Words: Matt Barr
Over coffee in a London hotel room, Travis is giving me the lowdown on how he and a tight crew put together Depth Perception, his latest film project and a slightly goofy ode to the joy of snowboarding in all its life-affirming glory.
Turns out that much of the free-flowing approach that characterizes Depth Perception's riding wasn't limited to the snowboarding itself, and much of the film's unique vibe was a result of the serendipitous genesis of the entire project.
Coming out of the four-year, multi-continent brain-melter with logistical juggling that would cause a military planner to lose sleep, called The Fourth Phase, this one came about almost by chance when Travis and Bryan Fox, Austen Sweetin, and Robin Van Gyn headed to Galena, British Columbia to make "a short-format 15 to 20-minute art film."
"That was the plan," nods Travis. "But after the first three weeks of riding, we all looked at each other and thought, 'Man, this feels really good. Let's double down and finish what we came to do.'"
That "doubling down," as Travis calls it, involved calling in assorted favors to take the project from art piece to full-fledged snowboard release.
"Originally it was just me, this guy Chip Taylor, who edited the majority of The Fourth Phase, Chris Murphy out of Bozeman, and that was it. That was our team. We didn't really tell anyone we were doing it, or that we were making it, but it was a really streamlined project. It was efficient."
For round two, Travis tapped into his enviable network to pull in support from sponsors, friends, and players like CMH Heli in Galena. Melissa Larsen worked with Rice to develop the script, and Ty Evans flew up to meet the crew and follow them with a drone--shots that do much to give Depth Perception its distinctive sheen of intimate beauty.
"We shunned our obligations for the rest of the winter, went back up there, and gave it another shot," says Travis. In talking with him, it becomes apparent that the off-the-cuff approach he's describing has always been there. Take his career as a whole. From the outside, it has often looked like one carefully choreographed triumph after another, from That's It, That's All to Ultranatural. Not according to Rice himself. "From the outside it does look well-produced and organized... but so much of what we've done has just been shooting from the hip."
Indeed, Travis pins his overall success on a willingness to gamble and take any break that comes his way, something that goes back to the days when he was lapping Snow King with his buddies. And more so than most riders, Travis has a fascination with production. That interest can, perhaps, be traced back to this same developmental time period.
"I was in a TV class. I took a bunch of TV news classes in high school. We were able to rent cameras. We were able to check them out from school, so the minute that I had a driver's license at 16, we would constantly check out these big shoulder-mount cameras and take them into the mountains and go shoot snowboarding. Me and a couple other snowboarders, we were all in the same TV class. We'd go make our own little movies. That later parlayed into enjoying the filmmaking side and having some confidence in doing that."
So it seems that beyond his otherworldly talent, it his innate propensity to risktaking and obsession with high-level production, combined with an unshakable work ethic and confidence to invest in his ideas which has defined Travis' career. "I think... from the start [there] was a lot of motivation and desire to work harder... For the first ten years of my career, I paid out of pocket more than twice what I had as a travel budget for that year. And I look at it in hindsight, and it was an investment in myself. It was probably the best money I ever spent," Travis reflects, before continuing, "It was no different with our film projects. Like, I'm not going to wait for this film to be totally greenlit. I'm gonna put up some money; let's go do it, and we'll figure it out as it goes".
Rice's latest gamble seems to have paid off. It's his most intimate film yet and one he's clearly proud of. The camaraderie of the riders involved in Depth Perception, and their complementary skillsets, has much to do with it, notes Rice.
"I've traveled with Bryan quite a bit. I've known him for a while, and for this one it was easy. We're all on the Quik team together," he explains.
"Sweetin--that guy is one of the best big mountain freestyle riders I know. He's tiny, and the way he's able to bounce and land, he's like a flying squirrel. The ratio of his board size to his body weight, you see it, when he goes fast and ollies or hit jumps, you see it, he has lift underneath his board."
Getting Robin Van Gyn on board was also the fulfilment of a personal ambition for Travis. "I wanted to have a woman on The Fourth Phase project--we had it lined up, and it fell through, and that was a regret. So for this one it was a no-brainer. And it made it easy because Robin is super well-versed in the backcountry. She has more certs than we do. She's been doing some guiding up at Baldface just for fun. Having her on the program meant we were more backed up than ever."
A crew this small made its possible to sketch out the characters more readily, which became a key feature of the film.
"It's fun to film with only four people" says Rice. "Because then you dive in deeper to portray their characters. "Everyone has their own dynamic uniqueness about them… You get to dive in a little deeper and portray their characters, which can be tough on those bigger projects with 12 or 13 people".
As the project came together, other layers were added, notably the movie's playful voiceover, done by Rice's longtime friend and founder of Bluebird Wax, Willie McMillon. It's a surprisingly effective narrative conceit, which nods to the arthouse aesthetic of Wes Anderson in particular and was concerned with "telling the story of the symbiosis of the forest", as Rice puts it.
"Yeah, I wanted to convey the flora and fauna of the area, the geology of the area, and what makes it so dynamic. That's where the title came from as well. Sure, it refers to binocular vision, but it's also about trying to see a little deeper, beyond your first glance. That was one of the main challenges actually. How do you portray, in a fun way, the deeper scientific and spiritual elements of an area like this?"
Depth Perception is a relatable crowd-pleaser, full of "Hmmm, I might be able to do that" runs and shots that already feel like classics: Austen's drone follow-cam through the forest, the adventures of Brian Fox's "Big Pink," and the double-header down Tunnel Buddy. According to Travis, that was the point.
"It was intentional, yeah," he explains. "Our goal was to highlight every type of riding that you can do in a place like this that has the high alpine, the super dynamic terrain, the tree riding. All conditions, all styles of riding. We wanted to make a fun project that would make you juiced to go ride, because we were juiced to go ride."
But how much of this change came about because of the perceived backlash against The Fourth Phase? A film met with heavy criticism, particularly from some who felt the movie was responsible for lazily furthering a visual cliché Rice himself had pioneered in films such as the Art of Flight.
"Well, The Fourth Phase was a beast of a project. It took four years, so after stumbling out of that, this was an absolute departure, because we didn't want to jump back into something like we'd just done. We had a lot of freedom. And I think that freedom shows."
"Plus, I think we all got a little bored of watching slow motion shots of helicopters" he chuckles. "We wanted to make it fun and give a bit more of an authentic feel of what it's like on a trip like this. Because that's what it is. It's fun. Riding pow with friends, it's fucking antics, and it's a little bit of everything".
Overall, speaking to Rice, you get the impression that Depth Perception has fulfilled a much-needed focus, refiring his enthusiasm for and relationship with snowboarding.
"I feel like we found a lot of symmetry with this project, A lot of doors opened, and a lot of things unfolded in a positive way that made the project easy. I think we took a lot of risks, doing the film in the way and style we did it. And I truly love the project. I'm super proud of everyone's hard work and the fact that we came out of it with something which is positive, authentic, and makes you want to go snowboarding."