Brain Farm’s The Art of Flight
How a group of under-the-radar snowboarding filmmakers created one of the most innovative action-sports empires.
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.”
Phantom HDTravis Rice, captured by the Phantom HD.
Cinema RangerBrain Farm's Cinema Ranger
Cineflex on a ChairliftThe Cineflex mounted on a chairlift at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Brain FarmBrain Farm founder Curt Morgan (center) with, from left, Clark Fyans, Travis Rice, Mark Landvik, and Chad Jackson.
Gabe LangloisCameraman Gabe Langlois.
Scotty LagoPro snowboarder Scotty Lago.
Travis RicePro snowboarder Travis Rice.
Pat MoorePat Moore goes big in the Snake River Mountains.
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.)
All signs point to Flight becoming the biggest action-sports movie of all time, bypassing its groundbreaking precursor, That’s It, That’s All, the 2008 film that established Brain Farm as one of the best in the business.
IT’S WORTH NOTING that raising the bar in the action-sports genre wasn’t terribly difficult. Ski movies tend to all look alike, in large part because there just isn’t much money to be made from them. Snow-porn filmmakers generally scrape by, squeezing money from increasingly cash-strapped endemic sponsors and negotiating reduced rates from resorts and heli- or cat-ski operations in exchange for exposure. Following the business model established by Warren Miller, the down payment for the next film comes from the previous one’s DVD sales and tour revenue. “Most ski filmmakers are geniuses at doing a lot with a little bit of budget,” says Jack Shaw, a journalist and ski guide who’s written about the history of the genre.
Relatively small budgets, usually in the mid–six figures for feature-length documentaries made by outfits like Teton Gravity Research and Mack Dawg Productions, naturally limit production values. There have been attempts to break the mold, notably 2005’s First Descent, paid for by Mountain Dew, and 2007’s Steep, an extreme-skiing documentary that received a wide theatrical release. Both tanked. The former was boring and repetitive and was panned by the film’s core audience and mainstream viewers alike; the latter was good but ultimately not entertaining enough to reel in the general public.
Flight is a different animal entirely. From Brain Farm’s inception in 2008, the company has played the game by its own rules. Rice and Morgan have been friends since they were both 17-year-olds riding for Rossignol. While Rice’s star in the sport ascended, Morgan abandoned it after breaking his back three times in one year. He’d always loved photography and film, though, and after attending some workshops at Maine Media College, he began shooting footage for the Kass brothers, Matt and Danny, the New Jersey–reared bad boys of snowboarding who would go on to found Grenade Gloves. A few years spent making low-budget films burned Morgan out, and in 2002 he moved back to his hometown of Albany, New York, where he spent a year unloading trucks and playing in a metal band. Until his old friend Rice—by now pulling in big sponsorship dollars, most notably from Red Bull and Quiksilver—intervened. “Travis called me and said, ‘We need to start making movies. I can pay you now. I’ve got money,’ ” Morgan says.
Morgan moved into Rice’s house in Jackson, and they began work on their first movie, 2006’s The Community Project. The following year, Morgan and Rice were traveling in New Zealand when they met a film crew that was shooting from helicopters using a revolutionary new camera-stabilization system. The footage blew their minds. A few months later, the two headed back to New Zealand, rented the crew’s equipment, and started filming That’s It, That’s All.
TITA’s stunning visuals, especially those zoom-out-for-miles shots much of the world first saw in Planet Earth, started attracting notice from non-action-sports clients, but it was an introduction to Joe Sorge, a wealthy biotech entrepreneur with a home in Jackson, that allowed Morgan to build Brain Farm into the Willy Wonka production house it is today. In 2009, over dinner in Los Angeles, Morgan told Sorge about his fantasy of buying an arsenal of cutting-edge production equipment, including his own Cineflex. Sorge agreed to bankroll an incredible lineup of gear—including the Phantom, the Cineflex, and an array of other HD and 35mm film cameras (see “The Toy Chest”)—in exchange for a portion of the company.
“We have a lot of money in hardware,” Morgan says. How much? “I’m not sure I want to put a figure on it.” He thinks about it for a minute: “You can say millions.”
Brain Farm now has eight full-time employees and a slick headquarters in a modern loftlike building just outside Jackson. Over the past 18 months, in addition to their projects with Visa and for Jackass 3D, Brain Farm worked on an episode of Expedition Wild, a series on the National Geographic Channel; filmed commercials for Subaru, NBC/Universal, and Quiksilver; and, most recently, shot a two-minute 3-D spot for Red Bull starring the deaf motocross rider Ashley Fiolek, which aired in theaters ahead of Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
ONE EVENING WHILE I was in Jackson, Morgan suggested we go for a ride in what he calls the Cinema Truck, a Ford F-250 pickup modified to serve as a rolling platform for the Cineflex. The rig looks menacing—blacked out from top to tire and outfitted with what appears to be a large surveillance device on the roof.
In a sense, that’s what the Cineflex is: a five-axis, extremely-long-distance high-definition camera system developed by the defense industry for spying. Its use is still controlled by International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which required that Brain Farm register it with the State Department.
As Brain Farm producer Chad Jackson steers the truck out onto the road, the camera feed shows up in hi-def on a large screen built into the dash. Morgan twiddles a knob on a remote-control console and the camera spins around to focus on a Subaru trailing us. He zooms in, in, in, until I can just about see the nose hairs of the woman driving. Spinning the camera 180 degrees, he points out a speck in my vision thousands of yards away that turns out to be a bush, and behind it is a mule deer, as crisp as if it were standing on the hood. It’s unbelievable.
