Last updated: 05-Nov-18
By Luke Jarmey
If you haven’t seen any of the Salomon Running TV episodes, well you’ve quite clearly been living under a rock and you need to go and amend your idiocy right now. On a serious note, Salomon Running TV (SRTV) has changed the way trail and ultra-running is viewed and documented, through focusing heavily on compelling stories, which are so prevalent in this sport. Working with a team of talented creatives, first with The African Attachment and now Wandering Fever, Dean Leslie is one of the main men behind SRTV. We were recently lucky enough to have a video interview, where we got a fascinating overview of his story and involvement in film. The purpose of this follow up Q&A, is to dive a little deeper into all of this and really learn what goes into the dark art of running and adventure film making.
United Kingdom. Photo credit: Kelvin Trautman.
Q. For anyone that hasn’t seen our video interview with you yet Dean, can you give us a general low down on your background and how you got into film making?
A. Becoming a filmmaker was not something I ever set out to do. When I left school I actually really wanted to paint and draw but I didn’t want to study art, so at the time animation seemed like a really good middle ground as there was still a lot of line animation being done. But then while I was studying, computer/3D animation really took off and I wasn’t that interested in being confined solely to a computer for my work. So I started getting into photography and that eventually morphed into film.
But film and photography were always there as interests, I just had never thought of making a career of either of them until after my studies. When I was younger, I don’t think I ever really thought that it was possible that people would pay me to make films, especially the type of films I make now. But I think initially it was mostly because of surfing and growing up watching surf films that really got me interested in film at quite an early stage.
Q. Interesting that you started out studying animation and VFX. Do you feel the grounding in this influences your approach to film production? And if so, how?
A. Yes, definitely. When I started my studies, I could barely turn a computer on, but over those three years I taught myself how to build one from scratch. I learnt various programs as well as almost every aspect of the filmmaking process, through animating. We did line drawn animation, hand painted cell animation, stop motion, as well as 3D/ VFX.
At the time we were still doing our captures on 16mm film cameras. We were given a unique broad overview of the genre. I wouldn’t be able to multi task as much as I do and I certainly wouldn’t be able to have my hand in all the different aspects of the filmmaking process, without having that grounding in animation. It provided a great general filmmaking toolkit that I have utilised to this day.
Q. Can you expand on your progression from photography to film? You mentioned you shot a lot of movie set stills, were you also involved in commercial work (both on the stills and motion side of things)?
A. I have loved photography ever since I can remember. I used to borrow my dad’s old Pentax and shoot my brother and friends surfing. I love all the emotion and memories a single picture can hold. After school, my first big purchase, once I had worked and saved enough cash, was a plane ticket to Indonesia and a 35mm SLR camera.
After I finished studying, I started printing and framing my photos and selling through galleries and shops. I then started picking up some photography work on film and commercial sets and they mostly wanted that bundled with some behind-the-scenes filming so I started doing that and it just kind of progressed from there. But film has always been there. When I was younger I used to cut my own little surf films from VHS to VHS on a little DIY setup I had wired up at home.
San Francisco. Photo credit: Jared Paisley.
Q. Moving onto the adventure film making, how did that all start? Had you already dipped your toes/immersed yourself in it before Salomon?
A. Yeah I started TAA with Greg in 2006 and we did whatever we needed to do keep our little company afloat. We carried the behind the scenes work through into the business and even branched into graphic and web design, just learning as we went along. At the time I didn’t have a lot of experience and I wanted to build my skill set to make better films, so we took almost anything that came our way. We designed movie posters, DVD covers, film websites, and stuff like that and I managed to learn a lot from those people we worked with during that time.
Eventually we were good enough to start making our own work and I started directing music videos which progressed into music documentaries. Then, one day, Ryan (Sandes) called me up – we were friends from school, I have known him since I was six years old – and he told me he was running this race through the Gobi Desert. At the time I didn’t even know that he ran. But a seed was planted on making a film together and so we did what we could and managed to put a little teaser together and through that I made contact with Salomon. They were looking for a film crew at the time to start what would ultimately become Salomon Running TV (now Salomon TV), and I suppose the rest is history.
