Big Air, Big Mountains and Big Laughs
courtesy Rick Moulton Keystone Productions
In the early frames of Paul Ryan’s film “Ski Racer,” documenting the 1969 World Cup ski circuit, Olympic silver medalist Billy Kidd stands at the top of a slalom course, eyes closed, hands swaying back and forth as he visualizes the position and spacing of the 120 gates before him.
Kidd calmly narrates the methodical process. But his tone changes as he begins to describe his mounting excitement building up to a race and his struggle to contain and focus his energy. The film images cut in and out with increasing speed as Kidd’s voice intensifies, speeds up. By the time he settles into the starting gate, Kidd seems to be at a psychological breaking point. And then he explodes out of the gate in pure silence, his power amplified by the slow motion of the filming.
The starting gate of a World Cup slalom race is rarified air. But artful filmmaking can transport the meek to the platform of the mighty. Granted ski films, in general, have never had a burning narrative to tell. Their genre is one of the experiential. What does it feel like to ski a sun-drenched powder slope? What was the “hot dog” ski scene all about? What do wet t-shirt contests and “snow bunnies” have to do with skiing? How do you translate the experience of skiing a 45-degree slope?
Ski films are windows into worlds that many have never seen, or never will. But the genre has a long history of putting the viewer in places often stunningly picturesque, at times forbidding and always underpinned by fun and freedom.
High in the Alps
Given that motion picture cameras and projectors didn’t even exist before 1890 or so, it is remarkable that by 1920 German Dr. Arnold Fanck had taken the technology to the high Alps to make the world’s first ski film, “Das Wunder des Schneeschuhe” (The Wonder of the Skis). It was an instructional film exposing the world to alpine skiing—a relatively obscure sport that had only recently evolved from Nordic skiing and ski jumping.
Fanck made a ski film—sometimes two—every year after that through 1933. Perhaps his most acclaimed was the 1931 film “Der Weisse Rausch” (“White Ecstasy”). Rick Moulton, filmmaker and film archivist for the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame, said that Fanck made his film without radios, chair lifts, helicopters or instant digital feedback, tools taken for granted in modern ski film making. Fanck used a camera weighing nearly a ton, pulled on a sled by horses. “It was a slow motion camera from World War I that the Germans had used to film and analyze shells coming out of barrels,” Moulton said.
Fanck released “White Ecstasy” as a 70-minute feature with dialog and a full symphonic score. What’s more, he weaved humor, dozens of visual and situational gags, and pioneered the “slice of life” aspect to ski films. It could be argued that Fanck created a model from which few of the hundreds of ski filmmakers following him have deviated.
Glen Plake, extreme skier, Ski Hall of Fame member, and star of numerous ski films including “Blizzard of Aahhhs,” described Fanck’s seminal film as, “A way to show others not integrated into the sport what is going on in those mountains.”
At the time, alpine skiing in Europe, let alone America, was more of a curiosity than a sport. Fanck’s German mountain films brought the mountains to the masses and sparked an interest in mountain life that until then was unknowable to the great majority of people. The beauty of the environment, the obvious thrill of riding gravity through airy white powder captivated and inspired all those living below the snow line.
Disciples Go Forth
John Jay was one of the disciples of Fanck. According to Moulton, Jay credited Fanck’s “White Ecstasy” for drawing him into ski filmmaking, albeit modestly, with his first efforts being his filming the Harvard-Dartmouth ski races in 1936. After making a few films, including “Ski Over Skoki,” Jay enlisted in the Army. Curiously enough, he found himself sent to Sun Valley, Idaho, assigned to take still photos of ski instructor Otto Lang’s production, “Principles of Skiing.”
Jay’s next assignment was with the 87th Battalion, which became the famed 10th Mountain Division. It was here that Jay honed his skills creating ski training and recruitment films for the military, including “Ski Patrol.” In 1945, with the war over, Jay began his career anew, releasing “Hickory Holiday.” From that year until 1975, Jay released a film every year. Jay’s humor—though more wry and ironic than Fanck’s—was a staple of his films. For most screenings, Jay presented the films in person, narrating with a dry, New England wit.
Also novel at the time, but subsequently emulated by all ski filmmakers to follow, was the use of the exotic locale. Jay exposed his audiences to skiing and ski cultures in the Moroccan mountains, Chile and Japan. And always at the center of these productions was the theme of fun. He poked fun at the clumsy beginner, but always in a way that celebrated a simple joy of playing in the mountains. It is not a stretch to say that thousands of skiers in the 1960s and ‘70s came to the sport intrigued by the films of Jay.
Dick Durrance was also a part of the second generation of filmmakers. A native of Florida, Durrance learned to ski on Germany’s tallest mountain, Zugspitze. He made his name in skiing for his showing at the 1936 Olympics and by winning Sun Valley’s famous Harriman Cup three times. In 1938, at the behest of Sun Valley Resort founder Averell Harriman, Durrance made, “Sun Valley Ski Chase.” This was no doubt a direct descendent of Fanck’s 1923 film “Fox Hunt.” Amidst all of his other accomplishments, Durrance was the producer and director of 46 ski films.
