Published in SnoWorld, magazine of the 61st annual Warren Miller film tour
IN HOLLYWOOD, movies are made after a long series of white tablecloth lunches where writers schmooze agents, agents suck up to producers, and producers sip their mojitos and stare off into the distance, planning another Cayman Island vacation. In the world of Warren Miller Entertainment, it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes all it takes is an idea harebrained enough to be interesting, practical enough to be possible, and exciting enough to be backed by our adrenaline-junkie film crews, guides, and athletes. Here is a timeline of the key steps that led from one outrageous idea to a finished film.
1. An Idea Forms – April 2008 “Just Crazy Enough”
Doug Stoup already had an ‘in’ with the Warren Miller producers. Stoup was the mastermind of a 2001 expedition to South Georgia Island that followed the course of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous journey. That trek provided the culminating scenes in Warren Miller’s Storm. In early 2008 Stoup was ready to top that with the mother of all Antarctic expeditions.
His pitch to a Hollywood producer might have sounded like this: “Nearly 100 of the world’s best skiers and snowboarders pack onto one huge ship to tackle the lonely continent’s most intriguing descents.” When the producer yawned, he might add: “But the ship breaks down.” If the producer raised an eyebrow, he could then drop the clincher: “Once they run out of penguins, they must eat each other to survive.” The producer would then perk up and say “March of the Penguins meets Alive? Brilliant. Greenlight it!”
Caption: Stoup practices his pitch on a willing audience in 2001
2. Green Light – July 2008 “What Could Go Wrong?”
In the world of ski movies, a good expedition idea doesn’t require such box-office-hit themes like, say cannibalism. Stoup’s idea sounded good enough to the Warren Miller producers. They drew up budgets and logistics plausible enough to fool the accountants.
The concept? Assemble a who’s who of big mountain adventurers, camera crews, and journalists and turn them loose on the world’s southernmost playground. The setting? A massive 200-foot ship, a fleet of nimble Zodiac boats, plus the stunning icebergs, glaciers, and ridges of the Antarctic Peninsula. Stoup planned an October 2008 departure.
Caption: 100 athletes, Antarctic wildlife, first descents—the expedition seems like a good idea at the time.
3. Red Light – October/November 2008 “How Much Further, Captain?”
Cast and crew boarded the ship at midnight and took seasickness pills, knowing that nasty storms with 50-foot swells awaited them in the notorious Drake Passage. WME director of photography Tom Day thought: “This ain’t no Love Boat—what are we getting ourselves into?”
Expecting to film huge waves breaking across the huge ship’s bow, Day woke to calm waters. He opened the porthole and there was the dock. They were still anchored.
Engine troubles turned the expedition into a three-day waiting game. A disheartened Stoup sent everyone home. Even more disheartened Warren Miller accountants paid all the bills, without capturing a single turn on snow.
Caption: The little ship that couldn’t.
4. Green Light Again – November 2009 “This Time for Real”
A year passed. The next Warren Miller film release, Dynasty, went out on tour. Finally Stoup announced that his Ice Axe Expeditions had reassembled cast and crew for another attempt at Antarctica.
This time their new ship, Clipper Adventurer, was firing on all cylinders. The athletes were raring to go and cameras rolled under seven straight days of blue skies and good snow conditions. For those with shorter-term memories than the Warren Miller accounting staff, it was the perfect shoot. Eleven more just like it and another film would be complete.
Caption: After a year of anticipation, crews skin up to carve down every line in sight, including icebergs floating in the Southern Sea.
5. Hitting Stride – March/April 2010 “Now We’re Cooking”
Ask line producer Josh Haskins and he’ll say the beginning of winter filming season always starts agonizingly slow. It’s a waiting and watching game: tracking storms, measuring snowpack, finding holes in pro athletes’ schedules, putting flights and hotels on hold until the perfect conditions prevail. Then when the big powder dump comes, it always seems to hit several places at once. In late March it was suddenly go time.
At the peak of filming, three concurrent crews were active, from the Colorado Rockies in Warren Miller Films’ backyard to Svalbard, just 500 miles short of the North Pole. The crews captured six complete segments in just three frantic weeks.
6. That’s a Wrap – April 2010 “From Georgia with Love”
Deep in the Caucasus Mountains of the former soviet republic, the crew put a bow on the final frames of footage captured for the new film. In the past six months, they’d set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula, stubbornly waited out blizzards at the other end of the planet, dug cameras and tripods out of avalanche sluff, and been sunburned in odd places (see “Tales from the Road”).
In the end, they stacked up enough cans of exposed film to finally say “that’s a wrap.” Without missing a beat, camera crews headed right back out again (a new segment for 2011-2012 has already been filmed in New Zealand). It’s all a bit manic, evidence of the addictive traits that gave the film its title.
7. Postproduction – May-October 2010 “Arcane Arts of Movie Magic”
The filming “wrap” was hardly the end of the line. It was still approximately six months from the film’s premiere, and that would be barely enough time to edit those miles and miles of raw footage—and then polish them into one film. In the HD era of filmmaking, post-production has become more important than ever. While the crew’s upgraded cameras capture more and more precise visual data each year, it becomes critical to maintain the integrity of the footage throughout editing, audio sweetening, color correction, and all the other arcane processes that deliver the look and sound of the final spectacle.
At that October premiere, if audiences enthusiastically spill their beers and cheer their throats sore, the entire production crew can breathe a brief sigh of relief. And then they dive headlong into the next year’s production. Did we mention that there’s something manic, obsessive, and addictive about all this?