First! Kris Ostness and Father Time

Reflections of an early freeskier and filmmaker: 'It’s changing, but it didn’t change fast enough for me'

Photo: Courtesy Kris Ostness

Photo: Courtesy Kris Ostness

By John Clary Davies

Kris Ostness was one of the only skiers building backcountry jumps in the mid ’90s. He was also the first to throw a McTwist, and his pro model, the Line Ostness Dragon, was one of the original full-sized twin tip skis. Still, you might say Kris Ostness had bad timing.

The ski industry wasn’t ready for him. When he couldn’t get anybody to film him, Ostness went behind the lens himself. He started Wind-Up Films, which released Clay Pigeons, Tee Time and The Flying Circus. Ostness then went on to direct a minor-classic, Teddybear Crisis, with Henrik Rostrup. Recently, Powder.com caught up with Ostness, 40, for a beer in White Salmon, Wash., before his wind surfing session in the Gorge. Now a freelance videographer and freestyle coach for his friend’s kids, Ostness reflected on the challenges of being ahead of the game.

Kris Ostness, on the cover, Nov. 1998. Photo: Bill Stevenson

Kris Ostness, on the cover, Nov. 1998. Photo: Bill Stevenson

I started working with a photographer, Bill Stevenson, who was at the ski school at the same time I was. Bill was just getting going as a photographer. At first I started working with him as a powder ski model, like a lot of people do in Utah. Eventually I was like, “Hey, let’s shoot some jumping.” My skiing had really been influenced by my snowboarding and that’s what set me apart as a skier at the time.

I wanted to hit snowboard features and Bill and I would go out in the backcountry—this is in the mid ’90s and the only people in the backcountry were granola backcountry skiers and snowboarders—and snowboarders were the only ones building kickers.

It was so hard because it was totally out of the box. Ski companies weren’t used to seeing this. There was racing and there was freesking, which was big mountain. Even early Freeze was a big mountain magazine. They would not publish freestyle shots. They did the mute grabs, but I was specifically told they would not shoot freestyle sequences because that’s what snowboard magazines did, and they did not want to be identified with that at all. So even in the progressive aspects of the industry, we were really up against the odds. Of course Freeze flip-flopped and changed their tune. It was challenging because I was doing Mctwists way back when. Bill had a sequence from the Snowbird halfpipe way back in the day, and they weren’t interested in publishing it.

I met Jason Levinthal the year before I was getting skis from K2 and saw ski-boarding for the first time, before it was really uncool. Freeze never accepted it—they always dissed on it—but it was like, whoa, this is sick, actually, because this is a great training tool. I trained doing 5s and 7s and McTwists. I never thought I’d ski on them, because I’m a big mountain, backcountry freestyle skier. I went to Jason and I was like, “Hey, we should do a full length, full-sized twin tip ski.”

Jay has always been way ahead of the curve, like way ahead of the curve. I gave him the specs I wanted—a 193 twin tip, but a twin tip in my mind was always going to be set back. The first prototype he made me was a full on center-mounted 193 and I couldn’t ski it. There’s like, no way. It isn’t ever going to happen. But he made it, and years later that’s what the kids are doing.

K2 had done the Poacher, which was a really short twin tip, and flexible, and hard to ski, and then the [Salomon] 1080 came out, and then Line came out with the full-length Ostness Dragon. That would be a career high there.

We built a lot of quarter pipes in the backcountry and that was my first cover on Powder. There were two. They were both from Mount Hood. The first cover was more of a daylight shot and the other one looked like the surface of the moon.

No one was filming skiing—that kind of skiing—in the day. I talked to a couple of different film companies but it was really hard to break in back then unless you had sponsors and they are telling the film crews to shoot you. I was pretty much just a photo athlete. I primarily shot with Bill Stevenson and mainly went for getting the sick shots in the backcountry doing freestyle.

Ostness, cover No. 2, Jan. 2000. Photo: Bill Stevenson

Ostness, cover No. 2, Jan. 2000. Photo: Bill Stevenson

Because it was hard to break into the film companies I just decided to buy my own 16mm camera and make my own films.

Chad Zurinskas, Brent Benson and myself built Chad’s the first time. It was something Chad had wanted to do for a year. There were two tailing piles—120 feet apart—and Chad just had the vision of, “I think we can jump between this like a moto-style gap.”

Between the three of us we built it in over a week, and the first time we hit it, Candide [Thovex] was in town. Chad speed-tested twice and came up short both times. If he hadn’t been knocked around so much he would have hiked up and cleared it, but he was just over it on that day and Candide politely asked, “Hey uh, do you mind if I try the gap?” Candide hiked up there and landed right on the knuckle the first time and cleared it the second time.

A week later, after the next storm, Chad came up and cleared it the first time.

To be honest I never thought guys would be hitting that thing switch. I never thought they’d be doing anything more than a 360 or back flip over it—yet the next year Candide showed up again and was doing D-spins over it. I was really blown away at how fast that whole gap thing progressed.

