September 15, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

Lights, camera, passport 

Whistler's growing winter-sport film industry shows off the best in talent and terrain... but the question for the ultimate shot requires tenacity, creativity and thousands of air miles

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After a week without showering your baselayer starts sticking to your skin. Not just in the crotch and armpits either, that happens earlier on.  By day six or seven you can actually feel the clothes fusing onto your body, the polypropylene so gummy with dead skin and sweat it becomes hard to tell where the flesh ends and the fabric begins. Merino wool is a bit better, at least the smell washes out, but a week into any big backcountry journey or run-and-gun road voyage and there is no avoiding the obvious - you stink.

Of course, the stench often means you're somewhere deep in the wild where the snow is dry and the adventure is ripe.  Somewhere up north, or far east, or on the other side of the world riding untracked powder into the gaping maw of a volcano crater. And doing it all on someone else's dime.

For Whistler's pro skiers, snowboarders and filmmakers the putrid odours, itchy scalps and crotch rot are just part of living out of a board bag and travelling the world chasing big storms, fresh terrain, and that ever-elusive money shot.

 

" The more you travel the more you see we are all connected to the same issues."

That's a quote from the new Sherpas Cinema film All.I.Can. And while I doubt they're talking about soiled underlayers we'll find out for sure on September 23 at the premier of All.I.Can. , a ski flick two years and thousands of airmiles in the making.

The Sherpas are one of over a dozen ski or snowboard film companies based out of the Sea to Sky. Originally from Calgary, the Sherpas keep a high-functioning editing studio/company headquarters/place to store their surfboards and make their movie magic in Function Junction. With the last decade's rise of digital cameras, computerized editing, and the Internet, Whistler has seen a huge increase in the number of ski and snowboard companies setting up homebase here.

"There is just such a huge resource of talent here," says Sherpas producer Malcolm Sangster.

When organizing film shoots and trips it's nice to have everyone start from the same place.

"We mostly work with athletes who ski for the companies we partner with and 80 per cent of those skiers live here. Being close to Vancouver also helps," Sangster adds. "They have good film resources there but mostly, it's just that Whistler is just such a beautiful place to be. When you can bike to work, that's always good."

Malcolm and co-Sherpas Dave Mossop and Eric Crosland had multiple computers and flatscreens humming full-tilt last week as they tinkered and finalized the edit for All.I.Can. with hopes it will end up as something more than routine, action-based 'ski porn.'

"We wanted to do something with a little more substance," the 30-year-old Sangster says.

From the preview I saw, All.I.Can. is a skiing concept piece, a reflection on people, adventure, and environmental issues told through the eyes of Whistler locals who've travelled the world in search of snow, and more.

"I just Googled "Patagonia Guide" and hooked up with a guy named Jorge," Sangster says.

He led a team to Chile in 2009 to film Whistler skiers ripping lines inside the crater of Volcan Puyehue, a 2,240-metre dormant volcano (dormant at the time - see sidebar) in the Andes mountains. "Jorge made the trip happen," Sangster remembers, "made it the trip of a lifetime."

Along with local skiers Eric Hjorleifson and Mark Abma (and occasional local Chris Rubens) Sangster followed Jorge on what would end up being a 14-day journey with more than a few new challenges, including riding horses in ski boots. "That was the most unique experience," says Sangster. "We were all amateurs."

The weather was less unique but equally challenging - it rained for the first seven days. "We basically stayed down at a farm and drank beer and ate empanadas," Sangster recalls. "It was pretty bad. Puyehue is a low mountain a few hundred miles of the coast so we got a lot of fog, rain and warmth. Eventually, we made it up top with good weather and skied some really scenic stuff down into the crater. Everything you see in the movie happened in a day and a half of shooting."

One issue we are all connected to, regardless of location, is that Mother Nature is in charge, and she can be testy. Long waits and heavy downtime come with the territory for ski and snowboard pros. Crews can wait days for weather, then find a feature and wait hours for light, only to botch the landing or run into camera problems and end up with nothing to show for a half week of down time or thousands of dollars of helicopter fuel.

