Seasoned boaters come to understand that sometimes you just have to go with the flow--a lesson that often translates to daily life.
Skip Armstrong never set out to become an adventure filmmaker, but by following his interests and the opportunities presented to him, he turned a hobby into a full-time profession that takes him around the world working with some of the most talented athletes on water.
The lean, inquisitive 35-year-old Denver transplant arrived in Boise in 2007 and now works alongside Anson Fogel of Forge Motion Pictures, the company responsible for one of the most respected kayak adventure films to date, Wild Water. Forge's most recent film, Cascada, was released in February.
Unlike most filmmakers, Armstrong's path was never a course set by a focused, systematic effort or a traditional educational undertaking. Instead, his love of the river and outdoors let him express himself as an artist, while eventually finding a way to pay the bills. His "follow your nose" instinct and natural ability are uncommon in a field dominated by formally trained professionals--which might be just what gives Armstrong a creative advantage.
"The thing that struck me immediately was his passion and sensitivity," Fogel said of his filmmaking partner. "You can learn the craft and build the years of experience needed in our line of work, but you cannot create those key ingredients: passion and sensitivity."
Armstrong has directed more than 10 films and assisted with dozens of other feature projects. Even with his growing list of accolades from countless film festivals--Banff, 5 Point and Telluride film festivals, to name a few--Armstrong has remained humble and thoughtful when it comes to his craft.
"A lot of our approach is an unbridled commitment to our characters," he said. "We'll talk about it for a long time and really write it out and think about it well before we go out and shoot it."
It started back in 1998, when Armstrong's college roommate in Durango, Colo.--the legendary "Dangerous" Dave Norrel--raved about Idaho's recreational offerings. A few road trips to the Gem State later, and Armstrong knew where he wanted to end up.
"I was blown away. I had never been somewhere so wild," he said. "The people were wild, the rivers were wild."
After earning his degree in economics from Fort Lewis College, Armstrong hit the international river guiding circuit, including a couple of summers guiding on the Payette River. Later, while working for an outfitter in Ottawa, Canada, Armstrong broke five toes playing beach volleyball, limiting his ability to guide. With few guiding options, he was relegated to video camera duty, shooting generic shorts of guests' family vacations.
Even as a novice, Armstrong realized that the production quality of these films was mediocre, at best, so he invested in video editing software and a new laptop to try to increase video sales. That money-making venture turned into a self education in film.
They were skills he took with him when he moved to Costa Rica in 2002 to open his own outfitting business with two business partners from Boise. A key component was offering customers high-quality videos of their Central American adventure. Armstrong sold his guiding business in 2007 and moved to Idaho to play and plan his next steps. Then, one fateful day in 2009, he was running the North Fork of the Payette River at the same time a friend-of-a-friend was shooting a kayaking movie.
That tertiary acquaintance was Fogel, and the film turned out to be Wild Water, one of the highest quality kayak productions to date.Fogel had just bought a $100,000 Red One digital camera--the same technology used in big budget Hollywood films--in an effort to lead the adventure film industry into a new era of high-quality production. Armstrong lent a hand and hasn't stepped away since.
Wild Water put Forge on the map, winning the grand prize for cinematography at Las Palmeras International Film Festival and the grand prize and people's choice awards at the Explos Film Festival. The Wall Street Journal even cited Wild Water as being "our favorite film at Banff [Mountain Film Festival]."
Within four years, "Could you help us with a few shots?" turned into "Would you like to go to Mexico to co-direct a top-notch kayak movie?" Soon, Armstrong was working with some of the best in the business as the go-to freelancer for Forge.
With Moscow-based river gear company NRS and other corporate and public client-sponsors in place, Armstrong and Forge have created an impressive body of work, featuring some of the most interesting unsung heroes on the water today. Their stunning imagery plays over philosophical, first-person narrative, helping viewers relate to the athletes and the film in a way not seen in other adventure films.
"We're very particular about which stories we take on and how we tell those stories. We put a lot of constraints on our projects before we start shooting," Armstrong said. "We won't do any interviews on camera. We'll never have a subject look into the lens and answer questions. A lot of times, we'll sit down in an audio room and have a conversation for hours and really get to know each other. Then we'll use that dialogue to tell the character's story."
In the 2012 Of Souls and Water film series, Armstrong used five distinct characters to represent the spectrum of life on the river. The Mother, The Warrior, The Nomad, The Elder and The Shapeshifter showcase the deep connection between man and nature, while offering the viewer a cerebral perspective on recreation. The Shapeshifter won the Banff Mountain Film Festival audio scholarship.
In December 2012, Armstrong and Fogel co-directed Cascada, a brilliantly shot seven-minute film about boating in Mexico. Idaho boater-photographer Erik Boomer is featured in the film, hucking off waterfalls amid treacherous, incredible scenery and a relentless insect population. The film is as much a cultural experience as it is kayak flick, making it palatable for a broader audience. The film was finished and released on a limited basis in February.
Next up is more work for NRS in the same vein as Cascada and Of Souls and Water, some of which will be filmed in Idaho, as well as some commercial work around the Northwest.
"We'll be working together for years to come, I hope. We can read each other's minds at this point" said Fogel.