What’s The Story? Putting Some Substance Back into Action Sports Films

Occasionally, a work or an artist comes along that is so influential, so inescapable that anything that comes after can’t help but reference it, intentionally or not. Think about how, after The Matrix, every ad on TV seemed to use that same timeslice technique. Or how, after the Strokes, the world drowned in a surfeit of ‘The…’ guitar bands.

I was reminded of this the other day when I watched the trailer for Candide Thovex’s new film Few Words. Not that I’m saying Candide (who directs as well as stars in the film) has deliberately tried to copy the Art of Flight: far from it. And don’t even suggest it to the Mike Rogge, author of this piece for Powder Magazine.

What I’m saying is that the ubiquitous AoF has stamped it’s visual style so authoritatively over the entire snow scene that the comparison is difficult to avoid. Moody shots of wild animals/long-tracking shots over glaciers/the star atop an inaccessible peak: they’re all here. As a commenter on the Powder article says, ‘How could you NOT compare it to Art of Flight’?

Maybe a similarity was inevitable, given that both of these projects have been part-funded by Quiksilver, for whom Rice and Thovex are two key athletes. And it goes without saying that the skiing will be up there with the best ever filmed. It does beg an interesting question though. Where next for snow films? Are these corporate, deadly serious ‘trick/cut/stomp’ films, however big budget and however many helicopters and HD cameras you use, really the apex of the snow film medium? Where else could they go?

One avenue would be to try something fairly obvious: tell a story. And by story, I don’t mean ‘plot’, like Chalet Girl or whatever. I mean story in the journalistic, documentary sense. Like any sport, snow sports are full of fascinating, compelling stories. The problem is, the only ones we tend to hear are ‘come and admire the amazing life this pro has’. There are exceptions, like René Eckert’s documentary about snowboarding in China, Sleeping Giants, but these tend not to showcase particularly cutting edge riding.

But surely there’s a way to showcase the best riding in the world with some real imagination and narrative power. Other sports have managed it: think Mickey Smith’s great surf short The Dark Side of the Lens, or Stacey Peralta’s documentaries, like the forthcoming Bones Brigade film.

As far as I can see, the field is still clear for somebody in snowsports to successfully marry great footage with a compelling story and take things to the next level. For some inspiration, I think it’s time to dust off the heroic legacy of Greg Stump, the ski film-maker who attempted just this with his series of classic 1980s ski films. Sure, they’ve not dated well. But they still contain more creativity, humour, wit and imagination (OK, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood) than most modern snow films I can think of.

The best bit? Stump is back, to update the story with a new film, The Legend of Aaahhhs. Just in time Greg. Your culture needs you.

This entry was written by matt , posted on Tuesday May 01 2012at 11:05 am , filed under films, skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

17 Responses to “What’s The Story? Putting Some Substance Back into Action Sports Films”

  • Hamish Duncan says:

    In the case of the Candide film and its likeness to the art of flight, creativity is rarely original, often rehashed from a number of avenues (if executed effectively). You would also be very stupid, as a studio (in this case Quicksilver acting as studio / headline sponsor), not to replicate a hugely successful film such as the Art Of Flight. Notice that Hollywood will often bleed-dry certain assets (parts 1,2 and in Police Academy’s case, 5! Or was it 6?!)

    Your point is completely valid. The Mickey Smith film was totally awe inspiring, capturing both the emotional and artistic elements of our sports, not just in how good we are AT them but how good they MAKE us feel. It’s a slight change of interpretation but one of control vs. learning.

    The majority of action sports films are that of the first sentiment and control our interpretations of a sport that ultimately lives without boundaries. If we seek progression in our sports we must dig deeper into what these mean to us – as Mickey Smith has done – seeking an honesty to learn and experience on a level that is personal to us. Then tell this story. I, for one, would watch this film, no matter how good the rider was.

    Ps. the ski film Steep (2008) should also have had a mention here for its excellent storyline.

