In 2001, a year after the millennium, a year after we survived the Y2k meltdown, murmurs surfaced of a relatively unknown kid from Jackson Hole throwing 100-foot plus backside rodeos at Snowboarder magazine’s Superpark event. This was pre-internet and often times rumors spread faster than footage. However, the footage was coming and when it arrived it was so profound that it seared the name Travis Rice into our collective conscious.
Some 15 years later and Rice is still setting the bar in terms of progressive snowboarding, but he’s also revolutionized snowboard filmmaking. Along with his longtime friend Curt Morgan and their production company Brain Farm, Rice has created some of the most awe-inspiring snowboard films ever. His latest installment, The Fourth Phase, once again proves that with the right talent, budget and technology, the sky truly is the limit.
But with all that filming, there’s the hype machine: the magazine shoots and posters and DVD covers. Which requires photography just as awe-inspiring. It’s still a sought-after art form. Tim Zimmerman is a talented, strong-willed and sometimes polarizing figure in his own right who he has played an integral part in Travis’s career, even though he might deny it. Rice and company have trusted Tim to keep his finger on the trigger for well over a decade. That’s why it was so rad to check in with the Seattle-based photographer to talk about covering an iconic figure who’s now ingrained in snowboarding’s history.
Where did you meet Travis?
It was the first time I had been hired to shoot somewhere other than Vermont, where I was living at the time. Actually, Rossignol hired me to babysit their amateur team at Snow Summit during a Vans Triple Crown event, but I thought it was a photo shoot. When I turned in a couple thousand slides in 3” binders at the end of the trip, the team manager said, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d take it this seriously.” That was pretty funny.
Anyway, Curt Morgan, (who went on to film for Grenade and then start Brain Farm Cinema) was one of the Rossi am riders and he kept telling me about this kid from Wyoming that was just absolutely shitting on everyone else skills-wise. It took about 5 minutes of following him around Snow Summit to see that he really was someone with a unique skill set. We ended up shooting his “Check Out” photo for Snowboarder magazine on that trip.
We ended up driving to Mammoth, where he was living that season, and absolutely destroying our rental van on the way. The kid was pretty persuasive when it came to mischief and it was the first time I got to enjoy all the perks of car rental insurance.
What was the first project you guys worked on together?
When Travis got on Lib-Tech a few years after we met at Snow Summit he graciously let me shoot with him while he and Curt were making The Community Project. I was still so green at the time. He took me on my first real heli trip and while I got some great photos, I spent a lot of time flailing out there trying to figure out shooting in that environment.
Did you know he was a maniac right away?
I’ve never considered Travis a maniac. He’s just laser focused on his goals, and he has a lot of them. In The Fourth Phase, he calls it reckless optimism, and I think that’s accurate. A maniac is out of control, that’s not Travis.
Obviously Travis’s approach is a unique but what separates him, specifically?
He thinks about things in a grand scale and isn’t really affected by what other people would assume are obvious limitations: budget, logistics, conditions, snowboard ability, etc. I mean, his snowboard ability is obviously at the top level, but it’s how he chooses to integrate that into his movie projects that is so much more unique.
You can be a rad snowboarder, but there are a lot of those out there. It’s how you present your riding to the world that makes a difference. I’m sure if he made a straight-up action porn film like everyone else out there it would have been rad, but I don’t know if it would have had the reach and ability to inspire people to get into the mountains and travel like The Fourth Phase does.
When That’s It That’s All came out, it turned the snowboard world on it’s head in terms of progressive filmmaking. Being involved, did you know you were working on something special?
Yes, definitely. I remember talking to Curt Morgan about our trip to New Zealand and he was spraying all this shit about working with Peter Jackson’s aerial cinematographer. I really didn’t have a grasp about what he was talking about until I got there and saw the Cineflex camera system mounted to a van driving around shooting scenics. When we went to the air hangar and saw how the camera worked on the helicopter I knew instantly they were about to change the game. Curt was out to make the Planet Earth of snowboard films and I think he achieved it, along with Travis’ snowboarding ability going to the next level. You can’t deny a single shot in that movie, it’s all so sick. It’s still my favorite of the trilogy.
