Camera Arms Race
Similar to Hollywood, the ski film industry has undergone a shift from film-based production to digital cinematography over the past decade. The standard of capturing action on 16mm film has been replaced by digital imagery, with a seemingly constant flow of new technologies, higher frame rates, and better resolution.
Just as there is a very public, albeit friendly, competition between ski production companies in terms of locations and talent, there's another more behind the scenes competition to implement these new technologies. The proverbial camera arms race is on in the ski industry, and it seems like every production company has their own tricks and theories on how to best take advantage of these innovations.
This week, Teton Gravity Research became the official launch partner of the GSS C520, an aerial, gyro-stabilized camera platform able to shoot a variety of Ultra HD cameras, including the RED Epic and Sony F55. "The GSS is the most advanced portable gyro stabilized system in the world. It is the only one of its kind that can shoot 4k and ultra HD," says Todd Jones, TGR co-founder. A similar platform to the Cineflex Elite, the current benchmark in aerial cinematography, the GSS is able to capture 4K imagery. "This is a camera system that will impact the entire film industry, from Hollywood down," says Jones.
Sweetgrass Productions purchased three new RED Epics for their fall 2013 film, "Valhalla." "Ultimately, our images and the shirts on our back are all that we have, right? We've been pretty committed to cinematography the whole time," says Sweetgrass director Nick Waggoner. "At the time, and to this day, the Red Epic is it. I don't think it was ever about competition for us, just about pushing our art and our filmmaking."
As Waggoner alludes to, at the very root of the arms race are cameras manufactured by companies such as RED and Sony with the ability to shoot in 4K resolution or images that are 4096 pixels wide, which is recognized as Ultra HD. Predicted to become the new standard in HD, 4K has four times the resolution of traditional 1080p, the current standard in HD.
While these cameras have existed for several years, the major hurdle in the ski cinema industry has always been realizing these emerging technologies' full potential in the mountain environment. The cameras' heavy nature and intensive battery requirements are some of the most obvious drawbacks when you're filming skiing, but, as Waggoner says, "When you're used to walking through Dagobah-like jungles and clawing through crevasse fields at 19,000 feet, what's an extra few pounds?"
Other ski film companies, including Poor Boyz Productions, Sherpas Cinema, Level 1 Productions, Matchstick Productions, Warren Miller Entertainment and others continue to invest in new camera technology, as well.
Despite these advances in technology, there are several constants that producers are adamant about not losing sight of, namely hard work and artistic vision. "Anyone can make a RED epic look bad, and a GoPro look great -- it's just a tool, and it's all about how you use the camera," says Waggoner.
Whether the median is park, urban, backcountry or big mountain, producers will stop well short of saying a certain technology is some sort of trump card, but rather it's another piece of the filming puzzle. As Jones puts it, "Good filmmaking still rules the world at the end of the day. A certain camera can't make you a good filmer or director, but it can enhance the quality of your output."