Isenseven The Full Story

Strauss and Smolla In Japan
Photo: Robert Wunsch

Starting out, Isenseven was a crew from Isen, Germany that decided to document their winters. Each year their movies were a cinematic improvement of the last, the riders list got stronger and the filming locations grew ever further away. Isenseven quickly snowballed into becoming one of the major players in the snowboard video production world, with probably the most passionate fanbases ever. On one tour stop in Munich, 2000 people turned up to watch the premiere of A Way We go, a figure most video companies would be happy with for an entire tour.  In 2013 Isenseven announced that after their last release “A Way We Go” the crew would be taking a creative hiatus, one that is still in place today. We wanted to find out how the Isenseven grew to be so popular, what do they think of the current status of snowboard videos and if there are plans for Isenseven to return. We spoke to chief in command Alex Schiller to find out more.

What do you think of the current state of snowboarding films?
After I quit Isenseven I tried to stay on top of the newest snowboard videos being released. But if you’re not invested in it, you quickly lose track. I wasn’t surrounded by snowboarders 24/7 anymore and my life stopped to revolve around it. The only full-length film I’ve seen in the last four years was “The Fourth Phase”, “Union: Stronger” and something from Videograss (which I all liked). After that I kind of phased out. Stuff started to become quite replaceable. The feeling of a crew being on the road for a year wasn’t there anymore.

So I’m probably not the right person to judge over the current state of snowboarding films. What I can say, is that it seems like the “Internet Full Part” of a rider has become quite a focus. A rider doesn’t need a whole production anymore. He just needs one or two filmers, some homies to ride with him and then after a year, one of the big websites will premiere his/her part online exclusively before it hits Youtube.

Thank god I still hang out with Alex Tank a lot otherwise I would have no idea what’s going on. And I see the stuff he’s doing. His Atagge clips are these cool artistic short doc style films. Longer than just one part but not an entire one hour movie. I feel that. That’s something I could get excited to do.

I guess the DVD is dead. Fair enough. It still has its justification as a collectors item or if a book is included. Instagram are just little bites of whatever. I love watching Benny Urban’s Instagram stories when he and Wagner, Rittig and Swoboda are cruising. But it doesn’t get me excited for a film at the beginning of each season.

I guess the kids out there want to see as much as possible, right away and as short as possible due to short attention spans. And as soon as the next story is posted, they forgot about what they just saw before.

God, I sound old, haha.

How has instagram/ facebook/ youtube changed snowboarding videos?
I think that Instagram pushes mostly the individual. Everybody can be a star now and quickly get tens of thousands of followers. Why would you need a film production behind you where you have to “compete” against 15 other riders for the best part, filmer time, the best trips etc. when you can just do everything yourself and keep the focus 100% on YOU. Obviously, there are still crews doing their thing. Alex [Tank] with Atagge, the RK1 guys from Norway, Yawgoons and so on. But back when Isenseven started, you could just cause more effect as a crew than as an individual. Especially if you weren’t a top level rider. I don’t think there was anybody that didn’t have a crew in the early 00’s and people would talk about “the crew” even though most of them sucked. You only needed two good riders to push the entire crew. Everything else came naturally.

I think social media killed the real snowboard crew, not necessarily the snowboard video itself. I don’t think it impacted us directly. Yet. What it DID do was start to render full length films obsolete and it killed the hype of waiting a year for a new film. If we had continued, it would have been our downfall if we hadn’t jumped on the Insta train.

Do you think that Isenseven could have continued if it was around when social media really kicked off?
The core idea of Isenseven is not made for social media. It can be an add-on to the main project but the focus is always the crew and the annual film (and its premiere tour). Isenseven was a youth movement founded on the basis of storytelling, characters and fun. Snowboarding was the tool to transport our story. Instagram fame has nothing to do with this concept. Our “likes” and “followers” were the people that joined us every year for the premieres and the people we met on our trips. It was the only chance for them to meet us in person. We weren’t present on the internet 24/7 sharing every moment we experienced. Now nobody has the need to experience their idols in real life because Instagram documents their entire life for them.

I hear that video premieres are getting smaller and smaller audiences, the hype is passing. I don’t know if Isenseven is something so special that we would be an exception and if thousands of fans would still flock to our premieres today. Maybe it would have declined just as much for us as well.

ISENSEVEN “MAYHEM” – The Fool’s Gold Tour Movie from Isenseven on Vimeo.

How did the decision come to stop making the Isenseven films? Was it a personal conflict VS business decision?
It was probably one of the biggest decisions I ever had to make. Isenseven was my baby and it had followed me through my entire grown up life. I never had any other job other than being one of the guys behind Isenseven. I came straight from high school and Vincent [Urban] and I made it our full time job. It had been my main priority for more than ten years.

But by the end we were struggling. It was getting harder and harder to finance the film in a fashion that would let us continue our style and, to be honest, I was starting to get really burnt out. All my filmmaker friends had already kickstarted their “new” careers and I was seeking change for myself as well.

