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Ski film patriarch still makes ‘impact’

Susan Wood
Photo by Travis Andersen / Warren Miller stands with cameraman Gary Nate as they film "Journey" at the Yellowstone Club in Montana.
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If skiing was just a sport and not a lifestyle, why would it have been chronicled for so long – leaving a trail of wind-whipped glee and spiritual awakenings that words fail to capture without sound and pictures?

With Lake Tahoe ties dating back to 1949 when he started his legendary ski film career, Warren Miller gets it.

Tahoe voyeurs can too. This Saturday his latest film, “Impact,” will be shown for its second night at 7:30 p.m. in the Caesars Tahoe showroom. Miller’s 55th film crisscrosses the globe with top ski athletes – from Truckee’s World Cup star Daron Rahlves to Heavenly SKI-EO Glen Plake.

“Certainly, it’s an art form. The skiing itself has gotten better. People are doing some pretty amazing things,” said Plake, who started appearing in ski films at age 3. “These films were made to show in cities in Germany to encourage people to come up to the Alps. It worked, and Miller was the first one to commercialize it.”

Miller’s signature film style of whimsical narration is as distinctive as Plake’s spike Mohawk on the slopes.

At 80, Miller has been the proverbial ski bum. He has slept in ski-resort parking lots in pursuit of freshies. When he wasn’t teaching as one of four instructors at Squaw Valley, he’d roll his movie camera to record the sights and sounds. Back then, the two-planking world was characterized by stretch pants, leather boots, stiff hickory skis and poma lifts.

There are plenty of Tahoe residents who share Miller’s enthusiasm for the ski life.

“When I started to walk, I skied. It’s been a tremendous influence on my life,” said Nina MacLeod, 65. Growing up in Norway, she recalls skis measuring 1 meter long that were equipped with leather heel cups. Her father, Sigmund Ruud, taught her the skill. He’s being featured in a documentary as one of seven skiing pioneers. PBS has been approached about the film.

Since the early days, skiing has come a long way in terms of equipment, terrain access and even the films that show the action.

To the moviemakers and the skiers featured, there’s a trickle-down effect with these adventure films.

With more people making and distributing them, more people watch them – living vicariously through what they see and hear.

The competition elevates the excitement of the stunts by the talent as well as the quest for high-quality technology by the makers.

For the newcomers on a low budget of $100,000, about half the movies these days are shot on video. But some moviemakers prefer film because it can be shot in slow motion. They later transfer the images to video in post production to take advantage of the digital technology.

Miller’s films cost at least $2 million to produce and distribute.

“Film is really the only way to capture a sport like this,” said Robbie Huntoon, who’s organized the Tahoe showing of the Miller film.

He now provides his artistic talent but has gotten out of the business side.

The canned music of Miller’s early years has given way to some band names the legend may not recognize.

“It’s probably not the kind of music Warren would play at home,” Huntoon joked.

The film, which is expected to draw 800 people, features snowboarders sliding across fallen trees and ski chalet rooftops to the sound of music by Jane’s Addiction and Radiohead.

Filmmaker Greg Stump – who’s logged countless hours at all three South Shore resorts, has used his radio background to marry the sound with the visuals. He uses bands ranging from Seal to Iggy Pop.

“It’s a business. And with Warren Miller still narrating, they’ve done a great marketing job,” Stump said from his Maui home.

South Lake Tahoe represents one of 200 cities on the Miller film national circuit.

In his 21st year of making films, Stump said the attraction to the industry is simple.

“I did it to meet girls. We were like rock stars. People wanted to do it because they wanted the dream job,” said Stump, who calls himself “just some kid from Maine.”

“Everybody can get out and do it now,” Resort Sports Network’s Todd Offenbacher said. “But at 55 years, no one comes close (to Miller).”

Offenbacher has noticed a number of trends, predicting the future of ski movies to concentrate more on the content.

“Unquestionable – the craziest things are the ski base jumps,” he said. Offenbacher anticipates seeing more of these images from the far reaches of the planet.

“They’re not a bunch of home movies anymore,” he said.

And the evolving technology should reward those who are seeking better production values.

Some moviemakers shot these films with the camera attached to a helmet. That’s out – only to give way to lightweight camera mounts.

Offenbacher will host a film festival of his own on Dec. 17 and 18. In its second year, the Tahoe Adventure Film Festival features some South Shore filmmakers and artists through First Track Productions.

Anthony Cupaiuolo, who runs the company, believes viewers appreciate seeing films like these because they picture themselves doing it.

“Skiing is different than basketball. Visualization is key to anything in life – but more so in skiing,” he said.

– Ski Magazine and the Kalamazoo Gazette contributed to this story.


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