  • Johno Verity says:

    Good work Matt. I honestly think that the most watchable film this year has been Sexual snowboarding from the Helgasons. It’s some of the best snowboarding but done in a way that’s attainable by most kids who live in a place with any snow. It’s funny, dorky, but sick.

    When I see films like Art of Flight, The Dark Side of the Lens and this new Candide film I just want to shout get over yourself, why so earnest? Lighten up will you. What a depressing showcase to the world of our sports.

    The future? I’m afraid it’s going to be a huge cock off as to how many angles, can be shot on track and dolly, Helicopter, filming other helicopters combined (and this is the biggest joke of all) with shots of wild animals. I’m all for watching the latest sickest riding shot filmed beautifully but lighten up will you.

  • Ed Blomfield says:

    Good piece Matt – though I’d suggest David Benedek took a pretty good stab at the snowboard documentary format with 91 Words and then In Short. In fact we interviewed him at the time and he joked about how ‘documentary’ seemed to be the new bandwagon for folk to jump on, having previously copied the RobotFood style. I guess with Benedek out the picture these days, people are taking Curt Morgan’s lead (for better or worse). There’s always the reaction though – as in the old school low budget stuff that reminds me of Creatures of Habit. See… http://whitelines.mpora.com/videos/teasers/birds-shitfeather-trailer.html

    Interestingly, a French mate of mine is Candide’s official stills guy for his ski company, and he said they admit to taking their inspiration from snowboarding – in terms of the style, attitude, fashion and even filming/photo techniques. He said snowboarding’s always one step ahead, which is flattering on the surface but kinda bugs me cos it never seems to be a two-way street. What do we get out of this deal?!

  • Johno Verity I think you have a very valid point, I see where you’re coming from. From my perspective I just want to see films that relate to what I feel about the sports and often the light hearted, ‘we’re all having such a fun time’ thing can seem totally trite.

    I don’t remember hitting big kickers thinking; this is so much fun! Are we not telling a lie to appear that all of this, often dangerous and punishing pursuit, is a walk in the park?

    But at the same time, you’re right, it can go too far and be cliched in another way. Maybe there is some middle ground to this story, one that we may see in the coming years. I certainly hope so.

  • Harry Mitchell Thompson says:

    Nice piece Matt.

    Art of Flight has indeed stamped its style right across the snow sports scene. The Winter X Games love their ‘Mega Mo’ replays in both pipe and slopestyle and have done for a few years now. Let’s be honest…how long was it going to be before it happened to the snowboard films released every Autumn?

    Yes, the moody shots of animals running across our screens filmed by some radical cinelflex camera seem misplaced – but, watch any documentary film and fillers are there. Maybe the wild animals stampeding across the screen are supposed to represent just how wild/vast/exposed the journey was to get to a filming spot?

    I agree with Johno Verity, Sexual Snowboarding was a rad film. Fun, funny, tongue-in-cheek, but some next-level snowboarding. But, surely it’s just the other end of the spectrum? AoF = big budget, helicopters, shit ton of snow. Sexual Snowboarding = jib, jib, jib.

    In my opinion, both great films in their own right. Fair enough, SS probably had 10 times more real time footage than the AoF, but as I said, they’re on different ends of the spectrum. A spectrum full of some awe-inspiring snowboarding and still such an important part to the snowboard lifestyle today.

    It would be great to see a snowboard film with a story line. A documentary style film. But, to be honest…who/what in snowboarding is interesting enough to warrant a documentary being made about them?

    Like you said, Matt the typical story line would be the ‘come and admire the amazing life this pro has’. Unless the film maker got lucky and something extraordinary happens whilst filming, then it’d be pretty dull.

    Documentaries are usually made over some topic for debate, some contentious point that needs to be either looked into or solved. Maybe a camera crew could follow Reto Lamm and Terje from now until we get to govern our own sport at the Olympics?

    Anyway, I think that there is a sole purpose to snowboard films. Surely it has to be where you watch a flick and come away thinking “holy shitballs, I wanna go snowboarding!”

