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How One Woman Became A Badass Action Sports Filmmaker

Jill doing a shot review with John Collinson in Japan. Blake Campbell photo. 

People like Jill Garreffi are usually the type I never think I’ll meet. And when I do, I silently freak out while trying to play it cool—because telling strangers you think they are amazing tends makes them uncomfortable. (Something I’ve learned the hard way.) But with Jill, I didn’t freak when I met her because I didn’t fully realize just who she was, and what she has accomplished.

Jill is a full-time editor and principal cinematographer at TGR. She has a fierce passion for her job, and she has been telling stories in TGR films for the past eight years.

It’s worth noting that Jill is the first and only female principal cinematographer in TGR’s history. But I’m not writing this story on her because of that. I’m writing it because Jill should be recognized for how extraordinarily well she can craft a story.

 Jill at the bottom of the Magic Kingdom Zone in the Neacola Mountains in AK. Adam Clark photo. 

In sixth grade, while the rest of us were all gunning for our veterinarian and helicopter pilot dreams, Jill already knew she wanted to be a filmmaker. Her middle school had this sketchy TV studio and the minute she joined the club she was hooked.

Later in life, a young and talented Jill was accepted to Emerson Film School in Boston. She had no idea what type of films she wanted to make, but she did have this habit of needing to go to the mountains on two planks every time it snowed. She grew up in Massachusetts and learned how to ski on the local golf course in East Longmeadow. She also raced throughout High School at Berkshire East Mountain Resort. She totally shreds.

In 2006, Jill watched TGR’s most recent film Anomaly. When she saw the “interns” listed in the credits she was like, "Boom. That’s what I want."

Jill in Italy, shooting out of the tram at Sella Nevea. Blake Campbell photo. 

Because Jill is fucking dogged, she landed an internship with TGR right away. She was 20 years old. At that time TGR only had about 15 employees, and a guy by the name of Josh Nielsen was running the production show. Nielsen was the mentor of Jill’s cine (cinematographer) dreams.

At the end of that summer, she went back to Boston and finished school—despite one short detour. She moved to Alta to be a liftie for a semester. She had no car and lived in a basement dubbed “The Black Hole” with four other girls. It happens to the best of us.

“By the time I graduated I pretty much knew I wanted to work for TGR,” Jill said.

Jill capturing those candid storytelling moments. Adam Clark photo. 

She called up Nielsen and was like, “Hi, is there a job for me?” And he was like, “Nope.” So you know what Jill did? She moved to Jackson anyways (dogged, remember?). She did a second internship for TGR two days a week and spent the rest of her days working full-time at the local camera shop. “The first couple years I gave them my soul,” Jill said. She worked a lot, she worked hard, and she did a damn good job.

She did it because she knew that TGR was her ticket to becoming a filmmaker and living the skiing lifestyle she always dreamed of. She succeeded because she’s feisty, full of grit, and wildly determined.

Eventually, Jill was hired. Part time.

“I just stayed there and worked until they decided to start paying me,” she told me.

This is proof that working in the outdoor industry takes a willingness sacrifice and a lot of clawing at what you want until you get it. It’s not clear-cut how to be successful in this space, there’s no rulebook or recipe of skills that will lead you to success. You just better be talented and be able to bring something to the table that nobody else has.

Jill "capturing wildlife." Tim Durtschi fell and then started to make snow angels. Blake Campbell photo. 

“Jill’s unique,” Greg Epstein, TGR’s Head of Physical Production told me. “She’s done things at her own pace and she’s not influenced by other things that other people are influenced by. She’s always been super focused on getting where she wants to be.”

After finally getting on the payroll, Jill started doing file organization and some editing as she gradually worked her way through the system. “Then, I was an assistant editor on the film while also managing interns, who were usually older than me.” Every year she started doing more edits and getting more involved with the movie. But working her way into actually filming in the field was much harder.

