A quick glance at the history of snowboard movies is a bit like watching one of those old spinning zeotropes of a galloping horse: steady progression, sure, but (more often than not) it’s a creative form in which each picture looks much the same as the last. The excellent blog Illicit Snowboarding put it best when they bemoaned ‘The Tyranny of The Format’:
- It starts with musical intro and a roll of the sponsor’s logos.
- After the opening credits it launches into the first segment featuring one snowboarder riding for the length of a song, it will be the second best snowboard section of the movie.
- Then there’s a short and mildly amusing candid interlude captured at some point during the filming process.
- The film then progresses into a series of sections, with an assortment of snowboarders, riding to a variety of tracks, with a few more short interludes.
- Then there’s a bit more of the same but a switch to Japan or the Southern Hemisphere. Next up it’s the slam section.
- Finally it all ends with the best snowboard section of the movie by the standout rider, which includes the biggest single trick.
“The Format,” concludes Illicit, “has been the dominant type of snowboard movie for over twenty years, and it’s been copied and rehashed to a point well past its sell-by date.”
It’s hard to disagree. Even last year’s highly anticipated release The Art of Flight can be said to have fallen into the same predictable trap. For all the fancy cameras and grandiose messages about ‘initiating authenticity’, it failed to tell a story. Instead, we were presented with pure spectacle: The Format in HD.
But Travis Rice’s goal of authenticity – or to put it another way, truth telling – was a good one and over the years, there have been a number of shred flicks that have hit the proverbial nail on the head: sleeper hits like The Garden, Subjekt Haakonsen, Afterbang, Think Thank or (in UK terms) Lockdown. These films are often not the ones with the biggest budget, but they stand the test of time because they convey a vision of snowboarding that feels honest. German pro-cum-filmmaker David Benedek was a genius at it. Where most action-centric films inevitably create a distance from the crazy stuntmen on screen, Benedek’s Robotfood series emphasised the fun group aspect, which immediately allowed the viewer to connect with their heroes. We all like messing around on snow, right? Presented in this context, it doesn’t matter that we’re nowhere near as good as the pros, or even whether we like to ride the same kind of terrain: we’re all snowboarders. As his masterpiece 91 Words For Snow showed via its web of contrasting snowboard stories, what raises a snowboard video from repetitive spectacle to exciting filmmaking is a sense that it is truthfully representing a reality, not airbrushing it. This is who we are, and this is what we do.
American pro Jake Blauvelt is the latest to rise to the challenge of re-imagining the genre. Since quitting the Forum team four years ago, this freckled soul surfer from the backwoods of Vermont has been on a mission to pursue a career on his own terms. “He didn’t wanna conform with what they were doing,” recalls Greg Martin, a British film producer and now Jake’s manager. “He was like: ‘Well you know what, if it doesn’t work out then fuck it I’ll just go get a job, but I’m not gonna do something that feels wrong to me, just cos everyone tells me that’s what I have to do and that’s what they’re paying me to do. There’s more to life than this.’”
Breaking with convention, their first project together was a TV series, Blauvelt’s Backcountry. Released in winter 2010/11, it brought big mountain freestyle into living rooms across the world. “His whole thing was, he spends all winter out shooting and ends up with three minutes of footage in a movie, when he actually shot 20 minutes,” says Greg. “It seemed like such a waste.” The longer format also let people know a little more about him as a person, and while “Jake felt he was putting himself out on a limb” (industry folk more familiar with ‘The Format’ could easily have seen doing TV as selling out) Greg maintains that the recent trend towards snowboarding web shows proves that “with hindsight he was one step ahead of the curve.”
There’s so much more to snowboarding that going flat based into a jump, twirling around in the air, land and cut shot.
As co-owner of Friday Productions (the company behind ‘Tracking Eero’ and ‘Cooking With Gas’) Greg Martin was also perfectly placed to help Jake build on his TV exploits with an internet series of his own. Naturally, which launched the following winter, still sought to tell a deeper story through ongoing episodes, but was aimed at a more core audience. It went down a storm, first and foremost because Jake’s riding is so unique. This is a snowboarder who grew up riding the icy parks of the East Coast and who, having found himself on Forum’s conveyor belt of baggy-trousered freestyle talent, could easily have been just another rails and transition specialist; but his creative eye had spotted a different line, demonstrated perfectly by the full part that came out of the webisodes. With emotional piano music slowly ramping up the atmosphere, Jake dances through forests and across pillows with the speed and light-footedness of a cat – proving in five short minutes why he is so often compared to both Nicolas Müller and his all time hero Terje Haakonsen.
In fact it was such an effective advert for his talents – and an almost spiritual approach to surfing the mountainside – that his sponsors have decided to support a return of the ‘Naturally’ brand this winter in the form of a brand new full movie, two years in the making.