When we started our last film “A Way We Go” in late 2012, I told myself this would be my last Isenseven film. But I wanted to make it count, so the crew and I put all our energy in it. When AWWG was done, I was so full of joy because it turned out just the way I hoped it would. And then there were over 2000 fans at the world premiere in Munich and then the following premiere tour through Europe. Seeing all our fans all over the world going crazy for our film really motivated me to try to get another film going. Then, after the endorphins passed, I realized it wasn’t going to happen and I might just be telling myself “there must be a way” in order to not let our legacy die.

DBK, Stephan Maurer, Alex Tank, The Straussen, Marco Smolla and I made a final effort to create a concept with a rider driven production team. We even began talking to potential sponsors. But we saw that we couldn’t collect enough budget to produce another film and it all fell apart. I was not willing to compromise and decided it would be better to end with a film that I was happy with and represented everything Isenseven stands for (in my opinion) instead of milking it and risk making a mediocre film. I’m glad we didn’t make the film after AWWG because my heart wasn’t in the project anymore and I had to stop lying to myself and especially to the fans. There was an extensive interview in Pleasure Mag where I called it a “Creative Hiatus”. That might have been me, not wanting to close the door on my baby for good.

Schiller, Strauss, Smolla, Zeiter in Japan
Photo: Silvano Zeiter

It felt like each video the product quality got better and better, was it going to be a case of you becoming like Brainfarm or stay as a smaller and more raw video production?
When we were just starting to get big we were situated between two worlds. Nobody compared us to the really big guys like Mack Dawg or Standard or Absinthe. But we were a league above all the local video crews. We didn’t have the best riders in the world. But we had characters, good editing and a carefully curated soundtrack. And then we had HD when everyone was still filming either 16mm or crappy SD. That was a huge step for us. That was kind of the turning point where we really tried to step up the quality of film. Because we knew we couldn’t compete with the big productions when it came to the riding level.

I think we managed to hold the level for a few years. When Jaakko Itaaho joined Mack Dawg and “Picture This” came out, it felt like a digital revolution in snowboard films. Suddenly people switched from 16mm to RED cameras and everything looked so crispy and perfect. I fell in love with these high quality images and wanted to have the same for Isenseven. Unfortunately those cameras were way above our financial means and we had to work with what we could afford (which still looked OK though). I wanted our films to look expensive but not change anything in our concept of riding and storytelling. But if you don’t have A-Class riders, you won’t get the budget to film everything on RED. So we chose to stick to our style and put fun over quality.

Then, when everyone was going 4k, the raw-revolution was born. Other crews wanted to recreate that classic skate style of film and everyone started filming with the shittiest camera they could find with a dirty, scratched fisheye. I was never a fan of that style but I definitely understand why it became so popular. It was also a little “fuck you” to the big guys, saying you don’t need fancy cameras to capture cool snowboarding. And I appreciate it for what it is. Snowboarding isn’t about Cineflexes on helicopters filming 50 meter jumps in Alaska at 240 frames per second.

My personal preference is just having fun snowboarding filmed in a high quality style.

Captured from Tripoli in 2003

How did your production costs go up as the crew got better and you travelled to more places?
The terrible winters in Europe forced us to spend a lot of money on travelling in the early season. Riders started to get impatient and wanted to have some shots locked down in December. So you couldn’t just wait around for snow but rather had to chase it. And it was always important to us to feature new spots in the riders parts. I didn’t care if the rider did a Switch Back 10 on the same jump, filmed from the same angle that he had a Switch Back 7 on the year before. And I’m pretty sure the normal Isenseven viewer didn’t care either. They wanted to see a bunch of guys travelling the world, riding cool and creative spots, having the time of their lives. That was something that the riders and I got in arguments about sometimes. Some of them just wanted to do better tricks on the same spots every year. It was something we had to compromise on in many occasions. But generally everyone was down to travel to interesting places and be creative. You just had to think of new places to go each year to mix things up.

On top of travel costs, we also had to pay our filmers. I was in a terrible situation because I wasn’t able to pay our filmers very well. I had to rely on good will many times. And not always is everyone down for the cause. I often expected people to share the same love and motivation for the project that I did which was quite blindsided of me.

The really good guys started to leave. They either wanted to make real money or evolve as filmmakers (usually both). I’m especially greatful for all the guys that pulled through in filming “A Way We Go” but definitely understand why many of our top filmers couldn’t be on Isenseven 24/7.

Ludde Lejkner for Red Bull Into The Dark
Photo: Flo Jäger


Riders all now have their own little thing  going on with self marketing / social media etc. When you were making Isenseven videos all of that was very new. How did that change things for your projects?
I would say our riders were all loyal to our project and made it their priority. I did get annoyed sometimes though when they had some other little project going on the side or posted everything on their social media instead of letting us share it on Isen. It was like “isn’t Isenseven enough for you??” It felt like each rider was only concerned with building “his own brand”.

