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

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