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BEST OF 2013, Mike Arzt
Denver, CO
Project: Still photography shoot in Iceland during a Warren Miller Entertainment ski movie.

© Mike Arzt

© Mike Arzt

Mike Arzt had a mind-blowing experience shooting stills for Spyder and Warren Miller Entertainment in Iceland. With two helicopters, three of the best female professional skiers in the world, and the full cooperation of Arctic Heli Skiing, Arzt admits that “it might sound easy, but it never works out that way.”

“We had been shut down by a blizzard for three days. The snow was variable and we were uncertain if any one window of opportunity would ultimately be our only day or ski run to shoot of the entire trip. Knowing that Mother Nature could shut things down at any moment increased the stakes, as every photographic choice was important,” says Arzt.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Mike Arzt: My business partner and I incorporated The Public Works in January 2006. The Public Works is a full-service project management firm that uses the arts of photography, videography and sculpture to create unmatched marketing deliverables for clients. Prior to that, I freelanced for a couple of years, and I previously worked in-house at Airwalk doing global snow marketing as well as creating the images and video.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

MA: Since 2006.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MA: That’s an interesting question. Part of me wants to say that we don’t specialize in a specific photographic genre. We specialize in being incredibly diverse and in exceeding our clients’ expectations. It may be very cliché to say, but we love to mix it up. I’m not sure if photos of a professional skier shot on the mountain using all studio gear would be considered fashion, lifestyle, action or a hybrid of all of these things. In the past month we photographed a yacht race for Veuve Clicquot champagne, motorcycle culture for Levi Strauss in India, skateboarders on an island off Seattle, and a fashion/product shoot in Colorado. This kind of diversity keeps us thinking and keeps us excited about what we do.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

MA: I’m not sure about equipment, but the most valuable things I can think of are the other people at The Public Works. Between my business partner, Frank Phillips, and our other photographers, filmmakers and creatives that work with us, I have the confidence that we can take on just about any project. We just had two of our biggest shoots of the year going on simultaneously, thousands of miles apart.

People are what matter. Gear just helps to capture the experience.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

MA: I guess it would be not only the diversity of what we photograph, but also what we do at The Public Works. We have an extraordinary range of photography, as well as capabilities in CAD engineering, industrial design, fabrication and more.

ASMP: How did you become involved in the Iceland project with Warren Miller Entertainment, and what kind of process did getting this assignment entail?

MA: For several years we’ve been on contract to do all the photography and video for Spyder, one of the largest manufactures of ski apparel in the world. This Warren Miller trip was featuring three Spyder-sponsored athletes. So, Spyder, Warren Miller and The Public Works collaborated on the project. As far as the contracting with Spyder goes, that was a result of years of working in the snow industry and working really hard to come up with a multimedia solution to fit their needs.

ASMP: What were the client’s expectations of you as part of this shoot and what made you the right person for the job?

MA: There’s a lot of time and investment — as well as athletes putting their necks on the line — that go into these destination ski trips. The expectations are always huge. The main goal on this type of shoot is amazing action photography. Still, it’s also expected that there will be lifestyle, scenics, behind-the-scenes and everything else that can be squeezed out of two weeks.

I’m not sure what makes for the best person for the job. Being able to survive the mountain, get the shot, live in tight quarters with several other humans, be easy-going while still pushing hard for results — but I’m sure I missed 20 other things.

ASMP: How did you prepare for the trip? Did the client provide or did you discuss a preliminary shot list in advance?

MA: We all knew the main goal was to get amazing ski footage for this 2013 Warren Miller movie, which will be out in the fall. But Warren Miller is not just action footage; it’s storytelling about the adventure of these girls doing Arctic Heli Skiing in Iceland. So, we talked about the ski shots, but also the lodge, the story of Arctic Heli skiing, the surrounding towns and scenery. All and all, we knew Mother Nature would be directing and that the plan could ultimately change at any moment once our feet were on the ground. So, the biggest part of our planning was to plan for the plan to change.

For example, one day, it was completely stormed in with no sign of clearing. We assumed we would be unable to film the skiers. So, we left the lodge and drove an hour and half and started filming in a fishing village. Then we got the call that the weather had cleared. Since we were prepared for anything, we had all of our ski gear. The helicopter flew to us, and we were up on the mountain filming skiing in less than an hour.

ASMP: What kind of skiing or snowboarding experience do you have, and how did that prepare you for this shoot?

