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In 2016, Swiss pro skier Nico Vuignier invented a novel way to capture himself skiing that was inspired by the cinematic tech innovation known as “bullet time.” Vuignier, who has creativity to burn but no access to the massively complex camera rigs necessary to shoot in bullet time, devised something significantly lower-fi: a kite-shaped wooden frame for an iPhone 6, which he kept aloft above his head by swinging the kite string in a lasso motion—while he skied. The resulting video, 360-degree angles of him carving uncut powder and lapping the terrain park that’s called “Centriphone”, has been viewed 4.5 million times on YouTube because it is totally awesome. His sponsors, Salomon and Oakley, were thrilled.
Fulfilling obligations to sponsors, however, was only part of his goal. Vuignier isn’t just clever; he’s a thoughtful digital artist inspired by open-source projects—he cites Radiohead’s landmark 2008 music video, “House of Cards” as a big influence. That video featured military radar technology in service of wild (for the time) motion graphics, the data from which the band distributed for free online. Following the success of “Centriphone,” Vuignier released another video detailing exactly how he made the contraption; then he put the 3D printing files online for anyone to access.
Five years later, he had second thoughts—not because he no longer believes in open source creative projects, but because the action camera maker Insta360 took his design and began selling it. “They tried to get me on board by offering me a free camera,” he explains. Vuignier declined; his goal with making Centriphone open source was to inspire creations, not commerce. Then the same company copied another of his camera innovations: a camera-holding styrofoam glider he calls “the poor man’s selfie drone.”
Vuignier considered patents for future projects but quickly discovered the process is insanely complex for anyone without expensive lawyers doing the work. At that point, Vuignier asked himself an interesting question: “Maybe there’s a way to NFT these things?”
NFTs shake up the game
NFTs—the emerging method of conveying ownership that’s built atop the same blockchain technology as cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—tend to divide people into one of three camps. Camp One is convinced NFTs, and the promise of blockchain tech in general, will save the world and make everyone rich in the process. Camp Two is convinced NFTs are a massive Ponzi scheme and built on environment-destroying tech to boot. And Camp Three is mostly just, “Huh?”
Consider Vuignier a representative of Camp Four. This Camp acknowledges that many NFT marketplaces are virtual shopping malls selling digital dorm room posters for aspiring tech bros on their first ayahuasca trips. But he also understands NFTs will ultimately impact both artists and those who like art in ways that are just emerging.
“The people who call themselves ‘NFT artists,’ that doesn’t make sense. It’s just a way to sell your art,” says Vuignier. “What I do is digital art, videos—before, there was no way to sell it, no place to display it. NFTs create a way to own my work that didn’t exist before. Everything is going crazy right now, but I can’t wait for it to die down and grow into something more meaningful and interesting.”
When he’s not crafting novel ways for cameras to follow him on snow, Vuignier creates elegant, captivating snippets of digital ski ephemera using a robust set of entirely self-taught motion graphics, video editing, and animation skills. His Instagram is a great follow for gems like this.
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In the spring of 2021, Vuignier took two of his most popular Instagram posts and “minted” them as NFTs on SuperRare, a heavily curated marketplace that’s more like an NFT gallery than the popular (and chaotic) marketplaces like OpenSea. The first, “The Ladder”, sold for 1.1 Ethereum (about $3,500 at the time); the second, “Bird Up”, sold for 1 Ethereum.
As is standard with most NFTs, the buyers did not get ownership of the intellectual property, and therefore cannot use Vuignier’s work for commercial purposes. It’s no different from when a collector buys a Picasso; that collector cannot make a screen print of the painting and begin selling T-shirts of it. Vuignier got thousands of dollars for the kind of social post that, over the last 10 years, has been worth little more than Instagram “likes” and the opportunity to schill products as an “influencer.” More valuable than all that was the perspective.
“Look at when Candide did Chad’s Gap,” he says, referring to the 120-foot gap jump in the Utah backcountry that helped put the French phenom on the map in 1999. “That was a legendary moment. Imagine if he could have minted an NFT of that and sold it—that’s meaningful.”
Vuignier likens this moment in time to the top of the Dunning Kruger Curve, an illustration of cognitive bias in which people overestimate their own knowledge or abilities before understanding how wrong they are. “Once you start to know more and learn more, you realize you know nothing. Right now, we’re all at the top of the curve.”
A new frontier
Vuignier is perfectly comfortable knowing nothing—he would never achieve this level of artistic and digital effects wizardry if he didn’t mind learning from scratch. And his latest project is his most ambitious yet.
For years, he envied the sophisticated motion graphics systems that can capture an athlete’s true movements and translate them to data—the so-called “ping pong ball suits” made famous by the early motion capture sessions for the “Tony Hawk Pro Skater” video game. A remarkable tech evolution for the time, they were far too cumbersome and expensive to be used in Vuignier’s natural environment: snow.
A few years ago, thanks to the motion sensors developed for mobile phones, motion capture technology made an important leap. The “ping pong balls” of the old suits were necessary so special cameras could track and capture the athlete’s movements. Today, these suits have sensors woven in, which capture similar data without the need for a camera.
When Vuignier discovered these new suits, he partnered with a special effects house in Geneva that owned one. He spent a day lapping a terrain park while wearing the suit, with a small camera crew in tow. The sensors are phenomenal at capturing and rendering the wearer’s movements, but they can’t move those movements through space. For that, Vuignier needed digital cameras and a drone to capture his surroundings to create a 3D scan of the park.
The resulting data is so powerful that Vuignier can digitally recreate himself doing any trick he can imagine. And because his crew faithfully captured the jumps he hit—and because Vuignier’s motion graphics skills are so solid—he can put his digital self into actual video of an actual terrain park to do them.
That’s not even the coolest part. Remember the Radiohead video?
Vuignier intends to make the entire data file of his session freely available to anyone who wants it at his new site, Digital Stunts. His end goal … well, he has a lot of end goals, because the possibilities are literally endless. But the file he’s created could be turned into original art projects by animators and motion graphics artists, like this one, produced by Michael Marczewski:
And this is just a test run of what’s possible with the data Vuignier collected. Multiple artists could collaborate on different segments for an epic Nico Vuignier “movie”. Vuignier himself could produce an entire season’s worth of social media edits of himself skiing for his sponsors without ever setting foot in the mountains.
Still, there’s a reason why you can’t just download the file on Digital Stunts yet.
“I’m kind of slowing [Digital Stunts] down a little bit so I can figure this out,” he says. “This is a way to open-source content creation, but now people can do my job for me. And we’re in an era where brands want you to release something every week and you have to do something crazier every time. At the end of this, will brands be able to just pay talent to record their data and use it for years without sponsoring anyone? It’s opening Pandora’s box.”
When Vuignier first started releasing his digital creations on Instagram, he was uncomfortable calling himself an artist. “I never thought of it as art. That seemed pretentious to me. It was just internet stuff, GIFs and that stuff,” he says.
But Digital Stunts hasn’t just evolved his understanding of NFTs and blockchain technology; it’s evolved his understanding of his own work—and even himself.
“I’m a passionate skier; up until now, the stuff I did was just nice skiing that looked good,” he says. “Art is about asking questions and making people think about something. This project is a bit more artistic. That’s why I’m more comfortable with the term.”
This story was first published by SKI.