Jesse Burtner: Tweaking The Failures
20 Years of Insight with the Maven of Mini-Shred
When Jesse Burtner first started snowboarding, his father, Les, wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. “Back then I perceived kids who snowboarded as people that were a bit on the outside of normal culture,” Les says. “As a parent you’re thinking ‘I don’t know if I like my kid doing this. Why don’t you go ski or something?’”
Jesse’s mother, Judy, had similar sentiments. She remembers telling an adolescent Jesse that she’d really like to see him finish college, to which he responded, “Mom, if I don’t make it on this snowboarding thing by the time I’m 30, then I’ll go back to college.”
As we sat in the back of Hale’s Ales Palladium discussing their son’s 20 years of game-changing snowboard video parts, and with hundreds of fellow riders and fans gathered together in the building’s front foyer to celebrate the feat, it was safe to say Jesse had made it.
What “it” is may be harder to define. With over two decades of riding professionally under his belt, Jesse is still trying to figure out what “it” really means to him. “I didn’t set out to film 20 video parts,” Jesse says. “I set out to film one good one. It just took me 20 tries to do so.” From junky camcorders and analog editing systems with his and Jason Borgstede’s Alaska-based JB Deuce in the 90s, to producing over a dozen world-renowned Think Thank movies that introduced an entirely unprecedented style for a new generation, Jesse has seen a lot of advancements in snowboard media production since his humble beginnings in Anchorage, AK. As the technology advanced, Jesse’s personal growth, experience and approach to snowboarding took on life-changing developments as well.
Just before his 20 year retrospective dropped, we sat down with Jesse to talk everything from mini-DV’s to 4k cinema, head injuries to helmets, recession-proof snowboarding and what to expect next from the godfather of mini-shred.
The Snowboarder’s Journal: So, 20 years. How’d it all start?
Jesse Burtner: The media aspect always appealed to me, so I got into snowboarding and filming simultaneously. That was in 1989/90. My parents helped me buy a Hitachi Surf & Snow camcorder. It was such a piece of shit, but it got me off the ground. In 7th grade I linked up with my friend Pete Iverson and we got this bulky editing device, an analog machine that had levers and buttons all over it. It took forever but we figured out how to throw music over our footage—a serious game changer. The music went right over the top and eliminated the natural noise, but it was a start.
When I got to be a junior in high school our group of friends had a chance to create an original project at school through independent study. We used the opportunity to make our first snowboard video and called it “Broadcast: How I Learned to Love the Tube.” It was kind of based off [Stanley] Kubrick’s “Dr. Stranglove: How to Learn to Love the Bomb,” and focused on finding an identity through television. We were aiming to apply some pretty radical philosophical concepts into our snowboard video, more so than I would in the next eight films I worked on. We filmed some fun stuff in those days; you’ll have to check it out. But there’s only one copy… and it’s on VHS.
What would we even play it on?
Haha, right? That movie doesn’t actually count towards the official twenty, but it’s what helped me link up with Jason Borgstede. He was already pro for Burton at the time. We met up with Jason at Arctic Valley at Alaska’s first snowboard park. He was so smooth, and in those two days we gathered enough footage for him to have a full part in our movie. Jason was making his own little movies as well as filming a bit with Mac Dawg at the time, and when I graduated high school we decided to combine forces. That’s when JB Deuce was born.
And so begins the official 20?
Yeah, the first movie we made was Polar Bears, Dogsleds and Igloos. We edited that movie and the next two by analog, which in hindsight seems crazy. Over JB Deuce’s seven years the technology progressed tenfold.
And it has even more so since founding Think Thank and up to present day.
In so many different ways. The first movie we made as JB Deuce was filmed with an over-the-shoulder VHS camera. We’d upgrade the setup slowly as our funds allowed for it. By our third video we were using a SONY VX and shooting on mini DV’s, and nowadays with Think Thank we’re shooting almost all digital. I’ve seen it go all the way from VHS to air, reduced to almost nothing.
But I’ve never really been too focused on technology. To me it’s about content. Technology comes and goes, but it’s what’s in front of the camera that really matters.
Energy over technology.
Exactly. If you chase technology too much you end up losing sight of compelling content, meaning and energy. I’ve always been about energy, and that’s why [Think Thank filmer Sean] Lucey and I work so well together. We always say you should use technology as a tool to boost energy and push messaging, but don’t change messaging to meet technology.
What’s been driving you to film all of these video parts?
