Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction: An Attempt to Approximate the Absinthe Essence Using Words

From the November 2012 Issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding

Words by Joel Muzzey

The Bolex H16 EBM is a compact, Swiss-made motion-picture camera that captures images on 16 mm film. Released in 1971, this fully electronic model was the most advanced camera Bolex offered at the time. Due to its portability and rugged, self-contained design, the EBM immediately became a staple in documenting the Vietnam war. Earlier Bolex 16 mm cameras were also the choice of avant-garde art filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Stanley Brakhage, as well as the world’s foremost wildlife cinematographers, like Wolfgang Bayer. These cameras are largely credited with liberating film from the studio system and giving rise to a revolution in filmmaking.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the chemical process of film formats has been outmoded by another revolution: the digital one. You knew that. Everything from Academy Award-winning productions to your bro’s last run through the park is recorded digitally. And whether it’s captured on your phone or the Phantom Flex camera, shooting digital video is easy and it’s instantaneous. You knew that, too. Yet despite the obvious convenience of trading film reels for hard drives, Absinthe chooses to continue shooting their movies primarily on film using the trusty old Bolex. To the viewer, the difference may be subtle, but it’s there. To Nicolas Müller, “Film is more alive. It’s like listening to music on a computer versus playing vinyl on a record player.”

Heavy lurk at the Thunderbird Motel. Kurt Wastell, Brandon Ruff, Gigi. Haines, Alaska 2005. PHOTO: Scott Sullivan

Absinthe founder and visionary Justin Hostynek explains the real reasons he shoots film: “I just feel there’s a cheapness to digital. There are some exceptions but for the most part it doesn’t look as cool. If you’re documenting the best snowboarding, then you should use the best medium and to me it’s film, shot with a camera you can put in your backpack and carry around. The new Red cameras are sick, but can you really keep up with Nicolas and not slow him down with one of those? No, you cant. It’s just not possible. The shit is so heavy it’s just an anchor for the crew. You’re also dealing with an incredibly sophisticated computer in the backcountry, and I like to film in the elements—when it’s snowing, when it’s shitty—I like to show that side of things. With the Red you need two people just to keep the thing dry. In the mountains, you have to get a flow going and keep it going; and until they make the new shit a lot lighter, it’s going be like, ‘Okay, wait for the camera guy.’ You just don’t want to be that guy in the crew. The flow is everything, and it’s up to the filmer to tap into the rider’s flow. If you’re holding them up, you’re not doing your job.”

And if there’s anyone who’s an expert on the job of a snowboard filmmaker, it’s Justin Hostynek. Nico says he’s “one of the hardest-working cinematographers out there … an artist in snowboarding, one of only a handful that exist.” Justin has shot more legendary snowboarding in Alaska than anyone; he introduced the cable cam, a.k.a. the Hover-Track Jet-Pack, to backcountry filming; and after more than 20 years of documenting the world’s best riders, he continues to spend upward of 100 days a year in the snow. Gigi Rüf says Justin may actually be “Mister Winter himself.” He’s made a snowboard movie every year since 1992 when his first, Anthem, was released. It featured guys like “J2” Rasmus, Tarquin Robbins, and Todd Richards. Ironically it was shot entirely in digital.

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At this stage, Justin’s preference for 16 mm film is as much a matter of practicality as it is style. The character of film, with its grain and texture has become one of the hallmarks of the Absinthe aura. “There’s just something misty and mysterious about the way the movies look,” says JP Solberg, “a little bit out there, like they’re from another world.” Solberg filmed his very first part with Absinthe, a classic ender in 2002’s Transcendence that features trippy scenes of him hitting jumps in a pink bunny suit to The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” JP went on to film many more parts including 2010’s Neverland and 2011’s Twelve, with the crew that “feels like a family,” he says.

Vincent Skoglund shooting JP Solberg. From the film Transcendence, 2001. PHOTO: Scott Sullivan

Absinthe’s riders and crew aren’t the only ones stoked on the 16 mm film feel. Consider the fact while every other rider in X Games’ Real Snow Backcountry competition shot digi, Nicolas Müller and Hostynek’s entry was shot on film, then processed and transferred all before the editing could even begin. Their process made the already tough time constraints even tougher, and yet it won. But this fact points toward the real key to Absinthe’s enduring strength, and that’s the riding.

It was the year 1999 when Swiss-born Californian Hostynek met Swiss photographer-filmer-hustler Patrick Armbruster. Primarily a filmer at the time, “Brusti” was working on a plan for an all-Euro shred film and enlisted Justin to help to get the job done. “The Euros were not getting the attention they deserved when we started. Our intention was to shine a spotlight on them and show there’s just as much talent on that side of the planet,” Justin explains.

Brusti adds, “All of the film companies were based in Tahoe, and the movies were dominated by American riders. We decided it was time to change that.”

The following year, Justin would produce and direct Tribal, the pair’s first collaboration. Tribal introduced a new generation of European riders to an international audience. The mispronounced names of guys like Romain de Marchi, Nicolas Müller, and Wolle Nyvelt began to spread. The next year saw the release of what Brusti calls “the first real, true Absinthe film,” Transcendence, and this time a new kid from Jackson Hole named Travis Rice joined the all-Euro roster. With big-mountain killers like Axel Pauporté and Yannick Amevet, plus the trickery of Gigi, Nico, Wolle, et cetera, the early Absinthe films began a push toward combining Alaska-style big-mountain riding with progressive freestyle. Over the past decade, riders like Jonaven Moore, Müller, Rice, Romain, and others merged these two approaches into one, creating a true backcountry freestyle movement that has become a trademark of Absinthe films and the gold standard of progressive snowboarding.

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