Filmmaker captures spirit of snow carving

Highlands Ranch documentary maker talks about first film

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With a soft accent, the artist explains how his works-in-progress speak to him and guide the tools that carve the final product: a towering snow sculpture.

For Pablo Elías Lopez, practice begins not with massive blocks of compacted snow but rather with sand. He is from Mexico, where it doesn’t snow too often. The team’s exact precision is difficult to fathom: its members use rough sketches as a blueprint and cans of spray paint to mark where they cut. Other teams use intricate designs and specialized equipment to bring their piece to life.

That sequence is just a snippet of Highlands Ranch filmmaker Peter McGuire’s newly released documentary “Snow Carvers,” which follows a handful of dedicated teams as they compete for a gold medal at the 2011 Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships. The 70-minute film captures the four days of mayhem that have unpaid team members enduring freezing temperatures, long hours and, occasionally, a structural collapse before judging begins.

McGuire, 56, made the decision more than four years ago to pursue a career quite different from the one that helped him become financially secure enough to chase his dream. He sold his software company and enrolled in film school, finishing in May 2011.

“I want to tell stories about people and events that people don’t know anything about,” McGuire said. To the best of his knowledge, “Snow Carvers” is the first full-length documentary made on the subject.

He was partly inspired after watching a documentary called “King of Kong,” which follows a recently laid-off engineer as he attempts to beat the all-time high score for the “Donkey Kong” arcade game. His nemesis is the reigning champion who does everything he can to thwart the man’s bid for glory.

McGuire’s first foray into documentary filmmaking was well received. “Cranked,” his snapshot of a Colorado high school robotics competition, was his final project before graduating film school and earned him a top honor this year. The married father of three adult children was previously known for turning family vacation videos into a big production by using editing software to add music and make cuts where necessary.

Having attended the Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships in year’s past and seen the final elaborate creations of teams from Germany, Australia and Canada, McGuire made the decision to record the painstaking process of making the sculptures. Weather conditions, especially warmer temperatures, and fatigue play a big factor, highlighting the dedication it takes to excel at such a craft.

McGuire met a cast of characters that made “Snow Carvers” what it is. The team from Vermont, for example, was an easy going bunch that likes to joke around. Conversely, a few European teams were extremely serious about the art and did not take any aspect of the competition lightly. Team Mexico, despite the appearance of being unprepared for that level of competition, ended up winning the whole thing.

“Each team has its own personality,” said McGuire, a Highlands Ranch resident since 1991.

“Snow Carvers” was submitted to the Boulder International Film Festival and the Vail International Film Festival, but McGuire has yet to hear back on whether it has been accepted. He is hoping to pique the interest of a film distributor. Regardless, the first few members of his fan base are the most important.

“I’m surprised that my kids loved it,” he said, adding they probably thought he was crazy for leaving a lucrative career for one that’s fiercely competitive.

The 2012 competition in Breckenridge gets underway Jan. 24, with public viewing of the sculptures running Jan. 29-Feb. 5. The Town of Breckenridge is selling the “Snow Carvers” DVD at its welcome center, and McGuire is in the process of working with Amazon to make the documentary available to the public.

A showing of “Snow Carvers” coincides with the championships. It’s playing Jan. 28 and Feb. 1 at the Speakeasy Theater in Breckenridge. McGuire admits he is a bit nervous for the premiere, but is confident that the images and testimony he caught on camera truly show the passionate culture that surrounds a unique and evolving event.

For more information, visit www.snowcarvers.com.

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