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An artistic perspective on biking

TRAXX project explores another side of Whistler’s favourite summer sport



What: TRAXX screening

When: Saturday, Aug. 15, before Slopestyle finals (5:30 p.m.)

Where: Skiers Plaza

Cost: Free!

Typically inundated with traditional mountain portraiture, Whistler is in store for a brand-new artistic take on its awe-inspiring surroundings when a cutting-edge, GPS-derived video art piece dubbed TRAXX is debuted later this week.

Matt Elson is the mastermind behind this project. He has a background in fine art and today is president of his own company, Ski Paintings Inc., which creates digital mountain sports artwork. Based in California, Elson has worked with companies like DreamWorks and Walt Disney, ushering them into the world of 3D animation and introducing them to new technology in computer graphics. Today, Elson's work focuses on capturing the beauty of nature and the cultural relevance of the ski world.

"It's a very technological sport, so it seemed like a good fit for me," Elson said of skiing. "I grew up mountaineering and hiking, and skiing is also where technology fuses with the great outdoors."

He has managed to apply his fine arts background to his technological expertise, producing the TRAXX project for Whistler Blackcomb.

"It's really about making interesting visual phenomenon," Elson said with a shrug and a smile.

So what exactly is TRAXX? It's kind of hard to explain without actually seeing the final product, but basically Elson and his creative counterpart, Monte Gast, have set out to marry one of the oldest mechanical technologies - the bicycle - with a range of new technology, like digital imaging, GPS positioning recording, 3D terrain mapping, and artistic computer software.

The concept evolved out of Elson's discussions with Whistler Blackcomb, as he sought opportunities to paint the mountain itself, rather than simply paint pictures of the mountain, using skiers.

"Some of the original ideas were to put some sort of biodegradable dye or seeds trailing behind the skier and literally paint on the mountain, but then it became, 'Well, we'd have all sorts of ecological ramifications and repercussions.'"

That idea was tweaked and turned into tracking skiers with GPS technology, and using those co-ordinates to effectively paint their path on the mountain.

"Whistler's great and Whistler is the kind of place to get it, you know?" Elson said. "Because they're always trying new stuff here, plus they're the number one ski resort in the world, and it's like they're looking for things to set them apart. They're not afraid of doing something new."

Elson and Gast worked with a team of local and international athletes, artists, photographers, producers, directors, videographers, computer graphics technicians, musicians, audio mixers, cameramen, programmers, special effects magicians and editors to complete the digital art project. They also worked closely with Rob McSkimming and Jeremy Roche from Whistler Blackcomb, and John McCormick, a consultant working with the Resort Municipality of Whistler. The project has received funding from the Cultural Capitals of Canada program - over $54,000, in fact.

Elson, Gast and their crew attended Crankworx last year, putting a team of three riders to work on the mountains, armed with cameras and custom-built GPS units to track their every movement. Then, using Whistler Mountain as their canvas, they collected the images and data from the riders and set to work producing a four-minute digital presentation, combining point-of-view imagery with artistic renderings of co-ordinates from the mountain.

"So when we test it, we download (the co-ordinates) onto Google Earth and see where they were," Elson explained.

The dynamic content was then paired with shot video, still images and motion graphics, which provides a sense of depth and context for the entire performance. Set to a soundtrack, the intention is to capture the spirit and energy of Crankworx, the sport and its participants.

He's also hoping that his artistic rendition will allow people - even riders - to get an entirely new perspective on the sport of mountain biking.

"It certainly adds another level of depth to the event and the sport," Elson said. "It starts seeing itself instead of just being itself."

Still shots from the project are on display at MY Millennium Place, where they will remain until the end of Crankworx. But the real deal - the four-minute full-motion video - will premiere right before the Slopestyle finals (5:30 p.m.) on Saturday, Aug. 15, projected onto twin Jumbotron screens to a crowd of thousands gathered to watch this year's athletes compete. At the same time, it will also be revealed to the rest of the world, released onto the Internet via streaming video.

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