Sony Pictures // PG // $38.95 // March 25, 2008
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 11, 2008
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It all started with Bill Briggs.

Before him, there wasn't any real risk to be found in skiing, at least not on these shores. Any sort of aerial acrobatics were frowned upon. No trails were really being blazed; everyone stuck to safe, predictable routes on cushy resorts. The concept of extreme skiing in America was born with Briggs in 1971 when he became the first person to ski down the steep, treacherous Grand Teton in Jackson, Wyoming -- an astonishing accomplishment that wouldn't be repeated for years but is even more remarkable considering that he braved it on his own and with a pronounced limp.

Steep is about skiers with a thirst for excitement that can't be quenched by a shallow descent off some tourist trap of a resort. These are men and women who can look at a sheer cliff most would shrug off as unskiable and be tearing down it moments later. It's a documentary about passion -- men and women who get such a thrill descending from these awe-inspiringly steep peaks that they plow forward no matter how many of their friends have lost their lives to the sport. Make no mistake; they're anything but reckless, but even with all of the care, caution, and meticulous planning that goes into their descents, there's an inherent danger that has claimed some of the world's most accomplished skiers.

Steep is a film about skiing, but it's not a ski film in the traditional sense. Director Mark Obenhaus provdes the expected reels of dazzling ski footage, of course, but it's blended into a more traditional documentary framework, anchored around interviews with skiers like Seth Morrison, Glen Plake (the mohawked star of the wildly influential The Blizzard of Aahs), Ingrid Backstrom, Doug Coombs, and globetrotting ski mountaineer Andrew McLean. Steep looks at Chamonix, the birthplace of extreme skiing and once a rare haven for Americans who wanted to ski without a safety net. Looking closer to home, Steep also spends a good bit of time on the Coast Range of British Columbia and the enormous mountain ranges and velvety snow outside Valdez, Alaska.

Steep captures a tremendous amount of dazzling skiing footage, from a cartwheel down a mountain in the Coast Range to skiers weaving around treetops buried under mountains of snow. By far the most memorable aspect of the documentary, though, is Doug Coombs, an incredibly personable, instantly likeable skiing pioneer whose passion for the sport is unwavering. It's almost eerie to hear Coombs speak at length about how dangerous skiing down these sheer mountains can be...about how he's seen his friends die with his own eyes but still musters the strength to keep pursuing that hear him say that he'd rather die skiing than be mauled in a car wreck...only to learn shortly thereafter that he was killed on the slopes while filming for Steep was still underway.

I have to admit to never having skied myself, but there's something so infectious about the passion that drives the subjects in Steep that I'd feel compelled to give a much tamer version of what I'm seeing here a shot...if I hadn't been giving this Blu-ray disc a spin in the middle of April, at least. I watched the documentary with an accomplished skier to get his take -- someone who knows The Blizzard of Aahs chapter and verse and has devoured stacks and stacks of ski films over the years -- and it didn't grab his attention in quite that same way. It's worth noting that Steep is a fairly traditional documentary. There's no hyperkinetic quick cutting or breakneck tempo punk songs, and a quiet, relaxed doc about extreme skiing certainly isn't a mix likely to work for everyone. I enjoyed Steep, though, and I think it's that combination of a world that's so unfamiliar to me but is out there for the taking that intrigued me. Well worth a rental; skiing enthusiasts might find it worth purchasing as well. Recommended.

Video: Steep is a mix of film and high-definition video, weaving Super 16 skiing footage together with interviews on HD video. Its archival footage has been culled from numerous different sources, ranging from sterling 16mm film stock to lousy, low-res video dupes. This leaves Steep's 1.78:1, AVC-encoded video inherently looking pretty erratic. The interviews have a softly lit, overly diffused look to them, an aesthetic that's fairly common for these sorts of documentaries but considerably softer than usual for a high definition release. The bulk of the skiing shots -- both new and old -- are crisp and colorful and boast a gorgeous veil of grain. In some other movies, film grain can look like random bits of noise, but the texture in Steep tends to be stable and wonderfully defined, and the end result is often eye-popping. A few specks creep in from time to time, and some scattered stretches are noisy and suffer from heavy black crush, but the image is overall clean and reasonably well-defined. Some vintage footage, such as the excerpts from The Blizzard of Aahs, lack much of any resolution to speak of, suffering from heavy aliasing and excessive softness. Those sorts of issues make up a fairly small portion of the overall runtime, though. The photography is often striking, from sprawling vistas of snowy mountaintops to glistening tree branches poking out from blankets of white.

