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big-mountain filmmaking

Drone Selfies for Snowboarders

Snowboarder Xavier de le Rue has a new movie and a new “self-flying” camera that he thinks will transform aerial filmmaking the same way GoPro changed point-of-view reels.

by Nick Davidson
Sep 15 2015, 9:28pm

All photos courtesy Timeline Missions

French pro snowboarder Xavier de le Rue today unveiled the trailer for his latest film, Degrees North, which is being released on October 15 on the Red Bull Media House and on iTunes before making the festival circuit at Banff Mountain Film and others. It's the third installment in his Mission film series, after Mission Antarctic and Mission Steeps. What sets Degrees North apart are the paramotors, or propeller-driven paragliders, that allowed De le Rue to fly in and drop steep lines on some of the world's northernmost, otherwise inaccessible snowscapes.

"Usually it's about trying to either ride harder or find a location that no one has done," de le Rue said. "The paramotor made us divert from our route and really focus on it and try new things. It became the guideline throughout the whole film."

The paramotor approach is new to big-mountain ski and snowboard films, and even industry veterans are stoked to see the results.

"Xavier has been pushing serious snowboarding in serious mountains for years," pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones said. "Regardless of how he gets to the top, it's how he gets down the mountain that impresses me the most."

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Degrees North follows de le Rue and fellow North Face athletes Ralph Backstrom and Sam Anthamatten on their journey to score big lines, first in Spitsbergen, a remote island of the Svalbard archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, and then in the Kenai Fjords and the Rainbow Glacier of Southeast Alaska. Unfavorable weather and snow conditions, among other challenges, lend a dimension of grit and grace to footage of some of the most dramatic terrain in the Northern Hemisphere.

"It makes the film more dynamic," de le Rue said. "In a way there's a lot more to tell compared to [previous films] where we go somewhere, and it's epic, and it's good weather, and we do amazing action, telling always the same story. This time it really feels fresh."

Unlike many mountain action sports films, Degrees North portrays the constant wrangling with dangerous conditions and the difficulty in accessing remote terrain. Dealing with and overcoming those dilemmas lands the film among adventure reels more so than the ski and snowboard porn that is usually seen at film festivals.

"Xavier's one of the great adventurers of modern snowboarding," said Todd Jones, co-founder of Wyoming-based production company Teton Gravity Research and brother to Jeremy. "He's willing to put in the hard work to get to remote areas, to go after stuff that's not super easy to get, and a lot of times that's where spectacular stuff comes from. His level of comfort in high-exposure, high-consequence terrain is pretty upper-echelon, and he's doing some stuff that is just completely insane."

At 36, de le Rue, a world champion rider and former Olympian, is already planning to next expand the province of adventure filmmaking with Hexo+, a Kickstarter-funded drone camera he helped develop to follow every drop and carve and record high-definition footage without a production crew. De le Rue hopes it will revolutionize the art of self-documentation and transform his own approach to playing in the mountains. Drone use is already exploding in adventure film: roughly half of the big productions are using them now, and de le Rue estimates that in a year or two the majority will rely on drone-assisted footage. Others in the industry are more skeptical.

"Drones will not entirely replace bigger aerial camera systems, but they provide a good alternative," Todd said. Though TGR uses drones in specific instances, the small, remotely controlled quadrotors can't match the speed, power, and convenience of a helicopter. Such was the case when the company filmed in the Himalayas. "You couldn't have zipped over to Everest and shot that or circled the summit of Ama Dablam and then blasted over and gotten the boys hiking the ridge," he said. "That's not even achievable."

For de le Rue , the Hexo+ is a way to democratize aerial filming, similar to how GoPro cameras democratized point-of-view action reels. Hexo+, he says, is affordable, easy to use, and provides high quality footage from above.

"Before, aerial footage was reserved for people who had helicopters and film crews and things like this, so it was very exclusive," he said. "Now everyone can have it. It's a major change. You start to have all these crazy ideas. The drone, for me, it's a dream factory."

While the Hexo+ may allow de le Rue to realize his on-mountain potential, it's not an industry-wide answer to action sports filming. Media production companies like TGR are less guided by individual pursuits than they are interested in more general stories. Those companies have a broader mission for their projects that requires context, backstories, and off-mountain footage.

"You're going to get cool shots with it," Todd conceded, "but I think it's just an individual thing. A lot of what we do is tell the story behind these things, and that requires people and cameras. If your mission is to be in a film that has storyline and character and personality, you can't do that alone with a drone. We couldn't make the films we make by giving eight athletes drones and sending them out solo into the field."

Perhaps more exciting for de le Rue, though, is his own autonomy. For the last five years, he's filmed productions like Degrees North, his Mission series, and White Noise with big crews. At the end of the day, the riding time during the production of that class of films is scant.

With the freedom provided by Hexo+, de le Rue said, "I'm just going to be traveling around living the real ski-bum lifestyle, going where the snow takes me, not planning anything, snowboarding every single day."

"I have the feeling that it's going to be such a comfort and such a luxury to be on my own that I'm going to become just a wild, antisocial snowboarder that can do everything on his own," he laughed. "That's really what I have in mind."