Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction: An Attempt to Approximate the Absinthe Essence Using Words
Originally published in 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."
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.
Absinthe Films Legacy Trailer
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.
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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Absinthe Films – 13 years of full proof riding (Cont)
Nicolas Müller's first filming trip to North America resulted in an inspiring opening part in 2002's Vivid, which, coupled with Romain's aerial assault in Alaska and Hemsedal, Travis Rice's hammers, and quite possibly the best backside 180 heli shot ever filmed, by the late Tristan Picot, Absinthe fully realized a breakthrough with US audiences. Even still they continued to shoot as much as possible in Europe.
While other big-league film crews operating at the time returned to the same old spots year after year—in Tahoe, Sonora, and the Wasatch—Pop, Saturation, and More took viewers to places like Arlberg, Austria; Hokkaido, Japan; and little-known Swiss playgrounds like Crans-Montana, St. Luc, and Le Portes du Soleil. "There are a lot factors that go into the Absinthe vibe—one of them is the spots, going places nobody else really films," says Solberg. David Vladyka, a Swiss cameraman for Absinthe for the last 10 years, has been a key to exporting the goods from these misty zones in the Alps.
Justin reveals another reason for the attraction of European locations: "There are no snowmobiles. It's not even an option, so it's perfect. It's a very different experience in the mountains on a snowmobile. Without them, people look at mountains differently. Instead of riding bumps for an hour to get to the shit, we can take a gondola. There's this mentality that you've got to go farther with your sled to get to the good shit and you don't. You end up whizzing past all this rad shit thinking you need to get to somewhere else. How many film crews film off the lifts in North America? Very few."
For Utahan Bode Merrill, who first appeared in Neverland, the appeal of Absinthe has always been "the Alaska lines, obviously." And there's just no denying that these movies have imprinted the hallowed faces of Haines into the minds of a generation. Bode's first trip was for NowHere: "Imagine you're a rookie and you get the chance to go heli-boarding with Nicolas, Wolle, [Lucas] Debari, and Blair [Habenicht] in the sickest terrain you've ever seen, with the best snow conditions imaginable. That's exactly what happened." Stepping to Haines as a rookie says a lot about Bode's ability and the Absinthe program.
When asked how they introduce new, younger riders to the AK filming experience, Justin says, "We don't have a rookie crew and a veterans crew. We mix everyone together because that's the best way for them to learn. We always have an experienced guy in the group, and the new guys can just tap into how the masters are doing it. They have a lot of respect for those veteran guys and want to emulate their style and their approach to it, because obviously it's working."
Near the end of his seven-minute part in last season's Twelve, Bode returned to Haines and fired a massive tailgrab seven off a cornice into a chute at Birthday Bowl (named for its discovery by Absinthe on Nico's birthday years ago) which, he says, "was the best feeling I've ever had on a snowboard." And though the Absinthe legacy is largely built on epic Alaska segments, the bigger picture, in Justin's view is simple: "For the riders to have as much fun as possible." Nico adds that this approach "let's the rider's personality speak" and has taught him "to enjoy myself and do whatever I have fun with."
For some riders fun is found in Alaska, for others it's the streets. For guys like Bode it's both. On top of the Haines stuff, Bode's marathon ender in Twelve also featured a healthy stack of street hams shot mainly in Salt Lake by Shane Charlebois.
Shane has been a cameraman and critical member of the crew since joining up for the filming of Pop and documenting the legendary sessions at Pyramid and Chad's Gap, which led to Travis Rice earning his 2004 Rider Of The Year Award. His connections and camerawork in the Salt Lake scene helped Absinthe seriously step up their US-based efforts. Justin calls Shane's link to the riders in SLC "instrumental" to the introduction of "full-spectrum snowboarding," an idea that broadened the scope of their films to include more urban riding beginning with 2006's More. Over the years there were rail shots here and there—OG Absinther Nico Droz got most of them—but with the inclusion of guys like Justin Bennee, Erik Christensen, MFM, and even [Nate] Bozung in More, the films began to reflect the progression taking shape on all terrain. According to Solberg, "Shane deserves a lot of credit for making shit happen in the States—he holds it down." And the footage doesn't lie. The ongoing addition of new riders bringing the street heat, like Dan Brisse and Bode, makes Shane's role even more impactful. He's also the only cameraman in the crew who shoots digital.
"I will shoot any kind of camera," Shane says. "After many years of shooting with film, the process of shooting with digi really helps with what we're doing. Being able to show a rider the shot right there at the spot allows those guys to know if they want to hit it again or be satisfied with what happened. That is huge. With film the rider may think it was awesome, but they don't see the shots for a month or more. Sometimes we get the transfer back and they think, 'Damn, I should have hit it again that day.'" But ultimately, he adds, "it doesn't matter what you shoot with, it's how you shoot it."
Is it? That's a contentious idea in a post-Art Of Flight world. Snowboard movie audiences have now been titillated by the surrealism of super slow-mo and the spells cast by the floating steady cam. But while mainstream action sports viewers may respond to a pyrotechnic display, a dubstep soundtrack, and over-the-top production quality, that's not the audience that Absinthe is after. And it's not an aversion to new technology (or explosions or even dubstep per se); it's simply a matter of style. Gigi describes the Absinthe essence as "pure snowboarding," adding that "there aren't many directors who can make snowboarding look the way Justin Hostynek does. There is a magic and artistry that comes with his style of documenting snowboarding." Wolle Nyvelt, who has appeared in every movie starting with Tribal, says it's "all about just doing the best movies possible—everything else is second priority."
Hostynek by his nature deflects any credit back toward the riders: "Being out it in the mountains with people who are doing rad shit—it's inspiring. Ultimately, we're making these movies for the riders who are in them, that's our audience. We want the film to represent them as best we can."
Considering the consistency of their output and the reputation they've built by delivering pure snowboarding so well for so long, Absinthe's truly rider-driven approach has evolved into an artistic affirmation in which passion and production become one. The latest expression of this long-standing ideal can be seen in their new movie Resonance. Go watch it.