Extreme snowboarder Travis Rice isn't interested in making mere "ski porn" films — the downhill documentaries known for showing trick after breath-taking trick over a soundtrack of thrashing guitars.
For Rice and director Curt Morgan, one-upping traditional snow sports movies with their latest film, "The Art of Flight," meant using the latest cutting-edge equipment, including a high-definition camera that shoots 1,050 frames a second.
It also meant taking bigger risks — such as going to mountains no one's ever touched and doing tricks no one's ever tried. At least three snowboarders were hospitalized while filming "The Art of Flight."
And it meant telling good stories — like when snowboarders had to dive into icy waters high in the Andes of South America to reach their helicopter before it ran out of fuel to fly them out. '"Really scary, we almost died' — that sort of thing," Morgan said.
"The Art of Flight" premieres Wednesday at New York's Beacon Theatre, then screens in selected cities, including Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Montreal and Boston, before concluding the tour Nov. 3 at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts.
The film stars Rice, 28, who is among the sport's top riders. Morgan, 29, once rode professionally with Rice but gave it up after breaking his back three times.
Morgan eventually founded Jackson, Wyo.-based Brain Farm Digital Cinema, which made "The Art of Flight" and also produced Rice's "That's It, That's All." That 2008 film broadened the snowboarding film experience by melding big-air tricks with nature and wildlife photography from the far-off places Rice and friends traveled.
"What's really cool about Brain Farm is their films hit more of the mainstream," said Waide Hoyt of Standard Films, an industry pioneer. "They bring people who may not watch snowboard movies or purchase them to check them out."
"That's the whole challenge here," Morgan said. "You have a core audience that's really small. We're trying to find a way for our stories to transcend to the mainstream. We're trying to push the boundaries and still hold on to the core."
Morgan won't discuss it, but the production budget for "The Art of Flight," heavily supported by Red Bull and other sponsors, is said to be around $2 million — huge for snowboarding flicks typically shown at festivals or limited screenings.
A big chunk of that budget went for helicopters, sometimes two at a time, with one dropping riders off on narrow ridges and another shooting the action with a high-definition Cineflex camera system.
"People are trying to do something gnarlier to outdo the next person. In turn, you create more challenges and sketchy situations. We've set ourselves up for some painful days," Morgan said.
The new movie includes some of the backstory of those situations, like braving high winds and the prospect of no rescue in the forbidding Darwin Range of southernmost Chile, where a helicopter pilot once told Morgan the devil lives.
"If you get stuck out there, you're pretty much done for," Morgan said.
Part of what made it tricky was the helicopter only carried about 120 minutes' worth of fuel, and it took about 80 minutes round-trip to get to where Morgan wanted to shoot the riders taking on a narrow chute. The movie trailer shows snowboarders tossing their boards across an icy gap and plunging into chilly water so they could get back to their helicopter before it ran out of fuel.
Besides Chile, the movie features backcountry footage from Alaska, British Columbia and Wyoming. The team also spent part of last May shooting at Colorado's Snowmass ski area after it closed for the season.
All told, Morgan's crew shot more than 2,600 hours of footage for the movie and eight, one-hour episodes of a planned television show on how Morgan and Rice make their movies. Brain Farm is negotiating with networks.
Any snowboard movie faces the risk of avalanches and bad weather. And it can take weeks to get the right mix of fresh snow, sunlight and calm winds that won't ground helicopters or toss riders who are launching 50 to 60 feet into the air.
"Any day you get a shot is a good day," Rice said. "You chip away at an hour-long project five seconds at a time."
Then there are the injuries.
In January, Scotty Lago, the 2010 Winter Olympics halfpipe bronze medalist, broke his jaw after slamming it against his knee on a landing in the Wyoming backcountry. And Mark Landvik required knee surgery after a bad landing off a backside 360. At Snowmass in May, Canadian Sebastien Toutant broke his ankle while warming up.
But it wasn't all pain and suffering at the Snowmass shoot. Canadian up-and-comer Mark McMorris successfully landed a rare triple cork, essentially a twisted triple flip. The next day, Landvik, still out of action while recovering from the knee surgery, marched around in a fake mullet and cutoff jeans to lighten the mood. Others launched into slow-motion snow fights and impromptu rapping with a Shake Weight.
Meanwhile, Morgan's crew manned five video cameras, including a Phantom, which shoots so many frames per second that it can turn four seconds of real-time action into four minutes of slow-motion on a movie screen.
At one point, Lago and others joined Rice riding on custom-built terrain features created by Aspen Skiing Co. staff based on crude sketches by Morgan's team. The custom features included a tight cluster of shapely, 20-foot-high mounds the riders nicknamed "Gumdrop Land" or "Volcano Land" — at least those were the G-rated nicknames.
Where did the idea for that come from?
"Beer," Morgan said, adding that Rice originally wanted to jump over ice sculptures, a snow Brontosaurus, and a full-on snow girl.
"It's very much a fantasy snowboarding movie," Rice said.
But it's not ski porn.
"There's story," Morgan said. "Porn is just action set to music." — __
Catherine Tsai can be reached at http://twitter.com/ctsai_denver