Owning an expensive camera doesn’t make you a filmer, just as buying a fancy knife doesn’t make you chef. Each is just a tool, and to lay claim to either title you have to learn to use them.
Matt Cook knows this—he is one of a few who can call themselves both filmer and chef, though the latter is more of a nom de plume. Cook goes by @skichef in the social media realm, a pen name that, as he puts it, “came from me loving to ski and my last name being Cook, but I liked Ski Chef more than Ski Cook. I created it when I used to play Halo 3 online, as my gamer tag. A lot of ‘n00bs’ got ‘pwned’ by Ski Chef back in the day.”
These days Cook is a full-time follow cam filmer. You’ve probably already sampled his creations. He’s the dude following some of the world’s best skiers off jumps, over cliffs and down critical lines. All the while, he’s filming them with a level of commitment, skill and precision rarely matched.
Noobs take note: Ski Chef is here to enlighten us all on learning the tools of the GoPro trade, following the best skiers in the world and demonstrating how to lay claim to the coveted “professional filmer” title.
The Ski Journal: Let’s hear your origin story. Where are you from? And when and where did you start skiing?
Matt Cook: I grew up in Lake Tahoe, CA, Truckee specifically, and have been skiing my whole life. I joined a freestyle team when I was 8 years old at Alpine Meadows and was on that team until I was 16, traveling and competing in moguls, halfpipe, and slopestyle. I really wanted to become a professional skier, but when senior year of high school rolled around and I still wasn’t performing well in competitions I basically abandoned those goals and decided to move to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California.
TSKJ: And how did you get to where you are today, following some of the world’s best skiers into all kinds of terrain?
MC: One of the reasons I chose USC was because they had a ski and snowboard club. When I Googled the club, these videos on YouTube popped up of the team riding in Mammoth, and they were all filmed with this camera I had never heard of called a GoPro. The edits were cool, and there were clearly people at USC who knew how to ski, so I pulled the trigger and headed south.
When I got to USC, I immediately joined the team and became friends with the guy who was making all these GoPro edits, Abe Kislevitz. Abe was doing such good work that Nick Woodman, the creator and CEO of GoPro, hired him immediately out of college to join his little camera company in Half Moon Bay. I think Abe was employee number 20 or something. I was still in school at this point but GoPro, at Abe’s recommendation, ended up contracting me to help shoot at their first Winter X Games in Aspen in 2011, and that’s when I really started follow-camming.
Fast forward to 2013, when I graduated USC. I moved to San Francisco and started living out of my Volvo and on couches, and bugging GoPro to hire me. Eventually they did; to file legal paperwork in their media department. After a little less than two years, I became a production artist for the snow team and started going on shoots.
TSKJ: I remember a certain Travis Rice follow cam that went viral a couple of winters back. Tell me what it’s like to film Travis.
MC: My first backcountry shoot was in April of 2015. GoPro held an “Athlete Camp” with CMH Heli Skiing at Galena Lodge in British Columbia. This was also right around the time the first GoPro handheld gimbals were coming out, and the GoPro production kit had a couple with them.
Travis Rice was also attending the camp and on day one, I strapped one of these gimbals to a monopod and asked if I could follow him as he hit a feature. It was my first run using a gimbal, backcountry or not, and I followed Travis as he stomps this insane 540 off a cornice. That night Travis posted the shot online and it got a pretty large number of views, almost a million overnight, and a bunch of people thought it was shot with a drone—unofficialnetworks.com put it up with the headline “Travis Rice Releases Next-Level Drone Footage,” which we all thought was very funny. After that I was sold on the gimbal, and I dedicated the rest of the camp to learning to shoot with it. I got a bunch of cool shots that ended up being in the GoPro Travis Rice TV commercial.
Also among the amazing athletes was Chris Benchetler, and that’s where we first met. Benchetler’s skis ended up showing up a few days late, but I was finally able to film him on the last day as we hit this amazing windlip and a couple other cool features. Benchetler was really stoked on the shots, and afterwards we stayed in touch. That summer Benchetler offered to hire me as his personal filmer for the upcoming season, so I quit GoPro in November of 2015. After about seven years of not living in the mountains, was finally able to move back home.
TSKJ: How’d you end up tagging along with him for the last two winters?
MC: I was unbelievably excited to focus on filming, and really nervous about doing backcountry follow cams professionally because I was still very inexperienced in the backcountry. Also, Chris was a personal hero of mine, and I was intimidated that a true professional was going to be relying on me, and me alone, to shoot him.