MA: My life has been snowboarding and chasing snow. I started skiing at age three and snowboarding at 12. I started working at Burton Snowboards when I was 18 and did that for seven years. I’ve continued snowboarding since then. I guess that makes 27 years of snowboarding now. I started skiing again a couple of years ago, and it’s been a huge advantage to bounce back and forth. On this Iceland trip I took both skis and my board.

Being a strong rider helped me prepare for the shoot, but so too did having a solid understanding of mountains and the mountain environment, what makes for a beautiful ski image, as well as avalanche avoidance and rescue.

ASMP: Please describe the logistics of shooting while skiing. What kind of planning is required to be at the right place at the right time to get your shot?

MA: There are all sorts of different scenarios shooting skiing and snowboarding, from being right at a resort to distant helicopter-only access, such as with this trip. International travel is the first choke point. With winter clothing, skis and backcountry gear alone, you’re already heavy and expensive. So you really have to think about what gear to take. Along those same lines, you really need to consider how much gear can fit in the helicopter.

ASMP: Given the changeable nature of Icelandic weather and ski conditions, you only had three and a half days of ideal weather out of your two-week stay. Were you able to get all the shots needed for the project in that time? What did you do on the bad weather days?

MA: We really lucked out. The good days were amazing and LONG. We were often in the air before 9 a.m., and still out shooting beautiful sunset shots past 8 p.m. Throw in three amazing athletes, our own helicopter, and one of the best guides ever, and I believe we stacked up content on the mountain in the time Mother Nature gave us.

During our first couple of down days there was an insane blizzard. We were an hour up a valley in Iceland, so let’s just call it somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The road was closed, so we hiked around on our skis and befriended some Icelandic horses, which actually resulted in some of the most amazing photos of the trip.

On the days we couldn’t fly but made it out by van, we explored and filmed as much of the culture and countryside as we could, including small villages, waterfalls, beaches, riding a historic whaling boat, and one of our athlete-models surfing in the Arctic Ocean. We basically tried to see, film, and photograph as much of Iceland as we could.

ASMP: In addition to the weather, it sounds like you faced a few other challenges. Tell us about them. What caused you to be “the most scared” you’ve ever been on a snowboard?

MA: I’d rather sound all tough and fearless here, but I’ll go with the truth: One of the first runs of the trip was off a thin ridgeline and it looked like untouched beautiful powder. The three of us filming dropped in first. My vision was of a beautiful, soft, quiet turn. What it ended up being was three inches of powder on top of very solid and slick ice. The slope was steep but not super crazy. I think the guide said it was 38 degrees. I believe much of the fear came from it being one of the first runs of the trip, being on the one heel edge of the snowboard and looking down a narrow chute with rocks to the Arctic Ocean 3,000 feet below. I imagined that if I lost my edge, I was going for one long slide that might end in a swim. While that likely wouldn’t have been the case, it sure got me mentally.

After that first day, the snow got better and I switched to skis. So it was good to get that run out of the way early.

ASMP: What did you carry in your gear bag? Since you were working in extreme conditions, did you streamline the gear you carried?

MA: At a resort I tend to carry a larger camera bag. In this situation, I carried a smaller Burton camera bag. My general kit includes: a Nikon D4; 80-200mm, 35-70mm, 14-28mm and 16mm fisheye lenses; extra batteries; and a GoPro. Additional gear needed includes a shovel, snow probe, snacks, water, an extra down layer, extra goggle lens, sunglasses and sunscreen. On-body is an avalanche transceiver and a two-way radio. This is about as streamlined as I go on the mountain and it’s not too bad. My pack is probably 20 pounds.

For this trip I also kept a 200-400mm f/4 lens in the helicopter in its own bag. Having to carry that on a whole run definitely made things more challenging, but compared to the Warren Miller filmmakers, I had it easy.

ASMP: How did you transport your gear during the shoots? Did you work with photo assistants on the slopes or did you work alone?

MA: No assistants. The whole trip was determined by helicopter space. We had three athletes, one guide, two filmmakers, and me on stills. That made for two helicopter loads. Everyone carried his or her own stuff and had to be self-contained. But, if needed, we would all help each other. Often on such trips, athletes will carry gear, guides help, and so on — one team all in it together.

ASMP: Please describe a typical shoot day. Did you review and process images every day?

MA: Every day was different but they were all pretty long, and most of them resulted in piles of imagery. I like to stay on top of it all and also make sure I’m happy with the progress so I process almost every night. This also gives me the ability to share with the rest of the group and send samples back to the clients, which also fuels social media content.

I did post-production work on more than 1,100 images from this trip. I had shot that many images during past trips, but I’ve never had so many selects.