The mediocre score in the sidebar isn't meant to suggest any lack of effort on Sony's part. It's just that Steep's mixed media approach makes for an uneven presentation, and the documentary wasn't shot with reference quality video in mind.

Audio: Steep is bolstered by lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, but the nature of the material leaves the soundtrack seeming rather restrained. This is a documentary, so it follows that most of the activity is driven by interviews rooted in the center channel. The mix does spread out a bit, mostly to reinforce the orchestral strings in the score, and there are also some discrete effects with whirring helicopter blades, the rush of the wind at these dizzyingly high altitudes, and the frenzied snapping of cameras. Bass response is modest but backed by a meaty low-frequency kick during avalanches and as a parachute explodes open. The majority of the audio is in English, although some of the stretches in Chamonix are in French and subtitled accordingly. It's a solid soundtrack, even if its documentary nature doesn't make for anything particularly demanding.

Aside from an audio commentary, there are no other soundtracks on this disc. Subtitles have been provided in English (traditional and SDH) and French.

Extras: Director Mark Obenhaus is joined by skiers Ingrid Backstrom and Andrew McLean for the disc's audio commentary. It's a really amiable, upbeat track, and their passion for skiing beams brightly throughout. McLean and Backstrom put some of the early achievements highlighted throughout Steep in a context that makes them that much more impressive, and having skied so many of these same mountains themselves, they're able to add their own perspective as well. They recognize that Chamonix is being photographed from the Italian side, for instance, and there are several great stories told about the sprawling Alaskan mountain chains. Other highlights include having a professional avalanche photographer on the payroll, just how little time had passed between filming and Doug Coombs' untimely death, and how tough it was to find a proper ending for the film. One disappointment is that they talk about some of the scenes that didn't make it into Steep -- catching up with a couple of the skiers during the summer, for instance -- but none of this footage is provided elsewhere on the disc.

The three of them return for a Q&A session that runs 13 minutes in total. Among the questions they field are whether or not McLean has skied the highest peak in Antarctica, some of the daunting weather challenges they encountered, and how Backstrom feels about being a prominent part of what's so widely perceived as a men's sport.

Obenhaus speaks over a series of stills and short snippets of video in "Shooting Steep", a 17 minute look at the scale and difficulty of filming this ambitious documentary. Much of the discussion revolves around the use of elaborate Cablecam rigs during the shoot in British Columbia, filming the skiing on Super 16 while shooting the interviews on HD video, and concerns about the crew and the equipment in such punishing conditions. This is the sort of topic that's occasionally touched on in passing on DVD extras, and it's nice to see the photography covered in much more detail here.

An extended interview with Doug Coombs features some outtakes that didn't make it into the movie. Hearing him speak again about having to read the mood of the mountains and the danger inherent to this sort of skiing is a bit chilling, considering that he died so shortly after this footage was shot. Among his additional comments is a list of some of the less conventional things Coombs has skied, everything from staircases to lava.

A photo montage is also included, but it didn't really work as expected on my PlayStation 3. The runtime was listed as well over four hours, and as I fast-forwarded, I kept seeing the same tiny handful of shots again and again.

All of Steep's extras are presented in standard definition aside from a handful of HD trailers: Across the Universe, The Jane Austen Book Club, Saawariya, and House of Flying Daggers.

Conclusion: Despite never having strapped on a pair of skis myself, I enjoyed Steep. Sony has assembled a decent package for this documentary on extreme skiing; its audio and video are nothing spectacular but certainly adequate, and there are at least a few quality extras. While I'd imagine viewers with more of a casual interest in skiing would be most likely to opt for a rental -- as much as I liked the documentary, I don't see myself watching it again anytime soon -- I still found enough to appreciate about Steep to recommend it on Blu-ray. Recommended.

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