Archive for September, 2005

  • Filming Timeline: The Making of Warren Miller’s Higher Ground

    • Filming Timeline

      Edited front-of-book feature

    Published in SnoWorld, magazine of the 56th annual Warren Miller film tour

    SnoWorld magazineDecember 30, 2004 Boulder, CO
    NORMALLY BY YEAR’S END the Warren Miller production crews have a sequence or two in the bag and many of the rest booked to shoot early in the new year. This year’s progress to date? Nada. No snow. Line producer Josh Haskins checks global forecasts daily begging for a single storm. How do you make a ski movie without snow? Head for higher ground.

    Footage filmed to date: zero.
    Athletes standing by: 61.
    Camera crews standing by: 23.
    Average snow depth at targeted resorts: 25″ (less than half of typical).
    Snow conditions – Europe: weak. Northeast: sparse. Upper Rockies: slim. Pacific Northwest: grim. Months till first summer preview: 5. Panic level: high.

    January 1, 2005 Heavenly, CA
    …and then Tahoe reports over 6 feet of powder in 24 hours, which would be a new state record if the official recordskeepers hadn’t been out devouring freshies instead of, well, keeping records. The storm dumps 80 inches on Heavenly—enough to bury Ski.E.O. Glen Plake to the top of his mohawk. Warren Miller HQ can’t reach Tahoe-based cameraman Tom Day. Fretting mounts as news of the epic storm piles higher. Finally Day checks in: he’s already been out shooting face shots for hours.

    328% = increase in Tahoe snowpack during January.

    January 19 Aspen, CO
    How does someone get noticed by Warren Miller Films?

    • Mike Marolt: “My father and uncle were Olympians; my brothers and I watched the films since we were ten, honed our skiing for over thirty years, pitched the company on filming us for years, then completed the first ski descent of Everest from over 8,000 meters. I guess it’s just luck, then.”
    • Klaus Obermeyer: “Try yodeling!”
    • Peter Olenick: “Warren who?”
    • Bridger Gile: “Practice a lot before you get bogged down with kindergarten.”

    SnoWorld MagazineJanuary 23 The Canyons, UT

    “It’s like falling down the mountain in complete control.” – Jamey Parks

    Caption: Jamey Parks falls off a cliff in complete control—of a 360 tailgrab. Sticks it on the first take. Cameraman Kent Harvey makes him hike up and do it again—”rookie initiation.”

    January 27 Deer Valley, UT
    Warren Miller crews capture Jeremy Bloom in his element: winning a World Cup moguls event. Bloom is on course for a record-breaking year: within a month he’ll have six consecutive World Cup wins. He also wins a second-straight overall World Cup title, the youngest male ever to do so.

    Cameraman Chris Patterson, re: all the bare-chested photos of Jeremy Bloom circulating on the Internet:
    “I said: ‘Bloom: you know about this?’
    And he says: ‘how’d you get that?’
    And I say: ‘a friend emailed it’
    And he says: ‘what kind of friends you got?’
    And I think to myself: ‘that’s a good question!’

    February 2 Hunter Mountain, NY
    Ladder 114 of Brooklyn has a sterling 108-year history of heroism in the face of great danger. On the slopes of Hunter Mountain, members of the crew–some who have never been on skis before–face one of their most daunting challenges: a slalom course they must navigate as a group, holding a fire hose and wearing all their turn-out gear. It isn’t pretty.

    Average FDNY 4-alarm response time: 4:16 Slowest race finish: 4:36

    SnoWorld magazineMarch 7 Copper Mountain, Colo.
    A 30-mph takeoff and 12 feet of ups are not always enough to clear the monstrous 60-foot tabletops of the Gravity Games’ slopestyle course. Many competitors “cased the knuckle” or ate it hard, as we say, although Copper’s own Matt Peterson (here) escapes unscathed.