“I consider this an endless dolly,” Morgan says. He estimates that he uses the Cineflex in approximately 60 percent of Brain Farm’s shots, and though it was initially built to be affixed to helicopters, Morgan has designed custom mounts for a snowmobile, an ATV, a snowcat, and, most recently, a chairlift.
The plan had been for me to tag along as Brain Farm experimented with the new chairlift mount, shooting Rice and Landvik in-bounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, but there wasn’t enough new snow. Instead, Morgan and his crew opted to dig in at one of their favorite filming locations in the Snake River Mountains.
For the day’s first major shot, the group selected a gap between some trees at the top of a small canyon. Morgan set up by himself, with the Phantom, to one side. First to go was Landvik, who soared out of the woods and over the edge. He tapped a tree in the air, stomped the landing, and rode down to meet the rest of the crew, which included one guy shooting with a traditional long-lens 35mm camera and another using a VariCam to collect footage for the TV show.
“That was sick,” Morgan rasped over the radio when Landvik slid to a stop below. “Maybe you can double-tap this time?”
Landvik laughed. “He’s so unrealistic,” he said, his speech slurred by a fat lip and 13 stitches he’d gotten in a recent crash.
One criticism you’ll sometimes hear of Morgan—who wants every frame to be epic—is that he pushes riders too hard, goading them into tricks they might not otherwise attempt.
This turned out not to be an issue for Lago. His jump, which began with a higher, angled approach, was absolutely huge, and he, too, tapped the tree—only he didn’t mean to. The glancing blow spun him off-axis, and he found himself 30 feet in the air falling backward, his arms spinning wildly as he tried in vain to stay upright. He crashed in an enormous puff of white. When he arrived at the bottom, snow was packed into every crevice of his helmet.
“That’s gonna look epic on the Phantom,” Landvik said. “Your arms will spin like 50 times.”
“I wanna yell the worst word right now,” Lago said, chucking his helmet. “Let’s go build a big fucking jump.”
I SKIPPED THE NEXT DAY’S shoot, but later that evening I visited Morgan at Brain Farm’s editing suite to see how it had gone. “It got gnarly out there,” he said as he queued up a clip he’d been working on. Already he’d laid a moody audio track under the action. (Morgan is also helping produce Flight’s soundtrack, and he’d recently spent a week collaborating with the French musician Anthony Gonzalez, who records under the name M83.) Slowly—very, very slowly—Scotty Lago’s image appeared in the frame, and he executed an impressive-looking trick I didn’t recognize.
“These are some of the biggest airs ever,” Morgan said, noting that what Lago had done was a switch double rodeo 1080. But that wasn’t the gnarly part. Upon impact, Lago kneed himself in the face—hard. “Scotty broke his jaw, and now it’s wired shut,” Morgan said. “We spent most of the night at the hospital.” And of course: “We got it all on film.”
While Morgan was initially daunted by Flight’s TV component, he’s grown to enjoy the medium. Making ambitious films is unbelievably complicated—and stressful—but he found that shooting for TV required almost no thought at all. Everything that’s bad for the big screen—injuries, fights, logistical snafus—is great for the small.
“Now I almost love TV more than film,” he said, adding that with film “it can take a week to get one shot. That’s stupid. And all the stuff around that is what’s actually interesting to everyone else.” That said, Brain Farm is still devoting most of its promotional effort to the film. After Flight’s world premiere this September in New York, it will tour the U.S., playing in a mix of bigger cities and ski towns before heading to Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Exploiting every possible source of revenue, Brain Farm will make the film available simultaneously through the iTunes Store and as a DVD and Blu-ray set; it will also release a limited-edition coffee-table book, The Art of Light, featuring stills and shots by the rotating cast of set photographers. And this past May, Morgan and Gonzalez—under the name the Three Corners of the Earth—made a set of songs available on iTunes from their recording sessions, including the one used in the trailer.
In the end, though, Morgan is worried less about the box office than about the film’s critical reception. While he declined to discuss Brain Farm’s financials with me, I got the distinct impression that their commercial and Hollywood work now brings in the majority of their revenue, and that Morgan views TITA and Flight as gigantic calling cards he’s using to build his company’s celebrity. If there’s been one major criticism of TITA, it’s that, for all its dazzling visuals, it’s still just snow porn. There isn’t much story.
“One of the toughest things is to please the core—someone who lives and breathes it—while doing something that speaks to the layman,” says Rice.
When I reached Morgan on the phone a few weeks later, he was still tinkering with how much “character component,” as he referred to it, there would be in Flight’s final cut. He knows that every wide-angle shot of an epic jump he edits out will alienate the park rats, while every additional minute of character and story will make it more interesting to mainstream viewers.
In the meantime, Wyoming had been getting pummeled with snow. So much, in fact, that Brain Farm ended up delaying its departure for Revelstoke, and after that Alaska, to finish the Jackson chapter of the film. They’d scratched Romania, Greece, and Austria from the plan, and Greenland was looking unlikely. While Morgan told me he could probably assemble the movie then if he had to, he still wasn’t sure about the film’s length. When I’d visited him in Jackson, he was leaning toward a feature. Now he wasn’t so certain.
Not that any of these issues were keeping him up at night. In part that’s because he’s so busy. He was just back from shooting the 3-D Red Bull commercial, as well as a series of ads for the Marines. Or it might be because he’s already begun chewing over his next big projects—including, perhaps, a surf film, a snowboarding movie “based around Antarctica,” and something shot entirely in 3-D. Or it might simply be that Brain Farm is now successful enough that he doesn’t have to do everything himself. “I used to have 40 jobs,” Morgan says. Now he can orchestrate a shoot and not actually have to be there: “It’s dumping out, it’s freezing, and I’m eating a hamburger at a deli.”