Tom Day started his ski career with Warren Miller Entertainment as an athlete. But Day eventually decided to get behind the lens, and today he’s one of the world’s most renowned ski filmmakers.
How did you become interested in cinematography?
I always had an interest in photography, and skiing is one of my first loves. I centered my life around it. I actually started my career as a skier for Warren Miller. Fletcher Manley showed up with just a backpack and a tripod, and I didn’t know that’s all it took. It became tangible to me that being a ski videographer is something one person can do. I think that idea is what got me so interested in it.
The crew saw that I had that interest, they showed me how to load the cameras, and they even let me take shots. They were so open and encouraging to let me pursue it. I bought my first wind-up camera, Warren Miller Entertainment gave me film, and they helped me become a better cameraman.
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After making films for quite some time, what is the main change you’ve seen in cinematography over the years?
When I started shooting with film, it was a much different world than today with digital. To shoot three minutes of raw film was about one hundred dollars. When you’re not making any money, that’s an expensive learning curve.
What do you think is the hardest part about being a cinematographer?
The hardest part is the travel. I usually travel with 10 cases of equipment. That’s a lot of cases and airports, and then, when I get to the location, I have to prep it all, and get ready to shoot. Usually once I’m on location, it’s all good again.
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How much does communication with athletes come into play with your job?
That’s what I really enjoy. I like to orchestrate a shoot on a collaborative level. If it’s a new athlete I haven’t worked with, I try to get to know him/her. And I always like to give athletes plenty of opportunity for their input. I might be missing something they like to do; whether it’s a trick, or skiing something gnarly or extreme, or adding a sense of humor through their personality. I don’t go up there as a director saying, “I’m gonna tell you to do this.” At the same time, it’s my responsibility to come home with something, so I play that card as long as I can, and if I don’t get much feedback, I start pushing and directing more.
Talk about the planning aspect of your job.
I always sleep better if I have a plan for the next day. Whether it’s permission from the mountain to get up early, or planning a route in the backcountry, you have to do your homework. Getting everyone on the same page is crucial. Once you’re on location, things really start unfolding. It might seem like a long time, spending two weeks to film 10 minutes, especially if you want to put a story into it, but that’s how it goes.
What about the safety aspect?
Safety is another huge part of the job.
Assessing the terrain, the snow, and trying to figure out how bad you really want that spot. The more remote you are, the more careful you’ve gotta be. If something happens, we need these logistics so there’s a game plan. An accident always happens when you least expect it, and when you have your homework done it makes your job a lot easier.
And the logistics of the actual shooting?
There are a few different types of shots, and some are driven by the athletes. They’re going to do something insane, so they tell you how to do things. I personally like to take a lot of shots that make the audience say, “Wow! That’s beautiful.” Instead of showcasing the athlete, it’s a beautiful shot that makes the audience want to be there. When it’s gnarly, the viewers don’t necessarily want to be there.
Now that there are so many ski film production companies, do you feel more pressure making films?
It’s made my job harder on a personal level. I can’t lie down and do the same old thing, but instead I’m inspired by what younger people are doing. I love watching all the ski movies and getting ideas. All the films you see on YouTube and everywhere else involve a lot of creative people that are doing cool things. It’s easy to put something together and say it’s a movie; but we’re seeing much better stuff now, and, in that sense, it’s made my job harder.
Do you feel a lot of responsibility as a cinematographer for one of skiing’s biggest film legacies?
That’s the biggest pressure of my job is to come back with something good. It has to be at least as good as what I’ve done before, and every time I take a shot, I think of Kim [Schneider], our editor. I have to make sure what I give to Kim keeps him excited. I’m not afraid to call the team at Warren Miller Entertainment and tell them I’m in a rut. To get a couple of ideas I didn’t think about is very reassuring. It’s a good atmosphere, they totally understand if we have issues. You cringe when you get criticism, but it makes you stronger.
Do you prefer working in familiar areas like home in Tahoe, or remote places you’ve never been to?
It’s a mixed bag. I love it all. I love the opportunity to shoot close to home because you’re close to family and friends, and that’s always good. When you have a film shoot at Breckenridge or Northstar (or another resort), that’s when you can turn a standard segment into something more because you can bring in some extra tools. With tools like a cineflex, a helicopter, dollies, and cranes, we take what could’ve been a standard segment, and add some extra spunk.
It’s fun to do this and push my creativity a bit. However, going to places like Alaska is just a rush. The terrain and snow are full of opportunity, and you don’t want to miss it. Such an aesthetically beautiful place sounds easy to shoot in, but it’s not. And when it does work out, there’s a lot of great energy from that. I would have never made it to all these cool remote places on vacations, so I’m thankful my job has taken me there.
Clearly you made a choice to avoid working in a cubicle. Any words of wisdom for people who aspire to be like you?
From a very young age, I didn’t want to do much in life except ski. I knew it was the center of my life—that I would move west and be a ski bum. It was my dream when I was 10 years old, and I never lost it. So don’t jump onto the first job you get just because you feel the need to become responsible. Do your homework, find a way into the industry, and find a way to be happy. Try to be creative with your own work, and that will get you where you want to be. Most importantly, don’t set financial means at the top of your pinnacle if you want to be a ski bum, because if you do, you’ll be disappointed.
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Originally published in June 2014 for Skiing Magazine's website. The article has since been updated with formatting, hyperlink, video and photos.