ASMP: During this shoot you had two catastrophic digital body failures, which was the first time this had happened to you. What happened?

MA: Considering the environments we work in, we’ve had relatively few issues with camera gear. And, when we have had issue, it’s usually been a lens or strobe kits.

On this trip, my Nikon D4, which was not even a year old, failed me at the top of a mountain. It started glitching, with aperture errors and botching exposures. I would shoot a series of images, say at f/11, and a couple throughout the sequence would be blown out because the camera did not stop the lens down, even though the metadata said it did.

I then grabbed my D700 and the next day in the midst of shooting a series of images the mirror return spring broke and it locked up. For the next couple of shots I had to turn on live-view to focus and do my best to aim and shoot. I decided shooting the D4 at a wide-open aperture was better and jumped back in the helicopter to get that camera. Luckily, it mostly worked the rest of the trip. I’d like to take this moment to comment on Nikon’s horrible customer service. They wanted me to pay $600 to repair the D4 because it was past the one-year purchase date by the time I got back from Iceland. Super weak and never an apology about their best camera failing. The next time, I’m going to take three camera bodies. Sorry to be negative here, but I feel it is my responsibility as a professional and consumer to call out Nikon’s horrible customer service at every opportunity.

ASMP: What did you do to keep (or get back to) shooting in these situations?

MA: Since I was in Iceland, I really feared my solution was going to be an entire day of driving to Reykjavik to buy a new $6,000 D4 for $10,000. But it worked out.

ASMP: For one shot you considered taking a lens out of action to prevent it from getting iced and soaked, but decided to keep shooting. How did that work out?

MA: Our first mountain landing of the trip blew my mind. I seriously just wanted to stand there and soak it all in. But then you remember there are rotor blades spinning and the helicopter is about to take off. There was ocean off to both sides of the ridge, the skies were bluebird, and the whole crew was just amping to make turns and had giant smiles.

I had my 14-24mm on my camera since I shot photos flying into the ridge. I really wanted to shoot the helicopter dropping over the ridge but I also knew the rotor wash might completely cake that giant piece of round glass and take it out of the game for the rest of the day. I decided to go for it and Snorri, the pilot, lifted and just pointed the nose of the chopper straight at the ocean. The resulting photo is the one that got me into the Best of ASMP top 20. Luckily, the weather and the lens were cold enough that all the snow came off easily.

ASMP: How did you coordinate with the film crew? Were you shooting stills of the same subjects simultaneous with the film crew or were you shooting before or after they had finished?

MA: We worked at the same time. I like the challenge of working around them. Their job is harder, since they need to capture many seconds of perfect action rather than a fraction of a second. Chris Patterson was the lead filmmaker and he is a legend and an honor to work around. I also figured he would use the business end of his tripod on my head if I wrecked one of his shots. I told him the goal of my trip was to never have him ask me to move or say I had entered his shot. I’m pretty sure I pulled that off.

Working with Chris and Josh Haskins as a crew is really what made the shoot a success though. They are super pros. And, we all wanted to get the best possible shots of the athletes, both on the screen and in print.

In certain situations, my shooting of digital stills also gave Chris and Josh a chance to review the images, which helped them make filming decisions. When we did aerial work, Chris would harness in and sit on the floor of the helicopter, shooting out the door, and I could harness in and sit sideways in the rear seat facing out. This resulted in a pile of great content.

ASMP: Please describe meetings or discussions you had with the film crew to coordinate shoot logistics, both prior to and during the trip.

MA: I wouldn’t call it meetings as much as constant communication and brainstorming. We always had a plan for bad weather, medium weather and good weather.

There was also scouting from the helicopter to look for great ski runs, and we had to consider the time of day at which the locations would ski and look best.

ASMP: How long did it take to edit and deliver the images?

MA: I had selections, postproduction work, labeling and export of JPEGS done by the time I made it back to the United States. I really love to turn things around very fast. Plus, it’s always nicer to send images followed by invoices and not the other way around.

My workflow is mostly in Lightroom. I mark every photo I like during my first pass. As I start to do postproduction work on these images, I increase the ranking for the ones that really stand out to me and I work on those even further.

I had over 1,100 selects at the end of this trip with more than 150 that I marked as five-star. This is a much higher hit rate than I would generally expect out of a backcountry ski shoot. Iceland rocks! Arctic Heli Skiing made it possible.