Fortuitously for the ski film, industry, in the audience of a 1947 Sun Valley Opera House presentation of a John Jay film was a ski bum from California named Warren Miller. Over the next 50 years, Miller went on to become the world’s most prolific and successful ski film producer.
He described how his long career began, “I was fortunate enough to live in a small (4’x8’) trailer in the Sun Valley parking lot in the winters of 1947 and ’48, and just skied seven days a week. I saw so many things that I wanted to share with my surfing friends that I took a lot of 8mm films of that beauty and excitement. In Sun Valley in that era, there was always powder to be found from one storm to the next.” Miller cited Fanck and John Fitzpatrick, “the father of the travelogue,” as two key influences on his approach to films.
Like his predecessors, Miller had no pretense of deep themes. “No, my job was to show the kind of skiing that they (people) would like to do someday, realistically. (Show) romantic resorts all over the world with a lot of humor thrown in to show that skiing is all about freedom and fun . . . Sharing freedom and fun with my audiences was my goal,” he said.
Much like Miller, longtime Valley local Dick Barrymore was borne of John Jay’s work. Barrymore made dozens of ski films during his lifetime, the most noted of which were “Last of the Ski Bums” (1969) and “The Performers” (1971). The former followed three ski bums as they traveled through Europe skiing, going to night clubs, and winning at a Monte Carlo roulette table to fund their fun.
In the latter, Barrymore exposed audiences to a second, previously unknown, ski culture. Starring the legendary K2 demonstration team, “The Performers” put the nascent “hot dog” skiing movement (now more commonly called freestyle) into a bright, sunny spotlight. With aerials, moguls and other acrobatic moves set to music and blue skies, the film took the romanticism and fun of the sport to a new level. It was a film that helped fuel the freestyle revolution of the ’70s and culminated in the FIS (the governing board of ski racing) formally recognizing freestyle in 1979.
Big Mountain Skiing
Some ski film stars often end up making films of their own. Such was the case of Greg Stump, who skied in Barrymore’s “Vagabond Skiers” and films by Warren Miller. But Stump took ski films into still new terrain—that of big mountain skiing.
No doubt Stump was acutely aware of Roger Brown and Barry Corbet’s classic 1967 film, “Ski the Outer Limits,” in which a skier, filmed in super slow motion, does a front flip into what is now called Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when he made films like the “Blizzard of Aahhhs” (1988) and “License to Thrill” (1989). These films followed skiers like Glen Plake—with fluorescent orange Mohawk to match the bright ’80s ski clothing—and Valley local Mike Hattrup as they carved couloirs in Chamonix and Verbier and launched over cliffs in the Tetons. It was a window onto the type of skiing few people in the world could (or would) ever do.
And it wasn’t just about skiing. Making ski films required some serious mountaineering. Plake described how he realized early on that “in order to ski the steep slopes, I had to become a good climber . . . When someone says, ‘I’ll feel a lot better when I have my skis on’ and they are, in fact, standing there in crampons with an ice axe, that’s a trigger for me that tells me, you are in over your head … we need to get you down. So, my friends and I dedicated ourselves to becoming better alpine climbers. We could get to some of these places.”
Stump’s movies were also in the pre-digital age, so, as Plake explained, they had to be very conscious of the lighting and the lenses they were using. They would shoot the film and not see it for months. They had one chance to get the shot. For that reason, Plake said, “I took every moment captured very seriously. We had to, we couldn’t afford not to when it cost $1,000 for every finished minute of film.”
Today, the mantle of extreme skiing movies has fallen to filmmaking groups like Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions. Cameras are small, light and capable of excellent resolution. Helicopters enable skiers to access knife-edge peaks and filming can be done from a long ways away. It is a trend that Miller is less enamored of than some: “They have morphed from films of skiable terrain and achievable experiences of the average skier into almost impossibly steep hills and a disproportionate amount of screen time devoted to upside down, in the air, acrobatics . . . and after I watch 214 aerials in a row, I want to see something I can relate to.”
the meek to the platform of the mighty.
Plake, for his part, feels that the ease of capturing the images today has come at a cost. “Not as much thought goes into the creative side of actually making the movie,” he said.
As to whether Plake would like to make his own films, continue the thread that started almost a century ago in the Alps, the answer is yes, with a “but.” “I am only interested in making a film that could be shown theatrically,” he said. “In fact, I wouldn’t even make it available on DVD.” Why?
Plake explains, “Ski films present a moment to be inspired, a moment to gather . . . I want to see the community there . . . I want to hear the hoots and hollering. I want to hear the emotions fly. That’s what a ski film should be like.”
photos courtesy Rick Moulton, Keystone Productions; Paul Ryan; Greg Stump
Blizzard of Aahhhs