At a Japanese fire festival, his face aglow in red light from the flames, the revered snowboarder Travis Rice watches the sparks rise into the air. He comments that every snowflake needs a particle of dust, and where does most of that dust come from? Ash.
Rice looks to the camera. “Let the fire burn,” he says.
This scene takes place about 35 minutes into Rice’s latest film, The Fourth Phase, which premiered earlier this month. The sequence ends on a shot of orange sparks climbing into the night sky. A hard cut to falling snowflakes leads into one of the most awe-inspiring snowboarding sequences ever seen in a movie: night riding in the bottomless powder of the Japanese Alps.
But the cycle represented in that transition – from fire to snow, land to air, and back again – is indicative of the deeper theme of the movie. The Fourth Phase is nearly as much a story about life on our planet, specifically the hydrological cycle, as it is about snowboarding itself. Some of the film’s most memorable moments come from sequences when no snowboarding happens at all.
The Fourth Phase is as much a story about life on our planet as it is about snowboarding itself.
But for all the mountain mysticism that Rice injects into the production, he remains a philosophizing snowboarder, rather than a snowboarding philosopher. That’s a good thing. As far as this movie moves in new directions, it remains a snowboarding film at its core – perhaps the best one ever made.
As the spiritual sequel to 2011’s The Art of Flight, which changed the game of how action sports films were made, The Fourth Phase was tasked with raising a bar that had already been set very high. The film was four years in the making, and riders and crew members alike pushed the limits of what was possible, both physically and technically.
Digital Trends caught up with Rice and director of photography (DP), Greg Wheeler, after the film’s premiere in New York City.
“This film was definitely the most difficult project that I think any of us had worked on,” Rice said. “We were really ambitious with both the technology we wanted to utilize for the project and where we wanted to take it.”
Most of the footage was captured on Red cinema cameras, supported by GoPros (first the Hero3, then the Hero4) for point-of-view shots. Both drones and helicopters provided aerial coverage. “We used everything under the sun, drone wise,” Rice said.
Bringing Hollywood to the backcountry
The film, a production from Red Bull Media House, is a visual masterpiece, and snowboarders and non-snowboarders alike will be captivated by its beauty. Unlike many films in the genre, it does an incredible job of mixing the epic with the intimate. From Alaskan vistas that look straight out of Lord of the Rings to a bureaucratic roadblock that kept the crew stuck in a parked helicopter on the Kuril Islands for six hours, the film deftly handles a pleasing variety of situations.
“[It’s] a more personal story,” Rice said. “Snowboarding is just the vehicle for us, the means to getting outside and going on these adventures.”
Achieving the film’s signature look was no small order. DP Greg Wheeler echoed Rice in calling it the most challenging production yet. Even drones, perhaps the fastest-growing filmmaking innovation to come out since The Art of Flight, didn’t make things significantly easier. Drones allowed for aerial shots in locations where a helicopter would have been infeasible or not permitted, but they presented their own challenges.
“When you’re flying these systems out 30-plus miles in the backcountry and it’s cold out, the batteries don’t last long,” Wheeler said. “So we had to lug generators out with us on snowmobiles. It was literally like a full production in the backcountry.”
At times, the crew had to carry upward of 700 pounds into the mountains on snowmobiles. Individual crew members’ backpacks often weighed 50 to 60 pounds. And they had to keep up with perhaps the most energetic, goal-oriented snowboarder that there’s ever been.
Crew members’ packs weighed 50 to 60 pounds, and they had to keep up with the most goal-oriented snowboarder of all time.
“Travis’s perfectionism is contagious,” Wheeler said. “There were definitely moments when we were like, ‘Oh, this is impossible.’ Maybe it sounds impossible, but then figuring out a way to get there and capture the shot only pushes you further.”
A Hollywood-style production plan was adopted in order to manage all the moving parts of the production and keep up with Rice’s unwavering perfectionism. This was a bit different than what Rice was accustomed to.
“We used to just get together, go out as a group –I don’t want to say ‘wing it’ – but you know, the night before we were planning out what we were doing the next day,” Rice said. “This film, we were one week out in our planning, with full production plans typed out every night. We couldn’t afford confusion.”
Keeping up with tech
The long production cycle also meant the crew received upgraded cameras several times, and even got to test out some prototype gear. GoPro let Rice try out the new Karma drone and handheld gimbal well before their public unveilings.
“There’s no doubt about it: GoPro has changed the game,” Rice said. “The new Karma gimbal is way more robust than any others that have come out.”
While new and improved tech was welcome, it often came with growing pains.“Even with the Red, we started out shooting on the Epic, and toward the end the Weapon came out,” Wheeler said, referencing two different high-end cameras used in the production. “Then you have to deal with issues [like] firmware updates not working out. Tons of phone calls with tech support.”
The crew also had to keep backup cameras with them at all times. Whether in the backcountry of Wyoming or deep in the mountains of Kamchatka, if a camera went down, they didn’t have time to wait for a replacement to be shipped out.
Furthermore, many shots would only get one take. It took a lot of time to set up for specific locations, for Rice to get in position for the next line, and sunlight was always a concern.
But the greatest challenge facing ski and snowboard filmmakers in the future may be the environment itself.
“When it comes to action stuff, you get one try,” Wheeler said. “If you don’t capture it right, or if you miss it, you can’t say, ‘Hey, Travis, can you go back up and do it again?’”
For the future, Wheeler hopes that the trickle down of technology into smaller, lighter prosumer cameras will help alleviate some of this. “I’m looking forward to a more stripped-down, easier way,” he said. “Our approach was perfect for what it was, but I look forward to a simpler plan.”
For as far as the crew pushed the limits of their gear, the riders were pushing the limits of their own bodies. The film doesn’t hide the crashes, botched landings, and other terrifying examples of living on the edge. One failed landing in Alaska sends Rice to the hospital.
“In the back of your head, every day you go out and you’re kind of just like, ‘I hope nobody will get hurt,’” Wheeler said. “But that risk level is high.”
Facing a new environment
But the greatest challenge facing ski and snowboard filmmakers in the future may be the environment itself. When The Fourth Phase crew arrived in Alaska, snowfall was near a hundred-year low. Rice’s fabled So Far Gone area, which required a permit that took two years to get, was out of reach.
“Without a doubt, climate change is real,” Rice said. “Over the course of this film, I watched several glaciers up in Alaska, in the So Far Gone zone, recede probably at least a kilometer.”
But there’s still reason to be positive. “Snowboarding is not going to disappear. Change is inevitable. It’s unfortunate, but may force us to work together. How incredibly resourceful is the human spirit? The solutions are out there. It just takes a generation to demand it.”
Rice had the chance to return to the area a year later when the snows had improved, but he got caught in an avalanche on a “warm up” run elsewhere in Alaska. It’s a climactic and paralyzing moment in the film. From the air, we watch as the mountain give way in sections, vast swaths of snow falling away like dominos toward a terrifying inevitability.
The resulting injuries prevented Rice from making it back to ride So Far Gone.
Ever the perfectionist, it’s hard to imagine Rice won’t make another attempt at it in the future, though.
“[It’s] a pretty magical and mystical place, and spending so many years trying to unravel the riddle that is So Far Gone, it’s hard to leave it on the table,” he said.
With any luck, maybe we won’t have to wait another four years for it this time.
Les Shu contributed to this article.