Warren Miller, godfather of action-sports filmmaking, the original ‘ski bum’ – a legacy that lives on in Steamboat Springs
January 28, 2018
“Always remember,” says Warren Miller narrating to his viewers, “if you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.”
Stoking the fire that burns within snow-sport enthusiasts worldwide, Miller, the godfather of action-sports filmmaking, had a knack for capturing the spirit of skiing as the original "ski bum," chasing the dream of living in a ski town and devoting a life to one's passion.
Last week, the legend rode his last chair and died at age 93 of natural causes according to a statement from his family on Orcas Island in Washington state.
"He was one of the world's greatest proponents of freedom–that sort of freedom that releases butterflies in your belly, like the feeling of gliding down a fresh field of powder snow," said Greg Hamilton, local filmmaker in a recent blog about the cinematic legend. "In his 93 years, he carved deep arcs onto a blank canvas that has influenced many of us fellow freedom chasers."
But his legacy continues, especially in ski towns like Steamboat Springs, which had its own moments of stardom in a few of Miller's films.
"Warren Miller films portray the true culture that us snow-lovers understand," said Alex Tanner, marketing specialist and emcee for Warren Miller Entertainment, who premiered films like, “Here, There, and Everywhere” and “Line Of Descent." "Send it, but don’t take yourself too seriously."
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It was marked on the calendar each year. When a Miller film would release, it became as much a part of ski season as standing in line before 8 a.m. for first chair.
"The feeling you get from riding down a mountain, letting everything else in your life go and being singularly focused on what’s in front of you, is freedom, to me at least," said Tanner. "That attitude he had shines bright in the films and encourages all of us to chase that passion. When you chase your passion, you begin to find your purpose."
Miller led a career spanning more than half a century, starting with his first release, "Deep and Light," back in 1950, showcasing everyday adventures, whether it be goofy groomer clips or steep cliffs and deep powder days.
"I mean the guys name has become a brand. It’s become a culture – really a way of life for ski bums all over the world," said Tanner.
"He was one of the first, and certainly the most prolific, filmmaker to point his lens toward people who brought truly different talents to mountain sports," said local, award-winning filmmaker Greg Hamilton, whose career was inspired by Miller himself. "While his early films may have ruffled feminist feathers, his later fare did a much better job (better than the industry as a whole) at highlighting brilliant female skiers. He crossed hundreds of cultural borders— skis strapped to camels or yaks or sputtering Kazakh mopeds— quipping ‘if everyone skied there would be no wars’."
Traveling the globe, Miller's 90-minute films captured footage defying any and all odds, overcoming feats many would only dream about. Each story told with his comedic monotone of witty banter and corny jokes.
"He's the driving force behind what there is today with ski films," said Dan Gilchrist, who has skied big mountains on three continents and was featured in six Warren Miller films like "Freeriders" and "Snow Riders" (I and II) along with shooting in Ecuador skiing lines on Cotopaxi. "In the 90s, there really wasn't anything like his films out there. But each year, the films really made you want to get out there and be apart of it."
From "Have Skis, Will Travel" (1956) film on gaper day celebrations to "Any Snow, Any Mountain" (1971), "Ski Country" (1984),"Escape to Ski" (1988), "Ski People" (1980) or to films like "Steep and Deep" (1985), Miller created 55 films that were quintessential, almost a rite of passage, for any and all ski bums.
"Just the volume of films he's done, they are there for people to go back and see the progression through the years of his legacy that can't be matched,"Gilchrist said. "He showed how skiing was fun and attainable, and he did what he loved. It really shows in his work."
Not only that, he built a media business that included commercials and promotional films when he founded Warren Miller Entertainment, where he produced, directed and narrated his films from 1950 to 1989 when he sold his company to son Kurt. Although Miller no longer had any involvement in the movies after 2002, due to the franchise being out of his family's control, he continued as narrator until 2005.
"Freedom—that's what skiing is all about," said Miller in the interview originally published in "Wild Blue Yonder," during an interview with Hamilton. "Ask people about their first day of skiing, and they remember the weather, what they had for lunch, what kind of car they rode in. Anything that memorable is the first taste of total freedom. Total freedom is man's basic instinct."
For filmmakers and skiers alike, Miller was an inspiration, equipped with his own “Warrenisms,” as Hamilton calls them.
“In his life story, I found a cryptic treasure map, perhaps one that can never be followed again in exactly the same way, toward a life well lived,” said Hamilton. “Like Warren, I've eschewed corporate jobs. I've taken his advice and moved to a ski town. I make films. I work my butt off to fill movie theaters. His instinct for chasing ambitious dreams is truly the stuff of legend— and laughter, for it was rarely an easy path. He calls it ‘lurching from one near disaster to another’."
His name, its own brand, a culture, a way of life for ski bums all over the world, it's something simple to appreciate, as simple as waking up to freshly fallen snow or making the fresh turns on the untouched snow.
"We’re all out on the mountain all winter long, chasing the dragon, looking for that sense of freedom that only comes from experiencing a true powder day," said Tanner. "I hope everyone takes a few turns for Warren today. That’s how he’d want us to memorialize his legacy.