    March 10 Courcheval, France
    FILMMAKER’S GLOSSARY: Talk like you know your way around a camera.
    – tracking shot: keep up and keep aimed without looking ahead, all while packing a $50,000 camera just a few feet from your skier. Want a front tracking shot? Gotta ski backward fast enough to not get run over.
    – barbecue shot: put your feet up, crack a brew, and grill some animal while waiting to shoot those timelapses, huge wide shots, and backward zooms (to show just how big that avalanche really was).

    The real history of the “barbie shot”: Long-time Warren Miller cinematographer Don Brolin was filming this aerials event forever ago at Iron Mountain in Michigan and he brought out this mammoth lens to use at the back of the parking lot for a wide shot. Some 10,000 locals filled the lot for the event, and D.B. found himself in the midst of hundreds of tailgate parties. When the rest of the crew came to check on D.B. at the end of the day, he’d befriended all the locals and liberated some beers and barbecue for himself. The term “barbecue shot” has now become industry standard for a cross-valley shot that reveals the whole mountain face. (Courtesy Chris Patterson)

    Chelone Miller’s given name is Nathaniel Kinsman Ever Chelone Skan Miller (really). He was named by his older brother, Bode.

    “I got a brand new board when I left for France; when I got back it was totally trashed. We were hittin’ rocks left and right. Chris [Eby] blew out a pair of skis, too—cracked an edge. I took out the biggest core shot I’ve ever done. It was the size of my hand: five inches long.” – Chelone Miller

    March 9, Warren Miller Headquarters, Boulder, CO
    Filming update: Still way behind schedule. Snowpack still subpar. 6 WEEKS REMAIN TO FILM 11 SEGMENTS …
    Directive: Go higher!

    3 DAYS LATER, March 12
    Four film crews are in action simultaneously around the globe. This one day will be the nexus of four film segments:

    • Colorado: Josh Haskins wraps up filming at Copper.
    • France: Freeride event cancelled due to lack of snow; Tom Day improvises and athletes wreck nearly all their equipment on thin snow, but get great “footie.”
    • Alaska: Chris Patterson’s third day filming in new heli terrain; blue skies.
    • Switzerland: Kent Harvey shooting Shane and Seth on a few inches of snow over rock. Conditions marginal; the crew perseveres.

    “Everyday Shane’s been tryin’ to get me to do ‘death camps’ as he likes to call them (skiing basejumps). I don’t want any part of it.” – Seth Morrison
    “We all know what that boy’s skills are like; he’ll be ready one of these days.” – Shane McConkey

    March 20 Girdwood, Alaska
    “When I’d be shooting him (CPG guide Virgil Hughes) with his binoculars or looking at a map, he’d think ‘I’m gonna be in the Warren Miller film!’.  When I’d be about to film the skiers I’d say ‘hang on!  I’m gonna film you too,’ and you could almost hear, from across the valley the gulp in his throat as he’s like: ‘Shit!  I better ski this well!'” – Chris Patterson

    Mark Abma’s skiing style: “We joked about it (the mountain) being a canvas. We could both look at it the same way and almost see the same brush strokes, but Abma throws in these different colors!” – C.P.

    Kaj Zackrisson’s skiing style: “He did everything a hundred miles an hour.  I’ve got this drag adjustment on my tripod for panning slow or fast; I always set it to the fastest setting when Kaj would come by—sometimes I just had to go handheld” – C.P.

    Official magazine of the Warren Miller filmMarch 25 Heavenly, CA
    caption: 5-Card Draw, Warren Miller style

    Jessica bluffs on a deuce and seven; Brent folds with two jokers and the Old Maid; Chris thinks it’s blackjack and tries to double down; Wayne bets it all on a royal flush; Plake wins with five aces. Five?

    Wayne Wong – Signature look: big white shades. Signature move: “The Wong Banger” (circa 1972; Glen Plake describes it as wriggling through the bumps “in full wheelie mode.”)

