IN THE SECOND WEEK of February, a three-minute teaser for a film called The Art of Flight was posted online. Shot by the Jackson, Wyoming, production house Brain Farm and starring Travis Rice, widely regarded as the world’s best snowboarder, the clip blew up—in part due to the formidable marketing tentacles of Red Bull, the film’s primary backer. Within a week, it had been viewed 1.5 million times, approximately 1.3 million more times than the trailer for any other snowboarding film in existence. “Justin Timberlake texted me,” Curt Morgan, the movie’s 29-year-old director, told me shortly after the clip went viral. “50 Cent posted it.”
Hold that thought: 50 Cent posted a link to a trailer for a snowboarding film?
Certainly Flight, which premieres September 7 at New York City’s Beacon Theater, was reaching a much broader audience than any snowboarding film had before, but it was also wowing action-sports luminaries. “Mind-blowing,” said Annie Fast, editor in chief of Transworld Snowboarding. “Insanely beautiful and well crafted,” said Brian Wimmer, director and founder of the X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival.
While the riders’ feats are astonishing, it’s the trailer’s cinematography that is the real star of the show. Thanks to a deep-pocketed investor and a tight relationship with Red Bull, which is picking up the film’s entire, undisclosed (but certainly multimillion-dollar) tab, Morgan was able to deploy the same arsenal of high-tech toys used by crews on celebrated docs like Planet Earth and Life, including a Cineflex—a remote-controlled gyro-stabilized camera that utilizes software developed for the military. One of many beautiful shots in the trailer is of professional snowboarder Mark Landvik launching from a massive kicker and hand-planting off a pine tree that appears to be the height of a small skyscraper. If the sequence had been shot like every other action-sports film—that is, by a single cameraman, maybe two, perhaps from a helicopter, using standard-issue high-definition cameras—it would have been extraordinarily cool. But because Morgan was able to set up a 12-foot jib for one of his newest gizmos, the super-slo-mo Phantom HD Gold (which is capable of turning one second into 60), it’s extraordinarily cool and also serenely graceful.
What isn’t apparent, of course, is all of the painstaking preparation that went into capturing the sequence. To set up the shot, which was filmed 20 miles from the nearest trailhead in the Snake River Mountains outside Jackson, Wyoming, it took six guys on sleds three days to break trail for the camera crew, then another full day to shuttle in the 800 pounds of equipment, including 200 pounds of free weights used as ballast for the Phantom’s jib arm. Once everything was in place, a team of 10 to 12 guys—including Rice, Landvik, and Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist Scotty Lago—spent four more days moving an estimated 80 tons of snow to build the 20-foot kicker Landvik and company would launch off.
“In the commercial world,” Morgan told me a few days after I watched his crew methodically build the ramp, “that one jump would cost a half-million dollars.” For Morgan, it was just another day on location for Flight (which as of early July was still in postproduction). Over the past two years, when not directing commercials for blue-chip clients like Visa and shooting scenes for Hollywood films like Jackass 3D, Morgan and crew have been following Rice, Landvik, and a revolving cast of snowboarding’s cool kids around the planet.
Already, they’d spent a month and a half in Chile and a month in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains, plus stints in Canada and Jackson, with tentative plans to hit British Columbia, Romania, Greece, Austria, and, if they still had the cash, Greenland. Snowmobiles had been crashed, 15 top-of-the-line AStar B3 helicopters rented, and both fireworks and firearms deployed. (Morgan often carries a .50-caliber pistol with him on location.)
You’ll be able to see it all, though not necessarily in the theater. A condition of Red Bull’s investment was that Brain Farm produce an accompanying TV show, an eight-episode making-of documentary series. (At press time, Brain Farm’s agents were still in negotiations with networks; the yet unnamed series is expected to debut in early 2012.)