ASMP: Your images are being used commercially by Warren Miller Entertainment (WME), Spyder, Active Apparel, Arctic Heli Skiing, Iceland Tourism, Nordflug Helicopters and “potential other media outlets.” Besides WME, what kinds of arrangements were made for the commercial use of your images? Was this all part of one deal, or were terms negotiated and licensed separately?

MA: Our contract with Spyder covers usage rights. Another agreement was done with Warren Miller Entertainment, which also covers their Web site and print publications. I made sure I worked with both of them to have first picks. Arctic Heli Skiing was so awesome to us that I could not be happier with them using images in their materials (plus I want to go back — hint, hint). Iceland tourism helped us out and got to pick some images in exchange. I may have given the farm away here a bit, but I got into this for the ride, not the paycheck.

Those were the initial commitments. Now I can pursue non-competitive media outlets and commercial usage. I just sold an action photo to one of the athlete’s sponsors today for poster and Web use.

ASMP: In retrospect, what would you have done differently? What aspects of this shoot worked really well?

MA: I can’t think of much I would have done differently for the shoot. A second D4 body would have been nice, but there’s the reality of business and budgets.

On a personal level, I would have loved to add on more days at the end of the trip so that I could have explored more. I only added on two days on this trip; I drove from one side of the country to the other and then back again along the south coast. I needed to get home as I have an amazing wife and two kids at home and this trip was already a long one. I saw enough to know it will be my goal in life to take them all back to Iceland.

ASMP: What impact did this Iceland shoot have on your business? Do you anticipate any specific benefits from this project going forward?

MA: That’s real tough to say. I believe it was an amazing example of the diversity and beauty of the imagery The Public Works is capable of producing. I hope Warren Miller liked my addition to the mix and that I get invited on more shoots. Ideally, we’ll sell more imagery and continue to see it get pushed out to the masses. I’d love to see my Icelandic horse images in a gallery. It’s just real hard to say. Every positive step is a step in the right direction.

ASMP: You’ve traveled extensively but say that this shoot in Iceland really blew your mind. Is there anywhere else you haven’t been that you dream of photographing?

MA: There are probably more places than I could name. I like being surprised. I’d never even considered going to the upper peninsula of Michigan, but then I shot the sailing event, Race to Mackinac for Veuve Clicquot Champagne, and could not believe how beautiful it was. Two months ago, I would never have considered India, and I just returned from a two-week trip shooting for Levi Strauss. My experience in India was life changing, and the photographic inspiration and opportunities were endless. I could not be more thankful that I was able to photograph Iceland and India in the same year, as I can’t think of a combination that’s a bigger polar opposite. After working my whole life in the snow industry and being lucky to ride mountains all over the world, though, I guess I tend to dream about the warm places, such as Fiji and Vietnam.

ASMP: In addition to photography of skiing, snowboarding and adventure subjects, you also shoot fashion. Do you have a favorite subject area to photograph?

MA: I love the diversity of subjects and shooting situations. Maybe it would be better for business to just put the blinders on and focus, but I sure hope we don’t need to do that. In the past month we’ve photographed yachts, people drinking champagne, the best skateboarders and BMX riders in the world, culture in India and the Khadi process of making products from cotton, and then straight into a high fashion shoot in a museum. I love that every single photo needs to express the right story and visual language, and that it’s our job to shape light and utilize the tools to capture it.

ASMP: Tell us a little about your company, The Public Works, its history and your role in the business.

MA: I’m not sure this is a quick or easy answer. My partner Frank Phillips and I had a dream to come up with a company that not only understood products and product design, but also brands and ways to tell brand stories. The Public Works came out of that dream, but it’s really been the amazing companies with whom we’ve gotten to partner that have pushed so much of the business we’ve become today. We operate with a small crew of about 12 people, but within our facility we can do CAD engineering, fabricate a piece of material, weld, do fine carpentry, take it to the studio and photograph or film it and then help come up with brand strategy to convey that story to consumers.

We’ve also launched a furniture brand called Supple and an event series called The Business of Fun.

ASMP: In addition to providing photography services, The Public Works also has a fully equipped fabrication and manufacturing shop on premises and you also provide design, product development and branding services. How often are these types of services included in your photography projects?

MA: It’s truly a dream job when we get to involve all services. It’s probably the minority of projects, but often photography opens doors to fabrication with the client or vice versa. One great example was the first project we worked on with Veuve Clicquot Champagne. We designed and fabricated a mobile champagne bar that was put on Aspen Mountain and moved weekly by Snowcat. We also bid on and won the contract to do all photo and video surrounding the “Champagne Oasis.” Since then, Veuve has become a great client with several other multimedia and fabrication projects.