Knowing Travis’s taste for the insane, were there any moments that particularly crazy or terrifying?
Again, I hate this characterization of Travis. He’s not insane, he’s skilled and calculated. Insane is dropping into some shit and not having the ability, experience and confidence to do what you set out to do.
That being said: the avalanche shown at the end of The Fourth Phase was especially heavy. I’ve seen Travis take some insane hits, but I had never seen him rattled until then. I remember shooting that sequence and losing him in the cloud. I have never been so scared for someone, watching that snow roar over those two cliffs. It seemed like it took forever for the cloud to dissipate enough for us to see that he was on top. He didn’t move though, and until he did I don’t think anyone in the crew took a breath. I’ve always felt any avalanche that happens on a film production is a failure: failure to read the terrain properly, failure to plan an escape route, etc. And I wondered if I should have spoken up about something, but the truth is that I don’t think any of us imagined that might happen.
The Art of Flight once again elevated the game and the cinematography was stunning. Brain Farm was using helicopter-mounted Cineflex cameras and just going mental. What are some of the challenges of shooting with equipment like that?
It just slows every process down exponentially. You need more people to handle the quantity of gear which means your group becomes massive. You can’t just pick up and move to a new location quickly so every shot has to be planned out from beginning to end. There are also the technical difficulties involved in bringing really high-tech electronics into harsh environments. It puts a ton of pressure on the riders because they know they have to do their gnarliest shit, but that there still might be a chance that the shot won’t work out. That didn’t happen often though, thankfully!
I have to say though, that by the last year of filming the production crew was a finely tuned machine. Those guys were dealing with such complicated logistics and made it all work so smoothly. I learned a ton and it really pushed me to try some new techniques and go above and beyond what I’d normally consider doing. At one point I was using a remote to trigger a camera mounted under Brainfarm’s camera on their drone, while shooting with a camera in my hand that was also setting off two other remote cameras on tripods. When you’re working with a crew that’s killing themselves to get new kinds of shots it can’t help but influence you to try and do the same.
When you’re shooting those guys are you ever afraid for them?
No, not usually. It’s because I see how calculated they are about what they’re choosing to ride. That being said, there’s always a chance something won’t work out right and you saw that with the avalanche in the film.
The Fourth Phase is starting to premier and it looks once again to be heavy in terms of taking the film quality and riding to the next level. How did the crew find a way to progress what they already accomplished with this new film?
I think it was more of a storytelling refinement than a push to find a new way to move a camera. It’s not enough to just have beautiful shots and progressive riding, they needed to tell some kind of story.
What were the most enjoyable moments working on The Fourth Phase?
Man, there were so many awesome moments. The crew worked so fucking hard to get some of those shots and when something worked out after a long battle, there was nothing better than feeling everyone’s excitement. There was so much passion put into the film. Being inspired by that was probably the most enjoyable part.
Do you think Travis is done, he doesn’t seem like the type of dude to sit still for very long. What do you think is next?
I highly doubt he’s going to chill and cruise some low-angle powder turns for the rest of his life. It doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. I have no idea what he has planned but I bet it’ll end up being some kind of epic adventure.
What’s a piece of advice you would give to up and coming photographers that are shooting with someone that’s equal parts talented and crazy?
Well, if you’re shooting with someone you think is crazy then you should stop. Crazy shouldn’t be encouraged or rewarded, especially in the backcountry. If you’re working with someone talented then you should listen to what they say, let them make the decisions about what they’re going to ride and work with them to find the angles that show it the best way possible. It’s a team effort out there and while you need to be true to your own vision, you also need to realize that it’s very collaborative. Above all, you have to respect your riders and crew. Without them, you’ll have nothing.