The following is the first in a series of interviews designed to give you a closer look at some of the people laboring behind the scenes, helping make snowboarding what it is, but rarely getting much credit for it. We're talking about the image makers, and it seemed fitting to kick things off with one of our favorites: Absinthe's Justin Hostynek.
If snowboard cinema is still a craft, Absinthe Films has undoubtedly laid the groundwork for future generations of artists, aesthetically, aurally and stylistically. From progressive urban missions to mind-boggling Alaskan segments, if you're not moved by an Absinthe production we send our sympathies about your medical condition.
Through the lenses of their 16mm Bolex cameras we have been shown a world of wonder that introduced us to more legendary riders than any production company of our time. It is Absinthe we have to thank for exposing us to the explosive Romain de Marchi, the effortless Nico Müller, and the king of schwing, Travis Rice.
The men behind it all are Justin Hostynek and Patrick Armbrüster, both Swiss natives whose distinct vision of style and substance has created a company that is traditional, yet progressive. Armbrüster, who handles much of the company's day-to-day operations, keeps it afloat from the office in Zurich, while Hostynek, who grew up in Northern California, could be considered the creative force behind the images we see, getting into situations sketchy and spiritual with a field of riders across the globe.
From filming to producing to editing, it is Hostynek's vision that eventually shows itself in films like "Transcendence," "More," and "NowHere," a vision that astounds as much as it inspires. Perhaps a snowboard film's most righteous quality, this inspiration presents itself in a way that is enduring, something that is distressingly overlooked in the modern world of two-minute edits, and "bangers."
From an undisclosed location in the northern hemisphere, Hostynek sat down with ESPN to talk about the history of Absinthe and his opinion of "impressions."
ESPN: As evidenced by your body of work, it's clear that Absinthe has a different eye for snowboarding than other production companies. Is there any kind of riding you were drawn to early on that shaped this?
Hostynek: It was actually more about the people, not the riding, that defined my style and how I approached filming -- guys like Mark Frank Montoya and Stevie Alters and Ingemar Backman. They were all one of a kind and I thought there was something special in guys like that.
Those are all dudes with pretty defined styles. Do you think that follows riders who are unique individuals?
Absolutely. It's obviously way more interesting to film someone with good style than someone who just goes big or does the craziest trick. There is more of a story in that. Plus, anyone can tell you it just looks better!
So when did you actually start making snowboard films?
I have been making movies since '92, originally under the name Vertical Addictions, but I fired up Absinthe in '97 when I partnered up with Patrick Armbrüster. So all told, I think I have made 21 movies in 19 years.
You still shoot 16mm film when everyone else moved on to the ease of digital years ago. Why torture yourself?
I'm not convinced of the ease of digital at all. I think instant would be the better word for it. Nowadays a rider can just look at what he did and decide whether it's perfect or not, whether he needs to try again, so that might be a bonus in some people's eyes, but there is also something to be said about sending film off and getting it back a month later and either being super stoked or super bummed. There is something cool about that and you either feel it or you don't. I still do.
I also think that film just flat out looks better. There's so many light nuances that digital doesn't capture.
I really think a lot of riders get pushed to the side before they are done. You have to be understanding to the fact that everyone isn't always going to be at the top of their game and that they might need a minute to sort it out. We try and make room for that.”
Is that your honest opinion or just nostalgia speaking?
This is all based on years and years of experience in the backwoods. I am constantly working with photographers who are cursing their gear. If it's complex and computer based and you bring it into the backcountry, it's going to get wet and things will inevitably go wrong.
Will you be spending more time figuring out your gear than getting the shot? I've had the same camera for 15 years, no problems. I think "simple" is often the best when it comes to filming the backcountry -- this is often the solution for most of what we do.
How does a season work for Absinthe?
We always have an idea of what we like to hit but in the end all we can do is follow the snow. That is one of the really cool things about the job, not having a plan. It just makes you feel really free not knowing where you might end up next week. We are constantly packing our bags and just traveling where we want, when we want. We come to a group consensus on where we think will be good for what we want to accomplish and then move on it. If there ever is a disagreement we usually leave it to the riders to decide.
You have managed to maintain a core group of riders for a long time, something that is interesting considering the workings of sponsorships and politics of snowboard movies. How have you done this?
When we choose the riders we are going to work with a lot of it has to do with style and potential, but the biggest factor is what kind of people they are. We surround ourselves with the kind of people we enjoy spending our days with. Because of that we have pretty strong friendships, so after a while it becomes a very strong bond and you can't help but want to keep that going.
But yeah, Wolle and Nicolas, those guys have been filming with us for something like 13 years. Romain and JP both did 10.
This thing you speak of sounds a lot like "loyalty." Forgive my ignorance, but can you explain to the industry what that is?
I think snowboarding recycles its riders a lot sooner than is sometimes necessary. It seems that a lot of companies are always looking for the next big thing, the next Travis Rice. Well, there is only one Travis Rice and there is only one Nicolas Müller, so why not be stoked on what you do have instead of putting everything into looking for the next best thing?
I really think a lot of riders get pushed to the side before they are done. Maybe they are just having a lull in their career or are working through an injury. You have to be understanding to the fact that everyone isn't always going to be at the top of their game and that they might need a minute to sort it out. We try and make room for that.
On top of the riders you work with, Absinthe has a visual aesthetic and sonic quality that is pretty inspirational. Is there a secret to your editing process?
Well, the editing is done in a way specifically so that you can watch it many, many times. If you watch our movies once you will see a lot, but there is no way you will see everything. With each viewing you will pick up on more and more of the subtle layers of the film.
Try watching it with headphones on, you will pick up a lot of those details. Also, I edit them in an altered state and suggest that from time to time people might watch them that way too.
You worked on the Real Snow Backcountry with Nicolas Müller. Do you have anything to say about that?
The way I understand it is that there are two different judging procedures. One of them I don't agree with. With the "fan" votes, I think this really boils down to who has the best networking skills, not fans. During Real Snow Street I was constantly getting e-mails from this company or that asking me to vote for their rider. To me that is wack. It just makes me want to vote for the other guy on principal because it should be about voting for who ever moves you, not a whole campaign devoted to getting a rider votes. Thankfully there is the panel that votes as well.
Another example is the Transworld Awards. Our last movie wasn't even nominated and I think we made the best movie we've ever done. So do a lot of other people. Why did we not get nominated? I'll tell you why: because we don't spend any time networking, we're too busy actually snowboarding! These people and companies who are just working the system … I don't think that will go on for much longer, it's just not real.
I agree, but in the end, it's kind of good for companies like Absinthe, if only for the fact you set an example as guys who value the true nature of snowboarding over the hype-based model of the industry.
In my opinion, these days the whole industry seems to be judged on "impressions." How many impressions are you making? Someone clicks on a link and makes an "impression"? Is that really making an impression!? Or is it just a number that is more easily digested by a marketing person?
To me that's skipping your homework. I think there is a lot of garbage out there that gets praised because the networking policies of these companies make it look like their stuff is amazing because of a number of clicks.
Whether or not an Absinthe link receives one click or 1 million, I like to believe we make a real "impression."