ASMP: Can you give us any sense of the relative profit margins for the different types of services you provide?

MA: It really varies job-to-job. Custom fabrication is often the most challenging in terms of a decent margin, as it’s very complicated, high-end work and often one-off, but we also know these jobs are often the door opener for more work. I don’t know how many times my business partner and I have started to talk about which areas of the business we want to focus on, then we talk about not wanting to let any of the areas go that we find fun and inspiring, and it always ends with us deciding not to eliminate anything. I don’t know if I will be shooting photos, welding or doing accounting tomorrow and that’s exactly how I like it.

ASMP: You are a co-founder and co-owner in a building called Battery621, which is described as a creative incubator. This houses a number of other tenants, including snow sports retailers, media and marketing companies, and creative and event-staffing agencies. How long did it take from first starting out in business to achieve this goal of sharing a headquarters with other like-minded professionals? Do you have any business advice for other young creatives in things to strive for (and more important, perhaps, things to avoid) in assembling this type of dynamic creative environment?

MA: For more than a decade, my business partner and I have dreamed of a place that would not only house our business but also surround us with other creative companies and be able to accommodate and host events. We named our company The Public Works because we believed that the more we were around people, the stronger our creativity would grow: The public works.

Battery621 has exceeded our dreams. There are 16 other companies that inspire us daily, plus all the people they bring through. We have huge events with more than 1,000 people in attendance. In 2012, we won a Colorado-wide award for Best Workspace. To top it off, about a month ago we finished construction on a 3,000-square foot roof deck. Now it’s really party time.

As far as advice, I think if it doesn’t scare you a bit you’re probably not challenging yourself enough. When we were getting close to buying the building I was completely freaking out. My wife says to me, “Please just buy that building and stop talking about it. Just don’t lose our house.” I let her know if things went south we probably would lose the house. Her reply, “We’ll get an apartment then.” I am glad she is not as much of a stress-case as I am.

ASMP: Have you always been based in Denver, Colorado? You obviously enjoy it there and are well ensconced based on the description of your headquarters above. Please talk about the challenges and opportunities to working in this particular market for photography and other creative projects.

MA: I grew up in Connecticut and then moved to Vermont for several years. I can still remember the first time I went out west. I was 12 and my dad took me to Colorado to ski. I can remember driving up I-70 and staring up at the mountains like it was yesterday. I still feel like that 12-year old kid on that drive, but now it’s out my back door. I think ending up in Colorado was always there in my head, but it was nice to experience Vermont, Oregon and California on the path to settling here.

I knew Colorado would be great for recreation and family and that there would be more opportunity than in Vermont, but it’s really surprised me how great it is for business. There’s a lot more going on in Colorado than people realize. Great companies are moving here, and there is so much entrepreneurial energy that new ones are popping up every day. Plus, brands like to come here to get “work” done.

Traveling from Denver is also great. It has a big airport with tons of flights, and being in the middle of the country makes everything easier. Colorado is the healthiest state in the union, with more than 300 days of sun per year. I’m starting to sound like Colorado tourism.

One of the best things, and the last thing I ever expected, was massive support from the city of Denver and state of Colorado. So many people from various government agencies have been through our building, including the mayor and the governor, which gave me complete confidence that they are doing all they can to make Colorado the best place to live and do business.

ASMP: What projects are you currently working on or have planned for the future? Do you have any particular aspirations for the next five years?

MA: I might get stressed if I look at all we’ve got in the mix right now. We’re trying to wrap up two weeks of shooting with Spyder in Colorado and Levi’s in India at the same time. There are a couple of fabrication projects with small breweries in Colorado and we’re planning a huge Business of Fun event at Battery621 tied to the Great American Beer festival, where we’ll be having a panel discussion with some of the biggest players in craft brewing, as well as more than 100 beers being sampled. Then add in all this: some Lululemon Athletica custom in-store pieces being designed and built; an in-store build-out for Spyder; a couple of projects for Winter Park and Aspen resorts; a redesign and build out of Otterbox’s RV for mobile branding activations; a custom bar for Red Bull that will be going to Texas; and a final edit of The Skatelite Retreat skate and BMX event. Next week, we’re also shooting a music video in the Denver foothills, followed by a photo shoot in Aspen and helping produce an event at Battery621 for CMH, the world’s largest heli ski operation. Then, we head to San Francisco for more Levi’s work.

My aspirations for the next five years? Continue to have fun, improve our business so we can continue to do better for those who work for us, expand our social outreach and community involvement but most of all, try to work a bit less so I can spend more time with my family.