Playing With Blocks doc rocks

It's your usual rock star storyline: a group of small town guys, doing what they love, who end up making it big. But with a northern twist.

It’s your usual rock star storyline: a group of small town guys, doing what they love, who end up making it big. But with a northern twist.

Instead of strumming guitars, these guys sculpt snow or, as their diehard fans and groupies may say, they create “monolithic pieces of snow art.”

And now they’re the subject of a new documentary, Playing With Blocks, set to premiere in Whitehorse on Dec. 10.

The sculpting trio of Donald Watt, Mike Lane and Gisli Balzer do for moustaches what the Beatles did for shaggy hair.

“They’re international superstars,” said filmmaker Thomas Balzer, Gisli’s brother. “In Japan, in Russia, all these huge competitions, they come in and they’re known and respected. They’re the team to beat everywhere they go.”

The film follows the team around the world during its extremely successful 2007 season.

They travelled to Italy, Japan, Winnipeg, Quebec City and then returned to the Yukon to organize the Rendezvous snow-sculpting event.

“We want to show people what we see all around the world,” said Watt. “These great big pieces of art are being created in three to five days and then dismantling themselves as the weather moves.

“As soon as you walk away, it begins to deteriorate.”

How does one get into such an ephemeral art form?

Watt, who grew up in Prince George, began snow carving in high school. An art teacher sent his class into a shopping centre parking lot to turn piles of snow into sculptures.

But he didn’t rediscover his passion for snow until moving to the Yukon in the ‘80s. Looking to earn some spending money, Watt entered a Rendezvous snow-sculpting contest and won.

When the Quebec Winter Carnival put a call out for national snow-sculpting competitors, Watt decided to try his luck again and never looked back.

Year after year he returned with different team members, receiving audience choice awards and other nods, but never taking home first place.

Mike Lane joined the team in the late ‘90s.

“He liked my work but he said, ‘Don, why don’t you ever finish them?’” said Watt. “I’m an impressionist. I thought they were finished.”

Lane suggested they clean up the sculpture a little more and add more detail.

But it wasn’t until the addition of Gisli Balzer that the team was able to pull down its first win at the Quebec competition in 2001.

Quebec Winter Carnival is the biggest snow-sculpting event in Canada. Winning the event automatically made the team Canadian champions, allowing it to tour the world as Team Canada.

“We started down that road of becoming rock stars,” said Watt. “Our 15 minutes of fame kept growing and growing.”

They started winning competitions around the world.

They even crossed into ice carving from time to time, once for a Lexus commercial.

But they also fell into some of the traps that often accompany rock stardom.

“We worked really hard, but we also played really hard and we burnt out a bit,” said Watt. “We’ve now decided we should just stick with working really hard.”

Luckily for documentary filmmaker Thomas Balzer, he turned his camera at the peak of their debauchery.

There are no groupies or trashed hotel rooms – at least not in the film’s final cut – but the team certainly had a good time.

The film’s tagline describes the trio as “small-town beer drinkers with a world-class snow-carving problem.”

But beneath all that beer-swilling, the film also has a positive message, said Thomas.

“Follow your dreams, even if it puts you in debt,” he said.

“They work as hard as they can for eight, sometimes 10 months of the year, to go on these expeditions … it’s not a money-making venture.”

There are no cash prizes or fancy awards – just bragging rights. And maybe a few drinks courtesy of some admirer.

It’s an inspirational story. At least, it was for Thomas.

After years at the Vancouver Film School, Thomas was beginning to burn out.

The mantra of the film industry is “to make the films that audiences want to see” rather than what filmmakers want to make, he said.

On a visit home to the Yukon to see his brother, Thomas was inspired to see a group of guys doing their own thing.

He wanted to tell their story and it quickly turned into his first feature documentary.

The film will premiere at the Beringia Centre on Saturday.

The rock stars themselves will be in attendance for a Q & A after the show.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $15.

Contact Chris Oke at

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