Looking back at it, that was actually pretty smart of them. When I was doing Isenseven I felt like the entire world had to revolve around it. Because MY world definitely did. Our team had evolved from the kids in a small town that built something from nothing, to professional snowboarders that are paid to do the job they love. Don’t get me wrong, every single rider that was in our movies was carefully selected due to their personality and the benefit they brought to our films. 90% of the time they were friends first and then joined the film crew. But I had to realize that things were getting more professional by the year and I was sort of stuck in the whole “crew comes first” mindset.

A lot of riders only filmed with isenseven, which riders were most affected by you stopping?
I would say, the ones that didn’t do enough self marketing during their time with Isenseven, haha.

No, seriously. I think the guys that were mostly affected by the end of Isenseven were the ones that had been with us a long time and put the most energy in to it. And that would be the Strauss twins and Marco Smolla. All the other riders either decided to quit their careers anyway despite Isenseven ending, or moved on to other film projects.

But Marco Smolla and Tobi and Fips Strauss had been with Isenseven almost since day one all the way to the end. It was hard to imagine an Isen film without them. Not because they were the most insane riders. But because their personality represented EVERYTHING that Isenseven stands for. Even if we had 15 of the most famous riders in the world in the team: as long as those three guys were still in the crew, we knew it would be a real Isenseven film.

When we stopped making our films, it felt like sending your three children away to fend for themselves. And all the sudden they didn’t have that “family” anymore that took them under their wing.

I’m happy to see all of our guys in the right place, even without Isenseven. They went on some great paths in snowboarding (Ethan Morgan, Kevin Backström, Christian Haller etc), found crazy cool new careers (Peter König, Luca Jeromel, Chris Patsch, Chris Schmidt) or are simply just still doing “their thing” (Alex Tank, Ludde Lejkner)

Schiller, Urban and Tank on a non snow-related trip to Japan.

Snowboard brands have always been flakey with their budgets did you experience a lack of support from the industry such as budget Cuts,
I feel like blaming the industry for the downfall. But as I get older and get to know “the real world”, I start to understand their decisions. Yes, we suffered from budget cuts from our sponsors. Their marketing budgets got smaller and smaller and they needed to prioritize what they spent their money on. Obviously Isenseven was not on the top of their list. Back then I was furious. I could not understand how a company wasn’t willing to fund something as special as Isenseven. Looking at it from an outside perspective, four years later, I can relate to them. Team videos became priority. The brands need to sell their goods and placing their riders in our films wasn’t cutting it.

Without our sponsors we could have never made it even close to what we were doing and I am forever thankful for the way they supported us. And even in the end, when times were tough, they were honest with us and didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep.

I can’t imagine the budgets most film productions work with these days and I have massive respect for everyone still producing full length videos.

Still, the budget cuts were definitely a major influence on the slow collapse of independent snowboard film productions. And to me, that was THE most important manifestation in snowboarding.

Do you ever feel like putting out another Isenseven project?
I think about it a lot. But right now, I don’t have the right inspiration for another project. I would love to do another film, be it a documentary or a short form or whatever. I don’t want to do it half-assed. IF I do it, I want to put 100 % in to it cause that’s what the fans expect and deserve. I’m just not able to give 100% now. Maybe the time will come. I wouldn’t rule it out.

What I can tell you, is that Isenseven won’t make some web-based episode show. At least not if I’m still in command. If we make another film, it has to be a standalone project with a talented production crew and a lot of time invested.

Movie premiers aren’t what they used to be.

What would it take to bring it back? Perhaps you could crowdfund like Absinthe?
I thought about crowdfunding and it is actually the only way I would want to finance a film. If a company wants to hop on board, be my guest. But the main support needs to come from the fans because I would be making the film to satisfy them and not the industry.

If you did make another Isenseven would it be because you are dwelling on the past or honestly wanting to do another film?
Both. I still have so much love for Isenseven and everything that happened in the last 15 years. But sometimes I do ask myself if a new film is something I genuinely want or if I feel like I owe it to people. Should I just move on or give it another try? And do people even care anymore? Until I have answered those questions I won’t speculate about another film.

Is there still love from your side for snowboarding? Any inspiration left?
 I love snowboarding. I just don’t really care about the media anymore, specifically films.
I try to ride more for myself these days. And I taught my girlfriend to snowboard last winter so now I have some extra motivation to get out on the slopes.

What do you do these days now you aren’t filming a snowboard movie each year?
After Isenseven I went freelance for a year. Just doing the whole one-man-show producer/camera/director/editor thing on my own. Trying to find out what I’m good at. In 2014 my friend Marcel and I created a film production called “Hey You!”. We opened an office (which we share with Christophe Schmidt and his new company) and do a lot of commercial work, documentaries, music videos, etc. Anything that has to do with film. We even did a short snowboard film for Red Bull a few years ago with some guys from the old crew. I do a lot of camera work, directing and editing and it’s super fun because you are able to do so many different types of projects every year and aren’t bound to one project. Creating all the intros in the Isen films definitely helped shape my filmmaking style and might still be recognizable in some of my current projects.

 

Alex Schiller’s current work with a fancy camera for a change.