Travis Rice And The Mega Movie
From the exclusive first look behind the scenes of That's It, That's All in the TransWorld Sept Issue 2008
Watch the TITA Metal Teaser here
Words By Melissa Larsen
All Photos Tim Zimmerman
"You want to hear a story about Travis Rice? I'll tell you a story about that kid."
The agent at the Jackson Hole airport check-in counter tags my snowboard bag through to Valdez, Alaska and leans over with a Cheshire-Cat grin: "When Travis was about five years old, he would come into the ski-patrol shack with his dad every day. He always wore this patroller jacket that came down past his knees, and he would just tear around the place. It didn't matter what you told him. He just ran around and did whatever he wanted."
I stand at the counter patiently, waiting for the story to continue. It doesn't. That's it. That's the end. A moment of awkward silence passes between us. The man's eyes crinkle in amusement as I struggle for comprehension. And then it dawns on me.
"So, basically, nothing's changed," I say.
He shrugs his shoulders and, with raised eyebrows, smiles again. "You tell me."
Two days later, I'm sitting in the back of a helicopter next to Curt Morgan, the other half of Travis' new production company, Brainfarm. (Curt and Travis met back when Curt was making movies for Grenade and continued working together on the Community Project.) We're in the Chugach mountain range, in an area of the Valdez backcountry known as Science Fiction. It's the second sunny day they've seen in three weeks, but the weather is a mixed blessing: The sun arrived the day before with a giant windstorm, and the slopes that haven't been wind-hammered have been wind-loaded. Safe, rideable aspects are few and far between. The consensus among the riders—Mark Landvik, Nicolas Müller, Jeremy Jones, and Travis—is that, while they might have found some lines that look good enough to film, the conditions are such that none of them can really "send it," or ride to their full potential. Frustrations are mounting as the day wears on.
The Final Act
Alaska is the last stand in the behemoth battle that Travis and Curt have been waging against "uncontrollable forces" over the last two years in a quest to create their tour de force: a snowboard-adventure epic entitled That's It, That's All—a cinematic vision described by those who've seen pieces of the project along the way as "the Planet Earth of snowboarding."
Under the guidance of AK riding veteran Jeremy Jones, Curt and Travis have spent the last fourteen months planning this Alaska trip, trying to take into account every conceivable snafu that could arise to thwart them. They've given themselves a month to wait for a window of good weather. They've hired guides from H20—the Valdez heli operation that holds use-permits for the most amount of terrain in the area—procured two dedicated helicopters and pre-paid for 96 hours of flight time.
Mention this number to any professional skier, snowboarder, or lensman with AK filming experience and watch their eyes grow wide as they do a cost calculation in their heads. Even with a substantial cost-per-hour discount, 96 hours is an unheard of amount of time for any film crew to spend flying in a heli. This extravagance is one of the many that has created such a buzz in the snowboard community. When it comes to going over the top in ways that no shred-movie company has ever even thought of before, Travis and Curt are standing in the eye of a hurricane of their own creation with their eyes on the prize, while around them rumors and prophecies of both doom and greatness swirl.
Over the radio an H20 guide out flying a few peaks over with another film crew is calling in a zone that they're intending to land in and ride. A swift answer comes back from headquarters: that zone is off limits. Travis' crew has already scoped it and called dibs. The others will have to go somewhere else. This is what pre-paying for 96 hours of heli time gets you—first pick of every unridden peak within H20's permit range. And it's worth every penny. The weather's only supposed to hold for a week. That's one week to shoot the final all-our-remaining-eggs-are-in-this-one-AK-basket segment that will bring the filming portion of this two-year project to a close. The pressure is on.
Back in the camera helicopter, Curt has his handheld radio pressed against his forehead. Travis has just delivered some harshly worded opinions about how he believes the remainder of the day's events should unfold that are in direct contradiction to the plan Curt just tried to implement. Curt has his eyes closed and lets out a deep exhale before deferring to Travis' plan with a short, sarcastic reply.
Curt dismisses the moment as the result of creative tension. Travis will later apologize for the outburst, explaining that they had been waiting for so long for a good filming day, he was impatient to get things moving. And he and Curt are both alpha males, so they inevitably clash over whose way is right from time to time. The tension is always temporary.
A New Way Of Seeing Things
Jeremy Jones has just been dropped off on a nearby peak, so we take off to set up the aerial shot. He is perched on a narrow ledge above a long, razor-thin spine. Between Jeremy and the spine is a fifteen- to twenty-foot drop. Between him and that drop is a blind rollover. From where he sits, he can't see a thing besides the valley floor below him.
Hovering above Jeremy, the consummate professional with nerves of steel (who, by the way, is riding with a broken arm) as he waits patiently for the various cameramen to take their positions, is gnarly enough. Then Curt leans over and shows me his perspective. He's holding a small monitor that's displaying what the heli camera is looking at: Jeremy, in the center of the frame, is solidly in focus, while the valley floor beyond spins around him like a room after a night of heavy drinking.
