WARREN MILLER: How he began his film career
My next-door neighbor, Steve recently gave me a wonderful present: a hand full of aluminum and a little bit of glass. I am now the second-time owner of a 1945 Bell and Howell 8mm, hand-wind movie camera.
It has a Taylor Hobson lens and a mechanical computer on the side so I always have the right exposure for the lens I had. It is the same make and model camera that I bought the day I got mustered out of the Navy in June of 1946. I spent $94.95 of my mustering-out check for that original camera.
After I bought it, I discovered that I owned a combination of a Genie in a bottle and Aladdin’s’ magic lamp that I could rub and all of my wishes would come true. I also owned a magic carpet on which to fly all over the world. That original 8mm camera launched all of those things for me: a chance to someday visit and eventually own almost anything I wanted to build, create or buy.
The camera is only two inches thick and five inches long, and it fits in the palm of my hand. It was with me from sun up to sundown from the day I bought it until I was loaned a 16mm Bell and Howell camera to replace it and officially start my movie business in 1949. That summer, I made my first 16mm surfing movie at Malibu and San Onofre.
When I first held the 8mm camera Steve gave me the other night, a thousand memories—all good—flooded across my mind as they spilled out of my memory bank.
The first memory was looking at a cold, winter sky with Orion prominent as I lay by the open door of our four-foot-by-eight-foot, teardrop trailer. It was the same temperature inside the trailer as it was outside with or without the door open, and that night it was very cold in the Sun Valley parking lot. The next day I found out it had been 32 degrees below zero. Ward Baker and I were warm in our seven dollar, down-filled, war-surplus mummy bags (or we were too dumb to realize we were supposed to be cold).
We would eventually spend the winter living there. It was sometimes hard to fall asleep because we were so excited about learning to be better skiers.
I took 8mm movies of the dirt streets in Aspen and the view from the Tourtilot Park Chairlift, along with movies of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Ski Club sign that didn’t move.
Also, scenes of the Alta parking lot with our Buick and trailer buried under a two foot, overnight snowfall. Movies of skiing down The Big Hill at Badger Pass in Yosemite when they had one rope tow and a sled lift.
Each time I pick up that 8mm camera, a new memory falls out of it.
Some of those 8mm movies are still in my basement. Some of them I loaned to Kim Schneider when we were both helping to create my annual feature-length film.
Unfortunately those 8mm films are buried somewhere in a warehouse stack of hundreds of other movies in Boulder, Colorado.
Ward Baker also had an 8mm movie camera, so we tried to improve our skiing style with the books that we had access to such as Otto Lang’s. We would take movies of each other to see what we were doing wrong. We took movies of each other carving a nice set of figure eights on Horse Ridge next to Ostrander Lake in Yosemite. I still have a still photo of those tracks. There was no one within 10 miles of us when we did that.
No one can take the memories away that I have seen while filming during the last 65 years. We also filmed powder snow in the Bowls before there were chairlifts there and skiing in the massive icy bumps in the Canyon at Sun Valley.
We had to do it all on laminated wooden skis that were seven-foot-three-inches long without offset or sharpened edges while wearing ski boots that gave about as much support as a pair of wooden Nike golf shoes. We were a sight to behold.
In some ways I am just as happy the films are lost or stored away. We would compare our style to that of Otto Lang who was a very smooth skier and later my boss when I worked for him in the Sun Valley Ski School as a ski instructor in 1948-49.
After I bought my 8mm camera, I bought a three-inch telephoto and a tripod and started taking surfing movies at Malibu in August of 1946. The lens gave me six times magnification to film close ups from the beach. Surfboards were 10 and 11 feet long and weighed over 90 pounds. The waves came all the way up to our shoulders sometimes.
Unfortunately all of the surfing films I had taken disappeared about 30 years ago, but the memories are still vivid for me now that I have that 8mm camera in my hand. It really is a magic carpet.
The film in the 8mm camera was originally 16mm wide and only half of it was exposed at a time. When you got to the end of the 25 feet, you turned the roll over and exposed the other 25 feet. When it was processed, they slit it down the middle and then spliced the two pieces together.
When there was only a few feet unexposed left on the end of the roll, I used to take pictures of stuff that made no sense to anyone. Scenes like a fat women chasing her chickens out of the road in front of our car.
When I first showed the 8mm ski movies of my travels with Ward Baker, those off-beat scenes would suddenly appear out of nowhere. I had some smart remark to make about how the lady should eat more chicken and lose weight and she could also run faster and catch more chickens. Maybe that is where I got the idea to keep off-beat comedy scenes in my ski movies. That first small audience of 15 people always laughed at the off-beat stuff.
That 8mm camera almost completes the collection of stuff that will be on exhibit at the Warren Miller Center for the Performing Arts in Big Sky, Montana, scheduled to open in December.
It was a real hoot for me to have this much fun just because I bought an 8mm movie camera and earn enough money taking movies to put three kids through college.
I look at what became a memory bank that Steve found for me in that small 8mm camera with a historical metal computer on the side of it. It is here on my desk alongside of my laptop computer and the notes that I am stitching together as I write my biography. I only have the last 10 years or so to still write about. Then it is a re-edit, sort out thousands or more historical photographs, hundreds of cartoons and then the company will find a publisher. Until then I will gather a lot more pleasant memories from this gift from Steve, my next-door neighbor.
Warren Miller is an American ski and snowboarding filmmaker. He is the founder of Warren Miller Entertainment and produced, directed and narrated his films until 1988. His annual films on skiing and other outdoor sports are renowned for their stunning photography, witty narrative humor, and the impressive talents of athletes. He has received wide acclaim for his promotion of the sport of modern skiing through his films spanning over 50 years and is an iconic figure in ski movie filmmaking.