This story originally appeared in the January 2013 (Volume 41, Issue 5) issue of POWDER.
WHEN MICHAEL CLARKE skis, he looks like a Ghostbuster. With a battery pack strapped to his back, a huge stabilizing bar curved over his head, and a camera out in front of him, he trails athletes, aiming to get the shot.
It’s a new look for Clarke. For five years, he was the one being followed with the camera pointed at him. He threw the first dub cork 12 tail in competition at the Nippon Open and got nods on Newschoolers for his ability to stomp anything smoothly. But now, he spends more time in front of his computer editing video than he does on skis. At 23, he’s making it as a cinematographer in a way that few skiers have. Unlike Mike Douglas or Clarke’s high school classmate Nick Martini, who both ski and act as cinematographers professionally, he’s broken out entirely of the professional ski world.
Today, the New York native shoots Tom Brady commercials, has gigs with Neiman Marcus, FedEx and Best Buy, and calls Manhattan home. He says that skiing got him where he is, and that he wouldn’t care about filmmaking if it wasn’t for ski movies. But he’s pulling away from the ski world that shaped him, and that development is beginning to make a serious mark.
CLARKE, who grew up down the street from Lake Placid, New York’s Winter Olympic Training Center’s water ramps, advanced easily through the ranks of professional skiing. He caught Peter Olenick’s eye at Whistler’s High North Ski Camp and made the Salomon Freeski Team when he was 15. He spent two years at New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley Academy at the same time as Colby West, Dylan Ferguson, and L.J. Strenio. Like any YouTube-raised kid, he made movies of his high school friends skiing, but his were polished.
“In high school he made ‘Me Gusta,’ which is still one of the best edits I’ve seen,” says Waterville coach Dan Shuffleton.
In 2006, his senior year, he beat out Ahmet Dadali and Mike Riddle to win Level 1’s Superunknown contest. Soon enough, the East Coaster moved west to attend film school at C.U. Boulder and, of course, ski. And then he started standing on podiums, like at the 2008 U.S. Open Big Air, where he finished third. And then he started getting injured.
Early on an April morning in 2008 at the now-defunct and somewhat satirical Orage Masters in Whistler, wearing tights and a cape, Clarke overshot the landing of a jump. He was lying on his cracked spine, strapped to a stretcher, when he began to realize he wasn’t going to be a pro skier forever. “It took away some of my desire to really progress,” he says. “I was one of the first people to do a double in a slope contest, but then I broke my back in a Batman costume.”
He had filmed with Level 1 for a few seasons, scoring segments in Turbo, Realtime, and Long Story Short. Level 1 founder Josh Berman, who knew he was majoring in film, started to let him edit bonus features.
The same thing happened with his sponsors: When Clarke got sidelined by injuries—Berman calls one season a comedy of errors—he filled in as a shooter. And soon enough, he impressed.
Jiberish, who signed him as an athlete when he won Superunknown, hired him to shoot their lookbooks. Mike Douglas took him to New Zealand to shoot an episode of Salomon Freeski TV. In 2009, he signed a contract with Under Armour, then promptly blew his ACL. “I made a deal with them,” he says. “I asked, ‘Will you guys fulfill my contract if I shoot video?’”
They agreed. “I had him come to X Games for his first tryout,” says Under Armour Team Manager Scott Hibbert. “It was pretty obvious that he had a good eye for it. It’s similar to when I see an athlete when they’re 15 or 16; you can see their potential.”
That year at Winter X Games, Bobby Brown won Slopestyle and Big Air. Clarke was on hand to film, and the footage he shot made the rounds at Under Armour. He got a call from Brian Boring, the company’s art director, inviting him to shoot NBA point guard Brandon Jennings in California. The ball started rolling. Next, he got a call asking him to bring a RED camera to a series of shoots with Brown and Tom Brady. He’d never shot with the RED before, but he said yes. “It was a crazy camera I had no business using,” he says. “But it was fun.”
At the same time, he was trying to reconcile skiing with filming. In 2010, he went to Sweden for the Jon Olsson Super Sessions as a filmmaker for Team Canada, because, he says, no one else would take him. He’d been invited to the event before as a skier, but that year behind the camera, his team won. Winning as a filmmaker felt like a sign. “That was his breakthrough moment,” says Level 1 cinematographer Kyle Decker.
Three classes away from graduating, the burgeoning filmer encountered a fork in the life road. “It was time to go back to Boulder and finish those electives, but I thought, ‘I kinda have a job already.’ It was the first time I was really focused on making videos instead of skiing,” he says. “I don’t want to say that skiing got in my way, but it was good to separate them.”
WHEN HE SUBMITTED his Superunknown video that eventually won top honors, the edit was pixelated and goofy, but his skiing was graceful and easy. That technique transfers from skiing to shooting, and Clarke says he’s been able to capitalize on his smoothness. “I’ve developed a style that brings in a lot of movement,” he says.
That works off the hill, too. Blame (or credit) the Lake Placid upbringing, but before he was a skier, Clarke was a figure skater and now plays that to his advantage. “I was getting really great shots skiing behind people,” he says. “And I thought, ‘How can I do that when I’m not on skis?’”
Putting that question into motion, he shoots Jiberish’s skateboard videos while following them on inline skates. His latest project was shooting road bikers for Giro, running the follow cam on his ’blades. “Yesterday I bought some new wheels,” he says. “I was really sheepish. It’s embarrassing buying rollerblade parts.”
These days, Clarke seems to spend more time on skates than skis. Yet he sounds wistful when he talks about skiing. Since he only took three ski trips last winter, the Manhattan resident hardly calls himself a weekend warrior now. “When you move on, things definitely change,” he says.
“He’s moved into a new realm,” says Henrik Lampert, Freeskier’s online editor, who was part of the “Me Gusta” team and Clarke’s roommate in Boulder. “I was in New York recently and I barely saw him because he was editing the whole time.”
This is the reality of evolving from one trade to the next and trying to run a business at 23. Spread thin, learning to prioritize, Clarke says he’ll always be connected to skiing, but that it’s feeling further and further away.
“I buy every ski movie now,” he says. “I’ll probably know everyone in them, but I’m on the outside.” A position that allows for not so much a brighter perspective, but one that looks much different.
For more of Michael Clarke’s work, check out his portfolio at ClarkeVisuals.com.