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How to Become a TGR Cinematographer

Ben Dann in Black Diamond's Mission Ski Shell during a trip to AK. Jonathan Desabris photo.

It takes a special person to be a Teton Gravity Research cinematographer. They have to be the perfect combination of talented camera operator, problem solver, expedition team member, while also being able to hike and ski the same lines as world-class athletes. It’s a job that many claim to want, but few have the determination to reach out and grab.

One of TGR’s most trusted cinematographers is Ben Dann. At 26 years young Ben has already spent the better part of four winters filming with TGR. Growing up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Ben witnessed and was continually inspired by the rise of TGR. His fondest memories included watching films like Tangerine Dream and Anomaly in Teton Village. This ignited a desire to become an action sports cinematographer, a dream that is currently playing out today.

I’ve been out in the field with Ben and seen him work in his element. I could go on about his ability but I would rather let the people he films talk about one of their favorite shooters. 

Austin Hopkins, Ben Dann, and Dutch Simpson react to a shot while shooting for TGR's new film Far Out. Jonathan Desabris photo.

“Ben is the true definition of a workhorse: he carries a massive pack, never complains and never misses a shot. He’s definitely a guy that you want on your team on any trip," says Griffin Post, who has been on multiple foot-powered missions with Ben. "He’s truly passionate about what he does and I think it really shows in how meticulous he is with every shot. To the untrained eye, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good shot and a truly great shot, but Ben has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes his work stand out.”

RELATED: Check out the Black Diamond gear that kept TGR Warm in Alaska

When talking Sage Cattabriga-Alosa about being in the mountains with Ben, Sage talked about his versatility to capturing action.

“He is exceptional at both wide-angle on slope filming, as well as being a sniper on the long lens," said Sage. "His ability to get in close to the action, casually capturing dynamic skiing on complicated tight terrain is exceptional. In Alaska, his steady eye to the lens captured the majesty and excitement of big mountain skiing in the perfect way.”

In the mountains, nothing is guaranteed. Learn more about Ben's close call while filming on the Coast Range of British Columbia. TGR photo. 

Ian McIntosh has shifted gears the past couple of season and entered a new phase in his career. Inspired by the foot-powered adventures of Jeremy Jones, Ian has been pushing his own riding by camping and hiking his own lines. Right there with him is Ben, capturing the journey for the rest of us. 

“Working in the mountains is only as good as the company you keep and working with Ben Dann is always a pleasure," says Ian McIntosh. "Young, talented and extremely motivated, all the qualities you could ever ask for in a cinematographer. Bringing good energy to the field and always crushing the shot makes Ben Dann one of my favorite guys to work with.”

I sat down with Ben after a recent trip to Alaska for TGR's upcoming film Far Out–presented by REI–to talk about his journey as a filmmaker and his latest travels with TGR. 

TGR: How did you get into filmmaking?

Ben shooting with kayakers Rafa Ortiz and Rush Sturges in 2013. Substantial Media House photo. 

Ben Dann: I started filming in high school, which coincided with my whitewater kayaking career. I was learning to paddle and running more advanced rivers, so I was fortunate enough to see these amazing sights firsthand. I naturally gravitated towards a camera to document these moments, which is what really jumpstarted my passion for filmmaking.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go to school for, so I choose kayaking over my education. Western Washington University was a good fit because it had a lot of variety in their educational programs and it was in close proximity to some of the best kayaking in the Pacific Northwest. There was no film program, so graphic design was the closest visual arts program that the school had to offer. I was still doing a lot of film work. I would leave school for extended periods of time to do film projects. The graphic design program really helped build my compositional vision. It forced me to think about what I was shooting on a deeper level. 

How did you get involved with TGR?

BD: Once I graduated from college I started to freelance full-time.

My first gig was filming the American Windsurfing Tour. I also started doing edit work for TGR. I had interned with them in college and I worked on a couple television shows TGR produced for Outside TV. Slowly I started getting on a couple film trips as an assistant camera operator or DIT. This past winter was my second full year on a winter contract, a true dream come true.

What is the common misconception about your line of work?

Ben Dann in his natural element, in the field. Jonathan Desabris photo.

BD: That it’s not a lot of work. 

I'm on my skis for most of the winter but I really don’t get to ski that much. When I do, I usually have a really heavy pack on. It’s long hours and I'm often working for weeks in a row. It can be a grind, shooting all day, trying to film these scenes with athletes, and then resetting each night. Fortunately, my work ends when I come home, but for the rest of the office, that's just the beginning of the real work. We have such a strong team at home that is doing all this frontend work and backend work to help make your vision a reality. That is one of the coolest things about working for TGR.

It’s one of those things when you look at your life from a 10,000-foot view, it’s really special. I’m so happy with what I get to do with my winters; the rad places I get to go, the people I get to travel with and meet. The people I work with are amazing and the athletes are the best in the world. 

Tell me about this last trip to Alaska. 

Cook Erick Parker and Ben Dann with just a small amount of the gear at baggage claim. Jonathan Desabris photo. 

BD: This April was my first Alaska trip with TGR.

