On February 13, 2014, four skiers had the best day of their lives. Joss Christenson, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper completed the American sweep in slopestyle's Winter Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia, in front of 23 million television viewers.
On the other side of the world, in the quiet, 100-person town of Cooke City, Montana, Sammy Carlson, a two-time X Games gold medalist, watched the event on a small television screen at the end of a day skiing neck-deep powder. For Carlson, it, too, was the kind of day dreams are made of.
Carlson, one of the most naturally gifted skiers of his generation, opted out of the Olympic journey, one many predicted he could be a medal contender in. Against the grain, he took a step to the side, choosing filming over competition.
"It was cool to watch it all go down [in the Olympics]," says Carlson, 25, from his home in Hood River, Oregon. "Contests didn't give me the same feeling I had before. I had to recognize that and be real with myself."
This winter, Carlson was noticeably absent from the competition scene. He won X Games gold in slopestyle in 2011, but since then, he hasn't had many podium finishes. He suffered a knee injury in 2012. Although many say he could have landed on the podium at the Olympics if he put his mind to it, with a stacked American field in the slopestyle discipline, it would have been a tough battle for him to even make the U.S. Olympic Team. Carlson disregards that notion and hopes to take giant leap forward in his career through film.
Together with Todd Jones, co-founder of the film company Teton Gravity Research, Carlson hatched his ultimate dream project -- a two-year film effort focused extensively on next-level cinematography and Hollywood-like production quality. The Sammy C Project -- an internal working title at TGR until a final film name is chosen -- will be released in fall 2015. If Carlson's winning 2013 X Games Real Ski Backcountry edit is a forecast of his future in film, the project looks promising.
TGR is familiar with two-year projects. Jones has served as an executive producer and cinematographer on each of the three films documenting the travels and high-level snowboarding of his brother, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones. The critically acclaimed "Deeper" and "Further," and the soon-to-be-released, "Higher," required precision planning and execution, according to Jones.
The high concept techniques and unique locations Carlson and Jones have planned for the Sammy C Project will require more than one winter to produce. For Jones, though, filming with Carlson was a long time coming.
"I first shot Sammy in Grand Targhee a few years back for [TGR's 2008 release] 'Under The Influence,'" says Jones. "I noticed something special. He has a great work ethic and skis on another level."
Since "Under The Influence," Carlson has filmed for TGR's "Re:Session," "Light The Wick," and last year's "Way of Life."
"Over the past few years with TGR, we've formed a great working relationship," says Carlson. "They're working with the best camera equipment in the game. With the GSS rig we can do so much more. We want to get creative and use that a lot throughout the flick."
The GSS C520, a gyro-stabilized system, is a $750,000 camera system that uses a 4K video camera -- four times the quality of HD film -- mounted to a five-axis rig, giving a cinematographer unprecedented control over motion capture. The level of filmmaking attainable has the potential to make waves in the action sports film industry.
"The GSS is a weapon," says Jones. "It's the most powerful aerial system in the world. We have the same camera 'The Amazing Spiderman' and 'The Hobbit' are using. It shoots ultra-high-resolution and is bringing the noise."
Along with advanced technology, Carlson assures the film will follow a familiar formula.
"It's a ski flick," says Carlson. "We have certain trips planned. We want to make the epic ski movie. It's not going to be a documentary by any means. The segments will be trip location-based and it'll be filled with friends. We want to take our time, really explore and push the skiing and filming to the max."
This season was a difficult one for a skier to transition from competition to film. With millions of eyes on freeskiing, sponsors re-upped contracts and aligned themselves with skiers headed to Sochi, hoping for worldwide media exposure.
"We had five key guys and an additional eight wearing our stuff in the Olympics," says Josh Bishop, team manager at Armada Skis. "Henrik [Harlaut's exposure during the Olympics] helped. Henrik was all over the New York Times. Our distributors in the United Kingdom said Henrik received more coverage than any other skier."
Harlaut, who gained attention for his Wu Tang Clan shout-out, pants-falling-down-on-a-landing incident and impeccable style, was an outlier. He took sixth in the competition.
"That kind of media exposure is something we could never buy," adds Bishop.
Carlson is sponsored by APO, the Swiss-based ski and snowboard manufacturer that saw team rider Sage Kotsenburg win the first American gold of the games in snowboard slopestyle. Along with Kotsenburg's win came countless eyes on his board amongst highlights on late night television appearances. Overnight, Kotsenburg became a media sensation. Meanwhile, Carlson was skiing powder for his forthcoming movie, hidden from the spotlight.
"This year was a hard year, with the Olympics coming into it, to make that decision," says Carlson. "I felt a lot of outside pressure, but ultimately I had to decide why I ski. It's not that I'm pushing myself outside of the park. I want to hit different features. Competitions are cool, but, for me, it became too repetitive. I'm excited to explore. It's a good thing."
Carlson spent his season engulfed in deep snow in Montana and British Columbia. With the support of his sponsors, he retired from F.I.S. slopestyle competition.
"At the end of the day, the Olympics was a great platform for skiing," says Jake Largess, the ski team manager for Nike, one of Carlson's sponsors. "Sammy's film is going back to the core of skiing and in the long run that matters more to us as a sponsor than two months of the Olympics." Largess confirmed Nike supports the film, adding, "Anything Sammy puts his mind behind comes out pretty good."
Carlson isn't the first competition skier to walk away from contests to focus on filming. Pro skiers Tanner Hall and Candide Thovex took steps away from successful competition careers in order to pursue film projects. Both experienced triumph in filming, winning best male performance honors at the Powder Awards for their respective solo projects. On the other hand, there are also countless names who, once they disappeared from start lists, were never to be heard from again.
Ten years into his skiing career, Carlson already has his X Games gold medals in slopestyle and Real Ski Backcountry. But his status as ski film icon is not yet cemented. With a focus solely on film skiing, time will tell if the kid who won his first X Games medal the year before graduating high school can put in the work and focus to deliver a truly great film and successfully transition to the next phase of his career.
"The kid is a rising Travis Rice of skiing," says Jones, referring to the snowboard star of the major film project "The Art of Flight." "His ambition, goals, work ethic and skill set are there. He's doing super next level stuff."
Carlson admits he's taking a risk. He's giving up the known and reliable world of competition, where prize money is tangible and television and media exposure is a sure thing, for the entirely unknown world of filming, where you never know what you're going to get, who's going to see it or how it's going to pay off. But that's a risk Carlson is willing to take. He's ready to move on. For the first time in his career, what happens next is up to him.