When it’s cold outside, Joey Searle ’20 logs grueling days hauling heavy camera gear into place on snowy mountain peaks. He works in remote locales, where avalanches are a looming threat, snowmobiles often get stuck in heavy drifts, and sunburn is a daily reality.
It’s not easy, but for him, it’s a dream come true.
Searle is a lead editor for Teton Gravity Research, an extreme sports media company based in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He’s part of a team that makes adrenaline-laced films about extreme skiing and other sports, the kinds of movies that he has been watching since he was a kid. Now, he’s excited to make them himself.
“Every time some of my best friends would walk into my room at Colby, I was watching snowboard movies,” Searle said. “It’s hard to describe why I love it so much, but really it’s creating something that gives people a sense of adventure. So many people don’t necessarily get that experience. And being able to share that and bring people closer to adventure is something that I really love.”
The work at Teton Gravity Research has a seasonal rhythm. In the winter, it’s time to film, and in the summer, he spends long hours sifting through the footage, organizing it, and creating a story.
In a fun twist of fate, Searle’s first-ever shoot with the company featured another Colby graduate: Jim Ryan ’14, a professional skier who was the talent.
“It was the biggest day I’ve ever had in the mountains,” Searle said. “I was carrying a camera pack and also hiking up to some of the biggest mountains in the Tetons, and then skiing these lines. I will never forget that day. I was fully thrashed.”
Other times, he and other members of the production crew will use snowmobiles to access more terrain more quickly. The company also often uses a helicopter to allow the crew to get even more shots of the skiers coming down the mountains.
There’s a lot that goes into making what’s called a “stoke film,” or a film that will get people’s hearts thumping and fists pumping as they watch.
“A lot of times when people see these films, they don’t realize how much goes into just making one shot,” he said. “Making one shot requires an entire production crew with tons of gear, lugging that all into these insanely remote locations, and having the safety skills and filmmaking skills necessary and skiing skills to efficiently and effectively create a movie out there.”
Teton Gravity Research takes safety seriously, making sure crew members like Searle have avalanche rescue, first aid, and other wilderness training under their belts. Before every season, the company brings in professionals to run through a series of scenarios to prepare for the winter. They evaluate the weather conditions and always have to consider that they’re generally working in very remote places where help is far away.
“Out here, you see avalanches a ton,” he said. “Most of the time, people are safe and fine, but sometimes they’re not. And you treat each one of those times as a learning experience. Even the times that no one gets hurt, you sit down for a debrief at the end of the day and you evaluate your decision-making and say, ‘Hey, what could we have done better to avoid that?’”
On top of everything else, Searle and others have to make sure that no matter how wild the descent taken by the skier or snowboarder, the crew is able to capture it all on camera. The work is exhilarating, he said, and never, never boring.
“It’s so much fun. It’s really hard work, but it’s the type of hard work that pays off in the end,” he said. “It’s like a total insane human experience to be able to work so closely with these athletes and filmmakers that I’ve looked up to for so long.”
From slope to cinema
You could say that Searle has been practicing for this particular career for a long time. He grew up in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass., part of a gung-ho skiing family that hit the slopes just about every weekend.
“I was hooked as soon as I started snowboarding, and that kind of got me into making or watching ski videos all the time, just getting me psyched on snowboarding, essentially,” he said.
In middle and high school he had a tight-knit group of friends who spent their time skateboarding and making movies about their tricks and exploits. It wasn’t just messing around with an iPhone, either. They had single-lens reflex cameras, tripods, and an X-grip to stabilize the action shots.
“We were really into it,” Searle said.
They called themselves the “Whoop Crew” and knew of another group of friends in the city who used the moniker “Booger Boys” and were doing the same thing.
“We were all competing to try and create the most awesome video at the end of the summer,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
Mules making movies
As a student at Colby, he was able to dive even deeper into his passions and interests. He majored in global studies and loved his classes, especially his anthropology classes, which helped him learn about the importance and power of telling peoples’ stories.
Britt Halvorson, associate professor of anthropology, said that Searle was a student who stood out. In her anthropology classes, especially an upper-level course on economic anthropology, he was thoughtful and cared deeply about the ethics of interviewing people and telling their stories. Those are all qualities that would translate into filmmaking, she said.
“He’s a very collaborative, very curious person who works in fantastic ways with other people,” she said. “He would find things that excited him and then be able to communicate that passion and interest to other people in the class.”
In Maine, Searle headed to the mountains as often as possible to ski and snowboard, and he also helped start a new club, the Colby Film Society, to learn more about the process of making movies. He and the other student film enthusiasts watched YouTube tutorials, showed their work, and “really dissected” short films on the video hosting and sharing platform Vimeo.
“We figured out how they made certain scenes, what camera movements they were doing, what technology, what effects to really bring a piece to life,” he said.
He also worked in the Communications Office, learning from professional videographers and multimedia experts who generously shared their knowledge about filming and post-production work with him.
“I could really kind of pursue a passion and get paid to do it while I was at school,” Searle said. “I honestly credit a lot of my journey so far to Colby.”
Something else important during his time at the College was the opportunity to pursue film-centered internships, including one in Salt Lake City with the Camp4 Collective, a storytelling studio and production company that aims to connect audiences to the awe of wild places. It was an eye-opening experience, he said, and one he’s grateful for.
“Through DavisConnects, I was able to pursue opportunities that were outside of the norm,” Searle said. “Those guys at Camp4 really exposed me to how much I didn’t know about this whole world of film, how massive it is, and how much I had to learn.”
Climbing the mountain
He was game. While still at Colby, he was able to do post-production work for different projects. Through that, he was hired as a post-production assistant on a film called Godspeed, Los Polacos! It was the Cold War-era tale of Polish university students who formed a kayaking club, eventually made the first kayak descent of the world’s deepest canyon, in South America, then fought for democracy in their homeland.
The documentary won many awards, including the Best Mountain Feature at the 2020 Banff Film Festival, and only furthered Searle’s interest in making great movies.
After that, he worked with a production company in Vermont for about a year, until he got the call he had been waiting for: Teton Gravity Research. Beginning his sophomore year at Colby, Searle had been reaching out to TGR, a company that made exactly the kind of films that he loved best. Every other month or so, he would send an email to people there, asking if there were any job openings.
“I’d say they responded to one out of every 10 emails I sent,” he said. “But if anyone asks about entering the film industry, it’s my number one tip, because as soon as a position opens up, they immediately think about that annoying kid in their inbox who’s just [bombarding] them with emails.”
So far, Searle’s favorite project is Edge of the Earth, a documentary series from HBO and Teton Gravity Research that follows elite athletes embarking on never-before-accomplished missions around the world.
“That was a huge project and really exposed me to what it’s like working for a major streaming service,” he said.
But it is no less exhilarating to be present during Teton Gravity Research’s annual fall ski film tour, which makes stops around the country and the world. It’s timed to build people’s excitement for the upcoming ski season, and it is a lot of fun, Searle said. He’s looking forward to releasing the company’s upcoming film, Legend Has It, to the world this fall.
“It’s a crazy atmosphere. Athletes fly in, people are screaming,” he said. “It’s a stoke film festival, so people are just losing their minds.”
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