In January, I moved into Chris’s house in Mammoth, and we began working on a series we sold to GoPro called “Chasing El Niño.” The premise was to shoot the entire thing with follow cams or POV, and not use any static shots. The series was a success, and I could hone my follow cam skills because I was doing it all day, every day.
Last summer Chris came up with the idea for the series we’re currently shooting, tentatively called #ChasingAdVANture, and built out this incredible Sprinter van, “The Stealthy Marmot,” with his contractor buddy and insane snowmobiler Scott Smith. The premise of the series is that Chris drives from California to Alaska in the van, surfing, skiing, and rock climbing along the way with professionals in each sport.
It has been a blast to shoot; we got to meet up and surf with Rob Machado in San Diego, who shaped Chris a surfboard for the trip. In general, we’ve met up with a huge number of incredible athletes along the way. I’m excited to put it all together this summer.
TSKJ: How is it sharing a van with Chris? Does he snore?
MC: Sharing a van with Chris is great. We definitely have some living space differences, and I piss Chris off with my stuff lying around all the time, but overall, it’s been an awesome trip. The van is perfectly built for both living in general, and for dealing with all the necessities of gear management. I’ve even got a mini edit bay/gear room in the back, where I’ve got all my stuff charging and can work while Chris does the driving. We cook up these delicious meals given to us by Evol foods, which has been another perk.
I haven’t spent a ton of nights in the van, because we’re often bouncing around to friends’ houses and I crash in guest beds, but when I do sleep in there I believe I do all the snoring.
TSKJ: “Right place, right time” has been a common theme for you along the way. Do you think that’s true?
MC: I definitely attribute a ton of my success to being in the right place at the right time, but most importantly meeting the right people. Without Abe and the ski team videos I might not have made the decision to attend USC, and he was also instrumental in getting me contracted as a filmer for GoPro while I was in school. After school, he also helped me bag my full-time position as a production artist.
Meeting Chris, right when I was discovering the magic of the gimbal, was incredibly lucky—and not to mention that those first shots even worked at all. I missed so many shots last year while filming Chris, but if all those shots in Galena ended up crappy I certainly would not be where I am now.
TSKJ: And tell me about your set up. What are you filming with? What accessories do you use to make your follow cams so buttery smooth? Or is that all just operator expertise?MC: I filmed the entirety of “Chasing El Niño” with a GoPro Hero4 on a FeiyuTech WG that I screwed onto the end of a monopod. I’ve filmed this whole season with the GoPro Hero5 on the Karma Grip, and I’ve put the grip on a bunch of different poles trying to find the perfect one. My current setup is my favorite so far: it’s an extending carbon fiber boom pole (it turns out boom poles are way cheaper than monopods) which can extend up to 10 feet. Then I attach the Karma Grip with a GoPro handlebar/seatpost/pole mount.But way more important than the setup is how you handle the gimbal. My two tips for buttery-smooth follows are to always use a gimbal in tilt-lock mode, and try very hard not to pan. Panning looks unnatural and crappy with a gimbal. It’s better to have the subject moving around the frame than to move the frame left and right trying to keep them centered.
TSKJ: Good to know. So where are you guys at right now? Where are you headed? And what’s in store for the summer months?
MC: This summer I’ll be editing the footage from this winter, and bouncing around California rock climbing and riding motorcycles with my girlfriend.
TSKJ: Seems like you’ve got a dream job, but there’s got to be some down sides. Got any gripes about the gig?MC: Being wet and not seeing the sun for a month straight isn’t that fun (thanks for that, Canada). Snowmobiling over washboard-whoops for 20 miles sucks too. And, while I love taking dap after lap in the backcountry while shooting follow cams, sometimes I wish I was posted up with a long lens and a fat sandwich.
TSKJ: What’s your best advice for anyone trying to emulate you and your follow cam abilities?MC: First learn how to use your camera, because there are certain modes that make follow cams much easier, like 1440 60fps. No one knows the GoPro better than Abe Kislevitz. Check out his website to learn everything you’ll need to know (abekislevtiz.com). Think very hard about where to set the tilt before you drop in—it’s the most important part of any gimbal shot. If you’re unsure where to set the tilt, just go with the same pitch as the slope for the classic follow cam, and slightly higher if you’re going for the side-by-side shot. If you’re trying for the lead cam, tilt it slightly up. These are general rules, but no two follow cams are ever exactly the same. Most importantly, practice practice practice! I’m still learning how to use mine properly, and it’s been my job for two years now. If anyone has specific questions about shooting with a gimbal, feel free to message me on Instagram. I answer all questions.
TSKJ: And where can people see more of your work?
MC: People should watch “Chasing El Niño” to see more of my work, and keep your eyes peeled next fall for #ChasingAdVANture.