What’s it take to make a groundbreaking mountain bike movie these days? Just ask the guys at Anthill Films and Teton Gravity Research–they can tell you it might involve having your face crushed in a stampede of horses, falling into a few crevasses on a lonely glacier, breaking a leg or two, wrangling a grizzly bear, and learning the fine art of dying cornstarch flakes the perfect shade of brown.
We’re not making any of this up. Anthill’s Darcy Wittenburg sat down and gave us the scoop on the making of Anthill’s latest movie, unReal, which pushes the creative goes available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, MGo, PlayStation and Vudu today.
What was your primary goal with unReal?
Our goal with this film was always to find that next level, but that has become a clichÃ© in a world where everything is “extreme” and the gnarliest this or that. So we started to talk about the notion that maybe the “next level” is one step what’s beyond reality, which is where the idea of real/unreal worlds came from.
The main goal with all our films, though, is to create something that either gets people stoked to ride or to even get into biking. Everyone at Anthill shares the belief that the world is better with more bikers in it. More riders means more people on trails, but it also means more trail builders and more people advocating for cycling and opening up areas for riding. If everyone rode a mountain bike, or knew someone who did, maybe there would be trails everywhere!
How long have you been working on this one?
This has been a year of pre-production and a year of filming and editing, which overlapped in the last few months of production.
What shot or sequence are you most proud of and why?
The One Shot segment with Semenuk is definitely the single shot I’m most proud of. It was weeks of planning, building and shooting to make that all come together. Working with Brandon to make his way down the line cleanly with changing wind conditions and the pressure of the one shot concept was an amazing process. I felt like we really came together as a team to make it happen and we were all on pins and needles for the entire shoot.
Usually, on a shoot, you work slowly and methodically through the shots, and there’s this feeling of it all coming together. With the One Shot segment we literally had nothing in the bag until we had “the shot,” which came down to the final couple of hours after weeks of building and about 10 days of shooting.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
Every segment had something different in it that we’d never attempted before. From working with horses and bears to being on a glacier and learning how to work with snow or figuring out how to make dirt fall from the sky…it was all very hard to do!
We had a few accidents along the way. I was trampled by horses in Wyoming and had my face crushed, Fraser [Newton] had a firehose explode in his hand, which fractured his leg, people were falling in crevasses on the glacier and working with a griz never feels safe! It got to the point where the running joke on the set was to call the film “UnSafe,” haha.
What sets unReal apart from other Anthill videos you’ve made to date that our readers might have seen already, such as Not Bad or Strength In Numbers?
I feel like Unreal has our tightest theme and storyline. I think this film has a strong message to get out and ride…a join-the-movement type thing. The Unreal elements of the film also really set it apart from what we’ve done in the past. It wasn’t a total departure though; we still wanted to make sure we kept some segments dedicated to pure action.
The march of technology is doing amazing things for cinematographers these days. So here are two questions for you: (1) How have the advances in filmmaking impacted how you make a film and (2) How have those technological advances changed what the audience ultimately sees on the screen?
Yeah, we’ve been through a huge period of change in the last decade or two in the film world. Myself, Darren, and Colin all worked on films in the late 90s before we started The Collective, so it was pure 16mm film in those days. The biggest and most simple change is the ability to review shots. Back then you shot looking through a terrible viewfinder and just concentrated on keeping the object/rider in frame. Then maybe two to three months later you’d see the shot in the studio.
Technology allows for so much more camera movement that we could achieve before. Drones and remote cables, MOVI stabilizers and Phantom Slow-mo-all these things (and more) allow the filmer to get much more creative with their shots. It’s more tedious now, but the sky is not the limit anymore. You can put a camera almost anywhere now.
In terms of what you, the audience, sees on screen, there’s so much more detail and perspective to take in now. Obviously resolution is way better now, but in super slow-mo we’re seeing all sorts of detail. And drone technology? I think it really helps transport the viewer to a location to help take it all in as if you were there.
How’d you get the idea for the dirt blizzard? It’s hilarious and pretty awesome to look at. How did the idea for that shot come about in the first place and how did you actually achieve it?
The idea is a combination of a few concepts. In Strength in Numbers, Adam Billinghurst says “My dream would be that dirt falls like snow does so we could just sculpt everything.” That was the start of it, I guess. We were working on a project with Drew Paulter from Good Fortune Collective and he walked in the office one day and said “Remember what Adam said in Strength in Numbers? What if we made that happen?” So we combined that idea with an idea we had for capturing the urgency of a pow day and it came to life.
To pull it off, we used fake movie snow, which is bio-degradable corn starch, but we had it died brown to match the peat moss we covered the ground and trees with. We did some tests and learned the leaf blowers worked perfect for blowing both peat moss and the fake snow. Every shot had to be planned in advance and we spent hours dressing the scene. It had to be overcast with no rain to achieve the right look so our team was on standby for weeks in the fall to shoot on just the right days. It was a huge effort, but every time we reviewed a shot it just fired us up to do more and more.
What proved, in retrospect, to be your favorite location and why?
Although it was the scariest for me, the glacier was my favorite. It’s been a dream of ours for years to shoot biking on snow. The Pemberton Ice cap, where we were set up, is a massive ice field, which can partially be seen from the top of Whistler. I used to sled up there a lot in the early 2000s when I was shooting a lot of snowboarding, so to have the opportunity to camp up there with sleds, a chef, five kegs of beer and a killer crew was absolutely all time! Aside from the heli pilots, we saw no one else for 16 days. It was a huge playground all to ourselves.
Your friends with the riders you’re filming. Were there any moments during the filming that had you nervous for them?
Definitely. All the time actually. Especially as I get older and become more aware of the consequences of everything they’re doing. I also have two boys of my own now, so as a father I see danger everywhere, haha.
It’s a tricky balance with the riders. On one hand, you want to encourage them to do their best and push their own limits, but I always make a point of saying it’s okay to back down if you’re not feeling it. All the top riders are so calculated and know right where that fine line of risk and reward is, but no film segment is worth a life- altering injury or worse.
Who came up with the idea of riding with the horses?
That came from an unlikely source! We were sitting down with Brett Hills [TGR’s CFO] going over the film budget and we still hadn’t locked down a concept or location for a freeriding segment. I was describing a Utah-like landscape, but we needed something new. Turns out Brett used to wrangle horses for films in Dubois, Wyoming, on a sprawling ranch that looks just like Utah. A few weeks later I flew down to check the dirt to make sure it was workable and meet Robin Wiltshire, the landowner and head wrangler. Robin has been shooting films and commercials for more than 25 years, he does all the Budweiser, Marlboro, and Wells Fargo ads. What are the odds of meeting someone who has all that land and horses? Now what are the odds that this person is down to let us come build jumps on his property? We’re very lucky.