Vail Daily column: Where it all began
Ryan Summerlin June 6, 2014
Was I nervous? You bet! In the end of 1949, 3 feet of new powder snow had fallen overnight at a brand new ski resort called Squaw Valley.
Donner Summit was closed so there were no customers, and for the first time in my life I was pointing my brand new 16-millimeter Bell and Howell camera at the ski school director, Emile Allais. Emile was twice world champion prior to World War II and was skiing with his own unique ski technique. I had learned about the French technique during the previous winter when teaching the Arlberg technique for Otto Lang in Sun Valley and thought it made so much more sense and brought a beginner along much more quickly.
I had only taken 12 rolls of film with my new camera and they were either from the beach of surfers or from riding on my surfboard with my camera in a waterproof box that I had built the summer before.
For my first attempt at ski photography, I had naively left my camera in the brown leather case with red velvet lining that it had arrived in on my doorstep in Sun Valley six months earlier.
‘The more we do, the more we can do.’
I had been hired by airmail as a ski instructor for this brand new resort with the first double chairlift west of Colorado.
The ski patrolmen who were skiing with Emile and another instructor, Stan Tomlinson, handled the powder effortlessly and I used what experience I had shooting 8-millimeter footage for the previous three winters of Ward Baker and other people and interesting things at Sun Valley.
My camera was loaned to me by Chuck Percy, who was then the president of Bell and Howell, to help me get started in my film career of travel films … a loan that I paid off in a little less than three years hence.
With my limited knowledge of camera angles and shadows and backlighting, the only difference was that the images were going onto 16-millimeter film stock instead of 8-millimeter.
My rucksack was a $6 Army surplus canvas bag on a metal frame with canvas straps. The first time I took the camera out of the rucksack and the leather carrying case, I realized I had made a major mistake in not having it ready to come out at a moment’s notice. I realized this trying to get ready to photograph exactly the right backlit, untracked powder snow. It took too much time to open the rucksack, lift out the leather suitcase, check the F-stop and start filming.
With film costing $11 a roll including processing, I had only saved up enough money to buy five rolls of film. Those five rolls of film was only the equivalent of 12.5 minutes of ski time. By the time the sun had disappeared behind the ridge, my hands were frozen and I was really nervous the next five or six days until the footage arrived back and I could look at it. I was very surprised to discover that most of those first five rolls of film were very good — good enough to include them in my first feature-length ski film, “Deep and Light.”
Over the course of the winter on my $31.25 a week payroll, I managed to somehow ferret away enough money to buy 37 more rolls of film, and from that I created that first film that I showed in the fall of 1950.
I relied on the experience of my 8-millimeter photography days with Ward Baker when we were living in the teardrop trailer for two winter seasons. I was able to shoot some footage of people trying to get up the rope tows as well as a young girl skiing with soft galoshes that rotated her feet at least 90 degrees without ever actually turning her skis.
In the late spring of 1950, the editor and publisher of Western Skiing, Lester Jay, was at Squaw Valley. I rented a 16-millimeter projector and showed him my accumulated footage. Jay liked what he saw and offered to help me get started in the feature film business.
As I sit here in my office, in our home for eight months of the year on Orcas Island, and reflect back on those exciting first days of photography and the literally thousands of days in between then and now, I can’t ever recall feeling as though I have worked a day in my professional life. I really liked what I was doing and the sharing with anyone who would pay me a dollar to come see my film. So it never was like going to work. I just had to prove that the dollar they spent to see the film was worth it to them.
That first camera was like a magic carpet for me to visit almost every ski resort with a chairlift or better in the world, from Zermatt to New Zealand and everything in between.
For the first 14 years that I made the films, I did everything connected with the productions. I selected where I would go; handled the travel complexities; managed to get the best footage I could and then back to the office in the spring and summer to edit, choose the music (from the public domain as I couldn’t afford to pay for music), book the venues and then start the travel all over again to the roughly 110 cities each year that wanted to see the film.
It wasn’t until 1964 when Don Brolin was hired to help me with the filming and post production and Art Lawson came on board to handle sales that I could get some breathing space. And Don stayed with the company long after I retired from anything to do with the company in the 2000s.
That original hand-wind, 16-millimeter camera was a magic magnet to attract people from everyone up the political and economic ladder to people living in buses in parking lots of ski areas … a very broad audience.
At our winter home there is a mahogany mantle over the fireplace carved with a picture of my old Buick and the teardrop trailer that Ward and I lived in for those two winters in the Sun Valley parking lot and the legend on the carving says it all: “Don’t forget where it all began … ”
As the years roll by, I have all those memories of experiences filming, traveling and meeting exciting people all over the world. It’s time to finish up my autobiography and weed through literally thousands of photographs of those memories. My autobiography might just be one man’s historical chronicle of the growth of winter snow sports from a total of 13 chairlifts in North America to what it is today … sometimes as many as 25,000 skiers on a single day at Mammoth and Vail.
One very important thing I learned on this long journey is never to believe what they say about you in a magazine or newspaper because you probably wrote it yourself as a press release! Plus, today your photo may be on the upper half of the front page but tomorrow that paper may just as easily be at the bottom of a birdcage.
It’s been a fun journey of millions of miles from those first rolls of film taken at Squaw Valley to be chosen to be the honorary director of skiing for the Yellowstone Club, the only private ski/golf resort in the world.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.
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