At first glance, the idea sounds risky. Having made so much progress carving a different path, both in his riding and video edits, wouldn’t an old-fashioned shred film be a step backwards? Manager/director Greg Martin suggests not. First of all, they’re trying a new model for distribution: “We talked about it for a few months, trying to figure out how we could do it differently. The basic thing Jake concluded was: why should a kid pay so much money to watch him snowboard – and why should a kid pay for something that’s basically trying to market product [through the sponsors]?” Their solution is to present the finished film online for one week only, for free. After that, anyone that likes it enough to want a permanent copy can go and purchase it from iTunes. Digital premieres have been held before, of course, but the second part of the plan is that this will be a premium quality production, shot on many of the same Cineflex and RED cameras that characterised The Art of Flight – and those kind of movies don’t normally come free. Jake and Greg are keen to point out, too, that there will be substance to match the style:
“It’s very different to The Art of Flight,” says Greg. “There’s no hype. It’s: This is how it is, and this is what went on, and if you like it you like it and if you don’t so be it. We’re not gonna try to pretend we’re having a good time when we’re not and equally I’m gonna let you know when we’re having a good time – but there’s no dancing on glaciers!”
“I love that movie so I definitely don’t wanna bash it, but I guess this one is a little less hyped,” agrees Jake. “It’s not helicopters filming helicopters, y’know, and just a little more trying to document the zen aspect of snowboarding and getting back to the natural elements.”
The mellow vibe will be complimented by his chosen riding buddies for the movie. Shayne Pospisil (Jake’s BFF since Vermont contest days) joins Nicolas Müller, Fredi Kalbermatten, Kazuhiro Kokubo, Terje Haakonsen and fellow adidas recruit Eric ‘eJack’ Jackson. All are similarly laid back dudes, and all share Blauvelt’s love of creative backcountry riding, that begins by “going out and seeing what the mountain presents, instead of just going to that roller that we know we can build a jump on.”
This is a crucial point for Jake, who sees the whole line as his end goal. “There’s so much more to snowboarding than going flat based into a jump, twirling around in the air, land and cut shot,” he explains. “It’s much more pleasing to me to see turns into the main feature and turns out – you’re really showing the whole ride as opposed to just a quick trick.” Having such a select group of riders, as opposed to the army of names in many a traditional ‘Format’ movie, feeds into this goal, since each guy has plenty of screen time to allow for those lingering shots. The producers also employed an editor with a background in music videos and documentaries (so zero preconceptions) to bring a fresh eye to the final cut. “A lot of people who normally edit snowboarding would be like: ‘You can’t cut like that!’” laughs Greg, “but he’s like: ‘Why not? Show me the rule book.’”
Talking to Jake, it’s clear that – if you’ll excuse the pun – the art is not flight, but turning. He puts way more thought than many pros into the equipment he rides (“When you have that big nose in front of you, you can really get aggressive,” he says of his new Ride prototype) and the mechanics of his carve (“Having a little positive angle on your back foot really helps you initiate turns and square your hips.”). And though he’s a self-confessed fan of the triple cork, Blauvelt sees plenty more challenges outside the park: “It’s amazing to see what those top guys are doing in both the halfpipe and slopestyle.
I think it’s great for snowboarding, and it’s easy to see the progression: you’re gonna add another flip and another spin, and that’s how you keep taking it to that aspect’s next level. But at the same time there’s other less obvious ways to improve snowboarding. Just turning your board – snowboarding’s oldest trick is the turn – can be progression, and it’s cool to be able to go and use a little creativity in the mountains and nature. It’s completely different.”
I put it to him that the film could be this winter’s antidote the Olympics, and though he’s far too diplomatic to badmouth the Games like his idol Terje (who, incidentally, blazed a trail for rootsy, personality-based films with Subjekt: Haakonsen) he agrees that Naturally will offer a very different vision:
“This film is coming from the complete opposite realm in snowboarding to the Olympics. It definitely won’t reach as many viewers (laughs) but it’ll be good if someone sees the Olympics and then they see Naturally. They’ll be able to see two totally different aspects which I think is important.”
Like Benedek, Blauvelt certainly seems to have his finger on the pulse, and I wonder if, after nailing a TV series, webisodes and now full-length film, he can gaze into his crystal ball to tell us what the future of snowboard films holds.
“I was talking about that with Greg yesterday, and I really don’t know,” he replies honestly. “I think it’s maybe a little less mixed messages, like when there’s a roster of 10, 15, 18 different riders with all different sponsors and very different riding styles. There’s just so many mixed messages within one film that it kinda leaves the viewer confused. So if there’s more of a concise message and more team films – I always think of the Forum movies because they worked so well – that’s the way to go.”
And what of his own plans for this next winter?
“We’ve been dabbling with a couple of ideas but I think I’d like to – not necessarily take a step back, but maybe a have a little more time to be home. It’s been a great two years, but it’s been really intense, and I’d really like to soak it up. We don’t always have to be pushing and pushing. I haven’t thought too much about the future, I’m just trying to be here.”
Maybe it’s not all mapped out, but have no doubt that Jake Blauvelt will be there when the time comes. As the legendary Peter Line, his former team-mate at Forum, puts it: “Jake’s taking snowboarding progression to a point where you don’t always see where it’s going.” Reacting to what’s in front of you. Improvising. THAT’s snowboarding, in its purest form. Any film that successfully captures this essential truth has got to be worth a watch.
Just turning your board can be progression. Snowboarding's oldest trick is the turn.