Warren Miller: A Drug Called Kodachrome
After almost a year aboard a couple of ships in the South Pacific, I finally had accumulated enough points to earn a discharge and a $100 mustering out check.
My blood was still very thin after spending a year bouncing around between Guadalcanal, Pearl Harbor, Guam and Kwajalein.The Navy had taken four years out of my life and I was ready to get on with what I had left.
I was walking down Market Street with that $100, mustering-out check in my pocket when I paused in front of a camera store and an 8mm Bell & Howell movie camera caught my eye. That check was enough to buy the camera for $79 and three rolls of film for $9 or $10 each. That purchase changed my life forever.
I then shipped my duffel bag to my parent’s house in Hollywood. It was full of all I had acquired since losing everything when we were sunk in a typhoon five days before they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I was very lucky as I had been reassigned to a shallow-water minesweeper that was scheduled to start work in Tokyo Bay. I dodged that one.
Hitchhiking was very easy in those days and when I got home, my two married sisters had moved away, my mother was working, and who knows where my father was.
Before they were married, I had had the use of my sisters’ car when they were dating. I took this as a permanent deal that I could use it whenever I wanted to. So when I got home, I did!
The next day I put my surfboard in the back of the car and was at Malibu by 9:30 a.m. along with my new magic, 8mm, life-changing camera. By the time I exposed my first roll of film I realized a couple of things. This was going to be a very expensive hobby because I needed a tripod and a telephoto lens to get decent images.
On the way home late that afternoon I started spending money on what I thought was going to be a hobby. I found a good used tripod for $25 and telephoto lens for about the same amount. Before I knew it, I needed a splicer to glue the rolls of film together, a movie scope to look at the footage, a pair of rewinds, an editing bench, plus a projector and screen, which were very expensive and would have to wait a while.
Where the sudden interest in motion picture photography came from I don’t have the slightest idea. When I was going to the University of Southern California I never even entered the building that the film classes were held in, much less took a class in motion picture production. I did buy a $2.25 book on how to make movies and that was my total education.
While I was gathering all of this equipment, I became addicted to Kodachrome as my drug of choice.
I really enjoyed filming a big day at Malibu and then showing the results at a friend’s house to the hoot and hollers of our friends. Three fourths of the way through the summer I got a phone call from the wife of a friend of mine inviting me to a tuna casserole dinner.
And, oh, by the way, will you bring your screen, projector and surfing pictures. Thus began the tuna casserole circuit. This is where I started to learn how to edit film after mentally writing the script for it and then narrating it live. Of course, my shows were without music.
After about 10 or 12 of these tuna casserole, surfing dinners, the ocean water was getting very cold and wetsuits had not been invented yet so Ward Baker and I left Southern California in a Buick towing a $200 teardrop trailer. Somewhere in all of the stuff we packed was my projector and the surfing pictures.
In Utah, our first stop on that adventure, most of the skiers had never seen surfing so I had a ready audience for my movies. That winter while Ward and I traveled the West, I showed the surfing pictures wherever I could, still not knowing this would be the start of a lifelong career.
Ward Baker also had an 8mm camera and we took countless rolls of film of each other skiing so we could look at them and learn to ski better. By spring, we had shot a lot of ski action and so I decided to show that ski action to my friends at Malibu and San Onofre. Many of them had never seen snow. This complimentary sports audience worked for me and I was enjoying what I was doing.
By now I was supporting myself as a carpenter in the daytime and messing around with my 8mm movie editing gear in the evening. Ward’s and my Southern California friends had seen my surfing movies and were now enjoying our ski movies.
After the first two winters of ski bumming in Sun Valley, Idaho, living in the parking lot, scrounging for invitations to dinner and finding sneaky ways to ski, in the fall of 1948 I got a job teaching skiing at Sun Valley. It was on Dollar Mountain or half-dollar most of the time where I was given the absolute beginners to teach. (But they were so grateful they nearly always bought my lunch and sometimes dinner, which I accepted especially if she was a pretty girl!)
I still carried my 8mm camera in a small leather case on my belt around my waist so if I saw a good, backlit chairlift shot or a falling-down skier I took a picture for future use. What that future use would be I still had no idea at that time.
One day a pupil said how do you like that camera? I told him I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He replied, I am glad you like it because I am the president of the company. That was Chuck Percy who went on to become a Senator from Illinois.
Luck was riding on my shoulder when I told Chuck Percy and his comptroller Hal Geneen I wanted to get into the travel lecture business and they generously offered to loan me a 16mm Bell & Howell camera with three lenses. They gave me instructions to pay them out of my income when I started getting paid to show my movies.
The two of them jump started my ski film business by about three years. Forty-five years later I sold half of my company to Terry Basset. Five years after that, Terry and I sold the other half to my son who ran it for 10 years. He then sold out to Time Warner and retired temporarily, until he ran out of money.
I was growing the business for 14 years before I hired a cameraman to help me get the pictures. Having never taken a business course, I had no idea what I was doing in running the business…I just loved what I was doing on the filmmaking and presenting side of things. I learned the hard way, through many, many mistakes how to keep track of the details required in running a business successfully.
Until I hired Don Brolin, I did all of the photography, all of the editing, wrote the scripts, chose the music and then went on the road and narrated each performance live. I did the shows live because I never had enough time to learn how to put my voice on the film. Once I did that I could reach the small towns I could not get to in person.
I recently completed my autobiography. I guess I was really a pack rat. Going through years of memorabilia, I found a file of productions since I had hired my first cameramen. Counting TV spots, stock footage, sales of resort films, TV shows, subjects ranging from horseracing to the Colorado River, there is a total of 626 films.
And the whole thing started with a $79, 8mm camera on the beach at Malibu, an addiction to Kodachrome (a word most young people wouldn’t recognize, I suspect), and an honest desire to share the stuff I had the privilege of enjoying.
Think about this statistic: when I started making my 16mm ski movies in 1950 there were less than 15 chairlifts in America. How many are there today? When I started there were three chairlifts in California, two in Utah, one in Colorado, and the first ever built at Sun Valley. Washington had a couple and so did Oregon, but when you left Colorado you had to go to Michigan to find another chairlift that had been purchased from Sun Valley for $4800.
I produced my first movie when I was teaching at Squaw Valley the year they opened in 1949-50 and they only had one chairlift, two rope tows, four ski instructors and accommodations for 42 people.
$79, an idea, and a little hard work can take you a long way as long as you like what you do. It’s taken me to 90 years old.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)