There might not be a more definitive voice when it comes to independent snowboard films than Jesse Burtner. The longtime filmmaker and professional snowboarder went against the stream with his production team Think Thank, and for over a decade has been producing, filming, and starring in some of the most anticipated snowboard videos in the world.
Think Thank with its crew of innovative riders, art direction, and unique features became a welcomed alternative to the big-budget productions that were leading the way in the late 90’s- mid-2000’s. While large-scale production crews like Mack Dawg, Absinthe, and Standard continued to set the bar in terms of high-level progression and awe-inspiring cinematography, Think Thank focused on out-of-the-box progression on everyday obstacles. It inspired a new generation of riders that didn’t have heli budgets or big mountain access. It defined a style of riding that was accessible to anyone with a snowboard and because of that Think Thank became one of the most influential film crews of all time.
However, even a crew as innovative as Think Thank is susceptible to an ever-evolving media landscape. With many production companies slowly slipping into oblivion we caught up with Burtner to get his thoughts on what the future holds for snowboard media, Think Thank, and how up and coming crews can be relevant in the internet age.
How long have you technically been an independent filmmaker?
I guess since I was 12 or 13, when I got my first camera, so 26 years. Hitachi Surf and Snow, I filmed a weird bug in my house and made a snowboard edit with Pete Iversen.
Where and when did you concept Think Thank?
We were at The Sloop in Ballard. It was fall 2003, probably October. Myself, Pika, and Andy Simutis were in the bar drinking some Slooper sizers and trying to come up with names. I said I wanted it to be a group of people that came together to make rad stuff, like a think tank of creative types whose mission was ‘progression through creativity.’ “Think Tank” was too used and too obvious. So, we were just saying it over and over and then someone just said “Thank” instead of Tank and we were like “yeah that works!”
You think and then you use that thought to do cool stuff and you are thankful for it, “Think Thank.” And then we spun that into “Thanks Brain!” as our slogan. Right there in The Sloop we had the name, the concept the slogan, and the mission statement all in one go. Thanks, Sloop!
When you guys put out your first video the industry was still dominated by the big film crews like Standard, Absinthe, and Mack Dawg. Was it intimidating to go up against the crews that had dominated snowboarding for so long?
It was more confusing than intimidating, as many things are for me. It was a long learning curve. I went through some of it while working with Jason Borgstede on JB Deuce. I thought it was going to be super easy to rise to the top of the snowboard video world that we would break through no problem, but it wasn’t at all.
I really had no idea how to position myself or my video projects for success, I was naively cocky and had a simplistic outlook on what was actually a complicated equation. By the time we started Think Thank, I had made seven JB Deuce movies, so I was already very aware of the battle to create something successful and meaningful. We had made some beautiful pieces, amazing time capsules filled to the brim with the essence of one of the greatest boardsports scenes to ever exist, Boarderline, Alaska.
However, I had to battle fatigue and was looking for my voice in snowboarding and video production. Think Thank was that opportunity. It was meant to be a clean vessel with new parameters for success. Make it about ideas, about creativity and have the success of the project hang on how much we liked the final product. Simply, do we love it? Will I sit in my living room and watch this over and over? Does it adequately express the love I have for snowboarding? If “yes” then it’s a success. Let’s make art, less strings attached, and more freedom the freedom to focus.
How did you set yourself apart?
It wasn’t until we changed our actual snowboarding and applied the idea of “progression through creativity” to the tricks themselves that we set ourselves apart. Having philosophical concepts represented throughout the videos was different, but it doesn’t resonate in that medium, it’s just some cool “B-roll” to most. Some shit to put in between the tricks. It wasn’t until we captured the energy that Micah Hollinger was projecting and joined forces with Scott Stevens and just went out there with our tricks and no rules that we found our real voice. That plus a real philosophical concept and unique art direction set us way apart. We had nothing to lose. Up to that point we were trying to make a Mack Dawg movie with a high browed artistic concept. But really we were still trying to take down the top Dawg so to speak, playing on the field of linear progression, bigger, more spins, more stairs.
I thought Thunk and Cue were the best we could do. Everyone was riding at a high level and we could go toe to toe with any Mack Dawg part. But we didn’t have the names or the production value or the desire or money to buy names or focus on production value. It was frustrating to have something new and that we viewed as great just sort of tread water on the snowboard scene. Very little response from media or distributors or anything. Pika and I actually had a conversation after Cue The Birds! about whether or not we should continue. We were working hard, getting nowhere, and fairly poor, but we loved the video. So it was a success. So we continued on with a new sense of not giving a fuck and then it all came together. It all really started with Patchwork Patterns.
