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Off Piste: Valhalla

Sweetgrass Productions' feature length ski film uses a philosophical narrative and stunning cinematography to tell a tale of finding freedom

by Graham Hiemstra in Culture on 12 September 2013

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A story above all else, "Valhalla" tells of one man's search for freedom—in life and on two planks. Unconventional in their approach to ski and snowboard filmmaking, Sweetgrass Productions created the feature-length film with a deeply philosophical narrative and stunning cinematography to capture the imagination of the viewer—whether they be a skier, snowboarder or someone who's never known the feeling of sliding down a snow-covered mountain on wood. "It's painful for me to call 'Valhalla' a ski and snowboard movie," says director Nick Waggoner. "To me, it's so much more than that; it appeals even more to people who don't ski—to any story-loving soul who searches for meaning and answers in this life."

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Adapted from a 50-page script and filmed over the course of two years deep in Alaska and the isolated British Columbia interior, the movie will at last premier to much anticipation tomorrow night, Friday 13 September in Denver, Colorado. CH staff were curious to see just what all the hype has been about, and Sweetgrass passed along a a rare rough cut just a few days ago. In the face of an Indian Summer heatwave, the exclusive viewing session was more than welcomed.

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As mentioned, "Valhalla" follows the fictional story of Conrad, a dispirited skier on a search to reignite an all-but-extingueshed flame for life. Presented in six separate but cohesive chapters—birth, youth, adolescence, adulthood, legacy, rebirth—the film spans a single ski season spent in the presence of Valhalla, a mythical place cohabited by old souls and powered by bottomless powder. Here, at the commune-like base camp, Conrad finds himself truly at home amongst a "tribe" of equally eccentric societal outcasts living an otherworldly existence.

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While the heady storyline may seem a tad cliché, in execution it is anything but: "Valhalla" is a testament to Waggoner's story-telling ability. "I think we all reach a point in our adulthood where life starts to lose a little bit of its luster," explains Waggoner. "Our story is a battle cry for those who want to reclaim the eyes of their youth and see life again with brilliance and awe, wonder and passion."

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Shot entirely on two Red Epics—the same camera with which Peter Jackson shot "The Hobbit," capable of capturing up to 300 frames per second—"Valhalla" isn't short of hero shots. But while the incessant use of slow-motion may remind some of Travis Rice's snowboard film "The Art of Flight," the similarities abruptly end there. "Valhalla" whole-heartedly avoids such extreme, energy-drink-fueled acrobatics in favor of pure powder skiing. Where conventional ski videos feature separate parts per athlete, "Valhalla" throws everyone into group montages; mixing skiers and snowboards in an unholy union. The almost teaser-like method creates a steady stream of action, often cutting to tricks mid-air and rarely showing a full line from top to bottom. While this may be disruptive to some viewers, it could also be useful to keep the attention of the less devoted.

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Watching each slow-motion bat of an eyelash, falling snowflake and ski-tip tear through untrodden snow, it's easy to become entirely transfixed by the film's visuals. And when paired with the wise, reflective, transcendental words of the narrator, "Valhalla" captures a palpable feeling unlike any we've experienced from a ski video before.

Images by Garrett Grove, Mike Brown, Ben Sturgulewski, Garrett Grove, Grayson Schaffer, screenshot courtesy of Sweetgrass Productions

Off Piste encourages exploration. With each feature we'll introduce the people, products and places that make life outside the city possible and life in the city more down to earth.

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