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How Warren Miller Films Stays 'Totally Mobile' on the Mountainside

D.P. Chris Patterson on Getting Extreme Ski Footage in the Can

Warren Miller started making ski movies almost 60 years ago, shooting with a wind-up 16mm camera, striking a couple of prints, and travelling around the world to ski clubs where he narrated his footage, live, from a corner of the stage. The technology has been transformed over the years, culminating in the film's contemporary incarnation as a digital projection running from HDCAM tapes. (The actual show is still shot on a mix of Super 8, Super 16, and 35mm film because of a need for extreme slow-motion techniques.)

Today, the annual Warren Miller ski film hits something like 180 cities on a whirlwind world tour, with multiple screenings at venues that reach into the thousands of seats. "I live in Bozeman, Montana," says D.P. Chris Patterson, who started with Warren Miller Films before even finishing film school (at the University of Colorado at Boulder, natch) in 1992. "We do a show there for about 2000 people over the course of two nights."

We asked Patterson to tell us about what it takes to get his brand of extreme ski footage in the can. Watch the trailer for this year's Warren Miller film, Off the Grid, then read the interview below.

FILM & VIDEO: Tell me how you got involved with Warren Miller Films.

CHRIS PATTERSON: I had been going to these Warren Miller things as long as I could remember. Every fall it was a rite of passage. I went to film school, so I took the two things I loved the most – the lifestyle of a ski bum and filmmaking – and put them together. I was shooting some stuff in school, and sent it to the head of production at Warren Miller, a guy named Don Brolin. It was the first Fed Ex package I ever sent, and it took every dollar and penny I had. A day or two later, Don called me and said, “You’re not much of an editor. But you’ve got a great eye. One of our principal cameramen is shooting in Colorado – do you have time to hook up with him?” So I dropped everything, and that was the start of it.

Tell me about your camera kit. What gear do you need to get your job done?

We shoot in a variety of film formats, from Super 8 to Super 35. It depends on the environment and access. We try to keep a very simple package. It has to be totally mobile, in that it’s going to go in a backpack and travel via skis everywhere, either on my back or an assistant’s back. My typical package consists of an Arriflex SR-2 high-speed Super 16 camera with a 6mm Century wide-angle lens, a Zeiss 12-120mm zoom, and a fast telephoto lens – a fixed Canon 300mm 2.8. We take a lightweight tripod with some sturdy carbon-fiber legs, but we treat it like bicycle racing – we trim down as much as we can so we can move faster and lighter in the field. We have a simple filter kit, and we don’t take video assist. We use expedition lithium batteries that last forever and aren’t affected by cold temperatures – I’ve shot as many as 60 magazines of film on these batteries. That’s the standard package.

Anything more exotic?

I also have a Photosonics Actionmaster that will shoot up to 400 fps, and that gets us dreamy slow-motion shots where powder is floating over a guy’s head and you see every flake and chunk of snow drifting in the air – really magical stuff. And then there’s the Photosonics 1VN, which is very lightweight. It runs up to 200 fps, and we use that for helmet-camera work, or we put it on a boom pole and hang it out over a cliff. We also use that for tracking shots where we’re skiing alongside one of the athletes, holding this camera with a wide-angle lens. Our Super 8 is normally just a little wind-up camera I bought in Russia years ago. And then we use an Arriflex 35-III with a couple of zoom lenses and a fixed Nikon 600mm for when we’re shooting Super 35. We tend to use that only when I’m in Alaska, or destinations where we have complete helicopter access, and we’re there to shoot what we call "barbecue shots." I’m on a separate peak from the athletes, in a very safe place, and I’m shooting across the valley to guys as they’re skiing.

You’re a camera operator, too, right?

Yes. Our crew on a typical shoot consists of me and three athletes, and maybe a camera assistant and a still photographer.

Are you the guy who hoists a camera on his shoulder, skis downhill, and starts shooting footage?

Yes. One of the things I love is to move the camera, and one of my specialties has always been tracking shots where I’m traveling beside the skier, shooting. One might assume we have a Steadicam, or some kind of gyro-stabilized gizmo. We’ve tried those, but what it really comes down to is cradling the camera in your arms right in front of you and using your eyes to guide you, with a wide lens, as you travel alongside these guys. It’s fun because you’re participating with the athletes as they’re doing these moves, but at the same time you’re focusing on how you’re holding that camera and your estimate of where the frame is. We’ve done so much of it that you just know exactly how and where to hold it, without looking through the viewfinder, to capture that shot. A lot of times, people see it and say, “There’s no way he’s just skiing along with the camera.”

The reaction is like, “Holy crap! Is the cameraman skiing?” Yes, that’s how you get the shot.

That’s where being a skier, obviously, is critical. You sort of envision it by saying, “Well, here’s where I’d put the cablecam to do this.” And then you just grab the camera and ski down beside him instead. It’s not that we’re so low-budg that we can’t do that. It’s just that we prefer the organic approach to it. We’ll arrive at a ski resort, and they’ll say, “All right, where’s the crew?” And you’re looking at it. I’m the director, producer, field producer, production assistant, cameraman, director of photography – whatever you want me to be, I’m going to be playing that role at some point today. We want a small crew because we’ll be traveling in fairly hazardous, avalanche-prone conditions, and you don’t want a crew of people out there. You want a small group of very smart people, experienced people who will work as a team and not expose each other to any additional hazard.

How difficult are the technical aspects of keeping your look together – maintaining focus, or correct exposure?

You learn how to read the conditions. We shoot a majority of our scenes backlit because it looks so beautiful with the snow flying and offers better contrast when the film is exposed. You scout the mountain as you’re skiing it, watching where that sun’s moving. And different times in the winter are a different experience. In January you’ve got these long, beautiful shadows and contrasty light. But by March and April, the sun is so high that you can really only shoot very early and very late to get that same quality of light. Ultimately, we’re always looking for great quality of light when we’re shooting. It’s key to know the environment in that way and predict how the sun is going to move and interact with the terrain. It’s a discipline for sure. A lot of the time the athletes are like, “Hey man, I don’t care – I want to ski that right now.” And you have to rein them in and say, “You know what? It’s going to be a 100 percent better shot if we wait three hours and shoot it closer to sunset.”

And what’s your post-production process?

Ultimately we transfer everything to HDCAM, cut it in Final Cut Pro, online in HDCAM, do final color-correction in HD, and then project the film in HD with Panasonic PT-DW7000U HD projectors. We just started doing HD projection last year, and I was astounded by the quality. HD technology is catching up with film, and it’s there in many cases. But 90 percent of our footage is shot high-speed, at 60 to 150 to 400 fps, and we have to shoot film to achieve that.

Did you say 90 percent?

Close to 90. You’re just flying through film, but you’re capturing something hypnotic. It’s fun when we’re out there making those decisions. “I’m going to shoot this at 400 fps because I know that powder’s going to blow up over the skier's shoulders and the audience is going to freak out because they’ve never seen snow look like this before."

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