If you were shredding park on the East Coast in the years after the turn to the millennium, you logged onto SASFilms.com every Monday to watch single clips of the best tricks that guys like Ben Grunow, Derek Klick, and Jon Lippiat had done over the weekend. One of skiing’s first popular video-sharing communities, SAS Films WAS East Coast skiing for years, thanks in part to Neil Sotirakopoulos’s tireless efforts filming everything and navigating the possibilities of the early stages of the internet. Culminating in the amateur and still classic film Wicked, the talent, shots, and careers that came out of the people behind and in front of the lenses at SAS represented the strongest era of East Coast skiing in recent memory.
In Part I of this two-part interview, Neil talks about what the East Coast scene was like during the heydays from 2001-2006.
Shane McFalls talks about that 2001-2006 or so time the best era of the East Coast scene. He says he felt like he didn’t have a need at all to move out West, that the East had just as much going on. Do you feel the same way?
How could I not agree with that? I grew up in New Hampshire never knowing the difference between sheer ice and “packed powder” and was under the impression that Tuckerman Ravine stood up to the best backcountry spots in the world.
Around that time I was living in Troy, NY and my home mountain was Mount Snow. Back then Troy was as much of a mecca for handrails as Utah is for powder, it blew up so much with ski and snowboard crews that I think it even made it into the Freeskier resort guide one year. Mount Snow was still hosting the Winter X Games back then, and riding the parks there and meeting all my favorite athletes any time events rolled through made it feel like the forefront of the park scene. Even if the East wasn’t the epicenter I thought it was, that’s the only reality I knew.
One of the first videos released on SASFilms.com – 2000/2001 season recap from Mt. Snow
What was the atmosphere and attitude like in the East Coast scene at that time?
Addictive. Bouncing around the east coast meeting new people, filming, and riding different parks made me more obsessed with skiing than ever before, and it always seemed like everyone else on the mountain was just as stoked. Adding a different grab to your favorite trick was like taking a single to a double by today’s standards. I don’t really like to use the word “progression,” but it seemed like any given day you could show up at the mountain and witness something that you’d never seen or heard of before.
Jon Lippiat, Rodeo 5 Screamin’-Seaman circa 2003
On the east coast the gap between seasons feels like a decade, and being able to build a jib setup in your backyard during the off season only fueled the addiction even further. On more than one occasion we would be waiting in line with other crews at hockey rinks scavenging for ice shavings.
Chris Johnson’s backyard setup circa 2001
There was a much finer line between competing and shooting video parts than there is today, which made a lot of events feel more like park shoots with your friends rather than competitions. Events like the Freeskier Jibfest and Vermont Freeskiing Open really did a lot to showcase the talent coming out of the East Coast.
Dave Chrichton – VT Open Rail Jam circa 2004
Instead of attempting to talk more about it, here’s a random selection of some of my favorite clips that I dug out from the sasfilms.com archive:
Ben Grunow – Rodeo 7 follow-cam circa 2001
Backflip train at Mt. Snow’s Inferno park, circa 2002
Ryan Vescovi – Cork 9 & Rodeo 5 at Mt. Snow circa 2003
Corey Vanular, VT Open halfpipe practice 2003
Liam Downey VT Open slope run 2004
Travis Heed getting buttery at Killington, 2004.
You would put out mostly single clips, and I remember looking up new tricks after every weekend and just seeing people throwing massive tricks off park jumps. SAS was a really legit online community before there really were any. What was the reality of online and video media back then, and what place do you feel SAS filled then?
Posting single clips had more to do with the technology at the time than anything else. In 2001 hosting videos on a website felt like you were breaking the law. I can’t even remember how many different hosting companies we got banned from. For a while the only way we could keep the site online was by running our own servers out of my basement. There was an online format war going on at the same time. The Flash video format that would eventually be adopted by YouTube (and pretty much every other online video site) didn’t exist until 2003, and just figuring out how to release a clip that would play on both Windows and Mac was a challenge.
At the time there weren’t many options for posting ski clips (or any video) online, and even though we managed to hit up a lot of east coast events and generate our own content, we really wanted to open the site up for anyone to contribute. In 2002 we were finally able to launch a user upload-able video gallery. Within a few months we had more new videos on SAS Films than the previous years combined, and a $2,500 bill from our hosting company to match. I spent the whole summer that year working to pay it off, and decided that SAS Films needed to release a feature length ski movie the following season to help keep the website alive.
What was the deal with the weird prison scene at the beginning of Wicked and why were small children suddenly released at the end of the scene?
Short answer: The prison scene was really fun to shoot and introduces all the athletes names that appear in the flick.
Long answer: One of my main goals in producing Wicked was to make a statement that there was so much talent and potential in the east coast that you didn’t need to move out West to “make it” as a pro (or make a movie) in the ski industry. In 2003 I was under the somewhat misguided impression that the major ski media publications paid little attention to the east coast, and the prison scene in Wicked was a testament to this. The prison guards represented the media and the athletes in the movie start out in the jail cells. One of the skiers gets “paroled” and has a chance to leave the east coast, but at the last minute decides to run back in and break out his friends, setting the tone for the rest of the movie.
A (near final) draft of the intro segment from SAS Film’s Wicked.
“When her virgin daughter Persephone was abducted to underworld by Hades, Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.”
There were a couple guys from that crew – Tanner Rainville, Liam Downey, Colby West – that ended up really making it as pros. What do you feel separated those guys from the rest of the talent on the East Coast?
In no particular order -
- Jeff Winterton
- Level 1 Productions
There were plenty of skiers from the east coast who graced the pages of Freeze or Freeskier Magazine, but getting a photo in print that was actually shot on the east coast, not an easy challenge. The one photographer who seemed to make that happen over and over again was Jeff Winterton. If Jeff was shooting, you wanted to be on the other side of the lens.
You can hear Winterton’s camera firing this two-page sequence of Liam Downey for Freeskier Magazine in the background. The ground just out of the frame was littered with exposed 35mm canisters from previous attempts.
It goes without saying that Josh Berman and Freedle Coty at Level 1 Productions have always have always been killing it when it comes to finding talent. In the days of Strike Three and Forward, getting shots in a Level 1 movie (as a skier or filmer) was like getting picked first in gym class. As much as I’d like to think that Wicked was really able to make some difference, Liam and Tanner were already shooting with Level 1 that season, and Colby would join them a year later.
When it did come time to put Wicked together in the Winter of 03/04, it was the combined efforts of Duncan Lake, Jeremy Gasowski, Stu Halverson, and Alex Mallis whose footage made these three segments possible (among others). Props.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow, where Neil talks about life in and out of the ski industry since the SAS days…