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Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Updated: March 11, 3:03 PM ET
Behind the lens

By Colin Whyte
ESPN.com

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In 2008, French big-mountain pro snowboarder Xavier de Le Rue survived one of the scariest avalanches ever caught on film -- a 2-kilometer beast near the French/Swiss border in a helicopter-accessed region of the Alps called Orciéres. A guide had skied the face earlier that day and the snow conditions were considered to be stable, even "perfect."

At the time, de Le Rue was filming for sponsor Rossignol, though the action ultimately ended up being in his first part for U.S.-based Standard Films. Everything was being shot from the helicopter, and so, he explains, "timing and light [were] extremely important."

It was a picture-perfect day, and then:

YES. snowboards' David Carrier-Porcheron has a close call near Squamish, British Columbia, while filming for 2011's "YES. It's A Movie."

"A small slab of snow came loose between the rocks in the upper section, but that didn't really worry me. I picked up my pace, and everything indicated that I'd managed to get away from the white monster -- that I'd be able to laugh about all of it afterwards. Then, I noticed huge cracks everywhere beneath me. The entire slope contracted in fractions of a second, and there was no way I was going to escape."

De le Rue survived that day (partly with the help of an airbag backpack), but if there's one constant in all tales of avalanche survival, it's hindsight.

Looking back, he says, "I didn't take enough time to check my line and consider good escape routes."

The majority of ski and snowboard videos that hit the digital marketplace and store shelves each fall are filmed outside of the confines of resort boundaries and terrain parks -- i.e. places where there's no ski patrol, no avalanche control and no toboggans. Avalanches are a reality, and filmmakers and athletes are on their own when it comes to both avoiding them and dealing with the results of getting caught in them.

Most take this responsibility very seriously. And whether it reads to mainstream viewers when the footage makes the screen, the superheroes sending perfect 1080s into steep chutes or outrunning slides actually do this for a living -- i.e. not for "a dying" -- and many have invested a lifetime not only in their riding abilities but in expanding their backcountry education.

The increasing appetite for Internet video in recent years has led to an onslaught of filmmakers battling in the backcountry for fun, profit, downloads and likes on YouTube.

Like a Hollywood car chase or explosion, scenes like these abound in ski and snowboard movies. From Travis Rice "duck-diving" and traversing out of a slide in 2011's Brain Farm film "The Art Of Flight," (cleverly discussed on Conan ) to Jussi Oksanen's 2011 Burton part in "Standing Sideways" where he lands a 1080 only to have the entire slope crumble beneath him, to Richard Permin outrunning a slide in Matchstick Production's 2012 film "Superheroes of Stoke," avalanches happen -- and they sometimes happen with cameras rolling.

Many films routinely show avalanches occurring, with or without a rider involved, and the results can be appropriately scary, e.g. "teachable moments" -- or they can be shameless in their use of avalanches as a dramatic device with little or no explanation for context.

The sheer mass of snow-sport videography available today is staggering. Established film outfits such as Teton Gravity Research, Matchstick Productions and Absinthe Films can be counted on to deliver the best ski and snowboard moments of all time, with world-class athletes pushing progression in the most stunning mountain locations on earth.

But what has been recently added to this output are the sponsored riders and scrappy filmmakers looking to break into the top tier; the shop team webisodes, bro shorts and investment bankers' POV vacation footage -- all creating virtual armies battling in the backcountry for fun, profit, downloads and likes on YouTube.

A seasoned film-part vet in the snowboard world, Jussi Oksanen won TransWorld's "Part of the Year" award for his performance in Standard's 1999 film "TB8."

"There are more clueless people in the backcountry being unsafe than ever before. But there are also a lot more people in the backcountry who know what they are doing," says Absinthe's Justin Hostynek, a veteran shooter who survived a serious slide while filming that could have pushed him into the spinning rotors of a helicopter were it not for some quick thinking by himself and the pilot. "Thanks to the digital format, now everyone can be a moviemaker. People literally race out to the known filming spots to get there before other film crews, and as a result, safety often becomes a lower priority."

Added Mervin photographer Tim Zimmerman: "All the stuff I was seeing on social media last year, of crews putting up their 'We set THIS avalanche off today!' Instagram photos, then the same crew putting up photos from slides in the same zone, three days in a row, acting like they can't figure out why they're seeing all these avalanches, like it's no big deal ... By acting like it's no big deal, they're encouraging people to go out and make dumb mistakes."

Hiking, snowmobiling or snowcat/heli skiing, if you're in the backcountry, avalanches are your great white shark. Epic flicks might inspire you to try your legs at an unskied line or building a jump with a bottomless landing, but there's a saying in the professional avalanche community: The mountains don't know you are a professional.