"The classic filming cliché is, 'This is the sickest pow I've never skied,'" says Eric Hjorleifson, a seasoned big-mountain charger from Canmore who now calls Whistler home. "I've spent a lot of days in amazing terrain waiting for light or standing around in sick snow just to do a single slash turn when it would be awesome to be just there with your buddies banging off laps. That's part of the job though, you can't complain. Filming enhances the quality of your skiing over the quantity. It's a fair trade."

Shin Campos, longtime local and a living legend in Canadian snowboarding, took a snowboard film expedition into Puyehue shortly after the Sherpas left and encountered similar, if not worse, weather conditions.

"Everything is decided by weather and it can get frustrating," Campos says. "We waited nine days in a super-rustic cabin for a one-day window... and it was amazing. The crater is a mile across and the runs were about 750 vert. We did probably five lines each. It was so unique to ride these gnarly spines on the inside of a crater and all end up meeting in the middle."

Nine days with six dudes hunkered into a hand-built cabin without electricity is when the aforementioned baselayer issues can come into play. "I usually bring two or three pairs though," Campos says. "These days I like to stay clean."

These days Shin Campos is a producer and owner of Whistler Creek Productions but he spent over ten years touring the globe as a pro rider. Getting older, he still appreciates the nomadic, snow-chasing lifestyle but says it definitely comes with challenges.

"Once you have a family, a wife, it gets tougher," he says. "Crazy cell phone bills from calling home or once you've been on the road with someone for more than two weeks, regardless of who it is, you start to feel over it."

Don't mistake honesty for whining though. Everyone admits the good outweighs the bad and that travelling the world to snowboard or ski for a living will always beat unclogging toilets in the Whistler nightclubs or working the Walmart register on crying baby day.

"Almost every trip you can find a real positive," Campos says. "My first time in Russia was memorable, heading out to Mt Elbrus - the highest mountain in Europe - and driving from Sochi, sixteen hours through like 30 or 40 armed checkpoints. It was the Wild West out there. Romania was cool too. We met the guy with the first snowmobile in Romania and taught him how to ride tandem. To do this as a career is really amazing."

But does the Journey ever get old?

"I've been to Japan 25 times," says Mike Douglas, "and for a while I was burning out, going four times a year. But after not being there for a few years I am definitely going back this winter."

Douglas, a 23-year Whistler local, has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments including convincing the ski industry to make a twin tip, fathering two children, and heading Switchback Entertainment, a local film company that mainly produces web-content films for ski industry companies catching on to the fact that few people read anymore and the web is visually driven.

"I probably spend a third of my year on the road," Douglas says. "With family trips it's 40 per cent. Skiing has been a vehicle for me my whole life to see the world and different cultures and I'm as excited to travel now as I was 20 years ago."

The work, like the travel, doesn't get redundant. "There are stories everywhere," Douglas says. "One of my favourite trips, we were in England doing indoor and dry-slope skiing and I met some of the most passionate skiers of my life."

But not every trip that starts here ends in some far-away winter dreamland like Romania, Chile or England and not every road town is populated with diverse and incredible locals. Sometimes Whistler's top crews pack fast and rush off to places like Boston, Massachusetts, Timmins, Ontario or Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"We're chasing storms and snow all the time," says Kevin Sansalone, another snowboard legend and top boss at Sandbox, one of Whistler's best-established film companies producing the kind of action-based movies that thousands of kids watch every morning all winter to get stoked.  This year's flick is called Day and Age .

"We're online keeping an eye on towns in Quebec and Northern Ontario to see when the snow hits," Sansalone says, "and then we're on flights."

Snowy towns without mountains are still filmable so long as they have rails, walls, bridges and anything else a young ripper with strong knees can slide, grind, jib or leap off. It sounds a bit ridiculous to those of us living in the Coast Mountains but bear in mind most of the continent lives in mountain-less urban wastelands, and you have to ride something.

"Snowboard filmmaking is diverse," says Campos. "You have travel and story-based filming, big mountain deep pow stuff like Alaska, and urban stuff, which is pretty big. So you'll see film crews who keep storage lockers in places like Minneapolis or Quebec City and when the storm hits they fly out and have generators, lights, and drop-in ramps waiting for them. There is not as much exploring the wilderness as "back in the day."

 

Back in the day....

