SALT LAKE CITY — For the creators of award-winning outdoor films, the filming process is an adventure in and of itself.
Harrison Mendel, the co-producer and director of photography of the short mountain biking film “Beautiful Idiot,” explained that, beyond developing the film’s concept, capturing advanced mountain biking tricks in British Columbia’s desert landscape was extremely difficult.
“We had big delays building (jumps) because we weren’t allowed to use any sort of equipment that had a spark plug because it was a fire hazard,” Mendel said in a recent phone interview with the Deseret News. “Luckily one night, there was a sprinkle of rain and the fire hazard went down one notch for one day, and we were able to get in there and bulldoze the area so our machines could go ahead and build the jumps.”
“Beautiful Idiot” is one of the many short films that will be featured at this year's Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour, the international film tour showcasing the world’s best short outdoor films. Banff will be at Kingsbury Hall on Feb. 19-21 and March 4.
Mendel’s fire-hazard delay is only one example of the kinds of production setbacks outdoor filmmakers encounter. Weather, light, the health of the film’s subjects and their on-camera decisions, technological limitations and the fluctuations of the landscape itself all come into play in the production process.
“I’d probably say everything was challenging (to shoot). … It really seemed like everything worked against us that possibly could,” Mendel said. “Injuries played a big part. … Brett (Rheeder, the film’s mountain biker) got injured on one of our first shoots, which set us back six months. By the time he was healthy again and ready to ride, is started to snow.
“In terms of actual difficulties (while shooting) … when we were in the trees, we wanted clouds, and it was sunny every day, and when we were out in the open, we wanted sun and it was cloudy every day,” Mendel said.
The film’s vibrant, dynamic tracking shots were captured using a cable-cam system. But because of complex timing demands on both the biker and camera crew, the team was only able to get one shot per day after about 20 to 30 attempts — not an unusual figure for outdoor cinematographers. Another filmmaker featured at Banff, Grant Baldwin, who also worked on the BBC series “Planet Earth,” told the Deseret News that capturing an overhead drone shot portraying a seasonal change from summer to winter similarly took 20 to 30 takes total “to work”.
Yet, not all outdoor filmmaking lends itself to meticulous planning. Baldwin's film, “This Mountain Life,” had no predictable storyline. As a live documentary tracking amother-daughter trek from Squamish, British Columbia, to Skagway, Alaska, the filmmakers could not plan for the hike’s successful conclusion.
“We didn't know if they were going to make it the whole way, or if they’d quit or if someone would get injured,” Baldwin recalled. “So we were prepared for whatever outcome and just to cover the story.”
Additionally, extreme weather conditions limited the amount of time that Baldwin and his partner could spend filming on-site.
“I focused on all the shooting. And then I had a partner, and his role was specifically to set up our camp and melt our water and cook and make sure that I was set on water so I could film them doing the same thing without missing any part of the story,” Baldwin said.
What motivated Baldwin to follow Martina Halik and her 60-year-old mother, Tania, on their 2,3000-kilometer journey through the treacherous Coast Mountains — a trek completed only once before in known history? Baldwin said it was the pair's uniqueness that made them worthwhile subjects.
“They’re the type of people that never get featured in mountain movies,” Baldwin said. “It's usually men. It’s usually people doing things at the highest level, but they're very calculated and and passionate and they just persistently worked through problems to make it through one of the hardest trips you could possibly do. So they're unlikely heroes and that’s what makes them interesting.”
Baldwin and his partner flew in three times — at the beginning, middle and end of the hike — to film the Haliks. The crew stayed for a maximum of a few days at a time, Baldwin said, to avoid distancing themselves from the helicopter.
Spontaneous problem-solving combined with on-site production challenges were similarly a part of Mike Douglas’ production process for his significantly less precarious, yet equally captivating and original short, “Skier vs. Drone."
Shot at Utah's Snowbird, Douglas’ film captured world-champion drone pilot Jordan "Jet" Temkin's race against Olympic bronze medalist skier Victor Muffat-Jeandet in a fast, gorgeously shot — yet, notably more casual — four-minute action documentary.
“The idea of man versus machine has been something people have talked about as long as there have been machines,” Douglas said. "But as far as skier vs. drone … it was an original idea.”
After designing the film’s concept and planning the logistics — and, being turned off from his original shooting location in Iceland due to extreme storms — Douglas arranged the four-day shoot at Snowbird, involving a large camera crew, “traffic control” around the course’s base, practice sessions for the drone pilot and a somewhat complex cinematography methods.
“As far as the actual shooting, we had four cameras on the sides of the course. And then I was also running a camera on a gimbal stabilizer. … I would be chasing the racers down the course as well, often going down the middle of the course and trying to keep up with those guys, which was interesting,” Douglas recalled.
Douglas’ shoot involved a day of prepwork, including setting up the course, adjusting to wind conditions and allowing the skier and drone pilot to train.
Each of these filmmakers will readily admit: Making outdoor films is difficult. But, as Mendel suggests, the only thing to do after finishing one project is to begin another.
"(As creative people), once you land, you reach for the stars. Once you to climb a mountain, the mountain keeps going — you’re never done, there’s always more. … The finish line always needs to push further ahead, success maybe, in our experience, isn’t what you hoped it’s going to be."
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What: Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour
When: Feb. 19-21 and March 4, 7 p.m.
Where: Kingsbury Hall, 1395 Presidents Circle
How much: $14 for adults, $24 for 2-night packages, $36 for 3-night packages, $10 for U. students (purchase at box office with university ID), $12 for non-U. students (purchase at box office with school ID).
How to get tickets: Tickets may be purchased at Kingsbury Hall, REI-Salt Lake (must have REI membership) or at Outdoor Adventures.
Note: Children under 6 are not admitted.