    Anything else that comes from snowboard films is a bonus, right?

  • matt says:

    Of course both are valuable in their own right, the point is that 99% of the output just showcases that snow porn end of that spectrum. After watching pretty much the same film for twenty years, I’m just wondering why more people don’t try something different. I also agree with Johno that a lot of them are just completely humourless. I’m not just talking about snowboarding either, I think it’s a failing with many action sports films. The amount of Art of Flight parodies doing the rounds would suggest plenty of people are also a bit over it.

    Where I would disagree Harry is that it’s it’s a fairly big assumption to say that anything that didn’t focus on a pro or a personality would automatically be dull. ‘Who is interesting enough to warrant a documentary being made about them?’ It’s the job of the film-maker/journalist/artist/whoever to seek out the interesting stories and present them in a compelling way. That’s why making good films or documentaries in any medium or industry is actually pretty hard.

    Take a parallel with magazines – they’re not just exclusively full of profiles of athletes. I pitched that Transworld column about the Olympics to loads of magazines around the world who said no-one would give a shit about it. Transworld took a chance on it and it’s been by far the most commented on article I’ve been involved with in 15 years of writing about snowboarding.

    Overall, I guess my point is that the industry thinks this is as good as we can do, that the typical action sports punter is only into high def snow porn with as much depth as a paddling pool. Basically, I disagree – I think there are plenty of stories out there that just need uncovering, and there would be an audience for it.

  • Ed Blomfield says:

    @ Harry and Hamish – I’ll say it again: 91 Words for Snow!! Possibly best movie ever IMO. Managed to combine the different aspects of snowboarding into a non-patronising, hype-free and interesting documentary that, best of all, made you want to ride.

  • Ed Blomfield says:

    Have a read/watch of this. Here’s hoping the big man returns from film school in a few years to blow our minds again, tho I suspect he’ll apply his talent to a different subject now… http://whitelines.mpora.com/features/interviews/interview-david-benedek-current-state-makingof-video.html

  • Once again a great piece from you Matt, a great read, and reflects many of the meetings which i feel many brands have regularly about “where is film making headed next”. For this film, Its kind of carte blanche I mean its from the same company basically who made art of flight, and well that worked, so I dont blame them for doing the same again. It works, and for sure, it will work well for the main stream audience again.

    I think perhaps more the interesting argument is the whole thing in general. As you say, it was action movies, then fun movies, then interview movies, then action movies again, and now its like some softcore porno with the most beautiful angles possible. I definitely see right now, that a lot of the people with the budgets, and their producers are getting really excited about using Red Cams, cineflex and everything else, which is all well and good, however the grim reality is what size screen did you just watch that trailer on? A youtube 420 thing right? Me too. Some kids have shitty internet speeds, and download it off some crappy site and so much of the strived for quality is lost.

    Things like helgasons worked well and so many of the movies which are going back to the roots, hand held cameras, and fish eye, just think a lot of kids might be over the big budget stuff. However, if we are to get our sports into the mainstream and then grow the numbers participating, we have to continue to strive to produce pieces which engage the kids just getting into it. I remember day tripper with Danny Wheeler, one of the main reasons I liked it as a clueless kid was because they travelled and you found out some of that, it was just snowporn.

    Either way, David Benedek has produced consistently the most effective, thought provoking, romantic, inspiring videos of the last decade or so, and would love to see more film makers put some thought into what they are doing.

    Also now, with the internet, blogs and daily videos though, we have so much more room to marry the three, with like the documentary style, in the form of daily blogs, the funny quick edited stuff online, and then an end of season beautifully shot piece. I guess thats the way forward, but it depends on people investing in that and also buying into one persons creative vision.

  • Harry Mitchell Thompson says:

    Yeah, fair point.

