The Jones brothers have it all figured out. NOLS grads Steve and Todd work for themselves, ski and snowboard big mountains all over the world while hanging out with their friends — oh yeah, and they get paid for it.
“We were just doing our calling,” Todd says about starting Teton Gravity Research (TGR), an adventure sports production company based in Jackson, Wyoming. The brothers, along with Dirk Collins and Corey Gavitt have poured their love, passion, commitment — and most importantly, their finances — into their dream for over a decade.
In the Beginning, There Were Fish
Cinematographer, producer and director now grace their résumé, but the Jones’ started their film career on the other side of the camera skiing in movies. “There was a big scene going on that was not being captured,” Todd says, “so we set up to film what we thought was going on in the sport with the right people and the right vibe.” TGR started in a loft in Jackson with one 16mm camera, a company self-funded through commercial fishing money earned from a particularly successful summer in Alaska.
Since 1995, TGR has filmed, directed and produced 15 movies featuring jaw-dropping ski and snowboard runs down steep, narrow, untouched couloirs, carving wide turns through fresh powder, and launching off huge kickers, as well as between-the-scenes moments where the athletes’ camaraderie and personalities shine. “It’s our life and we live it every day, and we travel around the world and capture it,” Todd explains.
And indeed, they do. They spend most of their year filming with big-name skiing, snowboarding, kayaking and surfing athletes and release a highly-anticipated winter sport movie every fall. TGR’s high-adrenaline movies quickly found a niche in a largely unexplored field and have gained millions of fans as well as, most recently, the attention of big television companies looking for their unique action filming style.
Steve and Todd, 36 and 34 respectively, grew up in Cape Cod and skiing in Vermont. First Steve, then Todd, tasted life in the West with a NOLS Semester in the Rockies during college. The elder Jones took a Baja sea kayaking course before his semester. He wanted to learn more about outdoor education, but also to become self-sufficient to play in the mountains safely.
“More than giving me even the skills to be able to pursue some of the more intense athletic goals that I wanted to do,” the filmmaker says, “[NOLS] gave me a great, unbelievable awareness of the sensitivity of the environment and how to respect that and tread lightly.”
For Todd, his NOLS course sparked the wanderlust that has stuck with him since. And the skills he learned have had a direct application on his career. “A lot of what we do is being outdoors and on ropes and in extreme situations. The skills from NOLS have kept me comfortable and safe in the mountains.”
Despite their adventurous spirits, they take little chances in the backcountry. Because of the wild, faraway mountains they travel, TGR understands the inherent dangers of their chosen profession. Their strategy lies in planning; long trips allow for a bigger window for the right conditions. Part of their business is just waiting and being happy knowing that everyone comes home safe at the end of the day. “Patience is key,” Todd says. “A couple times a year you have magical days when everything is right. It’s right because you put in your time.”
Most importantly, though, they strive to convey a lifestyle, the lifestyle they have worked so hard to make sustainable for themselves and the athletes they film. “Now people make their profession as free skiers,” Todd points out. “I think we’ve had a huge influence on that.”
The far-off places that Steve used to read about when he was young have become a reality. “I love to be able to go and pick out cool places on the map and enjoy it with what we do,” he says. “We get to experience things in a different way because we go outdoors and establish a degree of intimacy with the mountains.”
While their storytelling has become more developed, their technology more advanced, their jumps a little higher, one thing will always remain the same about TGR movies: the vibe. Their films are about the folks pushing the limits of their sports and showing that to the wider world.“Hopefully, a TGR movie is something exciting and makes you want to go out and be in the mountains and ski,” Steve says.
He credits their success to the passion for skiing and the mountains that spawned the business, not capitalistic pursuits. “If we’re weathered out and it’s a shoot day, we ski with the athletes and we love it,” he says. “When we get off the heli or off the lift, we’re all in it together. Those are the best moments, and they’re pretty effortless.”
Todd speaks to the effect of a TGR film: “Whether you’re an owner, an athlete, the audience who watches it and gets inspired. Everyone it touches, it allows them to live a little closer to their dreams.”
The best part of it all? “Being on the mountain with my friends,” Todd says.