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Warren Miller: Memories Of Squaw Valley
Was I nervous? You bet! In the end of 1949, three feet of new powder snow had fallen overnight at a brand new ski resort called Squaw Valley.
Donner Summit was closed, so there were no customers. For the first time in my life I was pointing my brand new 16MM Bell and Howell camera at the ski school director, Emile Allais. Emile was twice world champion prior to World War II and was skiing with his own, unique ski technique.
I had learned about the French technique during the previous winter when I was teaching the Arlberg technique for Otto Lang in Sun Valley. I thought it made so much more sense and brought a beginner along much more quickly.
I had only taken 12 rolls of film with my new camera. They were either from the beach of surfers or from riding on my surfboard with my camera in a waterproof box I built the summer before.
For my first attempt at ski photography, I naively left my camera in the brown leather case with red velvet lining it had arrived in on my doorstep in Sun Valley six months earlier.
I had been hired by airmail as a ski instructor for this brand new resort with the first double chairlift west of Colorado.
The ski patrolmen who were skiing with Emile and another instructor, Stan Tomlinson, handled the powder effortlessly. I used what experience I had shooting 8MM footage for the previous three winters of Ward Baker, other people and interesting things at Sun Valley.
My camera was loaned to me by Chuck Percy, then president of Bell and Howell, to help me get started in my film career of travel films. It was a loan I paid off in a little less than three years.
With my limited knowledge of camera angles, shadows and backlighting, the only difference was that the images were going on to 16MM film stock instead of 8MM.
My rucksack was a $6 Army surplus canvas bag on a metal frame with canvas straps. The first time I took the camera out of the rucksack and the leather carrying case, I realized I made a major mistake in not having it ready to come out at a moment’s notice. I realized this as I tried to get ready to photograph the right backlit, untracked powder snow. It took too much time to open the rucksack, lift out the leather suitcase, check the F-stop and start filming.
With film costing $11 a roll including processing, I had only saved up enough money to buy five rolls of film. Those five rolls of film was the equivalent of 12.5 minutes of ski time. By the time the sun disappeared behind the ridge, my hands were frozen and I was really nervous the next five or six days until the footage arrived back and I could look at it.
I was very surprised to discover most of those first five rolls of film were very good, good enough to include them in my first feature-length ski film, “Deep and Light.”
Over the course of the winter on my $31.25 a week payroll, I managed to ferret away enough money to buy 37 more rolls of film. From that I created that first film I showed in the fall of 1950.
Relying on the experience of my 8MM photography days, I was able to shoot some footage of people trying to get up the rope tows, as well as a young girl skiing with soft galoshes that rotated her feet at least 90 degrees without ever actually turning her skis.
In the late spring of 1950, the editor and publisher of Western Skiing, Lester Jay, was at Squaw Valley. I rented a 16MM projector and showed him my accumulated footage. Jay liked what he say and offered to help me get started in the feature film business.
As I reflect back on those exciting first days of photography and the literally thousands of days in between then and now, I can’t ever recall feeling as though I have worked a day in my professional life.
I really liked what I was doing and the sharing with anyone who would pay me one dollar to come see my film. So it never was like going to work. I just had to prove the dollar they spent to see the film was worth it to them.
That first camera was like a magic carpet for me to visit almost every ski resort with a chairlift or better in the world, from Zermatt to New Zealand and everything in between.
For the first 14 years that I made the films, I did everything connected with the productions. I selected where I would go; handled the travel complexities; managed to get the best footage I could and then back to the office in the spring and summer to edit, choose the music (from the public domain as I couldn’t afford to pay for music), book the venues and then start the travel all over to roughly 110 cities each year that wanted to see the film.
It wasn’t until 1964 when Don Brolin was hired to help me with the filming and post production and Art Lawson came on board to handle sales, I could get some breathing space. Don stayed with the company long after I retired from anything to do with the company in the 2000’s.
That original hand-wind, 16MM camera was a magic magnet to attract people from everyone up the political and economic ladder to people living in VW busses in parking lots of ski areas - a very broad audience.
At our winter home there is a mahogany mantle over the fireplace carved with a picture of my old Buick and the teardrop trailer Ward and I lived in for those two winters in the Sun Valley parking lot. The legend on the carving says it all: ”Don’t forget where it all began…”
I have all those memories of experiences filming, traveling, and meeting exciting people all over the world. It’s time to finish up my autobiography and weed through literally thousands of photographs of those memories. My autobiography might just be one man’s historical chronicle of the growth of winter snow sports from a total of 13 chairlifts in North America to what it is today, sometimes as many as 25,000 skiers on a single day at Mammoth and Vail.
One very important thing I learned on this long journey is never to believe what they say about you in a magazine or newspaper because you probably wrote it yourself as a press release! Plus today your photo may be on the upper half of the front page but tomorrow that paper may just as easily be at the bottom of a birdcage.
It’s been a fun journey of millions of miles from those first rolls of film taken at Squaw Valley to be chosen to be the Honorary Director of Skiing for the Yellowstone Club, the only private ski/golf resort in the world.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)