    I wasn’t meaning that anything that didn’t focus on an athlete would be dull, I more was pointing towards current athletes themselves being fairly dull. Yes, their talent is great. But none, in my opinion, have a story that is documentary-worthy. But this is just because I don’t know them. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting stories within the snowboard world, and I, for one, can’t wait to see how they’re played out.

    I just hope those journalists/artists/film makers can find those stories and give us something more interesting, and stir only one feeling in us – the stoke for snowboarding!

  • Rian Rhoe says:

    Snowboarding is a much younger sport than surfing or skateboarding. It’s only now that there are people who are old enough to have any distance or perspective. I think when you’re younger, the only thing that matters is; “What’s happening now?” It takes experience to want to reflect back, to document, to convey meaning.

    I’ll second Ed’s reference of “91 Words for Snow” and “in short” for their story telling. Often, the drawback with these films is that they are produced for a small audience of like-minded enthusiasts who are already a part of our incestuous little subculture. The reality is that there are millions of stories that could resonate both within snowboarding and to the larger world — and I don’t just mean Shawn White and his flaming American red hair swooshing down from the Olympic Podium.

    One of the best things I’ve seen this winter is the short video that the Salomon and Bonfire Team Vacation produced during their trip to Japan. http://vimeo.com/40559429

    I think the challenge is capturing the action that core riders want and pairing it with the real life story-telling that appeals to all of humanity. Stories are one of the oldest forms of communication. We practically bleed for a good story. It hits at the core of who we are.

    If we want to be inspired by skiers and not just vice versa, maybe it’s worth looking at the stories they are telling through Salomon Freeski TV (Full disclosure, my boyfriend works there. Perhaps I’m biased.) Not all of the episodes speak to me, but I do like the story telling of the unsung heroes.

    The Freedom Chair

    La Grave Ski Bum

    These stories are inspirational. Not just in the mountains, but in life.

  • Ed Blomfield, without doubt David Benedek is the most progressive filmmaker snowboarding has seen to date. And I totally agree with you on 91 Words. I also agree that Benedek will, once finishing at film school, be a hugely talented documentary or features director.

    Either way, I think the real point here should go back to the title of this piece: ‘What’s the story?’ – Not the subject of photography – The techniques for filming shots in various ways will always grow with trends for certain approaches, angles, focus pulls and subject content (nature for instance). In fact most of these ‘director’s (bar Mr Benedek) are actually Directors Of Photography / Directors… and far from writers for that matter.

    This final point is where, in my opinion, the answer lies; For action sports films to progress with engaging stories: It will need better writers / storytellers that know how to build drama through the medium of film.

  • Ben Mondy says:

    I agree and think its similar in surfing. To me in surfing it comes down to two styles of movies – pure action, or pure narrative/documentary. I don’t think anyone has combined both well since Endless Summer (in 1966). There’s been loads of contemporary docos, Rasta and Andy, Occy, Tahiti, Bra Boys etc which have used amazing footage, but the story telling has been poor. So given a limited choice I’ll prefer the straight action, as what you see is what you get, with no cringe factor.

    As another example I’ve only see this teaser for Splinters http://vimeo.com/22277325 but it looks compelling. Once again though it doesn’t have the cutting edge surfing element.

    So yeah I reckon there is the same scope in surfing – there’s good, current stories out there involving the top guys and great surfers, surely someone can dig em out and tell them properly?

    The other way as you mentioned is to at least be funny – in surfing Sterling Spencer is the only dude sort of coming close http://pinchmysalt.tv/#/0 – often funny shit, good surfing, but the one about his dad dying is also pretty moving.

    After reading this there seems to be even more of a gap in snowboarding. So less comment Barr, go fill the gap, it’s wide open.

  • Johno Verity says:

    Yes Ham, it wasn’t all jokes back in the days when we used to jump off things that scared us. But you can showcase this anyway you want. I might have thought I was uber cool when I did that stuff but a video showing me looking all deep and pensive would have been cringeworthy crap.

    I think it’s up to the viewer to decide how reflective/cool/caring about wildlife the riders are. Having it forced down our throats lacks humility.

