Sunday, June 15, 2008

Warren Miller's Playground feat Chris Anthony

“It used to be just a hill but now we’re flying to exotic locations and the skier and the cameraman will look at this massive peak and go wow – that is majestic and beautiful... how do we bring this to our audience?”



Talking to extreme skier Chris Anthony was a slightly odd experience. The Warren Miller brand name is clearly a very big, slick entity with a big, slick team of people. Approximately eight minutes before I’m due to call the skier and star of many Warren Miller flicks, I get a call from Kylie.

“I know you’re scheduled to call Chris in approximately eight minutes,” Kylie tells me politely, “But Chris is in fact still busy on the phone with another interview. Can we bump your time back by 15 minutes?”

Sure. No problem. I call back at the new time and speak briefly to a receptionist who puts me on hold and through to some guy who eventually puts the friendly American on, and I fleetingly wish I had some people to deal with his people. Clearly, Warren Miller Entertainment has grown since the now octogenarian Miller decided that filming his mates skiing down a mountain back in the ‘50s would be a pretty cool thing to do.

And Chris has clearly been briefed by his people because he tells me that of all the interviews, this one is going to be the most fun. He has obviously been told that Drum is a cool street mag and that we like music, so he launches straight into a spiel about the soundtrack. I’m actually more interested in the movie itself, so while Chris reaches for his piece of paper to read out who the soundtrack includes, I tell him that I’d like to come back to the soundtrack a little later and for now can he please tell me a little about the production itself. He’s a friendly, laid-back kind of guy and he obliges.

“What’s probably evolved the most is the editing,” Anthony says, more than happy to give credit to others for the success of the action movie series. “We’ve had Kim Schneider editing the films now for 26 years, and it’s impressive how he’s stayed up with the new technology and how he’s able to move from one shot to the next. It’s not just a simple dissolve now – he’s got all sorts of things going on. You know, it’s the MTV generation and we’ve got to keep them entertained. It’s really his magic and his son, who works in the music business...”

Man, they are keen to push this music line. I’m told that a lot of effort has gone into securing rights to tracks and what a lengthy, prolonged procedure getting such rights has been. Anthony mentions the soundtrack and how exciting it is, and although interested, I just don’t want to talk about it just yet. Of more interest is how the films have grown. I’m kind of cynical about how much money is involved and what a well oiled machine the brand is, but Chris puts things into perspective; there’s a hindsight inevitability about how massive the brand has become.

“Back in the old day, Warren sat down at the bottom of the hill with a camera on a tripod and shot the skier coming down the hill to him. Then a little bit later on he did that shot with maybe a couple of close up shots, then later on he actually skied along side them. Now you have cameramen hanging out of helicopters. Even the terrain is much more dramatic. It used to be just a hill but now we’re flying to exotic locations and the skier and the cameraman will look at this massive peak and go wow – that is majestic and beautiful... how do we bring this to our audience?”

The athletes might be the stars, but it’s a collaborative process with the photographers dictating how the shots will pan out, and yes, often the runs have to be done over and over. Like other forms of film-making, half a day’s work might end up being 15 seconds of screen time.

“And unfortunately, 90% of what we might shoot ends up on the editing room floor.”

It’s a long and painstaking process, and while Miller himself might have distanced himself from the annually-released films, they have remained popular with punters all around the world. Much of the appeal, says Chris Anthony, is the exotic locations, this time round taking in Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Japan and even a ski resort in Dubai.

“To be watching skiers constantly jump off cliffs is pretty awesome, but a lot of the time people come out of the theatres and they’re more intrigued by the weird, exotic locations. That’s why the formula is so successful – it’s a travel piece, documentary and high action.”

Other famous skiers featured in Playground include Bode Miller, Jon Olsen, Sean Petit, Dan Treadway with narration by Olympic gold medallist Jonny Mosely.

And yes, there is that soundtrack. There’s genuine passion when the quietly spoken Chris Anthony speaks about how much planning goes into each shot and the resulting exhilaration of taking on a run that’s perhaps too ambitious (he speaks of ‘camera courage’ which perhaps contributed to the death last year of 28 year old extreme skier Billy Poole), but when it comes to the much touted soundtrack...

“We’ve definitely had better and better music each year. Getting those clearance rights is very difficult. But we’ve done very well this year... there’s one band that’s very big down here called Rev... no wait... it’s in the film and...”

“And it’s name is...?” I prompt.

Chris laughs here and tells me to hang on. “I’m working on it. I didn’t even know he was from Australia. Where is it... erm...John...”

“John,” I smart arse. “Oh good. Glad John’s in there. Wouldn’t be the same without John.”

“John Butler Trio.”

Ah. Serious coolness. There’s also Korn and Linkin Park and a whole bunch of other high energy stuff.

We conclude a very chilled conversation with the skier assuring me that although Playground is a ski film, it’s not necessarily a film exclusively for skiers.

“The film makes us aware of places we might not have been aware of. It throws in a bit of travel and education and culture. It’s just a full-on entertainment piece.”

Story as it appeared in a recent issue of Drum - minus the last three paras. Can you believe that? I try not to get precious about subbing anymore, but that seemed like a harsh cut.

PS - Do click on the link to the Billy Poole site and read through the memories of Billy page. I just watched the video and yeah, he was a down to earth kind of guy more interested in living life than making money. And I was really moved by all the good things people have said about him. Awesome stuff.


Phyllis Erck said...

I don't think that Billy Poole died because of "camera courage". Billy had a camera on him pretty much every day that he has skied for the past 5 years. This was a terrible accident that took his life. He was a brilliant young man and a phenomenal athlete.

Please help us to promote the Billy Poole Memorial Fund that has been started to help to honor his memory. This charity will support outdoor education programs to help folks get back in touch with nature and being outdoors.

Thank you,
Phyllis Erck (Billy's Mom)

Phyllis Erck said...

The Billy Poole Memorial Fund website is at

Black Rainbow said...

Apologies if I said the wrong thing. I just thought it was worth mentioning Billy in this otherwise light story.

Good wishes.

Phyllis Erck said...

Thank you for mentioning Billy. I am very proud that you mention him and am happy to let you know that Billy will have a segment in the 2008 Warren Miller film.

He'll be proud to be on the screen with his very good friends Burks, Stoeklein, Burks and Julian Carr. I guess you'll be seeing that premier in June '09 in Australia.

So how's the skiing over there? I'm thinking this must be the beginning of your ski season.

Lee said...

it is the beginning of our ski season, but we generally don't have world class ski conditions. Low mountains, short seasons and it's really expensive. I don't actually ski but I keep hearing that it's as cheap to fly to New Zealand for a week as it is to spend a week skiing in Australia, which is a bit wrong.

I'll put a link to Billy's site in that text now, for what that's worth.