Sämi Ortlieb is an accomplished skier, designer, filmmaker, animator, and member of a hardcore punk band. In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Maneuvers,” his many passions collide into a playful ode to the do-it-yourself origins of skiing and its close relationship to nature.
Using stop-motion animation for a fittingly hand-made feel, Sämi transforms natural materials into an endless playground. Former obstacles such as melting snow and tree branches become unexpected opportunities for skiers to play and interact with the environment.
We first saw Sämi explore this “landscape animation” technique in his 2017 Staff Pick “Birds Brigade,” and were thrilled to see his vision evolve in ambition and scale while bursting with a contagious excitement for the sport. True to the roots of skiing and animation, the film is a laborious piece of filmmaking that somehow feels effortlessly brought to life by a spontaneous touch of magic bending the laws of nature.
Ahead of this week’s release, we caught up with Sämi Ortlieb to talk about combining passions, leaving room for spontaneity, and planning for the uncontrollable.
“The original idea was to create something I would describe as ‘landscape animation.’ The idea is to bring an environment to life with stop motion animation, using the material provided by the environment.
I have a lot of creative outlets in my life: drawing, animation, skiing, skateboarding, making music – the list goes on. Animation and skiing have always been a big part of that. So it seemed quite obvious for me to connect the two.
When I first started animating, I was doing traditional 2D animation, frame by frame on paper. After incorporating some of those 2D animated elements into video footage, I wanted to find a way to work more within the space where I film and ski. This resulted in animating snow.“
On animating snow:
“In ‘Birds Brigade’ I developed the initial idea of animating snow. It was mainly about testing and developing techniques and to experiment. From a very early stage on, I knew that this was a first step and that I would continue working on it in another project.
‘Maneuvers’ was all about developing these animation techniques further as well as doing everything on a bigger scale. I really wanted to push the idea of landscape animation. To bring the environment we ski in to life and to create a playground where the mountains interact with the skiers.”
On pre-production and spontaneity:
“This project required a lot of location scouting, which I did beforehand in the summer and fall. I also had some spots lined up that I’ve found in previous winters. When I went scouting, I would simultaneously look for locations that would fit my existing animation ideas, but I also got inspired for new ideas by the environment itself. I made a lot of sketches during the scouting process which I then collected and hung on my wall in my office.
Even though a lot of the project was planned ahead, I wanted to leave enough room to improvise and be spontaneous by trying new things at the site with what was available at every particular spot. I think it‘s extremely important that a film has room to breathe and further develop itself during the production. Not everything has to be planned.
I actually started off by explaining my idea to the band Hazer Baba who made the music for ‘Maneuvers.’ It was interesting to explain and plan the idea from a musical perspective. It worked really well since we already had experience working together from ‘Birds Brigade.’ Once we actually started filming, it was mainly about explaining how to shovel the snow around and where to put it. I already had quite a bit of experience on how to move snow from ‘Birds Brigade.’“
On editing stop-motion:
“For most shots, I didn’t know if they would actually work after we filmed them. I mean I kind of knew they would work, but always had doubts for some reason. Was the light constant enough? How much of it would be fixable in post-production? Did we make any mistakes in the animation? Did the camera move because of melting snow?
So I started to composite shots at a pretty early stage in the editing. It was important for me to see the movement of the snow to find a rhythm that works with the skiing, the music as well as the story.“
“The biggest challenge was probably the light. Stop motion animation is traditionally done in a studio setting, where you are working with light sources that you can control and are constant. Working in the mountains, you are challenged by the ever-changing weather. Even on a bluebird day, the light changes through the movement of the sun.
If you want the light to be somewhat constant you have a timeframe of around 30 minutes on a clear and sunny day. Due to having a rather small crew, we rarely ever managed to animate a scene in half an hour. We also weren’t able to wait for good weather every time and just had to work with what we had and make the best of it.
It’s definitely the most physically intense type of animation I’ve ever done. We would shovel, then run out of frame or run to the camera to take a picture, just to run back to the jump to shovel again for the next animation frame.”
On what’s next:
“I’m currently working on further projects that include landscape animation. At the moment I’m developing techniques and tools to animate rocks and gravel fields.
I’m also working on a ski video that tries to overcome distances made by the current travel restriction. For this, I’m working with Rob Heule on a film where we are trying to ski together even though we are on two different continents.”