"Back in the day," in this context, would begin in the 1980s. On the ski movie front Warren Miller was on top of game but Greg Stump, boosted by Whistler footage and attitude, was redefining it. The only local film company making movies was Peter Chrzanowki's Extreme Explorations although Alberta-based RAP Films were around a lot, shooting local athletes on local mountains.

Then the bomb dropped - snowboarding. American film crews were suddenly up here all the time but the mid-to-late '90s saw the birth of some true local companies. Murray Siple injected art and high concept with flicks like Cascadia while Sean Johnson and Sean Kearns basically invented the Jackass-style fusion of hijinks and action in the Whiskey videos. By 1999 new snowmobile technology allowed riders to access the depths of the Whistler backcountry and Treetop Films were suddenly dropping movies with unbelievably deep, steep, and scenic segments gleaned from places like Brandywine, Mt Fee, Bralorne and the Pemberton Ice Cap. The world took notice.

On the ski side things were quieter. Christian Begin was making good films both at home and afar but otherwise it was all American crews swooping in to nab our goods until 1999 when Travis Tetreault, Chili Thom and myself started Heavy Hitting Films and released the classic skiing/drinking movie Parental Advisory . "All the best athletes live here," Tetreault said back then, "and we live in the best terrain on the planet. Lets just stay home, shoot our friends, and kill it."

Travis didn't invent that concept himself but from 2000 on it certainly caught fire as digital technology fostered a decade of new crews popping up like magic mushrooms after a warm Pemberton rain. Some survive to this day others, like Heavy Hitting, made a flick or two and faded into the hills.

"You see a lot of companies who will move here from somewhere else," says Shin Campos, "because all the best riders and terrain is right here." As well, kids who grew up watching Treetop or Heavy Hitting would start their own local companies, stoked to carry the torch. Now, just ten or twelve years later, the Sea to Sky has more than 15 local film companies travelling near and far, all searching for the same thing- money shots, the perfect mix of visual beauty and balls-out action.

"People go to spots where they know they can get footage," Campos says. "It's human nature. There are never too many originators or explorers, and always a lot of followers."

Sansalone concurs adding that much of the new exploring is done in the riding itself. "With this generation a lot of the best jumps and backcountry spots have been hit so it's about doing a better trick at a classic spot, you can't do the same trick someone already did off that jump."

 

Despite a rising number of crews and dwindling amount of unexplored terrain, the attitude out there remains pretty light.

"There is a bit of competition and animosity between some snowboard crews," Campos explains, "and probably the same on the skiing side but between the two sports it's pretty friendly. I called up Malcolm for the Puyehue trip and he hooked me up with Jorge and all the info. Skiing and snowboarding are still pretty segregated, especially in other parts of the world."

Regardless of having one plank or two, however, Whistler riders seem to be respected across the globe. "That is one of the coolest things," Mike Douglas says. "When people hear you are from Whistler they get these stars in their eyes and say, 'one day I wanna go...' This town is held in such high acclaim in the global ski community."

The world comes to the Sea to Sky, but make no mistake, our greatest export is raw talent. Followed closely by style, balls, hype, and a serious hankering for après.

"Canadian riders and Whistler's big mountain freestyle is very respected all over the world," Campos adds. "Except in other parts of BC, especially the Kootenays. They're down on our scene out there but our terrain is the best in the world. You can't argue that."

Of, course, it's not all dudes jetsetting around the globe breaking hearts and busting pillowlines.

"I used to spend months on the road and I loved it," says world-traveling, X-Game-winning, Olympic halfpipe team member, skiing legend and Squamish resident Sarah Burke. "But now I really need to come home, even if for just a day." Freshly married, Sarah intends to limit her contests this season and do more filming and sledding locally.

Snowboarder Helen Schettini has it even more dialed in. She traveled and competed at a world junior level (and confirms that, "Yes, France is amazing") but these days she'll do one or two trips a year and film locally the rest of the season.

"Mostly I am home," Helen says. "This is the Mecca of backcountry and sledding. I can ride all day then cook healthy meals for myself and sleep in my own bed every night. You can't beat that."

 

 

With the best terrain in their own backyards and jobs travelling the globe where do Whistler's nomadic athletes and filmmakers go for their own holidays? Almost all respond with the same answer - they surf, or they stay home.

