It’s an awfully good job but it’s a job nonetheless…
Finding another locale on earth with a higher concentration of adventure filmmakers than in the Tahoe Basin would be a daunting task. For those living here, nearly anyone who spends time in the outdoors has run into a motion camera capturing something exciting somewhere. For those frequenting Tahoe, renting and watching the works of these filmmakers is a means of delving into the Tahoe psyche and fueling inspiration to strive for more on their own while here.
From skiing to snowboarding to rock climbing to wake boarding to kayaking to hanggliding to BASE jumping to whatever exciting can happen while people play with gravity, it is all captured here or at least by those who live here. Mike Hatchett, Dave Seoane, Jerry Dugan, Artie Krehbiel, Eric Pearlman, the DesLauriers brothers, the women at Misty Productions, Mike Vail, Charles Bryan and Craig Beck are just a few locals who have made their mark with films worldwide, not to mention the countless talented camera persons in the region who work for a variety of other projects.
Through everyone’s work, the glamour of making films has always shone through: traveling to otherworldly places inaccessible to most, capturing exotic escapades featuring perfect rock, surreal waterfalls, ideal powder, error-free talent and the bluest of blue skies – always with a bulging budget fat enough to watch expenses suck at the wallet without a care in the world.
Then there’s reality … the filming reality. The side the public doesn’t see in these films.
Adventure filmmaking, while admittedly a dream job, is not always what it is made out to be. There are the trips on which you shoot 10 seconds of footage in two weeks as the weather beats you down. Thousands of dollars spent to get a ski film crew to some faraway range and ridiculous avalanche danger relegates your team to low-angle trees. All the athletes are beat up and out of commission after one day of shooting. Or no one sticks a particular maneuver in 30 attempts. And then there’s the law of light: It is a bluebird until a shot is ready, but it suddenly clouds over when you’re about to call “on it.” You wait and wait and finally you acquiesce to nature and shoot in mediocre light. The moment the shot is complete and the camera is packed, the sun magically reemerges in its full glory.
All filmmakers experience these things, but the real side of making movies rarely sneaks past the editing process.
I just returned from a dream shoot that had been preceded by much anticipation and great expectations. We were off to heli-ski out of a remote hunting cabin at Tatlayoko Lake, deep in British Columbia. Our job was to capture footage for Matchstick Productions’ latest ski film. Standard Films visited the lodge last season while shooting for TB8. But aside from Standards’ snowboarders, no one had ever ridden these peaks beyond a few descents around and on Mt. Waddington, British Columbia’s highest peak.
Our skiers were essentially a ski film dream team – Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley; Shane McConkey, often regarded as the greatest all-around freeskier on the planet; former freeskiing world champion Chris Davenport; and super hero Seth Morrison.
These superstars, 10 days, a remote lodge, private helicopter and massive peaks … the stage was set for unprecedented greatness.
Then reality stepped in.
After a 12-hour drive from Vancouver, we arrived at the incredible log lodge at night. Massive beams, walls bearing the skins of grizzlies and bobcats and the heads of moose and elk overlooking the pool table. Upon awaking in the morning, we were struck by a stunning panorama that offered only a hint of the towering peaks that mark the region.
Initial ‘wows’ were followed by studying which, in turn, was followed by, “hmm … not a lot of lines there. The snow looks a little thin.”
Our early concerns were confirmed with a flight to a 4,000-foot avalanche swath under gray skies on that first afternoon. The slide path was well covered, but the steep faces we were seeking for filming were huge and rocky. Our guide, Swede, insisted that flying higher to the ice cap would yield better results. The following day, we shopped. Flying about with the helicopter meter ticking, struggling to find the right lines with the right snow in this unfamiliar terrain. Mostly we spotted potential – yes, it would be an incredible steep skiing mecca, if only there was more snow. Cloudy skies sent us back to the lodge after three decent runs that left us content for the time being. There were plenty of days left.
Two down days with poor weather followed. Moseley’s head and chest cold from Las Vegas infected photographer Christian Pondella and me, leaving us reeling from compressing brains and sinuses. McConkey got his thrills skydiving out of the helicopter while the rest of us played with rifles and shot pool. An effort to build a snowmobile tow-in gap jump fell apart when the tractor died. Drinking commenced, with the ski town notion of “drinking it blue” put to the test. Gray skies prevailed. McConkey got sick, as did Swede, and books and magazines occupied the hours between lengthy optimistic gazes at the skies.
When it finally did clear, we were window shopping – flying to the ridges with small windows of sunshine. We filmed three days in decent snow with incredible cirques and towering peaks. “Big air” Moseley transformed his moniker into “Big mountain” by charging long, steep lines. Davenport enjoyed cutting off slides and outracing his sluffs. McConkey hucked a 50-foot backflip and mountain goated down a technical stairstep face with 13 separate drops. Morrison launched questionable airs in big mountain lines littered with peppery rocks, landing in just eight inches of powder atop a crust.
When the talent is there, things tend to happen regardless of conditions. Not all was lost.
Especially when the treat finally arrived – the type of first descent runs that remains a dream for most … the kind of line that is never seen in ski films these days because it’s slow, so huge, and more of a soulful experience than high-action sequences. We decided to stop searching for Alaskan-style high speed faces and go with what obviously dominated the region – incredible snaking couloirs that slithered through towers of rock thousands of feet to the river drainages so far below. We found our jewel, a 4,700-foot vertical cleft evenly splitting a pyramid shaped peak so imposing that Moseley would later say, without shame, “I thought I was going to Moseley-out and join the bar-b guys (the safe, stationary camera position across the valley) with my little camera.” Dubbed by skiers “Matchstick Couloir,” the deep, dark chute provided the final and most rewarding turns of the trip. Moseley, Morrison, Davenport and McConkey, tiny specks within this massive couloir, descended all at once. It was a shot that will survive in the film for little more than a few seconds, but a big first descent that will be embedded in their memories forever.
While clearly the principal focus of such a trip, the skiing and filming can almost seem secondary in the end. So much lounging , sickness, waiting and killing time. There was Moseley sitting at the dinner table wearing a massive grizzly head. There was Alex – the owner of the lodge who isn’t accustomed to being around our sort of people – receiving great amusement by throwing around words “huck” and “rip” into his conversation by the end of our stay. And there’s the reading, bottles of liquor disappearing, views of the peaks enshrouded in clouds, skits performed for the film to make us feel were accomplishing something, napping, game after game of pool, McConkey horrifying Alex’s little boy by pulling his eye-lids back and the coughing and hacking and ears filling with fluid from altitude changes in the heli. And there’s the irate man futilely swinging his umbrella at our getaway car after McConkey landed a BASE jump on a Vancouver street the night before returning home, yelling “no free jumps in this neighborhood!”
A dream ski adventure? Only in part.
I don’t think any filmmakers or athletes would want to trade their lives with anyone else. The opportunities for travel and experiencing things that might be unobtainable to most is something we do not take for granted. We do what we do and live where we live because we love it. Is the filming life fun? Certainly, but is it all the glory and glamour that it is often perceived as? Certainly not. It is a job. A damn good job, but a job nonetheless.
Scott Gaffney is a filmmaker who currently resides in Olympic Valley. His most recent works include 1999, Breathe and Walls of Freedom.
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