I guinea-pigged Pyramid and instead of going right for the knuckle, I was like, well I better hedge a little bit, and went off the knuckle side where it kind of rolled and just didn’t have enough speed, and it was like thick spring snow after a huge storm. I hit so hard I felt shock waves going through my legs. I thought I broke my legs, and my skis were just sunk so deep into the snow I had to punch my fist through the snow to find them. That’s actually the only time I ever broke a ski. I didn’t have a ski, so I couldn’t hit it again.

So Jaime Pierre was like, “Hey, can I hit it?” He went up and cleared it. Later I came back and I did a 360 over it.

I lost money on every film I made.

In Utah I’d stop in at one of biggest stores right at the base of the canyon where we film. I go in there and they don’t even have Teddybear Crisis and most of the film was shot in their backyard and they don’t even carry it, they don’t even care, and that’s just the attitude of the ski industry.

That’s not to say that is the only reason for the end of Wind-Up Films and Teddybear Crisis. Decesare, Berman and others have all made successful busineses while I didn’t. I’m not an accountant or a businessman and when the movies were done, the last thing I wanted to do was to have to promote and sell the film.

Partnering with Rostrup for Teddybear was a great thing but in the end both of us where creative heads and not bean counters. When the budget was blown out for Teddybear we still opted to shoot the intro in Norway with a full film crew and in 35mm. That all came out of our pockets, we could have walked and done something inexpensive and maybe made money on the movie but… I don’t know, the intro that broke the Teddybears‘ back? Maybe, but I sure love that intro.

It’s changing, but it didn’t change fast enough for me.

I wish I had started younger. By the time I was getting into being a pro skier, I was at that age where it was staring to hurt, and you start getting the Fear and you can’t ski when you have the Fear. It would have been nice to have exited the pro skiing career with money. I definitely missed the window of money. The Canadians just got in on it, and then the next wave really cashed in. But that’s how it is when you are early in the game.

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  • http://www.afeinphoto.com Aaron Feinberg

    Teddybear is still the best ski film of all time. Unreal cinematography and forward-thinking film making. Kudos and we want more!

    aF

  • Jack Pollner

    TBC was, and will continue to be one of the best ski films ever done. I still wish I had a pair of the original Dragons. A ski shop in NJ had a pair a few years back brand new for $195 and I passed on them. Totally regret it.

  • josh

    Great interview JC! Ostness is a legend among men.

  • Grizzly_Gulp

    Nice Job Ostness…You were there right when I got to UT with Tee Time. If i had a dollar for every time I found myself saying a silent prayer while blind, backwards, upside down and certain of demise at the end of another engineering experience gone wrong at the Grizzly gulch physics lab….
    …I could buy some gas to go do it again.

    Long live the Ostness Dragon

  • Scott

    All these films need to be reprinted to DVD.

    I have been looking for Tee Time for 9 years!

    I haven’t even seen Clay Pigeons and The Flying Circus, but would sure like too.

    TGR and Matchstick are great, but its more of the same. Ostness has something that keeps you wanting to watch.

  • Freedle

    “Ahead of it’s time” is a well-worn cliché, but it is so true with Ostness on two fronts within skiing and ski filmmaking. In particular the Wind-Up movies (and Teddybear Crisis) were basically niche oddities within a small market when they were released, and even more eccentric than most snowboard films at the time, but certainly are timeless pieces from that era now.

  • http://www.brobomb.com Matt Barber

    That Nov 1998 issue of Powder, The New Face of Skiing, is what made me fall in love with skiing and stick with it while every other kid was switching to snowboarding. I still have the issue to this day.

  • Logan

    Teddybear crisis is easily the best ski movie i have ever seen, and my favorite action sport video of all time. Like the guy above me said it would be super rad if they could put the wind up films on dvd, i would buy that in a heartbeat.

  • DT

    Glad you guys are stoked on this. We are going to be rolling out a new interview with iconic people from skiing’s past and present every Thursday for the rest of the summer. Keep coming back!

  • http://johnclarydavies.com jcd

    After the interview Kris mentioned launching a website where he’ll soon be selling all the old Wind Up flicks. I believe it will be krisostness.com, or windupfilms.com. Stay tuned…

  • http://www.patrickmcintosh.com Patrick McIntosh

    Pioneers always have the toughest work but most rewarding, too. That is killer the way Chris was way ahead of the curve and plowed the ground for so many. Killer flick, too. It is just about teaming with the right peeps to promote and sell it for you.

  • http://powdermag.com travis erdmann

    Yo K, iconic in that you were in the first run of coaches at Windells. Knew what Josh and Griffin were doing would change the world. Turned me on to a slew of Utard’s including C Squared and Sage to come coach. Brought Jon O and Henrik over as “campers”. Put Sammy in a flick b4 anyone!! And let me shred with you in the hallowed grounds. Hold it high my brother and visionary, you are ALL TIME. Pce, T

  • Shralpage

    We used to sit in our UU dorm rooms and watch Tee-time and Flying Circus every night. Leviathon Gap melted my mind. These films still have the best soundtracks of all time. TGR and Matchstick must stilll be convinced that skiers listen to aggressive butt-rock. I still listen to “San Diego Zoo constantly.” Thank you Kris Osteness for giving me the idea of hitting Pyramid and knuckling the shit of it. You heavily contributed to the overall weirdness of living in Utah in the early zeros.

  • Mike C

    I loved that 1998 cover shot!!!

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