There has been a lot of small to medium-sized productions that have tried to find a place amongst the big-budget crews over the last 15 years, what do you credit to Think Thank’s longevity?
If they wanted longevity they would have it. They didn’t want it. No one can actually tell you or your crew when to start or stop expressing yourself and how to do it. And if you let them, you didn’t want it. I’m not saying longevity is super important, the best projects are short, a great band, get in say what you want to say and then dip out or take a break. It’s been my MO to communicate tirelessly for 20 years, but it’s not that approach that makes it cool, it’s when you get to say something that resonates with yourself, your crew, and your audience that matters. However you approach those moments is up to you. My way has been a long slow burn of constant content with occasional peak moments. Others got in, killed it, and got out. I admire that. But if you got out because of blah blah blah industry blah blah blah money blah blah blah then you might have just thrown your voice away because you were scared.
I guess it’s been around a decade, but as the internet became more and more accessible as a giant platform we saw the media industry start to change, how did this affect what you guys were doing at Think Thank?
It is such a monumental shift. I feel lucky to be alive during this time. We have no idea how far this is going, the internet, this level of human cooperation and shared knowledge, the potential, the disruption. We’re at like stage 5 of 25. Everyone keeps thinking it’s going to calm down but I think we have a way to go, change will keep coming. Think Thank is an idea, so it’s fine, it’s insulated and lives forever. Think Thank LLC is pretty much done. Think Thank is 99 percent an art project now and currently searching for venues of expression, not revenue.
For a while the big budget crews retained their relevancy, has that finally changed?
Oh yeah. The most relevant crew is Marcus Kleveland’s Instagram account. It’s not even worth discussing how a big budget crew and movie makes an impact on snowboarding, it’s just such a crapshoot. If you want to do it, do it. No rules. If you’re making what you want to watch and you strive for your authentic voice then you can’t lose.
Is it still possible for a young aspiring crew to replicate what Think Thank has done? Is there anyone who is next in line so to speak?
Yeah absolutely. Except you’re not going to do it the way we did, you’ll have to invent. So if you’re thinking about this, then think about what it is that will let drive you. Will it be views? Will it be likes? Will it be reaching past the core? Or will it be something else? I would suggest you pick a motivator of substance. Whether it be a level of riding that will eclipse all other things known to man or everyone in the movie produces their own music and it’s as much an album as a video. Maybe your crew includes every single person on a snowboard that they encounter and the entire video is a big party showing the comradery that snowboarding can offer. The point is the next Think Thank will have to be something we don’t see coming, and that is exciting.
I can’t wait to see these guys, maybe it’s already happening and we’re just not equipped to see it. Maybe it’s the Gremlinz. Lick The Cat did something special. Fredrik’s Benchpress movie. There’s exciting shit out there, it’s just a little hidden. There’s kids getting weird, putting out weird edits and creating weird styles, so it’s gonna happen. The people creating lasting culture will lead the way.
Is Think Thank still going to produce DVD’s and hard copies? Is it full steam ahead?
It’s full steam done. We produced a DVD for all of our years but this year we aren’t producing a DVD or a movie. We’re just being. There are two projects on the horizon that myself and others are working on, but I don’t see us ever making a DVD again, and we probably won’t sell a video again either.
It seems like snowboard films have had the same formula for a long time now, and the biggest change in the last maybe 15 years has been that they have replicated skate videos. Do you think there is a place for more narrative-driven or even documentary style films?
Yes, I think so. But how do you make it better than the real time live feed that is going on 24/7, 365 on every single human being’s life already? How do you make it more compelling than simply tuning in to every major star and rando’s every move? There has to be a real story there. It can’t just be the same “oh man it’s cold and you don’t know how much work goes into A single shot”, bullshit that we’ve been hearing forever. That, by the way, is what Cool Story was making fun of.
What do you think the future is for snowboard films? Are we still going to see full productions in another 10 years?
Yes we’ll see something that gets consumed with the same stoke and result as a full production. It will be different and that’s rad. Don’t get caught up in the medium, stay focused on the ideas, focus on the conversation. Listen to what’s been said and then if you have something to say, say it to your best ability. The tools are the tools the platform is whatever it may be, the result is the same.
What is next for the Think Thank crew? Any new projects we should be looking for?
Helping Scott and working with Ted Borland. Lucey’s got some shit cooking too. We will continue to support our riders, our friends, the brands that supported us, and look for the next way to reflect beauty.