“Nielsen knew I had an interest in cinematography and helped me a ton,” Jill said. He was her mentor and brought her along for all the local stuff in Jackson. He taught her how to travel and shoot in the backcountry and worked a lot with her on editing. 

Jill coming down after shooting in the Crags at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Matt Herriger photo. 

Eventually, Nielsen moved on to other opportunities and Jill stalled. She found herself on her own for the first time, and it took her some time to build up confidence in her own abilities.

“The main turning point, was me actually telling my boss that I wanted to be in the field. Which was scary because when you do that, you really put yourself out there,” Jill said. “If any aspiring filmmaker was to read this and take away something, it’s that unless you tell people what you want, you can’t expect to get it.”

So Jill finally said, “put me in coach,” and that’s exactly what happened. She was put on her first shoot in Austria with Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, Dylan Hood, Colter Hinchliffe, and Tim Durtschi.

“The coolest part was when I finally did get to go into the field I was 100 percent ready for it,” Jill said.

Jill offloading and organizing footage. Adam Clark photo. 

That next year was truly her breakthrough year. She filmed in Italy and France for over a month for Almost Ablaze (which ended up winning Film of the Year). And when that wrapped up, she went to Michigan to work on The Sammy C Project. When the boys would party hard, Jill would go to bed. “I knew that’s the only way I could possibly keep up,” Jill said. That’s another cool thing about Jill; she knows her limits.

“Jill is what keeps the wheels moving on the TGR bus,” Angel Collinson, pro skier and TGR athlete said. “She always has a good attitude and is always cheering the rest of us up if we are down and out about something. Often times she is the positive motivation we all need to keep putting one foot in front of the other when we most need it.”

The above video is a short edit about slough management. This is the perfect example of the type of character developing stories Jill captures. 

On the flight home from working on the Sammy C Project, Jill told TGR’s co-founder Todd Jones that next year, she wanted to go to Alaska.

 “Alaska is always the goal for athletes and filmmakers,” Jill said. “If you shoot in Alaska, you pretty much know what you worked on will have a presence in the movie. “

When spring rolled around, she hadn’t heard anything, so she RSVP’d to her friend's wedding in Vancouver. Two hours later she got a text from Greg, “STAND DOWN! You’re going to Alaska.”

Jill’s greatest talents lie in her ability to always get the story no matter what. That’s her beat. When she’s in the field, she is constantly filming athletes and capturing the fleeting moments in between lines. And when she gets a nugget of a plot, she follows through with the details and shoots everything she needs to create a compelling storyline. This is what earned her the trust of the TGR crew—athletes and filmmakers alike.

For this segment, Jill edited the whole thing and shot a lot of the establishing scenics and helped with the story and interview content in the field.

“She always has her eye on the bigger picture of storytelling,” Angel said. “she is constantly filming the behind the scenes shots of us goofing around, which is crucial to the colorful character development and hilarious scenes TGR has been known for as of late. But it requires having the cameras rolling all the time to catch the candid, unplanned, raw moments that happen out in the field. Filming all the time like that is so much work.”

Now, when you watch a TGR movie you can see Jill’s entire year in 110 minutes. And that’s one reason why she loves her work so much. “I get to see it through from start to finish, and I love that part about it because a lot of people are either on the editing side or the filming side and I get to be a part of both,” she told me. “And at the premiere when I get the be there and see all the people who are laughing and enjoying and being inspired by what we’ve spent a year working on, is such a good feeling.”

(from left to right) Nick McNutt, Jill Garreffi, Angel Collinson, and Blake Campbell. Almost Ablaze was recognized as Film of the Year at the annual Powder Video Awards. Angel Collinson won Best Female Performance,  Nick McNutt won Best Breakthrough Performance, and the film's segment in and around Jackson Hole won Best Powder Photo by Greg Epstein. 

In her eight years with TGR so far, Jill has gone from being an intern and protégé, to a professional and mentor, and she couldn’t be more stoked on where she’s at.

“I kind of have my dream job. It took me a long time to get here, and now I just want to enjoy it. “

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

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