Warren Miller: Once They Were New
I’ve been very lucky to have pointed my cameras at dozens of brand-new ski resorts in America and Europe starting way back in 1947 when I shot footage with my 8mm camera at a brand-new ski resort in Colorado called Aspen.
It boasted the world’s longest chairlift and lift tickets cost a whopping $4 a day and accommodations could be purchased at Ed’s beds for $3 a night in a dorm. Of course, dormitories were all they had.
In November of 1949, I first turned my 16mm camera on a brand-new ski resort in California called Squaw Valley. It boasted one double chairlift, two rope tows, and accommodations for 40 people.
That was the first winter with my 16mm camera and the beginning of what became an annual pilgrimage for me traveling all over the world and then to all the American cities to share the footage. It seemed as though over the years I was privileged to document almost every new ski resort anyone built.
There were less than 15 chairlifts in North America and later the occasional new one in Europe such as Courchevel in France.
Most of these new ski resorts had almost no budget for marketing and I was able to camp out in whatever accommodations were available and introduce my audiences to brand-new places from Sugarbush in Vermont to the rope tows in Mammoth Mountain, California, and everything that was built in between.
When they opened Vail in 1962, I was lucky enough to be filming in the Back Bowls one day when the total lift ticket sales for the day were $8 at this brand-new resort where they forgot to build two things. One was a parking lot so nobody could visit and the other thing was a cemetery so no one could die there. Not a bad idea.
I spent a weekend flying around in a helicopter at a brand-new ski resort called Alpental and put a dog and pony show film together which they showed twice and sold enough real estate to finance three chairlifts and the base lodge.
I was able to do the same thing for a resort just over the ridge from Squaw Valley called Alpine Meadows that worked for John Riley to parlay my film into his new ski resort.
Many of these new resorts had no marketing money at all so I would produce the movie and take my expenses in raw land at the same price the developers pay for it.
When Mount Snow, Vermont, cranked up its one-of-a-kind, greasy chairlift, I was there wiping grease off of my 16mm camera and smart enough to realize no one would ever build another chairlift like it and they didn’t.
When Chamonix, France, decided to build a new gondola, I was lucky enough to fly to the summit with a world champion skier in a French army helicopter and film the first person up at 10,000 vertical feet to cut untracked powder snow and bring it back to my audiences all over the United States and Canada.
I think I was the luckiest guy in the world to ever own a 16mm camera and a pair of skis and boots, with an airplane ticket to document this brand-new industry called skiing.
I filmed the birth of Keystone, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge, Colorado, and watched a four-lane freeway change from a 90-minute drive from Denver to a 7-hour traffic jam on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
I’ve been witness to the creation of the world’s only private ski and golf resort here in Montana called the Yellowstone Club that is becoming so popular it doesn’t need any movies made for it.
Over the years I managed to participate in the creation of 65 feature-length ski films that averaged between 15 and 20 different ski resorts each year.
The first year that Walt Stopa started up this man-made snow machine in Wisconsin, luck was once again on my side when I introduced man-made snow to tens of thousands of people that first year it was in operation.
Looking back on the hundreds of thousands of miles I have driven, flown, hitchhiked, and remembered that I have dodged accidents in any and every manner of transportation. Now that they have taken my driver’s license away from me at age 90, there is a good chance I won’t have an accident in a car due to driver fatigue.
My cameras have documented skiing on a volcano that was blowing up every day between 3:30-4 p.m. but that was in New Zealand way back in 1968. A few days later, five of us left the summit of a glacier after dark in a three place helicopter and arrived for a late dinner at the hotel along with triple gold medal winner Jean Claude Killy and his teammate Leo LaCroix.
Over the years my 16mm camera became a magnet for skiers the world over. Unfortunately, in today’s world the construction of new resorts is virtually a thing of the past. I actually lived the best of all worlds my entire career.
In today’s world of lightweight electronic, high performance cameras and editing capabilities, the visual capabilities of reproducing nature are much easier than the cameras and editing equipment we used in the “old days.”
Today there are two new generations of ski and snowboard filmmakers and I applaud every one of them for exploring the limits of their horizons.
My only wish is for there to be many more new and bigger resorts for them to point their cameras at.
We were very lucky when I was making movies because we only had one format, the 16mm film, a 16mm projector, a dark room, and exciting images on a white screen.
We tried to make the images as big as possible to replicate the great outdoors today with so many different handheld devices miniaturization seems to be a clarion call for success. Doesn’t make sense to me, but then, I’m 90!
It used to be very expensive with a 100-foot roll of Kodachrome including processing at $11 for screen time capturing the same images that electronically cost almost zero today.
I’ve been asked quite often if I had my career to do over, would I change anything? The only thing I would change would be to get along with a lot less sleep and make a whole lot more movies.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)