Warren Miller Entertainment spends a pretty penny traversing the globe to bring home footage that has October crowds drooling to break out their skis and boards.
But the Boulder-based company still finds reason to shoot in its own backyard. The bounty of last winter's storms drew Miller's film crews to the Steamboat Ski Area to capture some of the 432 inches of powder. The footage modernizes the film company's roots, aptly described in the title of the original 1950 release, "Deep and Light."
The finished product showcases Steamboat's best deep and light in a five-minute segment in Miller's 57th annual installment, Off the Grid. The scenes were worthy of the hefty $16 ticket price for the film's Routt County premier last week at the Steamboat Grand.
Line producer and cinematographer Josh Haskins said the film crew made it a priority for this year's film to follow the snow in favor of rigorously scheduled location shots.
"We made the decision to jump on any forecasting opportunities any time we heard of a massive dump," Haskins said. "This year more than any other year, it really paid off for us."
The 96 inches that fell on Steamboat Nov. 29 through Dec. 1 gave Haskins the opportunity to put a 30-pound, car battery-operated Photo-Sonics Action Master camera in the hands of director of photography Chris Patterson. Shooting 400 frames of film per second, Patterson captured athletes Max Mancini, Dave Babic and Arnie Backstrom in close-up, super slow-motion shots as they ripped tight Steamboat tree lines.
"The deep airy snow was really the whole reason to use the camera," Haskins said. "When it kicks up, it's real hypnotic. It absolutely captures the essence of deep snow."
Haskins and Patterson decided to turn the hypnotic footage into a dream-like sequence featuring Crested Butte free-heeling native Mancini, but needed to return later at the end of December for even deeper, blue-sky powder days once the area's base had set up.
Steamboat telemark skier Dan Gilchrist and Telluride's Herb Manning got the call for these later shoots, dropping everything to join the action.
Gilchrist, a 36-year-old veteran of numerous Warren Miller films and four previous Steamboat segments, is the film's only local talent. He is introduced in the film with the line, "he's a local carpenter, but no one's getting any new floors today."
Gilchrist said he enjoyed the whole process, even if it involved standing for hours, lining up with the cameraman, waiting for the right light, and then having to nail the right line.
"Steamboat is what it is," Gilchrist said. "What's appealing is the good snow that breeds the great skiers. You don't need gnarly terrain to produce some of the country's greatest skiers."
Manning agreed, he skiied Steamboat for the first time on the week of the powder shoot.
"Some days it would be clear and cold, blue skies or storming two inches an hour where you're choking on it and it looks like you're shooting in an aquarium," Manning said. "But it was the best single week of skiing I had last season."
Five thousand feet of film later, edited and converted to high-definition, the polished Steamboat segment highlights a few noticeable runs like Twilight and the terrain out of Gate D. The slow-motion shots blanket the audience with memories of last season as the soundtrack moves from bluegrass to reggae to a trance-like track from Zero 7.
The film still accesses remote big-mountain, "off the grid," destinations from British Columbia and the Austrian Alps to Kashmir, India. Jamie Pierre's 245-foot, world-record cliff attempt near Idaho's Grand Targhee Resort jumps from the screen as well as a slew of stylish montages that showcase the world's most progressive skiers and riders blending terrain park tricks into the backcountry arena.
Unfortunately, the film does not go far enough in this regard. With most of the athletes having already proven themselves elsewhere, the footage goes light on clips of athletes really pushing the boundaries of the sport, and thus lacks spectacular crash shots. Like many Warren Miller films, some of the segments lag as riders talk about how much they love the given resort they're purportedly skiing.
But the film's big dollar sponsorships, which include the state of Utah, also result in the best cinematographers in the business and the post-production capacity to line up a solid soundtrack.
"We got lucky in a lot of places," director Max Bervy said of the film. "You can go to a lot of places and not execute with the right snow conditions. We were fortunate to get the right stuff in the right places."
Bervy noted his satisfaction with some of the film's unique stories, the most memorable of which closes the film. Dedicated to the late Doug Coombs, ski guide pioneer and former Warren Miller film icon, the segment has a pair of Points North Heli-Adventures guides take adaptive skiers Kevin Bramble and Monte Meier down some of the steepest Chugach Mountain terrain accessed from Cordova, Alaska.
Before Manning was on the Warren Miller call list to show up for powder day photo shoots at the drop of a hat, he remembers being the kid at his junior high school auditorium in Rumford, Maine. Manning's life suddenly changed by watching Scot Schmidt and Glen Plake in Greg Stump's 1988 The Blizzard of Oz.
"I got the VHS and watched it over and over until it wore out," Manning said. "Watching those skiers and knowing exactly what I wanted to do."