Friday, January 25, 2013

Tips from a ski filmmaker


Filmmaking has been a great lifelong career for me. I’ve been able to parlay a $90 wind-up camera into enough money to provide a college education for all three of my children, build a company, employ others and enjoy an extraordinary life. The paychecks of filmmakers can be sporadic, but I was very lucky I chose the subject of skiing for my movies when not very many people had ever seen a ski resort.

Last night at dinner, a young man sitting next to me had two good questions. He wanted to know how to get started in filmmaking. He was asking on behalf of a friend who wanted to be a full-time videographer. His friend wanted to make ski videos and be popular in the ski world and ski whenever and wherever he wanted.

My first response was simple. I said if his friend liked to ski that much, he should go skiing and maybe become a ski instructor. He could teach all winter and spend his hard earned money on computer chips for the camera that his father gave him. The young man replied that his friend had a major problem—he had dropped out of high school. I had some experience in dropping out myself so I tried to give hard-earned advice.

I suggested that his friend suck it up and go back and at least get a high school degree. I suggested his friend might choose to join the Army, Navy, or Marines and learn discipline. A military tour of duty can make a responsible adult out of almost any young person. These things are important because the discipline of making a ski movie isn’t easy to handle. While all of your friends are skiing, you are climbing and traversing to get to that special camera angle that will set your video apart. I used an old-fashioned wind-up camera and hence I had a heavy load to carry to each camera location.

His second question was, “When was the last time you bought a lift ticket?” I gave him an honest but long answer: “November of 1946 when I started making 8mm ski movies at Alta. I learned to ask for a trade-off for a free ticket by offering to show the movies of Alta when I got back to Southern California. Once I started shooting 16mm film I would expose from five to as many as 20 rolls of film a day. At $11 a roll I was spending a lot more money on film than on the daily lift ticket price of $5 to $10. I felt that any money I could save on things such as lift tickets or sleeping accommodations could be spent on making the film better.”

Subjects to study can make you a better filmmaker, I told the young man. One is arithmetic, another is artistic composition, and a third is psychology.

Arithmetic is vital because everything connected to the production of a movie revolves around numbers like travel expenses, cost of the crew, room and board, camera rental, editorial costs, musical score, actors and actresses and so on.

So far as artistic composition is concerned, I could assign 100 cameramen to photograph something as simple as a square room and I would be presented with 100 different versions of that room. Psychology enters the picture, since the object of a film is to change people’s minds about the subject. I can film a skier so that you are inspired to try and take up the sport. On the other hand, I can film a skier on a vertical sheet of ice in Chamonix and make it look so dangerous you would never even want to try to learn how to do something so dangerous.

Since 1950, someone with my name on his or her heavy rucksack full of camera gear has documented almost every place in the world where there is enough snow to ski. Either my camera crew or I have been there with a lot of film to capture the ski scene for audiences worldwide—whether it’s been 18,000 feet in the Himalayas. or the summit of a volcano in Mexico, or a rickety single chairlift in a remote corner of Russia, or even the world’s first private ski resort in Montana.

All I ever wanted to do was share on film what I had viewed first hand. If I had it to do all over again, I would have worked harder in high school and maybe finished my filmmaking class at USC. It was so boring that I never went to class and instead dropped out of college. Luckily I had already spent my four years in the Navy so I bought a small trailer and went skiing for the rest of my life.

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