    If I see one more slow mo tracking/heli shot of a fist touch after someone’s just landed a jump I’m going to…… going to…. probably just grumble to myself and write about it on a geeky blog.

  • Ed Leigh says:

    Great read Matt and some interesting themes being discussed,

    having had a recent insight into this world I’m going to chuck my two pence in, that and the fact that with Ski Sunday I’ve been trying with mixed results to achieve this on a smaller scale for the last four years.

    I just got back from Two weeks in AK following Justin Hostynek from Absinthe to try and get inside the filming process, to find out what drives him and how the dynamic functions between the riders, guides and filmers. On top of that I got a day with Travis and John Jackson to chew the fat so have been given a decent insight into the current state of high end snowboard films.

    The first thing that strikes me is that a lot of the very high end super budget productions are being driven by an individual rider or skier, therefore the project and it’s content will be a reflection of the goals and ideals of that person. I was more than a little disappointed watching AoF because in my experience I have found Travis to be an intelligent, thoughtful and funny person. Yet I found no trace of this in evidence watching the film. Instead all we saw was an orgy of beautiful cameras, macho posturing and a huge helicopter cock off. It was stunning and almost hypnotising visually, but after all the hype about mainstream appeal, it was about as intellectually stimulating as a ten hour shift packing sticking toffee puddings.

    I actually felt a little guilty at the end of the film because, like eating McDonalds, I had reluctantly enjoyed it, but there was really very little substance. I would concede however that maybe that was the recipe they were aiming for and if it was, congratulations it worked. It is also worth noting that at 400K units they are now the best selling action sports title of all time, pretty impressive in an age of illegal downloads…

    At the other end of spectrum the time spent with Absinthe was no less enlightening. I asked Justin who he sees as his audience, his reply came back instantly.

    “I make my films for the pro riders. with all due respect I don’t care what the average snowboarder thinks of them. I’m happy if they like it, but what matters to me is that the best riders in the world think they are progressive.”

    This might sound elitist, but it resonated with me. The Absinthe recipe hasn’t changed much over the years. They are fastidious with shot selection, they still shoot on glorious 16mm and the soundtracks are first class. They are the purest representation of the sport, they are not trying to be anything but a snowboard film and they rarely ask the riders to be anything more than be a snowboarder. I think this is one of their true strengths.

    It is a strong mantra and I respect it : Don’t dumb down your content, appeal to the highest level and the message will trickle down. But Justin and the industry at large have been hammering this home for the last 15 years and look how far it has got us. We are at an impasse in terms of sustained interest and in turn mainstream appeal.

    We all know that strong editorial can be mixed with high end riding to make a commercially successful product. But for me there are a couple of avenues that need to be explored.

    Firstly mainstream auteurs, directors and producers should be given the reigns to projects that are aiming for mainstream appeal. This has almost certainly happened before and you could argue that Stacy Peralta has already achieved it. But we’re not talking features, look at the Nike ad that Guy Ritchie took on

    It’s just a totally new way to let people see a sport, fresh blood, fresh eyes and a new perspective quite literally.

    Secondly brand marketing and communications managers need to meet with TV commissioners, radio producers and mainstream journalists in fact anyone who is creating mainstream media to see where their objectives and ideals overlap. For me this is where the void lies, while most people involved in the sports understand that we are insular and slightly cliche’d I don’t think many people understand just how maligned we are by the media at large. No commissioner in their right mind will touch action sports in the UK at the moment, it is seen as a hackneyed and old fashioned youth marketing hook that is as clumsy with it’s ad funded content as it is naive in it’s belief of getting it broadcast.

    Bringing these two world’s together is not a necessity any more because new media is fast eclipsing TV. But in terms of what we are discussing here it is very important because these people understand and have a vast wealth of experience in making strong stories with themes that resonate.

    The problem is in the minds of most brand managers the current model is working, either that or they’re too scared to rock the boat.

