Established in 2001, Salt Lake City’s X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival has become one of the few viable outlets for extreme sports moviemaking. A relatively clandestine movement in the world of film over the years, the judges of X-Dance seek to reward the melding of sport and cinema by recognizing such qualities as creativity, self-expression and individuality. Without these three qualities, movies would bear a striking resemblance to the back of your eyelids. But to sports? It’s difficult to even think of anything more radioactive than individuality (let alone creativity and self-expression). We’re talking about extreme sports—an individual, physical outlet for creative impulses and thanks to this genre of film, the results are jaw-dropping.
Confident and brimming with pride, X-Dance founder Brian Wimmer took some time to speak with MovieMaker on his festival’s 10th anniversary.
Josh Elmets (MM): Extreme sports moviemaking is an intense—but often overlooked—moviemaking genre. What was the impetus for starting a fest dedicated to this risk-taking type of cinema?
Brian Wimmer (BW): Because traditionally the way they’ve shot these films has been, as we call it, “action porn”—just a lot of guys fucking themselves up with hardly any story and they put it to some music with a little bit of editing. I come from a filmmaking background and the background of an athlete who participates in some of these extreme sports. I just wasn’t satisfied from either end—from the perspective of the athlete or the perspective of a filmmaker. I was raised here at Sundance around the whole [Robert] Redford Sundance Film Festival and Institute and things like that. I’ve been in the film industry for 28 years. About 10 years ago I came up with the idea of doing the same thing for action sports films as Redford has done for independent films: Increasing the quality, pushing story lines and really helping these guys to learn how to make better films. And boy, I tell you, it’s been working.
MM: It seems many of the most mind-boggling feats in extreme sports happen at unexpected times when cameras are not readily available. Do you ever screen footage shot on cell phones or handheld digital cameras? Is that type of footage ever incorporated into films screened at X-Dance?
BW: Contrary to popular belief, these things are extremely calculated. These are extremely dangerous things that they are trying to attempt and they have to be extremely calculated. So it’s a lot of set-up, a lot of safety work and things like this. A lot of these filmmakers were also athletes in their day. They understand the safety factors, what it takes to do certain things. It’s not like a spontaneous, “Oh we just happened to capture that.” It is very, very planned out because a lot of what’s going on is just too dangerous. The way they set the shot up these days is becoming much more meticulous. They’re taking dollies and boom arms and things like that into the back and setting these things up at 13,00 feet in 50 feet of snow. They’re using cable cams through the forest so they can capture shots of guys coming down at high speeds through the forest, whether they’re snowboarding or mountain biking. They’ll set up a cable cam all day long just to get one or two shots.
So cell phones, those kinds of things… that’s not what we’re looking for. These guys are shooting with the Red One Camera, they’re shooting in 35mm, they’re shooting in 16mm, they’re shooting from helicopters. The film that won our event last year, a film called That’s It, That’s All, used military missile mounts—these high-tech mounts in helicopters to get super, super stable, super incredible shots of some action. They were shooting on the most high-tech new version of the Red camera that’s out, and shooting 35mm.
MM: On that same note, how has the mainstream integration of digital technology affected the way extreme sports moviemakers approach their subjects? Would this kind of festival even have been possible 10 to 15 years ago?
BW: It’s made it a lot easier to capture and it makes for much higher quality. It’s easier to take into the back country because it’s a much smaller camera if you’re shooting with a high-def camera. They’ve perfected these helmet cams, the POV cams and things like that. They’ve been mounting these tiny, little high-def cameras they’re able to mount on the athletes or the machinery or whatever they’re using. They’ve become absolutely, incredibly proficient in terms of getting the shots of these incredible POVs, because you want to see how crazy it is from the perspective of an athlete to really relate to how intense it is. The technology has made it a lot easier and leveled out the playing field in the action sports industry.
That’s the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that anybody can shoot, and so we’re seeing… some people are submitting films that are really sub-par because they’re not really filmmakers, they just happen to have a good camera. There are five criteria that we use to judge everything and they are: Editing, cinematography, music, action, story. Each one of them getting the same amount of value. And so films that are just action and music don’t score well because there’s no story.