Anyone who's watched a decent snowboard movie in the last ten years has seen Jeremy standing on top of a miniscule mountain peak, preparing to descend some hairball spine in Alaska. But no one has ever seen anything like this. From this perspective Jeremy is less like a snowboarder, and more like Luke Skywalker in that scene in Star Wars where Vader's just chopped off his hand, and he's dangling by one arm from the bottom of a floating pod building above an endless sea of clouds. The depth-of-field captured by the camera is frightening. It looks like the slightest wrong move will send him tumbling thousands of feet to his doom. Terror rips up my spine, and I fight back the urge to vomit. And finally, I understand what all the hype around this movie is about.
The hype is a bazillion-dollar Cineflex camera system mounted to the bottom of the helicopter. It's hard to get a technical description in layman's terms of exactly what this thing is. Until now, most snowboarding captured on film from the air has been the result of some brave lensman in a harness leaning out of a heli door with a handheld camera. In contrast, this camera sits in a ball-in-socket mount that's fiber-optic gyro-stabilized, which means it doesn't rattle, so the images it captures are smooth like butter. And it has a 360-degree rotational view, which means it can spin in all directions, making it possible to film a subject regardless of where it's positioned under the heli.
The Cineflex (which, incidentally, was used exclusively to film the award-winning documentary, Planet Earth) is similar in design and function to the more famous Wescam and Pictorvision XR, which are the camera systems most commonly used in the filming of blockbuster Hollywood movies like Lord Of The Rings—both of which have also been employed to film a good portion of this movie. The main difference between the three systems is the Cineflex is lighter and shoots HD, while the other two shoot 35mm film. Beyond that, they're basically the highest-end camera systems around that, according to Curt, deliver "super high-def, IMAX-quality footage" that "no one of our age or bank-account status could ever really afford to rent or borrow or buy."
And therein lies the reason no other action-sports movie production crew has tried to use a Cineflex or Wescam before. It's not that they don't want to, it's that few companies—including Brainfarm—can afford to. So how has this duo supposedly been able to obtain these Holy Grails of cinematographic equipment? Apparently, in the case of the Cineflex, Curt tracked down a few of the small number of people in the world who own one and talked them into letting him use it.
The feat sounds deceptively simple. One of the things that makes Travis and Curt such a fearsome team is that when it comes to obstacles, they both seem to have been born with a kind of superhero ability to walk right through them like they're not even there. When it comes to the art of persuasion, though, Curt's in a class of his own. The universally agreed upon opinion among all who know him is that he can talk anyone into just about anything.
"I've always wanted to see more aerial riding shots," says Curt when asked about what motivated him to attempt the impossible. "It's my favorite way to watch snowboarding. And there are some great shots out there, but I've always thought it could be done better."
I watch Curt in action on his version of "better." The scene inside the heli is hectic. Mark Hryma—a Cineflex designer and operator who has over fifteen years of experience, but is relatively new to shooting snowboarding—is sitting shotgun in the cockpit with a monitor and gianormous knob-filled control panel on his lap. Curt is sitting in the back seat next to a stack of whirring electronic boxes, looking into the monitor on his own lap, directing. The flow of orders from the back of the heli is constant, as Curt coaches Mark through every aspect getting the shot just right.
Both Mark and Curt are trying to direct the pilot—an ex-army vet who's flown more hours than almost any other pilot in Valdez, but has never had to fly with a camera before, and can't quite understand what Mark and Curt are trying to get him to do. The situation is tense for everyone. Because the heli is hovering above the riders, he can't see them, has no frame of reference for where he's supposed to be, and often gets confused. Just when they think they've got a shot lined up, the pilot drifts off course, and they have to circle around and start over. At one point he even accidentally lets the heli drift down on top of the riders, who have to yell over the radios that he's about to blow them off the mountain with his rotor wash.
We make another practice pass over Jeremy, and Curt explains to Mark what he's trying to achieve: "When we come over the top, I want to see what he's seeing. We want to start off blind and see the drop just as he gets over the rollover and sees it himself. Everything in the shot should be revealed to us just as it's being revealed to him." Curt turns his screen toward me so I can watch. My stomach heaves again. "I want people to feel," he continues, "I mean, really feel, what it's like to be up here, riding things like this."
Travis Rice: Producer/Star
In the third That's It, That's All teaser, Travis explains how he wants this movie to show what snowboarding is like for him. A montage of shots of Travis getting angry and chucking his snowboard flashes on screen while Travis says, "I'd say it's when I feel passion. That is, if passion is a combination of utter joy and frustrational rage." It is a strange thing to watch. It's a side that those of us who are mostly used to seeing Travis when he's home in Jackson, happily ripping pow laps with his friends sans camera entourage at the resort, haven't really seen before.
Four days into the trip I get to witness an outburst live. The wind has blown a giant, perfectly shaped orb of snow directly above a beautiful, long, steep-transitioned landing, and the crew has built a massive cheese-wedge takeoff on the other side. Viewed from the top of the ultra-long, steep run-in, it looks like the jump will send them right into the glacier crevasses in the valley beyond. It took them almost a day to construct, and to say Travis and Mark Landvik are excited to reap the fruits of their labor would be an understatement.