    According to Hostynek, the era of the webisode is drawing to a close and after a couple of flat years watching advertisers migrate to web content he is now seeing a return to the classic movie format he offers. Surely this shows that fledging efforts at creating editorially driven content have failed. In my view it means it’s time to call in people with a little experience.

  • Thank the mighty gods of talking sense Matt, it’s high time somebody addressed this issue. I think everybody who’s commented here is in agreement: a change from the status quo would be an absolute winner, and one which is acheing to be achieved. How that’s achieved is another issue and one which makes life interesting.

    For me, The Art of Flight was also some sort of confirmation of what I’ve been thinking for many years – where is the substance? Where is the Story? Where is the humour? Where is the examination of the issues and – in the end – what is the ultimate point you are trying to make?

    There have been many attempts at snowboarding documentary over the years. Some have come closer than others – Benedik being one – but even then I still came away wanting some sort of conclusion.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Ed (Leigh) in that to actually make a successful documentary film there needs to be the addition of people who know how to make documentary at its fundamental level. Whether that’s somebody outside of the snowboarding sphere or not I think it is this that is missing.

    Sure, keep the cinematographers who know how to shoot the action, but bring in somebody who knows how to not only tell a story, but also see the story beforehand and issues that need to be explored to make a rounded film. Imagine if Travis and Curt had teamed up that level of cinematography with somebody such as Werner Herzog, or Andrew Jarecki – hell even Louis Theroux would bring something interesting to the table.

    Incidentally Ed, good work for battling snowboarding into the mainstream – it must be an uphill struggle, but I always really enjoy your reports in Ski Sunday / High Altitude and it’s good to hear there’s more to come.

    It’s not like we’re missing these stories. There are many interesting, inspiring, exciting and sometimes contentious subjects to explore in the unique world of snowboarding; Snowboarding’s reluctant battle with FIS and the IOC; The environmental paradox; Comp jocks vs street kids vs back country; Progression vs injury; Snowboarding vs careers; Pushy parents and sponsorship; Snowboarding after 30…

    Sleeping Giants does seem to buck the trend, and that is great to see. Somebody putting the work in, getting the funding in and crafting something beautiful, worthwhile and with a point. Taking us on a journey into a previously unknown, dynamically developing environment and seeing how snowboarding is emerging within that, and how it affects the characters and surrounding issues. How sustainable is crowdfunding long term? Who knows.

    One problem may be that most of the productions are so tied into brands, sponsorship & marketing etc through the cash they put in. These people obviously have an agenda they want to achieve with the ultimate goal of selling more shit. But at least they are putting money on the table (UK excluded, but that’s a different story…)

    TV is point blank not interested and doesn’t even have the cash to put into mainstream productions, let alone niche areas such as snowboarding. Or action sports for that matter. Kind of an irrelevant point at this stage as internet video and TV assimilate into one.

    So where does that leave us? With no simple answers I guess. I know one thing though – given half a chance, I’d be all over it!

  • Chris Moran says:

    Going back to the film in question (Candide’s new flick that’s more than a little AoF-inspired): The thing that is slightly disappointing – though obviously this is just the trailer, maybe the film is totally different – is that Candide is a proper interesting dude: he’s funny, he’s brilliantly French, and he’s definitely got a few stories to tell. The one telling bit in the Candide teaser is when he knocks over what is clearly a big ‘snow cock’. And actually it’s pretty funny being shot from a helicopter. But I’d hope the actual film kind of shows more of what Candide is like as a person, and less of the slow mo wolf shots.

    Nothing against wolves and all.

    Today I watched mountain bike legend Steve Peat’s new webisode/online documentary, which, if you can get past the Wayne’s World-esque Monster Energy references, actually shows what life is like on the road for Peaty. It’s hugely watchable because there’s a lot of personality in it. It helps that he’s a freakin’ legend in that department, but there are plenty of snowboarders like that too. Check it out: http://thisispeaty.com/episodes/this-is-peaty-episode-one-2012

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