    “It felt like a Hollywood shoot with 3 cameramen, a still photographer and all these crazy setups for the cameras.” – Jessica Sobolowski

    SnoWorld magazineMarch 27 Lake Tahoe, Calif.
    In the 1950s, Warren Miller probably looked a lot like this, although the blue cowboy boots are pure Plake. Inside the bag? Wooden skis with leather long-thong bindings.

    “Most people don’t ski as well as I do on this old stuff. Ha!” – Glen Plake

    March 20 En route to Alaska

    “Making this movie really starts with asking ‘what would be cool as hell?’ then making it happen. I still don’t know how we pulled this one off.” – Josh Haskins, Line Producer

    Evolution? Chris Anthony’s transportation to filming locations:

    • horse (Montana backcountry)
    • moped (Italy)
    • top of train (Ecuador)
    • rusty duct-taped Russian surplus heli (Iran)
    • Marine cargo heli (California)
    • Nimitz-class aircraft carrier & Blackhawk heli (Alaska)

    How you gonna top that, Chris?

    “I’m not sure about the idea that we can have him surfing on the wake back there.” –Captain Ted N. Branch, Commanding Officer, USS Nimitz

    April 8 A long way from nowhere, Alaska

    The other 13,000 spectators and 52 competitors arrived at the ArcticMan competition via RVs, big trucks, and beefy snowmachines. Chris Anthony might have garnered more respect, being chauffered by nuclear aircraft carrier and Blackhawk helicopter, but then he didn’t a have handlebar-mounted, gas powered blender, did he? [See feature on page 84]

    “Overnight this’ll be about the fifth largestcity in Alaska” – a state trooper

    “Everything we are surrounded by has an engine or handlebars on it,” – cameraman Chris Patterson

    How fast is that? Record speed on the ArcticMan course was set during filming this year: 89.3 mph in the snowmobile-pull section. The world record for speed skiing is 145.1 mph, set in 1993 at Les Arc, France. The record for snowmobiles is over 170 mph. Still, 89.3 is nothing to sneeze at; just ask an ArcticMan racer:

    “The vibration from my skis would shoot up through my body and into my skull, causing my eyeballs to bounce around in their sockets and making it difficult to focus.” – Chris Anthony

    Do You Speak Ski Film? Overheard on the set of Higher Ground: “I think I could drop in there under that cornie, and then I’d have to billygoat through those chocolate chips and start from there, just to the right of that coolie and above that pepper.” Translation key:

    • cornie: cornice
    • coolie: couloir
    • chocolate chips or pepper: thin snow with small jagged rocks poking through
    • billygoat: an agile, bearded mountain creature that speaks somewhat more clearly than many Warren Miller athletes

    April 9 Vail, CO
    After 55 years of filming with skeleton crews in remote destinations, someone at Warren Miller asked: “Why do we always gotta be so serious when we film? Let’s party!'” Enter Maceo Parker, Mixmaster Mike, Toots & the Maytals, hordes of screaming fans, a ton of kick-ass athletes, and some fine spring Colorado weather and you’ve got—well, a bunch of camera crews not so interested in going back to Antarctica next year.

    AJ the dogApril 18 Cordova, Alaska
    caption: Sorry, AJ, no room for 120 pounds of dog in this heli. Maybe next time.”

    April 20 Blue River, BC, Canada
    “It’s easy on the World Cup Tour picking my line: left, right, left, right, mogul, air, left, right—but up here there’s a boulder the size of my house on the right, there’s an avalanche-prone area on the left, and right down the middle there’s this huge rock cliff that I’ll need a parachute to survive.”  – Jeremy Bloom, heliskiing for the first time

    “It’s tough work sometimes; it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.” – Sarah Burke on filming and throwing hospital air*

    * Hospital Air: when too much speed, overrotation, or just plain gonzo foolishness makes everyone watching your wreck think you’ve landed yourself a trip to the hospital. Shake it off, grin, find all the pieces of your goggles, and hike back up for another.

