Meet Cinematographer Colin Witherill

What’s it like to work alongside Warren Miller Entertainment director and long-time cinematographer, Chris Patterson? Fellow cinematographer, Colin Witherill, shares some insight.

Since 2006, cinematographer Colin Witherill has traveled the globe to dozens of ski destinations – some well-known and others more exotic – as part of the Warren Miller Entertainment film crew. He’s cruised around the Antarctic Peninsula, camped near polar bears above the Arctic Circle in Svalbard and traveled to remote northwestern China via horse-drawn sleds. He shares his first-hand experience as an adventure filmmaker and some tips he’s picked up along the way.

Colin gets the shot in Switzerland. Photo by Peter Mathis.

Do you have an all-time favorite location? 
Antarctica is a tough one to beat. The scenery is spellbinding, the wildlife is fascinating, and we lived onboard a boat for the duration of the trip. 

What’s your most memorable shot(s) that have made it into the film?
There are a couple shots from a shoot I did in Switzerland that stand out to me, mostly due to the reaction of the crowd in the theatre. They were both aerial shots; one of the athletes skiing a long band of snow along a ridgeline with a dramatic background and the other was a simple scenic shot ascending up to the town of Murren, which is perched on the top of a several thousand-foot cliff. Hearing the oohs and aah’s accompanying these shots in the theater was fun, but people also said that seeing these shots made them want to go there and experience it for themselves.   

Shooting ski action can be grueling. How do you prepare physically for a WME shoot?
Shooting WM segments are definitely the most physically demanding jobs I do. Inevitably the first ski shoot of the year is a reminder of how out of shape you are! For me, I do a lot of trail running in mountainous terrain. I also try to do a fair amount of specific strength training, such as squats and lunges, to get the legs strong. Having good core strength is also a big plus. Carrying around a heavy backpack while you are skiing can really take a toll on your body if you are not ready for it. If you are physically exhausted while shooting, you tend to get lazy with your shot decisions, are less efficient moving around terrain and place yourself in greater risk of getting hurt.

When filming in the elements, what accessories do you always have in your pack?
Some sort of camera bag to keep snow, rain, or dust off your camera is always good to have along. They can be inhibiting to operate with, but not as inhibiting as having your camera stop working on you. Also, bring lots of lens cloths, especially if you are working in the snow. I have a shammy I bring along that is high absorbency. It’s not a good situation if you are trying to clear up a lens with your long underwear.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out with adventure filmmaking?
Whatever you are filming, make sure you have a good working knowledge of the terminology and the physical dynamics of the activity. Communication is hard enough when you are out in the elements, and if you don’t know how to describe what you are looking for, everyone gets frustrated. Knowing how a skier moves through terrain, or how a kayaker navigates a river, will allow you to set up for the shot in a way that is both visually interesting and possible for the athlete to execute. 

How many WME shoots have you worked with Chris Patterson?
Maybe 15-20

Where have you encountered the toughest shooting conditions?
The toughest shooting conditions I remember were on a shoot with Chris in Chile. They had a horrible snow year – it reminded me of the last days a mountain is open when there can be a lot of mud and dirt in the snow. It looked like springtime and not the winter wonderland we were supposed to be showing, so finding shots that worked was challenging.

How would you describe Chris Patterson's shooting style?
Chris is very efficient when shooting. He carries a relatively light pack, uses mostly a few prime lenses and tries not to lug around a tripod when possible. With this minimalist approach he manages to accomplish shots that you would think were done by a large crew with a lot of camera support. Chris is also very keen on finding a story and adding fun skits to his shoots. He always shows up with costumes or props to add intrigue or comic relief to a location. In the early morning, you regularly find him jotting down notes and sketching rough storyboards for scenes that we will shoot during the day.  

What tricks of the trade have you learned from working with Chris?
I would say building a story within a ski shoot is what I have learned most from him, and also his simplistic approach to shooting. You don’t need all the dates and greatest gear to get the shots you desire. More often than not, having too much gear will just slow you down.

What's the best advice Chris has given to you?
Do not record shots you don’t want to use. This may sound obvious, but often I find myself in positions where I know I have a great shot of a particular landscape or action and by recording another similar shot that is just mediocre, you have just made more work for yourself or an editor sifting through footage in post-production. Or worse, you are creating a scenario where the good shots get buried amongst several so-so shots and are never found. This certainly take a lot of discipline – many times you don’t know how a particular shot will turn out, but as you gain more experience this process becomes easier. 


Do you want to learn from Chris Patterson? Sign up for classes - taught by Chris - with the AIM U Adventure Film School.

Read other Warren Miller articles about filming tips and production ticks here