"It's all about the 'stay-cation' for sure," says Malcolm Sangster. "Get back to working on the house or hanging with your girl. It's good to be home."

Eric Crosland, originally from Calgary, logged some serious away time last season. Filming for All.I.Can. took him from Hawaii to Greenland to Morroco to Alaska and across the BC interior. All this with a wife and new baby at home.

"We were stuck in Greenland for five extra days," Crosland says. "It was tough. I was calling every day on the sat phone saying 'Get us out of here!' You end up drinking more to wash the pain away. It's a total mental game and having an understanding partner is so key. It feels good to stay home but I took the family to Mexico for our last holiday. Without their support I'd be working at Burger King."

And even with the most understanding wife on the planet, you'd better be washing those baselayers yourself after sweating through a month on the road. The dirty baselayer champion might be local cinematographer Gary Pendygrassee. According to Shin Campos, "He did a 30-day stint of isolation in Alaska and I bet he wore the same set the whole time." Gary couldn't be reached for confirmation however, he's somewhere out of cell range, again.

 

SIDEBAR 1.

 

Volcan Puyehue Erupts Twice!

 

After footage of Whistler riders ripping the inner bowl of Volcan Puyehue hit the Internet the trip became much more popular with tourists and skiers from all over the globe. Local gauchos and guides benefitted from the extra employment and Puyehue seemed destined to become a new classic adventure for northern hemisphere skiers looking for some late August pow.

And then, on June 4 2011, all hell broke loose literally as the Cordon-Caulle fissure that includes Puyehue spewed out an estimated one hundred million tones of ash, sand and pumice. Experts on the Internet say that is equivalent to 24 million truckloads of sand and would have required about the same amount of force as 70 atomic bombs. Eighteen days later the lava started flowing.

Amazingly, there were no injuries reported although 4,200 people were evacuated from their homes and farms. Skiing at Puyehue will never be the same, if it ever happens there again.

"What I have been hearing out of Bariloche is that the landscape is changed forever," says Malcolm Sangster of Sherpas Cinema. "We're intrigued to hear if the crater is still there or not but it sounds like skiing will be definitely be different there for the next crew in."

 

 

SIDEBAR 2

 

TRAVEL TIPS FROM THE PROS

 

1) "Get off your ass and leave the hotel. It's pathetic how many kids come down, eat, and then go sit in their hotel rooms watching movies on their laptops or worrying about wireless. Try food, meet locals and see how the world works and how other countries work." - Shin Campos, producer, snowboarder. Whistlercreekproductions.com

2) "Bring enough socks and goggles. Those are the two things you need extra because you can't use old ones. Usually four or five goggles on a trip. You can't deal with fog in your lenses when you're already nervous about hitting a feature. I have a Cheetah Factory bag on my sled that is full of goggles." -Helen Schettini, snowboarder.

3) "Don't forget your toothbrush. And don't go anywhere without lip-chap. It's tragic to leave the house without that shit. I use Burt's Bees but anything will do." - Sean Petit, Skier.

4) "Travel as light as you can and keep going. If there is an opportunity around the next corner then take it. Go for as long as you can. Explore. Squeeze another week out. Home will always be there and that party is the same one you were at last week. Make the best of the road, appreciate it. The surprises are when the best things happen." -Kevin Sansalone. Producer, director, snowboarder. Sandboxland.com

5) "If you can get a Star Alliance gold card, get it. I used to get upgraded to first class all the time when I had one of those and flew a lot. I miss those days." - Shin Campos.

6) "At Vancouver another option is using the Park-and-Fly service. Hit up the website and you can usually find a coupon you can print off to make it more affordable. Also, I usually make small talk with the check-in people and let them know it is so much nicer and easier working with an actual person rather than a machine that spits out your boarding pass. They will often respond with a nice gesture like waiving baggage fees." - Mike Atkinson, skier, judge, event announcer.

7) "If the standard ski vacation is starting to get boring, travel to the one of the busiest resorts you can think of during spring break and book the last available 1-star accommodation.  We did this in Andermatt, Switzerland last March. 89 Euros/night included a trip to the twilight zone.  We're still telling the stories from our weekend in that freakshow disaster.  I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. It was amazing!" -Mike Douglas, producer/director/skier. Switchbackentertainment.com

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