Q. You co-founded, the production company, The African Attachment with Greg Fell. How did this all start?
A. I met Greg while I was doing a couple film short courses after I had returned from a year of traveling. We then worked on a film set together and started chatting about starting something up. It was all very naive at first, but we persevered through the tough initial years and managed to build a company I think we were both very proud of.
Q. You covered this nicely in the video, but give us a quick over view on how you kicked off the relationship with Salomon and how Salomon Running TV (SRTV) came to be?
A. I was just fortunate. It was a case of good timing. Being in the right place at the right time. I was offered an opportunity and I was in a place where I had just enough experience to be able to take it with both hands. I also owe a lot to Greg Vollet and the guys at Salomon for taking a chance on me in the beginning. I think Greg had watched a total of two minutes of my work when he offered me a year’s contract. They have placed an enormous amount of trust in me since the beginning and allowed me the space to be creative and do my own thing.
I think they extend that loyalty and trust to all the creatives they work with and this fosters long, healthy working relationships. I really feel like it is a unique setup and one that promotes creativity and ideas and gives results, as the success of both Salomon Freeski TV and Salomon Running TV has shown. Now, Salomon TV is continuing the trend.
Slot Canyons, Utah. Photo credit: Jared Paisley.
Q. Tell us a bit about your new production outfit, Wandering Fever. How did it start and where do you expect to take it?
A. Wandering Fever was first born out of a film I wanted to do with Ryan which we have yet to release. It’s my own thing. I built TAA with Greg for over a decade and I felt we took it as far as we could. Wandering Fever is just a continuation of my work, taking along a lot of lessons that I learnt from TAA. I have a new structure to the business. We have simplified the setup and workflows with the idea that the work takes precedence over everything else, whilst still trying to maintain a semi normal life at home.
I run the company with my wife, Hannah Slezacek, who has vastly more experience than me in the world of traditional film, as well as a few solid years of Producing on Salomon Running TV. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons in running a business and producing film content over the last 10 years and so with WF I am just trying to find that sweet spot with producing world-class content and enjoying a very fortunate life.
Q. Great stuff, moving on to your personal ethos in film making, I really liked what you’ve said about applying surf-movie-like storytelling to running films. Can you give us an insight into the the process of turning a story ‘idea’ into a running production, with a well-crafted narrative?
A. I think that having a hand in each part of the process really empowers me as a filmmaker and storyteller. It allows me to go into productions with a loose idea and formulate and shape that as I go. It is also the only way I have been able to consistently produce such a large volume of content over the past seven or so years. I think we average around 90min of content each year, so I always have at least a handful of projects on the go.
But turning an idea into a production gets easier with experience as you build confidence in your ability. I think the most important thing is to trust your ideas, no matter how loose, and to believe in your ability to pull it off. I think I go through the same range of emotions on every film I make. There is that initial excitement in the idea and then that sobering and terrifying onset of reality once you are on shoot that you might not pull it off. Then you start getting excited again when you start seeing the footage from the first few days of shooting only to have the terrifying feeling resurface the minute you start the edit. Then once you have navigated through the chaos of the workspace you get excited again as you see it come together.
I don’t think the fear of failure ever goes away and I don’t think I have ever released a film that I was 100% happy with. Deadlines force you to abandon the film, you never feel like you actually finish it. But with regard to surf films, what I really learnt was how to carry story and emotion through picture and how important music and pace is. I have tried to combine that with more of a narrative in my work.
Chamonix. Photo credit: Dean Leslie.
Q. You’ve clearly got a distinct filmmaking style that is evident throughout your work. How did you develop this style and how would you yourself describe it?
