Extreme filmmaking brings extreme rewards
Ryan Summerlin March 29, 2012
You’re almost to the top. You’re standing on the edge of the ledge, ready to drop. You’re ready to do what decades ago people thought was impossible. And you have to film it at the same time. Wait, what? Ever wondered what goes into the making of action, adventure and extreme sports movies? The Vail Film Festival this weekend features three films, “The Art of Flight,” “Inuk,” and “High Ground,” where the story behind making each film is just as captivating as the films themselves.
“The Art of Flight” follows snowboarder Travis Rice and his gang of boarding bandits as they travel the world in search of the highest peaks and deepest jumps. Shot over two years, the creators wanted to elevate snowsports films to the next level. Using a variety of high-tech digital and film cameras helped make the film visually stunning, but also proved to be more of a challenge. Some of the cameras were very heavy and had difficulty working in freezing temperatures.
“You’ve spent three days building one jump, and the rider is about to drop, and then your camera doesn’t work,” said Greg Wheeler, one of the principal cinematographers on the film.
In making “The Art of Flight,” Wheeler and the other crew members endured harsh weather and avalanche dangers all while trying to get enough footage for a feature-length movie. Even some of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments were in fact months in the making.
“Weeks and days of work go into just one five-second shot,” Wheeler said.
Snowboarders are always pushing themselves to the limit, the crew being no exception.
“As a cameraman we want that awesome moment; with risks comes rewards,” Wheeler said. “There were definitely moments when the room for error (was) very slim.”
At one point while shooting in Canada, the cast and crew were stuck on a ridge trying to escape a storm coming in. The wiper blades on their helicopter were frozen, and they almost didn’t make it off the ground in time. Frightening shooting situations aside, the end result made all the obstacles worth it for both the cast and crew.
“A lot of people that wouldn’t expect to see a snowboard film, they come back and say that it was a beautiful film, that it gave them goose bumps,” Wheeler said. “You hear stuff like that, that’s why I do it, (to) get other people inspired.”
“Inuk” is a fiction film that tells the story of a troubled young boy and the Inuit people of northern Greenland. Inuk is 16 and living in Nuuk, the capitol of Greenland, when he gets sent to a children’s home in Uummannaq. There he meets the ice hunters, who take him and the other children out on the ice in search of seals. The first fictional feature shot in northern Greenland, the film uses non-professional actors and the entire cast is native to the area.
Having previously worked for the Discovery Channel and directed two documentaries on the Inuit people of Greenland, director Mike Magidson had some idea of what was ahead of him. But that didn’t mean that shooting outside on the ice in negative 30 degrees Celsius was a breeze. Combine that with child actors who don’t speak your language and dog sleds as your only mode of transportation and you’ve got one heck of a filming challenge.
“Sometimes I didn’t think I was making a film, I thought I was actually in ‘The Shining,'” Magidson said. “I didn’t know if my sound engineer wanted to slice my throat or eat me…There were a couple of nervous breakdowns.”
The cast and crew spent a full four weeks out on the ice, sleeping on dog sleds at night next to “snoring rustic old hunters,” said Magidson. The director wanted to make sure that the filming of “Inuk” was positive experience for the child actors, all of whom had been in a group home and suffered some form of abuse in their young lives.
“We didn’t know if the children were going to last the whole film,” Magidson said. “We didn’t want to exploit them. When it became negative for all of them, we would say, ‘Should we keep going? Look at the kids, is it good for them?'”
Although there were ups and downs, the audience and critical reaction to the movie has made those cold nights out on the ice a beneficial experience.
“(The kids) not only had a chance to learn but have something to be really proud of for the rest of their life,” Magidson said. “The challenge was huge but the payoff was even bigger.”
In “High Ground,” a group of U.S. soldiers who have suffered injuries and post-traumatic-stress attempt to climb Mt. Lobuche in the Himalayas. The movie is more than your standard climbing adventure, as the stories and lives of the soldiers, filled with sadness and loss, cut through to the core. Director Michael Brown actually grew up in Vail. Brown helped his father, who runs Summit Films, make outdoor movies as a teenager before starting his own production company, Serac Adventure films, based in Boulder.
Brown is an avid climber and has reached the top of Mt. Everest five times. Being an adventure filmmaker requires that one must stay in shape and be able to “suffer through day after day” while shooting, Brown said.
“The summit day was hard because we were up all night,” Brown said. “It’s an important part of the story and you only have a few hours to get it. The pressure is on so we have to be tuned in and sharp and not get ourselves hurt up there climbing.”
Ten years ago Brown made a documentary following Erik Weihenmayer, who was the first blind man to climb Mt. Everest. In “High Ground” Weihenmayer helps guide a veteran, who was blinded during combat, to the top of the mountain.
Physical challenges aside, the biggest hurdle in making the film was getting the veterans to open up about their personal lives and experiences while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brown hopes that the film will help civilians better understand what a soldier goes through, in addition to connecting with veterans themselves. Despite the risks of climbing, the journey to the top can be a great healing process for those suffering from combat wounds, both physical and mental.
“What we really want to do is help veterans and get the word out,” Brown said. “Wilderness therapy has an incredible value.”
Whether shooting snowboarding in Chile, holding the camera with frozen fingers, or hiking in the Himalayas, all these filmmakers toughed it out because they believed strongly in the story they were trying to tell. Shooting these movies was intense, but maybe watching them will prove to be even more engrossing. Head to the festival this weekend to see the films and decide for yourself.-
Rosanna Turner is a freelance writer based in Vail. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org