Warren Miller: That 8mm Aladdin’s Lamp
My next-door neighbor, Steve, recently gave me a wonderful present: a hand full of aluminum and a little bit of glass.
I am now the second owner of a 1945 Bell and Howell 8mm, hand-wind movie camera. It has a Taylor Hobson lens and a mechanical computer on the side so I always have the right exposure for the lens I had.
It is the same make and model camera that I bought the day I got mustered out of the Navy June1946. I spent $94.95 of my mustering-out check for that original camera.
After I bought it, I discovered I owned a combination of a Genie in a bottle and Aladdin’s’ magic lamp that I could rub and all of my wishes would come true, I also owned a magic carpet on which to fly all over the world.
That original 8mm camera launched all of those things for me: a chance to some day visit and eventually own almost anything I wanted to build, create, or buy.
The camera is only two inches thick and five inches long, and it will fit in the palm of my hand. It was with me from sun up to sundown from the day I bought it, until I was loaned a 16mm Bell and Howell camera to replace it and start my movie business officially in 1949. That summer was when I made my first 16mm surfing movie at Malibu and San Onofre.
When I first held the 8mm camera Steve gave me the other night a thousand memories, all good, flooded across my mind as they spilled out of my memory bank.
The first one was looking at a cold winter sky with Orion very prominent as I lay by the open door of our four foot by eight foot, teardrop trailer. It was the same temperature inside the trailer as it was outside with or without the door open, and that night it was very cold in the Sun Valley parking lot.
The next day I found out it had been 32 degrees below zero. Ward Baker and I were warm in our $7, down-filled war surplus mummy bags. (Or we were too dumb to realize we were supposed to be cold.)
We would eventually spend the winter living there. It was sometimes hard to fall asleep because we were so excited about learning to be better skiers.
I took 8mm movies of the dirt streets in Aspen and the view from the Tourtelotte Park Chairlift. Along with movies of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Ski Club sign that didn’t move.
Also, scenes of the Alta parking lot with our Buick and trailer buried under a two-foot, overnight snowfall. Movies of skiing down The Big Hill at Badger Pass in Yosemite when they had one rope tow and a sled lift.
Each time I pick up that 8mm camera a new memory falls out of it.
Some of those 8mm movies are still in my basement. Some of them I loaned to Kim Schneider when we were both helping to create my annual feature length film. Unfortunately those 8mm films are buried somewhere in a warehouse stack of hundreds of other movies in Boulder, Colorado.
Ward Baker also had an 8mm movie camera so we tried to improve our skiing style with the books that we had access to, such as Otto Lang’s. We would take movies of each other to see what we were doing wrong.
We took movies of each other carving a nice set of figure eights on Horse Ridge next to Ostrander Lake in Yosemite. I still have a still photo of those tracks. There was no one within ten miles of us when we did that.
No one can take the memories away I have seen while filming during the last 65 years. We also filmed powder snow in the Bowls before there were chairlifts there and skiing in the massive icy bumps in the Canyon at Sun Valley.
We had to do it all on laminated wooden skis that were seven-foot-three-inches long without offset or sharpened edges while wearing ski boots that gave about as much support as a pair of wooden Nike golf shoes. We were a sight to behold.
In some ways I am just as happy the films are lost or stored away. We would compare our style to that of Otto Lang who was a very smooth skier and later my boss when I worked for him in the Sun Valley Ski School as a ski instructor in 1948/49.
Six weeks after I bought my 8mm camera, I bought a three-inch telephoto and a tripod and started taking surfing movies at Malibu in August 1946. The lens gave me six times magnification to film close ups from the beach. Surfboards were 10 and 11 feet long and weighed over 90 pounds. The waves came all the way up to our shoulders sometimes.
Unfortunately all of the surfing films I had taken disappeared about 30 years ago, but the memories are still vivid for me now that I have that 8mm camera in my hand. It really is a magic carpet.
The film in the 8mm camera was originally 16mm wide and only half of it was exposed at a time. When you got to the end of the 25 feet, you turned the roll over and exposed the other 25 feet. When it was processed, they slit it down the middle and then spliced the two pieces together.
When there was only a few feet unexposed left on the end of the roll I used to take pictures of stuff that made no sense to anyone. Scenes such as a very fat woman chasing her chickens out of the road in front of our car. Not nice but other unusual things such as that.
When I first showed the 8mm ski movies of my travels with Ward Baker, those offbeat scenes would suddenly appear out of nowhere. I had some smart remark to make about how the lady should eat more chicken and lose weight so she could also run faster and catch more chickens. Maybe that is where I got the idea to keep offbeat comedy scenes in my ski movies. That first small audience of 15 people always laughed at the offbeat stuff.
That 8mm camera almost completes the collection of stuff that will be on exhibit at the Warren Miller Center for the Performing Arts in Big Sky, Montana, scheduled to open December 2012.
It was a real hoot for me to have this much fun just because I bought an 8mm movie camera and earned enough money taking movies to put three kids through college.
I look at what became a memory bank that Steve found for me in that small 8mm camera with a historical metal computer on the side of it. It is here on my desk alongside my laptop computer and the notes that I am stitching together as I write my biography.
I only have the last ten years or so to still write about. Then it is a re-edit, sort out thousands or more historical photographs, hundreds of cartoons, and then the company will find a publisher.
Until then I will gather a lot more pleasant memories from this gift from Steve, my next-door neighbor.
(Learn more about the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation.)