Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Dedication required
Vail, CO, Colorado
Last night at dinner, the young man sitting next to me had two good questions. The first was from a friend of his who wanted to be a full-time videographer and wanted me to give him some advice on how to get started.
I asked him all of the usual questions. Of course, all his friend wanted was to make ski videos, be popular in the ski world and be able to ski whenever and wherever he wanted.
My answer was simple. If he 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.
His young friend had a very major problem, however. He had quit high school when he was a senior and never went back.
I suggested that he might have some problems to overcome on his career path. If he thought high school was too tough, he had either one or more of the following problems: alcohol, drugs or parents, and he should suck it up and go back and at least get a high school degree.
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It finally came down to two choices. His friend should join the Army, Navy or Marines and understand the word “discipline,” especially since the discipline of making a ski movie is not 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 from everyone else’s. I used an old-fashioned wind up camera and hence I had a heavy load to carry to each camera location.
Then he asked, “When was the last time you bought a lift ticket?”
I had to give him an honest but long answer: “I think it was in November of 1946, when I started making 8mm ski movies at Alta. I soon learned to ask for a trade-off for a free ticket by offering to show 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 in a day. At $11 a roll, I was spending a lot more money on film than on a $5 or $10 lift ticket. I also felt that any money I could save on things such as lift tickets or sleeping accommodations, I would spend making the film better.”
Back to the young videographer. A military tour of duty can make a responsible adult out of almost any young person. Besides, learning to go without sleep and still operate effectively makes the best out of a young man or woman.
There is an often-told tale that is not very nice about filmmakers. The men and women who can’t make a living making movies make a living teaching other people how to make movies. I personally think they would rather have the regular paycheck than the sporadic one of a filmmaker. I was very lucky because I chose the subject of skiing to make movies about when not very many people had ever even seen a ski resort.
There are, however, some very important subjects to study that can make you a better filmmaker. The first is arithmetic because everything connected to the production of a movie revolves around numbers such as travel expenses, cost of the crew, room and board camera rental, editorial costs, musical score, actors and actresses and so on for about three pages of different costs before you even get the job after you figure out what it will cost to make the movie.
The next important subject is artistic composition. I could assign 100 people to photograph something as simple as a square room and I will have 100 different versions of that room.
The third and very important subject you should study is psychology. Most often, the object of your film is to change people’s minds about the subject you are producing the movie about. You need to know what makes a person change their mind, and you are the guy who has to do it.
For example, I can film a skier so that you are inspired to try and take up the sport or I can film a skier on a vertical sheet of ice in Chamonix and make it look so dangerous that you would never even want to try to learn how to do something that dangerous.
Filmmaking has been a great lifelong career for me as I was able to parlay a $90, 8mm Bell and Howell 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.
If you are looking for a profession that has no boundaries, think about filmmaking. 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 on the ground to ski.
All I ever wanted to do was share on film what I always had the privilege of viewing first hand. If I had to do it all over again, I know what I would do differently, like work harder in high school and maybe finish my filmmaking class at USC. It was so boring that I never went to class the third time, but instead I 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. Why not?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications.