Iconic ski films follow flourishing formula

It’s one of the most durable franchises in film, seemingly impervious to the whims of the industry. And yet in all its high-flying glory, it retains an unmistakably grassroots feel.

The Warren Miller ski movie was born shortly after World War II, when Miller purchased an 8mm camera with $100 and made his way to Sun Valley, Idaho, to document skiers on (and off) the slopes in virtually unprecedented fashion. On a winter’s day 60 years ago, Miller launched his distribution empire, which consisted of him driving from town to town, screening the films himself while providing live narration.

Today, Miller is no longer the one behind the camera, the mic or the wheel, having sold Warren Miller Entertainment in 1988. But even as it has been modernized, the Miller movie is, at its core, the same as it ever was.

“There’s still a formula that has never changed, and that’s interesting people and interesting places, the framework of big mountains, deep powder, big air, exciting action,” says Max Bervy, managing director of Warren Miller Entertainment (now owned by Colorado-based Bonnier Corp.) and director of “Dynasty,” the company’s 60th anniversary production.

The exotic locales and impossible stunts are only part of the appeal of Miller films, which have been a skier’s rite of passage for a mammoth chunk of the sport’s history in the United States. Because screenings are usually limited to a night or two in a given town — the only scheduled showing of “Dynasty” in Los Angeles County is Dec. 4 at the Writers Guild — and because some of the stars appear in person, the events resemble a can’t-miss concert tour.

Skier Chris Anthony, who has appeared in the pics for the past 20 years, says, “I grew up going to (Miller’s) movies and being so excited about (them). It wasn’t just the movie, it was meeting Warren himself, hopefully meeting a couple of the athletes, walking into the lobby and seeing other skiers there, all that stuff that comes with the film. The film was like the excuse to go be part of this event.”

Arguably, the biggest challenge in the past two decades for Warren Miller Entertainment has been to soothe the disappointment longtime fans have over not encountering Miller, at once a beloved figure and an icon. Miller, who lives in Washington state and Montana, only stopped recording narration for the films a few years ago, long after he sold the company (to a partnership that included his son, before Bonnier ultimately acquired it).

In fact, Miller’s voice and persona are so prized that they are the subject of a reported lawsuit between Warren Miller Entertainment and Level 1 Prods., whose September release “Refresh” contains an interview with Miller that his original company alleges violates federal trademark laws. Meanwhile, former Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley narrates “Dynasty.”

“It’s been a super-difficult transition for people to realize that Warren is 85 and that he’s not narrating the film,” Anthony says. “And it’s difficult for me, too. Like I said, I grew up with him on the side of the stage, narrating it live.

“I try to compare it to Walt Disney. Obviously, Walt Disney is gone, but the name is still there, and the cartoon characters are keeping the show going. So we’re the cartoon characters, the athletes.”

Some days, Anthony’s onscreen duties aren’t all that different from Wile E. Coyote’s. Navigating ridiculously steep, narrow and rugged terrain, Anthony has a remarkable success rate for generating thrills while emerging in one piece. But then there are those moments that sneak through the careful planning stage, moments that are great for the film — if not exactly great for the body.

“I’m definitely known for stuff that happens to me,” he says. “I took one of my hardest crashes in Alaska, being towed behind a snowmobile at 92 miles per hour. That one really hurt.

“There’s definitely the phrase, ‘camera courage.’ Warren often jokes about the fact that you put a camera out there, and (your) IQ drops.”

The company’s ability to capture and present these thrills and spills has grown with the times. Though some consider it inferior to the live screenings, the films are marketed on DVD, available for download on iTunes, available on foreign TV channels from Australia to Dubai, and can be seen domestically via an arrangement with Starz that was recently extended through 2019.

Bervy, another 20-year Miller vet, says that music has become a bigger player in the films, crediting music supervisor Travis Schneider for finding songs with “a melody that drives a segment, rather than just decibels.”

Bervy also notes a pronounced evolution in the editing stage.

“When I first started,” he says, “everything was shot on 16mm and was edited on a flatbed. Each segment of film was broken into little parts, and those were snipped and spliced together. Our editors at the time looked like Benihana chefs, cutting and pasting so fast you could hardly see their hands move.”

Today, Bervy says, the workflow is much more efficient, with editing, sound mixing, effects and graphics done in a “one-stop shop.” The movies are shot on super 16 and 35 mm, then transferred to high definition.

“You can only imagine taking super high-end HD equipment to a place where it’s minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit,” Bervy says. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere … (and) the equipment gets brutally pounded upon. A high-end HD camera’s not going to live in that world, whereas a film camera, they’ve been through the test of time.”

A perfect example of this can be seen in the final segment of “Dynasty,” which depicts the trip by skiers Austin Ross and Anthony to the so-called birthplace of skiing in northwestern China, where carbon-dated, 3,000-year-old cave wall etchings of a man on skis have been found. The journey required the two athletes, two cameramen and one still photographer to travel more than two days in a handmade sled towed by a horse, at temperatures as low as 25 below zero.

“For me, it was definitely the most difficult shoot I’ve been on, which is saying a lot,” Anthony says. “We were the most literally out of touch that our crew has gone. … If something were to go wrong, at best, we could use a satellite phone to call our offices in Boulder, Colo., and they could try to use the Chinese embassy to triangulate on us.”

Living off this kind of thoughtful daring, Warren Miller Entertainment remains vibrant as it begins its seventh decade. Bervy says the title of its latest production was chosen with such feats in mind.

“A dynasty is a group of people that have influence over others for multiple generations,” he says. “I think this film company has had influence.”

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