    June 20 Chamonix, France
    The quest for higher ground goes long on high and short on ground above Chamonix. Cameraman Tom Day is strapped to the gunnels of his heli, trying to keep up with Dave Barlia in the red wingsuit.

    “The knack to flying: Throw yourself at the ground and miss.” – Douglas Adams

    Wingsuit in Chamonix

  • Making the Leap: Warren Miller Unveils HD Film Technology

    • Making the Leap

      Feature Article, 2005-06

    Published in SnoWorld, magazine of the 56th annual Warren Miller film tour

    official magazine of the Warren Miller filmWITH HIGHER GROUND, Warren Miller unveils High Definition film technology. Its unbelievably crisp picture quality, substantially larger field of view, and ridiculously complex production process are a long, long way from the days of Warren’s handcranked Bell & Howell 16mm and old-time filmstrip projection.

    “Kimbo, tell me the truth. You’ve edited the last 18 Warren Miller films. What’s special about this one?” I asked film editor Kim Schneider.

    Schneider grins and congenial crows’ feet form around his twinkling eyes. “The whole damn thing’s better, Hammy,” he says, beckoning me around his cluttered edit suite. “Take a look at this.”

    What I see on his three 40-inch LCD flatscreens is Higher Ground’s first completed High Definition (HD) footage, and the image is so real I almost want to touch it. He plays a scene from Courchevel, pausing to point out how Chelone Miller’s roostertail, at first glance just a splash of amorphous white, is actually a scintillating tapestry of individual crystalline snowflakes. “Wait, check this out—” and Schneider’s fingers are flying over the keys as he enlarges a portion of the roostertail until I can actually make out the shape of a single snowflake, just like we cut out of tissue paper in kindergarten. “Every shot in the film is that detailed—six times better than last year!” Schneider says. “See anything else different?”

    Scrolling to another sequence, not only can I see the roguish expression on Sarah Burke’s face as she overrotates off a huge kicker, but I am blown away by the seemingly endless panorama of remote Canadian peaks around her. All of a sudden Burke’s not just throwing “hospital air,” she’s doing it in the middle of a jagged, foreboding backcountry, visibly distant from any emergency room. Watching in HD is like taking off horse blinders.

    “Everyone knew all too well the knife-edge they hike every year: athletes put their lives on the line and crews juggle weather, timing, and budgets in the lyric struggle to capture fleeting moments forever on film.”

    So, why hasn’t Warren Miller done this before? There are three very good reasons. First, it’s never been done. Not by Lucas. Not by Spielberg. Before now, no one has ever delivered a true nationwide High Definition film tour. Second, it’s extremely expensive: roughly an additional half million dollars. Third, for the last 56 years, the technical side of Warren Miller Entertainment’s moviemaking has been fueled less by avalanches of innovation than by wily imagination.

    Warren began projecting his 16mm films in 1949 sometimes on white bed sheets, using a filmstrip projector like I remember from junior high science class films. Screenings earned Warren as much as $7 (and a ski patrol pin) per show. The accompanying soundtrack was often a homemade recording of a church organist until Warren scored some loaner 78rpm albums. In the ’60s, when Warren was still narrating each screening live, he began recording his voice on the film, saving hundreds of travel days, not to mention crates of throat lozenges. Other significant changes followed—in 1993 the film was “offline” edited (on tape, rather than cutting and splicing film), and in 2000 the film was released on DVD and digitally projected. But none of these advances called for the gut-wrenching leap of faith of moving to HD.

    IN JULY 2004 Higher Ground’s production team, all wearing flip-flops and aloha shirts, was gathered around WME’s conference table for a high-octane meeting. The meeting had been called because WME had discovered a system that would allow conversion to HD while still using film. (The team had already agreed on one thing: The movie must continue to be filmed. Despite the high-resolution of modern video cameras, they weren’t nearly fast enough to achieve WME’s signature slo-mo shots of, say, floating puffs of powder and bone-crunching wrecks, which for 56 years have made audiences drool and howl.) With HD the picture size and quality would be immensely improved, from initial filming all the way through final projection. But it would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Everyone around the conference table knew all too well the knife-edge they hike every year to get the best footage possible. Athletes put their lives on the line for some of the sequences. Camera crews juggle weather, conflicting schedules, timing, and budgets in the lyric struggle to capture fleeting moments forever on film. No one disputed that they wanted the best footage possible, but the investment would require high-stakes gambling on nonexistent technology.