MM: It’s been widely publicized that Warren Miller will be presented an award at this year’s festival. Can you talk a little bit about his accomplishments and what he’s done to broaden interest in extreme sports moviemaking?
BW: Warren Miller is truly the godfather of action sports filmmaking. He is the reason we are all doing what we’re doing now. Not only did he bring skiing to the masses, but he’s probably put together one of the most successful film tours in the world. To this day, they continue to do these tours that are making millions and millions of dollars. It’s become a rite of passage, in fact, for skiers in September and October—when you’re just so crazy to go skiing—Warren Miller comes to town and you’re dying to go see the film. Warren has stopped making films in the past 10 years, but they continue to put some of his films out.
Everybody kind of originally followed after Warren Miller in his footsteps and they got better and better and better. Warren Miller, though, was truly a pioneer. He would just travel the world shooting people skiing in exotic locations and put together this fun voice-over and it truly became a rite of passage—truly an incredible part of the ski industry, of the ski world. And we’re extremely excited about the ability to give this award, we’re giving him the lifetime achievement award. It’s only been given to Bruce Brown who did [the classic surfing documentary] The Endless Summer. They both started at about the same time. Bruce didn’t really stick with it like Warren did. Warren put out a film every year—every single year, a new film, new locations all over the world. Warren Miller created more careers for skiers, and basically created this whole new “free-skiing” thing that’s been going on because it wasn’t just about ski racing, it was about people enjoying themselves in the outdoors.
MM: How has extreme sports filmmaking changed since the X-Dance Film Fest’s inception 10 years ago?
BW: The quality has increased incredibly. We’ve really been promoting story, which before wasn’t really promoted because most of the films were being financed by the T-shirt and equipment companies. They didn’t really want a film that you’d have to sit down and listen to. They wanted something that they could play in the back of the store that would be like a commercial for them. And they didn’t really promote these guys going out. They just wanted people doing the stunts, doing the tricks repetitively and [the up-and-coming moviemakers] went out like you would a real film. They started stepping up immediately. Even some of those films that are being made by the endemic gear companies, even some of those have been opening up a mic and been telling the story of the athlete. Because unless you tell the story of the athlete, you don’t vest your audience—you don’t really care. You see this once or twice, you don’t know who this guy is. He’s done something incredible, but by the 10th time, you don’t really care; 10 minutes into the film you’re so bored you can’t even stand it. That’s the kind of “action porn” that we’re trying to get away from in this industry.
We’re hoping to have the same thing happen to us that happened to the Sundance Film Festival when they had Sex, Lies, and Videotape break out into the mass market. We’re seeing a lot bigger numbers coming through action sports, millions of dollars are being made by a few films. But we’re sure that there’s going to be a film that breaks into the mass market, a film that’s going to be our version of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and break this wide open, because there’s a huge audience of people who love the outdoors and the sports and everything that goes with it. Wait and see what happens with the Olympics this year. Action sports—the snowboarding, skiing, those sort of things—are going to blow the ratings out of the charts. They’re going to be taking over. The kids are leaning more towards these individual sports, where it’s more a freedom of expression, than they are [the sports] where you win by a 100th of a second in some spandex suit.
MM: Is there anything more you would like to add?
BW: I think that things are just going to get better and better. When I said there was sub-par stuff coming in, we kind of scare them away with our criteria. They know now that you’re not going to get in the festival if you don’t have these things going on. I see some of the stuff that comes through that isn’t that great, but I gotta tell you, on the whole? The industry has improved leaps and bounds and we’re extremely proud of this genre of filmmaking. And these kids are the youngest, hottest, most technologically savvy filmmakers out there because they’ve got to do it on a budget, they’ve got to figure out a way to do things in incredibly rough conditions and dangerously so. I’ve got to tell you, you’d be impressed, if you got a chance to come to the festival, you’d be really impressed with the cinematography and things that are going on in the genre.
For more information on the X-Dance Film Festival visit www.x-dance.com.