Unfortunately, when we arrive at the jump in the morning, the sun has heated up the snow so much that Mark and Travis can't get enough speed to clear the orb. Fortunately, they brought a bag of rock salt to throw on the takeoff. Unfortunately, when they start to spread it out they realize that it's rock salt mixed with gravel.
They experiment with alternative solutions. One of the helis hovers a few feet above the takeoff in an attempt to cool down the run-in with the wind of the rotor blades. Travis strips off every top layer down to his polypro, to eliminate wind resistance, and points it in a full tuck at the jump from what seems like 10,000 feet away. But for all his effort, he still has to throw his board sideways at the top of the takeoff because he knows he's not going to make it.
He hops off the wedge, unstraps, stares up at the run-in for a long minute, and then with a cry, turns and savagely attacks the bag of gravel-salt with his snowboard. The moment lasts maybe seven seconds. No one else even seems to notice.
"Travis is intense, man," laughs Brainfarm filmer and production assistant Brody Thompson when I mention the salt-bag assault during dinner later. "But this is his job. Aren't we all intense at our jobs when we really passionately care about what we're doing?" He points out that less than five minutes after the jump was declared dead, Travis had a new plan.
"Travis likes to turn everything into a competition," he explains. "Not because he has to win, because he's cool if he loses. It's just more fun for him if he's trying to win."
This is Travis' movie; his level of involvement goes beyond being a rider—he's a producer, he's a director, and, make no mistake, he is the star, not by words, but by actions.
"His level of snowboarding is so high," says team photographer Tim Zimmerman, "that when I try to shoot with other people, I just get bored. When other snowboarders ride with Travis, I swear they ride better. And I get so used to what I see that it just becomes normal for me. Like the Mosquito Creek gap he did this winter. He jumped a canyon! And I show people the photo and they're like, 'Holy shit! That guy's crazy!' But I'm so used to it. Then I try to go shoot with other people, and they're doing like a regular backcountry jump, and I just… can't get excited about it. It's a problem."
Asked if he thinks he rides better when Travis is around, Landvik responds: "I think he and I feed off each other. But there are times when he's throwing double cork 1080s and shit when I'm like, 'Well, what am I going to do now? Am I going to do a 720 off this jump?" No. I'm going to do the biggest method I've ever done in my life.
"It seems like every trip I've been on he's trying some new crazy trick," Landvik continues. "And he gets it, like every time. It doesn't matter if it takes him one try or 50. He's going to get that trick no matter what. If it breaks him, then he's broken. From what I've seen, though [laughs], he never gets broken."
"From what I've seen up here so far," says Jeremy, "it's clear that Nicolas [Müller], Landvik, and Travis are all leaders. They're so professional and so motivated. But Travis is just one step beyond … for example, one thing I've never seen before—he can spot jumps from the air. I can't tell you how many times I've been up here with freestyle riders who fly around trying to find jumps for weeks and find nothing. Travis is just like, 'Boom, there's one. Put us down right there. We're going to build the thing this way, and it's going to be sick.' And it is.
"Another thing is, I'm watching his riding progress like every run—I mean, real big-mountain freeriding. He just has a really good sense. It's hard to explain. Mark and Travis are very similar-type riders. They're really powerful—stomp everything. And Nicolas has his own totally original, creative style. I just think you have to be a little demented for some of the bigger stuff, and… [laughs] Travis is a little demented. If he decided that's what he wanted to do, he could really take true big-mountain riding to a new level."
Though praise of Travis' shred skills by riders who are praise-worthy in their own rights is not unexpected, considering the main complaint about Travis and Curt's last movie project was that Travis' riding overpowered everyone else in the film, to hear it is somewhat troubling. Asked if that might be a problem with this movie as well, cinematographer Gabe Langlois answers, "The Community Project was an awesome idea, but it was complicated, and there wasn't enough time to really pull it off the way, I think, they wanted to. But this is a two-year project, so we've really been able to take our time and plan things out the right way.
"Thing about Travis is, he really respects people who can actually snowboard, like who can do a good-looking turn and actually ride a mountain—as opposed to, you know, sliding around between jumps. So, he's put together these kind of 'dream teams,' where the people have been handpicked for each trip based on the riding they all are the absolute best at. But, basically, everyone in this film he's picked because he completely respects them and loves how they ride, and he really just wants to snowboard with them. And it shows."
"The rad thing about this movie," says Landvik, "is Curt is on the exact same level as Travis, just on the film side. And he really wants to change the perception of snowboarding for other people in so many different ways. It's not like your typical shred video, where it's all people's parts you might only like one or two of them. It's like a snowboarding documentary. You get involved with the riders and the places they go to. You care about everything that happens."
"A lot of inspiration for this film," adds Travis, "is just wanting to show these places that we get to go and the cool shit that we do. And through a visual lens that can actually give you the feeling of being there. This is the first time I've ever been able to show someone footage and feel like they're really getting to see the same thing that we see when we're out there."
"And maybe people will never get to see the things we do," says Curt, "but we really just want to inspire people to go out and travel and explore for themselves. I know not everyone can afford it, but you can figure it out—anyone can. You just have to take it one step at a time."
Watch the Metal Teaser here
For more of Tim’s photos check out his website here