I have a burning desire to communicate, and I’ve found that snowboarding is a rad vehicle for communication. I think I’ve kept filming parts year after year because I’ve never felt like I really nailed it. There’s always been a desire to do more, to do better, and that kind of drove the chase. Tweaking the failures helped add up to a greater overall success.
Longevity in snowboarding is an interesting thing. As far as being relevant in snowboarding, well, that’s up to the rider. You want it? Go get it. Back in the day I used to envy pros traveling the globe and think, “When will this happen for me?” Then I realized I had to take it. No one owns my message, no one owns my snowboarding—it’s mine and mine alone. That’s when we embarked on our first big trips, like the first time Think Thank flew to Japan and Europe. We took some big, scary leaps, but once we took those leaps is when things really started happening for us.
My dad always tells me, “Just do it and you’ll figure it out.” Yeah, you’ve got to be smart about stuff, but at the same time you’ve got to push yourself. [Jesse motions towards his son, Ollie] It’s like, how are you going to handle having a baby? At one point I couldn’t imagine having a kid in my life, and now I can’t imagine a life without him. People are resilient, they figure it out.
Can you tell us about recession-proof snowboarding, your head injury, and how the two are intertwined?
Think Thank made some of its best movies during snowboarding’s Great Recession in the early 2000s. We needed to find our fit in an economy without a large expendable income, and our brand of snowboarding played to that. The idea really started to blossom during the filming of Patchwork Patterns  finding the cheapest way to do it. Sometimes limiting your options leads to the greatest creativity. We experimented with what could be achieved using only a small patch of snow, a cone, and a shovel, and that mentality has carried on throughout all of our movies up to this point. During Patchwork Patterns it was just an idea, but that idea formed a philosophy that has influenced how many riders now approach filming.
It was also a time when certain aspects of snowboarding were hitting ceilings, and some shit started hitting the fan collectively. Jumps were regularly 90 feet, knuckles were sharp—things were gnarly. When I hit my head [Jesse sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2002 when he fell and hit his head on stairs during an urban handrail session] everything kind of changed, and I really had to take a close look at how I was approaching snowboarding. I was ready to get off the crazy train because it’s definitely not worth dying for. I had to find a way to keep going, but in a way that didn’t have me fearful for my life at the top of a drop-in. It’s always a balance of mitigating risk. Sure, I’m still doing some risky stuff, but the head injury helped draw a line that I wasn’t willing to cross anymore. Drawing that line in a way was limiting aspects of my riding, which as mentioned before, can actually lead to greater creativity. Doing a hardflip off a box at Snoqaulmie may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done on my snowboard, but there was no life-threatening danger involved in filming that trick.
So, you’re at 20. Is there going to be a 21st?
For a while there was a sense of “What am I doing this for?” But once I was getting close to 20, I decided I better get there. It seemed like a good end goal, a nice round number for me to put an end cap on this whole amazing experience. This end cap is about giving myself permission to maybe or maybe not film another part. Of course there is no way to encapsulate all of the experiences that come with 20 years of filming snowboarding, but this video feels like a solid way to wrap things up the best that they can be.
And you’ll still always be around snowboarding.
Of course, it’s a huge part of my life and I love it. I’ll still be out there filming, just not aiming to hit that two-minute video part or wake up feeling accountable to myself in regards to landing that next trick. Now I’ll get to work on the aspects of my riding that I want to focus on, simpler things like my heel slide slash. Instead of pushing the top in one direction, I’m trying to get out there and raise the bottom bar.
It’s important to keep it your own. If I were to get to the end of this 20 years and feel burnt from snowboarding, that’d be a bummer. Snowboarding has given me a lot, and I’ve given it a lot of myself, so after all is said and done I’d rather none of it be sour. I want it to be happy, like it’s meant to be. I want to be genuinely stoked when I talk to Ollie about snowboarding and the adventures it’s brought me on. Right now I’m tired out, but I can happily say that I’m still feeling really good about it all.
Jesse leaves the room to mingle with the hundreds who have come to celebrate with him. Les, Judy and I remain in the back of the venue.
“I told Jesse what I told all of my kids,” Les says. “I won’t dictate the direction but whatever you choose to do in life, approach it with passion.” He smiles. “And Jesse has done just that.”
Judy and Les say their son’s success in snowboarding is beyond what they could have originally imagined when they first got him that Hitachi Surf & Snow. The pride they hold for their son is evident not only through the words they speak of him, but in the brightening curl of their smiles that can’t help but shine when describing his articulate growth both on and off the mountain. Les is spirited with Jesse’s dignified approach to snowboarding, life, and love. Judy concurs. By now, she doesn’t even seem to mind that he never finished college.