Super-Fat Days, Coma Nights, and the Quest for Tearjerker Footy

A tight crew of out-of-bounds crazies has been working overtime to turn the snow-flick world upside down with its relentlessly spectacular reels. Is it art or is it ski porn?

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Peering at $40,000 worth of editing equipment, Todd Jones kicks off his $4 rubber flip-flops and leans back against one of the ancient steel desks purchased in bulk at a Forest Service auction. This is TGR headquarters, a ramshackle, six-room suite decorated with ski and cheesecake posters and located in the shadow of the Jackson Hole tram. Todd pops a Beta tape (onto which their 16mm film is transferred) into the player and cues up one of the thousands of sequences TGR shot last winter. Like every sequence, it's been logged, viewed, and graded like a school paper.

Todd: "Check out shot 24, reel ten."

Steve: "Is that legit? He kind of hip-checks the landing."

Todd: "Well, it's a tremendously huge air so you get the jaw-dropping factor."

Steve: "He lays down a butt cheek."

Todd: "The air is so big. And it's not like he's augering in. He still skis away from it."

Steve: "It's not a fully clean stick, man. That's only an A minus; you can't use that shot."

Steve wins, the shot's out, and they move on to the next one.

Another A minus, it shows a ponytailed Black porpoising through deep snow. While it may not make the final cut, the sequence puts Todd into a near trance. He withdraws completely from conversation.

"I call that 'selective placement,' " says Black to Todd's apparently deaf back. "He's here but he's not. When the Jones boys focus, they tune out everything else. If they're not ready to listen, they just don't respond."

Todd keeps staring at the monitor, reveling in the skier's divine moment: a fat powder day. Obsessive powder hounds, the TGR boys don't shoot resort hardpack. Not when a three-minute roll of film costs a hundred bucks to process, thanks. The problem is, today's equipment lets skiers and snowboarders defoliate in-bounds powder stashes with Agent Orange efficiency. To shoot the goods, you have to go out of bounds. Yet resorts rarely green-light out-of-bounds filming. TGR's solution? "We all sneak under the ropes wearing dark, bland jackets," says Black. "The shooters set up in a paranoid rush. The skiers switch dark clothes for bright, camera-friendly stuff, then rip a bunch of lines. Six months later, the kids on the couch are going full donut-hole [a round-mouthed pucker that expresses astonishment]. It's nuts."

Resorts don't pay TGR cash for such coverage. Yet they willingly pony up $25,000 for the privilege of appearing in films by Warren Miller, because WME aims its films at recreational skiers. Whereas Warren Miller packs 2,000-seat auditoriums, TGR screens its films in ski shops and bars. They show in the fall, to audiences pining for opening day. If the filmmakers "stomp it" (achieve their intentions), their viewers go wild, and maybe even plunk down $30 for a video. But does anyone other than hard-core skiers care?

Greg Stump, who now does sound-track work in Hollywood, says he "doesn't really watch ski movies anymore." Christian Schneider, a renowned action director, has edited the boys' raw footage for stock purposes, yet he's never watched a TGR film from beginning to end. Both Stump and Schneider complain that New School ski movies lack narrative, that they're more a series of loosely connected segments—big jumps, thumping music, and stand-ups with the talent. Schneider understands that it's a ski film's job to "document the raddest shit of the year." He just wants to see the medium put to better advantage. "You don't put the climax at the beginning," he says. "You gotta tease people a bit. Too often ski films reveal an adolescent passion to show the best stuff first. The nickname of 'ski porn' is more than fitting."

The TGR boys don't sweat the art question much. They seem somewhat surprised it's even asked. "What we do is realism," says Todd. "We document the progression of skiing. If we can carry a theme throughout and get people stoked for ski season, then we've succeeded. We don't want to go much deeper than that. The emotion that viewers bring to the film—and to skiing—is the story."

It helps to know this before you sit down to watch a TGR video. In lieu of any sort of dramatic structure, their roughly hourlong productions feature staple segments of their "laboratory" around Jackson, clips of Alaska's big ranges, and footage of exotic international locales intercut with stoner-monotone narration (think Spicoli) and backed by an A-list sound track that includes the likes of Bob Marley, Offspring, George Clinton, and Phish. What you see is one perfect and spectacularly courageous run after another, after another, and so on in what must appear to the unbeliever a mind-numbing loop.

Todd swaps tapes and starts scanning for a particular minute of the 2,880 minutes that TGR shot for The Realm. Editing keeps the boys in the office for 14-hour days leading up to the annual premiere in September. "It gets intense," says Steve. "We'll scrap over small differences—when to cut away from a run, what song to use. I've stormed out a couple of times this summer. The boys heckle you as you're walking out, but sticking around to argue is counterproductive. Sometimes you gotta self-ripcord."

Todd locates the A-plus sequence he's looking for—Jeremy Nobis unleashing a first descent on a rippled monolith in the Chugach. Accelerating from the moment he sets his skis parallel to the fall line, Nobis goes so fast you expect the wind to whip his arms behind his back. But somehow he keeps them forward enough to stay in control while plunging virtually straight down. He doesn't turn so much as insinuate turns with subtle right-to-left weight shifts. As his speed picks up—approaching 70, maybe 75 miles per hour—a bergschrund flings him into the air, leaving a 20-foot gap in his tracks.

"This is the kind of footy that blows your head off," says Todd. "You can only spend so much money FedExing people's heads back to them, so you gotta take preventive action." Then, from a cluster of papers and coffee cups he fishes out a TGR headband with a long elastic cord attached to it. He fits the headband over his skull and ties the loose end of elastic to his belt loop. "Watching footy like this—when the vibe is positive and there's high stoke and we're amped on it," Todd explains, "requires the Head Bungee."

He doesn't come right out and say that the segment represents the kind of New School heroism that the kids at home will replay endlessly on their VCRs. But does he really have to? It would seem that a grown man wearing a self-styled head bungee can let his apparel do the talking.

To order a TGR film, call 888-281-8177.

Rob Story, an Outside correspondent, wrote about extreme skiing in the March issue.