To make the closing segment of UnReal, the new mountain bike film from Teton Gravity Research and Anthill Films, filmmakers wanted to create a powder day for mountain bikers with dirt flakes falling from the sky like snow.
Shot in Whistler’s bike park last fall, the segment, called “Dirt Blizzard,” used thousands of pounds of peat moss from Vancouver area hardware stores to coat the ground, trees, and trails. The film crew then used a cornstarch-based product, purchased from a special effects store and dyed brown, to create the falling flakes.
All of the dirt and fake snow had to be transported up Whistler Mountain in trucks to a closed section of the bike park. There, filmmakers used a leaf blower with hose stuck to one end to suck up and then shoot the cornstarch 20 feet into the air, just as the athletes rode through the shot.
“One of our athletes once said something about wishing dirt would fall from the sky. He said it as a joke, but we were like, ‘We could actually make that happen,’” says Anthill Films’ Darcy Wittenburg, co-producer and director of UnReal. “In mountain biking, you don’t always get that same sense of urgency you get in winter sports when a big storm rolls through. So we wanted to create that feeling of, ‘It’s happening right now and you’ve got to go get it.’”
For the shoot, they needed perfect weather conditions—cloudy but no rain—so that it looked like it was actually snowing. Each time the riders rode through the scene, they re-set the dirt so it looked fresh and untracked. It took weeks on site last September and October to nail the segment, which makes up just a few minutes at the end of the film.
“The biggest challenge was the pace of the shoot,” says Thomas Vanderham, a Vancouver-based pro mountain biker and one of the athletes in the segment. “It was very slow and hard to get into a rhythm. There were some days where we would only have time to get one take per day.”
The hard work, and patience, eventually paid off. “I wasn’t sure how the idea would look in reality,” adds Vanderham. “But once we got to watch the footage, we realized this ambitious project was going to work—it really captured the feeling of a powder day.”