    WME had one trump card over the Hollywood biggies in this gamble: Since it runs its own tour, using its own gear, WME is agile enough to go HD on big screens all across the country. Over the course of the meeting, the group fleshed out a plan for converting the film’s major production steps to HD:

    1. It starts with upgraded film and cameras plus all-new lenses. Everything must be purchased and tested before crews film a single frame. Luckily, film-manufacturing companies like Kodak have been racing to keep pace with video technology, so new “Super 16mm” film will deliver the quality needed.
    2. The film will be processed in “clean rooms” that look better suited to containing viral outbreaks than propagating gorgeous ski cinematography. The film is then transferred to HD tape. Sounds simple, but this process, dubbed “HD telecine,” had been the missing link that kept WME out of HD for years. Now, a company in Vancouver, B.C., would provide the two-million-dollar gizmo that takes in film and spits out HD cassette tapes—tapes of such high quality that they preserve the texture of the original film’s grain, down to a microscopic level. The footage (65 hours of it) will fill about 180 tapes, which will then be dubbed to massive computer hard drives for editing.
    3. WME must weed through all that footage to find the 90 minutes that will make the final cut. For comparison, storing camcorder footage for your five-minute (non-HD) home movie might use one gigabyte on your home computer. Higher Ground, if transferred in its entirety, would fill 25,000 gigabytes (weighing about 500 pounds).
    4. The last step of the filmmaking process is the “online”—the splicing together from the 180 HD tapes’ raw footage with all the finished creative effects and edited transitions. The compatibility issues and technical mumbojumbo that will be required to make sure the final image doesn’t come out looking like salt and pepper are mind-numbing.
    5. All of this would be for naught if the film were to tour with existing (non-HD) projection equipment. Selling the film to megaplexes isn’t an option—very few have made the hugely expensive conversion to HD—so, to properly present these beautiful HD images, WME will need all-new HD projectors and screens and a nonexistent system for playing back the digitized images to the projector. This isn’t as simple as playing a DVD; the 90-minute HD feature film would take up over a hundred DVDs.

    IF THIS all sounds a little overwhelming, then you’ll understand why the conference room lights burned late into the evening that July night. Ultimately, with admirably informed recklessness, the group decided to move forward with the plan.

    Thirteen months later, Higher Ground is in its final days of post-production in true, 100 percent HD. All the segments have been onlined in High Definition resolution in Boulder and are off to L.A. for final audio synch and color correction. The remaining steps of the film’s production happen in dark cellars full of looming stacks of alien-looking computer hardware. WME has committed across the board to producing and presenting the film in pure HD. They’ve tested every step of the process, from the Arri SR3HS cameras that captured the action to the Panasonic D7700U projectors that will share it with fans from Orange County’s Performing Arts Center to the Bushnell in Hartford.

    There’s bustling excitement throughout the Warren Miller offices—that dangerous “jinx!” moment when it seems like they’ve addressed every concern and now it’s time to knuckle down and get the tour off the ground within eight weeks. The new gear has opened new ways to capture what they see out there in the field. The production team has seen all of the finished material and is already planning new approaches to future segments. And editor Kim Schneider can hardly contain himself.

    “Check it out—I think I’ve found two identical snowflakes!” he jokes. As you watch Higher Ground, you may well find yourself looking that close and simultaneously leaning back to take in the panoramic views. Veteran Warren Miller director of photography Don Brolin was known to say that capturing skiing on snow was like filming two white mice swimming in a bowl of milk. This year, with HD technology, D.B. might concede that now he can tell which of the mice has dandruff.