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Freeskiers turn Calgary into urban halfpipe

Professional free skier Tom Wallisch jumps a rail down a back lane during filming of "Into the Mind" while on location in Calgary, Alberta on Thursday, March 15, 2013.

CHRIS BOLIN/The Globe and Mail

In a city that lives and breathes mountain culture, it's not unusual to see young daredevils on skis and snowboards hucking over rails, down stairs and erecting jumps in odd places around Calgary.

Call it a kind of urban jungle gym for the snow set. Such skiing has also long been a mainstay for the ski and snowboard magazine and film industries – and this month, under the cover of darkness during overnight shoots around Calgary, skiers JP Auclair and Tom Wallisch snapped into their bindings to film a big-screen feature titled Into the Mind. This was one of the rare occasions that a ski film crew actually got a city's blessing to close roads and perform gravity-defying stunts.

"We're used to working on the ground, more like guerrilla-style with no permissions or anything," said Mr. Auclair, long regarded as one of Canada's top freeskiers. "We usually just get kicked out of places."

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But after the success of his appearance in 2011's All.I.Can, which was produced by Whistler, B.C.-based Sherpas Cinema for $400,000, it's little wonder Calgary was keen to receive exposure. One segment in All.I.Can featured Mr. Auclair's one-man tour around the streets, laneways and stairwells of Trail, an industrial town of about 7,600 in British Columbia's mountainous interior. Sherpas director and co-founder Dave Mossop admitted the shoot was "highly illegal."

But it was also a massive hit. It has been viewed 1.5-million times on video sharing site Vimeo, and it won an avalanche of awards, including movie of the year at the Powder Video Awards. That, in turn, helped propel Sherpas Cinema to near the top of the niche world of ski films – often called snow porn.

"We were floored by all the support," said Malcolm Sangster, a Sherpas co-founder and producer.

Trail's mayor, Dieter Bogs, said at first he didn't know filming was taking place, but townsfolk were accommodating, even offering food and drinks to the crew. He said being highlighted in All.I.Can did more for Trail than what his own promotions department, with a $60,000 annual budget, could have done in two or three years.

"You couldn't buy that kind of advertising," he said. "… It's amazing just how something like that can suddenly take your community and put it on the map."

Calgary, and the surrounding region, has been the backdrop to many big-budget and critically acclaimed films, including Legends of the Fall and Brokeback Mountain, but rarely has it been exposed as itself.

Celebrities of the freeskiing world are its stars – Mr. Auclair, of Quebec City, and Mr. Wallisch, a Winter X Games champion originally from Pittsburgh – but Calgary will also be centre stage when Into the Mind is released this fall. The project, which features a loose plot about what draws people to the mountains, takes viewers to locations in Canada, the United States, Bolivia, Costa Rica, India and Switzerland. It has an $800,000 budget – The North Face is the major sponsor – and its trailer has garnered 1.3-million views in just three months on Vimeo.

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The filmmakers considered doing the urban ski segment (which may only last four minutes of the 70-minute film) in Quebec City, Montreal and several European towns, but Calgary had the best costs, logistics and "features" – landscapes and jumps. Plus, the company's founders all went to high school here, so they knew the city well.

Luke Azevedo, commissioner of film, television and creative industries with Calgary Economic Development, said the "guerrilla stuff" actually hurts Calgary's movie industry and raises liability issues. The benefits of shooting a niche movie like this above-board could be significant, he added.

"It's not just the fiscal impact," Mr. Azevedo said. "It's the overall capacity to showcase the area as a unique and fantastic filming area."

Late Thursday night, as the mercury plunged (it felt like -20 C), Mr. Auclair and Mr. Wallisch ripped down a small hill into an inner-city alley, careened up a concrete wall, launched over a fence, slipped along a parking-lot railing and jumped back down onto the asphalt – all in a matter of seconds. A camera mounted on a vehicle that looked like a golf cart on steroids raced ahead to capture every move.

"I know there's a lot of fear [that] showing us do this kind of thing is going to encourage more people," said Mr. Wallisch, citing concerns about liability, trespassing and vandalism. "As long as people are respectful and everybody realizes we're not out to sue somebody and hurt ourselves on purpose, I think it's cool for the city."

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More


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