RELATED: Check out the Black Diamond gear that kept TGR warm in Alaska

I have been shooting with TGR for four years now and the holy grail of trips has always been Alaska. It’s this ultimate proving ground of athletes and cameramen alike. It was actually my first time flying to a location with TGR. It was such a gear show at the airport. We had ski touring equipment, along with tons of camera and camping gear. It was a wild morning checking all those bags.

Who was up there with you? 

Ben Dann and drone pilot Austin Hopkins take a break during glacial rescue training. Jonathan Desabris photo. 

BD: We had an all-time crew. Dutch Simpson, Austin Hopkins and I made up the production team. Photographer Bruno Long was only the person I haven’t met before. He turned out to be an insanely good guy and even better photog.

As far as athletes, we were shooting Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, Ian McIntosh, and Griffin Post. They have been the face of TGR for years and a perfect crew for this type of trip.  We had Eric Parker, our cook, who was an all-star keeping the crew alive. Finally our guide Tim Cohn keeping us all safe.

Where did you set up camp for this trip?

A Super Cub drops Griffin Post off at camp. Jonathan Desabris photo. 

BD: Alaska is just a really special place. Our exit and entrance in and out of camp were intense. Typically there is just one flight to get to camp. With this trip, the glacier we were looking at was on a slope and the bigger planes were either not able to handle the landing. We were in this pretty remote spot, this unnamed zone between the Tordrillos and Revelations.

RELATED: Learn more about the gear that kept TGR warm in Alaska

We loaded Beaver planes from Anchorage to this abandoned mining strip. We unloaded all the gear and then loaded all the gear into smaller planes called Super Cubs. They are more or less big enough for a pilot and passenger with about four duffel bags. That was a really slow process. It was 19 cub loads to get into camp.

Once we got out there it was classic setup day. The sun was out and we built media, cook tents, and a pantry along with each of our personal tents.  

What was the skiing like?

BD: We had an amazing trip but we did struggle with snow. Where we were was more of a continental snowpack than your traditional maritime. We weren’t seeing spines or your classic Alaskan features. There were more couloirs and ramps, stuff that isn’t necessarily what you would expect from an Alaska trip. Since they were having a hard year that was our best option. 

n past years we usually receive 5 to 10 feet of snow over the course of the camp, but this year we got seven centimeters. The skiing, however, looked incredible: the faces, the surrounding, the mountains–the aesthetic of the area was incredible.

What does it mean to have athletes as talented as Sage, Griffin, and Ian?

Ian, Sage and Griffin hanging out in the mouth of an ice cave near camp. Jonathan Desabris photo. 

BD: The athletes are what really makes all the difference. If I skied that terrain in those conditions it would look awful.

But our guys skiing the same snow make it look incredible. They would make three to four turns down a 1,500-foot couloir. You don’t know how they do that. That’s why they do what they do.

What was everyone shooting on?

The production crew chimping a shot. Jonathan Desabris photo. 

BD: The three main cinematographers were Dutch, Austin and myself. Dutch was our on-slope angle shooting with a Red Epic. Austin was our drone pilot with a DJI Inspire 2. I was responsible for the barbie angle. 

What's a barbie angle?

BD: This means I was shooting the opposing angle of the line from across the valley on an adjacent peak. I was shooting on an Epic W with a Canon 30-300mm with a power zone and a large tripod. That lens allows you to do these big pushes and reveals without changing your focus, which is a classic TGR shot. 

What are the challenges of working with this camera system in a mountain environment? 

The Epic W with a Canon 30-300 lens. Not a light system. Jonathan Desabris photo. 

BD: It’s big and really heavy: I'm lucky I had you with me to help move my tripod around. Because of the shape of the glaciers and our alpha angles we situated our camp a little ways from our objectives, which meant we had to travel a bit further to travel to our lines and camera angles.

Even though I'm able to carry the whole system by myself it's not fast or efficient by any means. Having an extra person there was crucial. It’s a burden moving camera, lenses, monitor, tripod. When you have these big lenses that are a foot-and-a-half two feet long, you start dealing with these big steel plates and rods. Every day we started with a 1,000 boot pack just to get to the base of our lines. The weight adds up. 

What was the most memorable part of shooting?

BD: For the intro to the segment, we found these ice caves close to camp. At the mouths, they are 20 to 30 feet tall and they go a couple hundred feet deep. This is where we shot our intro scene. Some of the shots make the athletes look like they are astronauts going on this mission, coming out of the real world.

As far as skiing wise, everyone had at least one A+ banger. The last thing that got skied on the trip was Mac and Sage tandem side by side straightening this 1,500 ft couloir. It was wild. Griffin's last line was pretty special. When the athletes complete a line it's pretty high stoke, everyone is hooting and hollering. It’s just good vibes out there.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Camp from the air. Austin Hopkins photo. 

BD: The filming is just a small portion of these trips. It’s all about being a fairly even-keeled person. As soon you find a weak link or someone that has a short temper that can ruin a trip like this. You're such a cohesive group and there’s no room for failure because it can crumble the whole unit.

You have to be out there and doing it yourself to be given that opportunity. It’s a lot of new things going on a trip like this. In order to shoot well, you need to have living on a glacier dialed. As soon as you get something wet, it’s wet until you have a sunny day. It’s just experience and then going out and doing it with your friends. 

TGR's 2018 Ski & Snowboard Film is brought to you by REI.

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