The Dangerous World Of 'Snow Porn'

Five-day hikes. 4am starts. Oxygen masks for the crew. The movie companies specialising in “snow porn” will go to any extremes to get their shot. Welcome to the world of “fall-and-you-die” film-making

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A  few years ago, Justin Hostynek was working on a film in Norway when he had an idea for capturing the perfect shot of a snowboarder in action. As the founder and creative force behind Absinthe Films, one of the planet’s most successful snowboard film-making companies, Hostynek had organised a trip to Hemsedal in the Scandinavian Alps to shoot footage of professional riders hurling themselves 25m through the air off an enormous jump custom-built for them.

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“I knew if I could capture the riders with a wide-angle lens doing these huge tricks that we’d get something really compelling on film,” Hostynek says. “We joked we needed a jet pack to do it.”

In case you couldn’t guess, making a snowboarding movie is nothing like turning out a Hollywood action film, where camera angles and stunts are calculated on a controlled set. Budgets for “snow porn” flicks are minuscule by comparison, too – around £350,000 for the most established companies like Absinthe – so Hostynek had no expenses for luxuries like scaffolding or a crane camera, neither of which would really work in such an extreme setting anyway. Fortunately, Mads Jonsson, a Norwegian professional snowboarder, was there for the shoot, along with his very wealthy uncle, a snack food mogul, who happened to have brought along his helicopter.

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Filming from helicopters is standard fare in this gravity-fuelled genre, but Hostynek wasn’t interested in the sweeping aerials and scene-setting takes the machines normally afford. He wanted to get close to his riders, really close. Of course, the helicopter’s limb-whacking blades and violent downdrafts wouldn’t make that easy. A short while later, though, Hostynek had devised a way to use the machine to film the athletes from just feet away as they spun and twisted, sometimes upside down in mid-flight: he would attach ropes to the skids and dangle 12m below the chopper as it raced alongside the riders. He would have no way of communicating with the pilot, who had never done this sort of stunt flying before. No matter.

“I said, ‘Strap in! We’re going to get this shot!’” recalls Hostynek. He filmed this way for two hours as the snowboarders performed their jumps; after each one, snowmobiles took them back up to start again. It was one of the most uncomfortable, but daring, things he’d done for a film.

The sequence, which eventually appeared in Vivid, a 45-minute film released in 2002, is at once stunning and stomach-churning. The 16mm footage is so intimate it makes you feel like you’re floating with the pros, one of whom, actually flies above Hostynek and his self-styled “dangle cam”.

“It worked out perfectly,” Hostynek says. “We got so close, like within 8ft, that I could even use a fisheye.” As a joke, Absinthe thanked an imaginary jet pack company in the credits for help with capturing the footage.

While Absinthe’s newest film, Dopamine, has just ended a 21-city European tour (you may soon find it on iTunes), the art of snowboard film-making continues to evolve. Tricks that seemed huge in 2002, like spinning three times in the air, are now almost old school, because today’s athletes can do that many rotations while being “corked”, or slightly off-axis, with double backflips thrown in for good measure. They ride bigger, steeper lines faster, thanks partly to better equipment. And quantum leaps in digital filmography have produced cameras so sophisticated they can capture detail four times greater than a standard HD TV can display. Yet one aspect of the craft remains as steady as ever: to make a great movie, it helps to have a great adventure.

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“A lot of the movies we make are as much about the journey as they are about snowboarding,” says Todd Jones, who along with four friends in 1995 used money from commercial fishing jobs in Alaska to launch Teton Gravity Research, a film company that has now produced 28 award-winning action-sports feature-length movies.

“When you go into a new area, you have all of these unknowns that you have to figure out so a rider can do these spectacular lines, and when it works, it’s incredibly rewarding,” Jones says.

TGR, as the Wyoming-based company is known, will soon be wrapping up a six-year, three-movie project that has followed Jones’ brother, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, on his quest to find some of the planet’s most impressive snowboarding terrain. His trilogy Deeper, Further and Higher has taken the crew to places like Hokkaido, Japan, where January storms can bring so much snow that locals must leap from their upstairs balconies to escape buried homes. Another adventure was set in Svalbard, Norway, where Jones climbed mountains and ripped midnight runs under Arctic pink skies. In October, TGR was in Nepal to film scenes for Higher, due out next year. There, Jeremy Jones hoped to snowboard an unnamed 22,000ft peak near Ama Dablam that has never been ridden before.

Filming in such a far-flung location requires months of planning and tremendous physical effort for what will amount to very little footage of actual riding. It’s a five-day hike to the base of the unnamed peak in Nepal from Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, a terrifying lick of bitumen where planes must land uphill on a 12 per cent gradient that ends in a cliff. The team then schlepped hundreds of pounds of delicate gear, including cameras, hard drives, back-up hard drives, battery packs, solar chargers, laptops and tripods, not to mention survival gear like tents, sleeping bags, ice axes, ropes, food and fuel, over rocky trails wending through the high, lung-bursting air.

And that was just the beginning. There are no chairlifts, of course, so one cameraman would climb the mountain with Jeremy Jones, while others would wake at 4am to scale opposing peaks riddled with glaciers, avalanche-prone slopes and “fall-you-die” ridges to get shots looking back at the snowboarding scenes – which could only last for 10 seconds a time. Meanwhile, a helicopter-based film crew stationed 100 miles away had to be coordinated to film the action with TGR’s remote-controlled GSS C520, an ultra HD camera with stabilising gyroscopes attached to the outside of the helicopter. The crew flew so high they needed oxygen masks.

“I don’t think people realise the amount of time we spend waiting for the day to be right, with the sun out and with high-quality snow that’s safe to ride,” Todd Jones says. “If you take all of the snowboarding scenes from Nepal and put them together, we’ll probably have four minutes’ worth.”

The makers of one of the year’s more remarkable movies waited for years to learn how their film would end. The Crash Reel, by two-time Academy Award nominee Lucy Walker, replaces the high-adventure trick-trick-trick formula of the snowboard model with the heartbreaking tale of Kevin Pearce, a charming American Olympic snowboarding hopeful who struggles to let go of the sport after it nearly kills him. Pearce was attempting a series of off-axis flips in a Utah half-pipe in late 2009 when he slammed face first into the ice.

“Most injuries last a couple of months but my brain injury is now almost four years old and I’m still dealing with it,” Pearce says. “I have double vision. I can’t remember things. It’s pretty hard to remain motivated this long after an injury but I’ve come to terms with it.”

That isn’t the case for much of the film as Pearce tries to convince his family he can snowboard again, even though a slight bang on the head could leave him severely impaired. What emerges isn’t a film about snowboarding so much as an intimate look at the risks pro riders are willing to take and the complexities of human perseverance. 

“At first I thought this was a sad two-act story: Olympic hopeful crashes,” says Walker, whose other titles include Countdown to Zero and Waste Land. “But then I realised Kevin’s story wasn’t over yet. Here was a young man who was going to have to dig really deep to reinvent himself. All he wanted to do was get back on a board but doctors believed he’d kill himself if he did. You have this incredibly intense, dramatic story.”

Pearce has made tremendous progress since filming. He does snowboard these days, but he keeps it “mellow” and cruises around on the slopes just for himself. He’s grateful to be able to do that again yet he also knows he’s missing out.

“When you’re out there really pushing it, working hard, feeling strong, landing great tricks, it’s this unexplainable feeling,” he says. “It’s a feeling of total freedom and exhilaration. I haven’t been able to get that again.” 

Photograph by Scott Sullivan

The Crash Reel DVD is out now

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