The snowboarding world can sometimes get a bit myopic as we chase the next triple cork, the next super booter, the next "it kid"... so it was a refreshing change when fashion photographer and director Jacob Sutton delivered his unusual Silver Surfer meets your best pow day ever vision "L.E.D. Surfer" to our collective eyeballs. In it, a character seemingly made of light glides and slashes his way through powdery darkness in a moody and expressive way that's unlike anything you've seen before.
It just so happens that the film was shot in Tignes, France, host of Winter X Tignes 2012. The snowboarder featured is 11-year Tignes local Will Hughes, who we just discovered will be doing a live premiere of the film at the fringe event Across The Lake in Tignes Le Lac on Wednesday night. (If you're in town for the festivities, check out the lineup of events here.) We thought we'd hit up Hughes and Sutton to get a little more information about this Internet sensation.
"I used to skateboard quite a bit and have been skiing before. I was asked by Nowness to make a film about skiing initially," explains Sutton. "I spent a while researching snowboarding and skiing films. There are thousands of great ones shot from helicopters of guys flying down cliff faces and doing huge jumps. I love these and can watch them endlessly, but I thought I'd try to approach the subject in a way that explored the aesthetics of snowboarding in a more textural way and in a way that was more moody and expressive."
The official title of Sutton's video is actually "Glowing Man" but it has been re-dubbed by the masses as L.E.D. Surfer. The film comes from an entirely different filmic language from snowboarding's usual core offerings: The London-based Sutton, 33, is best known for his photo work in the fashion world with distinguished clients such as Hermès and Burberry. He is also on the forefront of the recent boom in fashion films, shooting for the likes of H+M, Comme des Garçons, and The New York Times.
"I've made a number of short films exploring different disciplines of movement, from Olympic fencers, to modern dancers and even skydivers flying in a vertical wind tunnels," says Sutton. "In that respect I've got a fair amount of experience with high speed work and movement. There are always new challenges in each project though... I always want the subject beautifully lit and I love creating a mood... I want to make films that are inspired by the subject, but transcend the feeling of everyday reality."
(Gear nerds: The team shot the nuanced night action with Red Epic cameras, known for their high frame rate and large capture.)
Hughes, a 36-year-old am from the UK am throws up a "white room" at one point, the snow lit from within by the L.E.D. suit, and it so perfectly captures the true immersion, the true sensation of a good pow run at night; i.e. you're not on it, you're in it.
"It wasn't scary, it was bloody cold though," laughs Hughes. "Spotting a line was difficult as I couldn't see the end of [it] because the snow around me was so bright. The stuff in the trees was pretty technical; as soon as I did a pow turn I couldn't see the trees anymore."
"I don't think you really feel the steepness of the slopes when you see it onscreen but he was really flying," says Sutton, who hooked up with Hughes through a mutual friend.
Hughes' personality is a perfect fit for the vibe of the film, too: "I've had a couple of short sections in some British movies but ... I don't compete; I shred lines," he says.
The light suit was designed by John Spatcher, who put over 300 man-hours into getting it right, and its restrictive nature meant that Hughes had to get an assistant to fasten his boots and bindings. The hood also meant that goggles wouldn't work so Hughes had to ride without, in temps plummeting to -25 C (-13F). Ouch.
"It contained about 5000 LEDs [Ed. light-emitting diodes] in the end and was powered by two battery cells on Will's chest," explains Sutton. "Because of the complexity of the electronics involved and the fact that it was -25C and the suit was getting quite a thrashing, it was inevitable that things went wrong... My dad came on the shoot to do onsite repairs. We were regularly staggering into bars and hotel lobbies in Tignes where [he] would get out his soldering iron and start repairing one of the many hundred connecting wires in the suit."
The "LED Surfer/Glowing Man" video has been getting up to 60,000 hits a day on Sutton's Vimeo page and has now probably even been sent to you by your grandmother on Facebook. You don't have to be a snowboarder to appreciate its beauty, but we'd argue that it helps.
Sutton is suitably humbled and energized by the overwhelming reaction: "The response to the film has been amazing. One of the most satisfying and fulfilling points in all the comments online has been that it seems to have affected people on an emotional level and in a positive way. It's a great feeling to realize that you have communicated something to people you have never met through a piece of work you've done."
See some of Sutton's other stellar work here.