A. I am not a clean, calculated filmmaker. My work is messy and I’ve always loved the organic nature of film so I have tried to emulate that in what is now almost a purely digital world of filmmaking. I suppose the style is just a culmination of influences, mostly from growing up watching surf films shot on 16mm. It was never a deliberate thing and I have no idea how I would describe it.
Over the last two years I have tried to move out of my comfort zone on quite a few of the films for Salomon TV but somehow they always feel similar which I suppose is a good thing. I don’t know, but I do have a fear of being pigeon holed and so I am doing my best not to be typecast into a specific type of film style. Filmmaking is a continual learning process and the more you learn, the bolder you become in the creative process.
Q. Let’s talk about some of the technical challenges of adventure film. Firstly, fitness. Do you specifically train to go out on these assignments or do you keep fit through them, so to speak?
A. I would love to say that I do and you do need to be fit but our real work happens in between the filming season when we edit all the content. At the moment I have been editing almost non-stop since mid-December and I’m currently writing this in a tea house in Nepal, having just finished cutting a film, while on shoot for another one.
I have only been on a handful of runs this year so usually the first couple shoots are pretty tough physically and it gets easier from there on. So Nepal is a bit of a tough one to start the season from that perspective. There aren’t too many small mountains around here. Having grown up in and around the ocean, it was a place I always spent most of my free time but since I started filming mountain and trail running I have often found myself choosing the mountains over the ocean to just get out and be alone for a while. So, when I do go out I don’t ever think of it as training, it is just something I really enjoy doing.
Japan Alps. Photo credit: Jared Paisley.
Q. Secondly, gear. How do you maintain the balance between having enough gear to maintain the quality of your production and as little as needed to access the remote locations… while trying to keep up with a superhuman athlete?
A. Gear is consistently changing and I work a lot in trying to keep a balance. Most of the gear you end up taking is based out of fear. It is pretty remarkable what you can do with a very small amount of equipment. Often having too much gear can be more detrimental to a film than having too little. But we produce a fairly wide range of styles in the films for Salomon TV and so we mix and match according to the creative briefs for each film. We no longer use one consistent kit the whole year.
Q. And finally, the elements. How do you ensure you and your equipment doesn’t morph into the abominable snowman? Or burst into flames in the searing sun?
A. I think it is important to use the camera as a tool. To know its limitations so that you can push the limits when you need to and make calls to stop filming when it is not worth it. It’s impossible to look after your gear perfectly and keep it all shiny and new in those kind of environments, so we have good insurance.
Italian Alps. Photo credit: Jared Paisley.
Q. On the topic of the environment – have you ever been in any life threatening situations out there? If so, how did you deal with it?
A. I was in a helicopter crash a few years ago while filming an independent project which made me re-evaluate a lot of things and we have had some other scary situations over the years. I love making films but not enough to risk my life. And so I think it is important to have perspective.
When you go out on these shoots and you head up a team, you are responsible for all the decisions that are made. I used to have this almost singular focus in making films to the extent that I lost sight of what was around me. But now I am very aware of the decisions I make, and I try maintain a presence in the real world, so to speak, rather than the world through the viewfinder.
Q. Looking from now to the future, are there any techniques or items of equipment that could change the way you approach your filming?
A. The gear is pretty much there already. Every year it reduces a bit more in size but on the whole we are pretty fortunate with the technology we have available to us. I would love to not have to fly or go to airports though… That would be pretty amazing.
Q. And finally, are you currently working on any projects that, in your classic fashion, will make our mouths water and hands tremble in excitement?
A. I am currently in Nepal on a project with Mira Rai which releases at the end of May. And I have a cool little film releasing at the end of April with Kalen Thorien, an American pro skier (it’s not a ski film!). I am also working with Joe Grant on the film for his Tour de 14ers project and then we are in pre-production on a new slate of films for Salomon that will be released next year. So a fair amount going on this year!
Sounds amazing Dean, my hands are definitely trembling.
Thanks so much and looking forward to seeing more amazing content from you.
Iceland. Photo credit: Kelvin Trautman.
Northern California. Photo credit: Dean Leslie.