Warren Miller: Life’s been a wild roller coaster ride
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
In the early 1950s, in between pounding nails during the week as a carpenter at $2.25 an hour, I would drive the 350 miles on Friday night to Mammoth and work on my next movie. One Saturday I was busy filming skiing on what was then known as the rope tow hill.
I was skiing behind Dave McCoy, and I was getting some point-of-view movies of him making turns in packed powder snow. Later, while we were waiting to ride back up on one of his two rope tows, a man in line asked me if he could buy me lunch and talk to me when I got finished with Dave. I never passed up a free lunch even if it was a brown bag, peanut butter sandwich.
This guy was the producer of a TV show and we discussed an idea he had come up with while watching me film Dave while I was skiing.
He asked me, “Could I run my camera from the front seat of a roller coaster and get smooth point of view footage from the front seat?” If so, he would build a copy of the front seat and put some people in it and then mount it so it could be tilted rapidly in all four directions. The passengers would be looking at a rear screen projection of the footage I would shoot. The people riding in the mock up of the car would feel as though they were really on a roller coaster ride!
If I could ski down a hill and run my camera at the same time, I could certainly sit in the front seat of a roller coaster and do the same thing.
Two weeks later, I was riding the Cyclone roller coaster at the Long Beach, California Pike. I had my trusty Bell and Howell wind-up, 16mm camera and was supplied with six 100-foot rolls of Kodachrome 16mm film. This was probably my first day of earning money with my movie camera and I didn’t want to blow it.
It took me four or five rides to get used to the various curves, rapid changes in inertia and stuff that the cars do as they rattle around the tracks that had been built on shaky wooden scaffolds 50 years before.
Once I got used to riding without hanging on and using my knees and legs for stability I mounted the tripod in the front seat, and after one ride trying to looks through the viewfinder, I realized that to get smooth shots I would have to hand hold the camera.
I had already learned how to frame good shots while I was skiing without looking through the viewfinder. I had developed my hand-eye coordination much the same as the sheriff used to do in the old western movies. He never did looks down the barrel of his six shooter, he just shot from the hip. That is all I needed to do to get very smooth following shots while I was skiing.
Getting used to the added weight of the camera and the effect that inertia had on it in the steep transitions of the roller coaster ride, it took me another six rides before I could hold the camera steady through the dips, crests and curves.
By now the TV producer was starting to get upset because I was running up the production budget at the rate of 25 cents a ride. I had already spent $3 of his budget and did not have a single frame of film yet. He was keeping track when on my 14th ride I asked him to get me a root beer and hot dog while I was putting film in my camera. This was all taking place on a weekday while all of the kids were in school so we did not have to worry about other customers.
I scarfed down the hot dog and root beer while I was loading the camera and I was ready to go. I knew when I would push the button on my camera at which transitions and when I was at the top of the steepest hill. I used about half a roll of film or a minute of film on each trip. At the rate I was shooting it would be about 12 filming trips to finish the job.
That day I set some sort of a record by taking 37 rides on the Long Beach Cyclone roller coaster. Fortunately, my cost per ride was paid for by the now over-budget TV producer and I earned $35, with which I bought three more rolls of Kodachrome for my cameras habit. I had become a Kodachrome junkie.
My body was bruised and sore for almost a week from hanging on with my knees. The TV producer won some prizes for his very real simulation of a roller coaster ride in the studio. The fake ride turned out to be so real visually that one of the passengers in the fake roller coaster got sick and threw up all over one of the other passengers. I didn’t have a TV set in those days so I never did see the show. I left for Mammoth once again the next weekend because I had three more rolls of Kodachrome to expose.
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