Erik Roner broke his femur in an avalanche (though not this slide pictured) while filming with TGR last winter.

In many ways, big-mountain crews with their decades of experience, professional guides and years examining lines are running less of a risk than some talented freestylers from the flatlands renting sleds and building jumps into a wind-loaded backcountry bowl.

"I believe that it is absolutely the opposite," said Clark Fyans, a backcountry guru who has guided for MSP, Warren Miller and Brain Farm, and gives his crews half- to full-day safety clinics before every major shoot. "Of course there are more film crews out there, and everyone needs more content, but I don't believe that's [causing] more accidents. More safety measures, new techniques and more budget to have professional guides on hand all seem to be becoming more of a standard."

Big mountain snowboard legend Jeremy Jones, who does snow-safety outreach through movies such as "Further" and "Deeper" as well as his brand, Jones Snowboards, has been in two serious avalanche situations. Both happened in "mellow terrain" while he wasn't filming.

"Personally, I feel safest when I am with a film crew because the level of experience is very high," he said. "Getting movie-worthy footage is very hard, so crews are forced to do their homework before riding movie-worthy terrain. There is nothing cavalier about filming serious lines in the backcountry, and riders learn early on that you need to leave the pressures of 'getting the shot' in the parking lot or you will not last long."

A cameraman and athlete go side-by-side for Sweetgrass Productions in the British Columbia backcountry.

But safety runs in the Jones family. His older brothers founded Teton Gravity Research, a company that includes avalanche-education bonuses on all of its DVDs and has produced more snow-safety material than anyone in the market. They also do an annual three-day training workshop for production teams and athletes.

"We recognize that TGR encourages people to venture into the backcountry and we spend a ton of time educating our crew and the general public," TGR's Todd Jones said.

Sherpas Cinema is another outfit that thinks snow safety first. They created "The Fine Line" to meld the worlds of avalanche education and engaging cinematography to create a new window into the world of snow science.

Perhaps it is because of tragedies and near-misses that awareness among film crews is on the rise, but many of our experts suggested that it hasn't filtered all the way down to the more junior crews.

"It seems the only time people do talk about avalanches is when people die, and then we all get angry about how we're perceived in the media and by our moms -- as crazy, suicidal thrill-seekers," Mike Berard, Editor of Coast Mountain Culture said.

"Put a guide on-screen every once in a while," he added. "Everyone talks about how these guys are the unspoken heroes behind the films, but no one lets them talk at length. No one sees what goes into the choosing and evaluating of a line. Get the guides talking. Get the athletes talking about how scared they are."

A skier gets caught in a slide while filming with Powderwhore Productions in Utah.

As much as some athletes and filmmakers wish audiences could see that backstory, the traditional ski/snowboard movie format typically doesn't allow for this sort of explanation. "Education is essential in this equation, and ski movies are ultimately there for entertainment," MSP skier Cody Townsend said.

"What the audience sees is a talented skier barely holding it together as he out-skis the avalanche. What the audience doesn't see are the medically trained and professionally educated guide and two other skiers waiting -- eyes on the skier the entire time -- equipped with shovels, medical equipment and a helicopter in case something does go wrong. They don't get to see the days of waiting that play into letting a once-unstable snowpack heal itself."

Context is everything, both for filmmaker and audience. Do you show your rider wiped out in your DVD extras or Vimeo channel with no explanation, or do you embrace the moment for the sake of your audience?

"It's important to show the worst-case scenarios when they are captured on film. Because you're so far away, there's usually nothing that you can do in those few split seconds, but showing these life-threatening situations is important and can spark interest in the audience to learn to make their own experiences in the backcountry safer," Hostynek said.

"The worst is to show gnarly shred footage, and in the middle, a huge slab where the guy survives and laughs at the bottom, followed by more great action. People want to know what it takes to be out there in the good -- and maybe even more so in the bad -- moments," de Le Rue said.

In every sport, there are role models, and there are the aspirational, fresh-faced athletes who look up to them. Education and awareness is key, but it's not something that can be learned kicking back on the couch, getting hyped for the upcoming season with a new crop of snow flicks.

"These are the Michael Jordans and Muhammad Alis -- the absolute elite at what they do. They have trained and dedicated their entire life to this, and do everything possible to continue to do it for the rest of their life," Fyans said. "It shouldn't be glamorized when something goes wrong, but it also shouldn't be filtered from the audience. These are real dangers, and there is a responsible way to show viewers that this isn't a controlled set in Hollywood. The end result could be your friend, or multiple of your friends, not joining you for that beer at the end of the day."

"You're not a tough guy for surviving an avalanche," Zimmerman said. "You're a tough guy for being smart enough to stay out of it."

A filmer shooting in the backcountry for Candide Thovex's new film, "Few Words."