera operators, directors and cinematographers who learned exactly what was needed to create the finished product.
"There was a strong quality of expertise," says Pitoniak. "Ski, and later, snowboard films had certain camera angles, light, depth of focus, groups of skiers, resorts that paid to be in them, and these second or third units came back with footage. Then the professional editors worked on it. Then the film was taken out on the road. The tour was well developed logistically. The auditoriums were lined up, the advertising and promo partners were on line.
"The films toured over fall and the early winter months in cities, big suburban centres and college campuses. But not ski resorts. If you were an avid skier from Toronto, Chicago, New York, Seattle or LA you lived your life day to day with no ski imagery around. No moving imagery. There was no TSN.
"That’s always been the greatest power of ski films. They filled a need for images of what it is they love that’s not available anywhere else. When you’re in the auditorium surrounded by other fans, the soundtrack’s up, it’s a totally different experience. Like with some music, it doesn’t make sense unless it is turned up loud."
Ski films also reflected the elite in an elite sport in the ’50s and ’60s, as Miller and Dick Barrymore made stars of Stein Eriksen and Jim McConkey. Today’s celluloid ski and snowboard heroes don’t have to have international reputations or Olympic medals to their name. They just have to be able to perform.
The proliferation of video, the opening of world-wide markets, the availability of cheaper equipment and the 200-channel universe also means the "moving image" angle has decreased, but its legacy remains.
However, Pitoniak says there are still other dimensions to ski films to consider these days.
"There’s the instruction value. Not necessarily ‘How to ski like Scott Schmit,’ but people are using ski videos, not only to be up on cues, but how to BE skiers. How do the great ones talk? What’s the attitude, the vernacular? What are they calling things?
"The Blizzard of Oz (by Whistler filmmaker Greg Stump) remains the seminal ski film. Kids would come up to Mike Hattrup and recite lines from it verbatim, word for word with the inflections right down to the last syllable. That’s when you realise how much influence they have."
Begin says the instruction element is a definite component to action films.
"Most people watching are moved to actually get better, improve, they get stimulated. Some people, without seeing other people do it wouldn’t do it themselves.
"I mean, most won’t do what the pro-athletes would do, but they are inspired to push their own limits. What the guys on the films are doing creates a positive impression. They may be 15 feet in the air over a cliff and then maybe that guy in the office will jump a footer and make himself more proud.
"Self esteem at the end of the day is about reaching your own limits. It is rare for people to risk their own well being just to prove you can do that. Self-preservation does go a long way," says Begin, going a long way towards fending off the don’t-try-this-at-home-kids lobby.
The whole market nowadays has a faster turnaround than it did in the ’70s, but there is also another pop-trash cultural component growing here, the music.
"Some people say Endless Summer and the surf movie scene grew out of Warren Miller’s work in the early ’40s," says Pitoniak. "Surfing hooked on to the Cali-pop culture with the Beach Boys and that created the genre. Skiing has never had a top 10 song, yet. There is no ski and snowboard pop mythologising it like the surf scene with the Beach Boys."
But there is a definite pop-video feel to some of the newer films. It has not yet crossed over into that defining moment in history when the soundtrack and the scene stand side by side and show themselves to the world like the surf scene. But music has become more important than narration in adventure and ski flicks.
Once again, like pornos, ski flicks used to rely on fairly innocuous hyped up elevator music but all that has changed.
"We can easily spend $15,000 on our soundtrack music," says Begin in describing the publishing quagmire that goes with rad tunes.
"We hire Androo Mitchell to deal with all that legal stuff because it is so complicated. You have a publisher and a master agreement and sometimes you get one without the other. And after all of that we can’t sell the soundtrack, you would need completely different licensing for all that. We don’t own the music it’s just granted for use for the film, for home video use only. If TV came into it, it would be a whole new ballgame and we’d have to go back to the beginning with the licensing. If we didn’t get permission for the songs we would have to re-edit."
Begin says the film tends to come before the music, but not by much.
"When I like a song I see if we can get it. Sometimes we get denied. It depends how big you are. Some songs go for $12,000 each."
And remember that is for home video use only.
"I usually have a sequence of footage and I may listen to a song and think that would go really good. Then we go to the company. I put the footage in a rough draft and then we’ll edit to the music if we get the rights."
And maybe that’s what ski and snowboard films are all about: the music is the soundtrack to way of life — real for some, just imagined by others.