Jeff Orlowski, director of the award-winning film Chasing Ice, on the challenges of shooting in the Arctic Circle
Winner of the cinematography prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice uses stunningly beautiful images to look at an unpleasant current reality. Following National Geographic photographer James Balog, the movie documents his Extreme Ice Survey, which shows the potentially catastrophic melting of the planet’s ice caps. Filled with dramatic imagery, including the crumbling of icebergs several times the size of a New York skyscraper, the documentary conveys a tense urgency that turns it from a cautionary tale into an adventure story.
RL—Is this a movie about global warming or about James Balog?JO—We specifically didn’t want to call it a film about global warming, but over the course of editing the film, we realized that the strongest story we had to tell was not just about James, personally, as a photographer, but also about his Extreme Ice Survey project. So the only science in the film is to give context to show why the work James is doing is so important. We’re really proud that the film is an adventure story about this incredible photographer going on these amazing expeditions all around the world.
RL—How long would you typically accompany James on each of these shoots?JO—About two weeks on average, though James would sometimes be there longer. It was really just a thrill to be able to go to these places. I never, ever thought I’d be able to go to Greenland, and it’s just a phenomenal landscape. It was a thrill to be able to shoot there.
RL—James has to overcome huge technical challenges. What are the unique challenges for you when shooting in these arctic environments?JO—Dealing with the cold was more difficult than I anticipated. You learn quickly out in the field what works and what doesn’t work. There were times when we were shooting in Greenland in the wintertime where we’d be wearing three pairs of gloves—a lightweight, a medium weight and a huge mitten on top of that. So you can’t even poke at the buttons on the camera or sound equipment because you don’t have fingers [exposed] to operate it with. If you remove your outer glove to operate equipment for a couple of minutes, your hand gets practically frozen.
RL—Was there a particularly dangerous shoot?JO—There was one time we were sleeping in a little hut with a propane space heater. As we were about to go to sleep, we smelled that it was leaking gas. We decided to turn it off, and I woke up in the middle of the night because the sound of my own teeth chattering was so loud that it woke me up. Most of the time, we realized in retrospect how dangerous things were, like our helicopter crashing and dogsled crashes.
RL—James is a huge risk taker. Was it a challenge for you to follow him?JO—In those remote conditions, you’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. So there are times where you’re literally tied to each other in case one person falls into a crevice. It’s almost more risky when you have the camera in front of you, because you’re so driven to get a good shot that you lose sight of everything else around you.
RL—Did you come to the movie with a point of view on climate change?JO—There’s a sort of poetic thing that’s happening where the scientists know that global warming is happening because of the record that’s stored in the ice. The basic concept is that every winter, another layer of ice builds up on the ice sheets, and it works just like a tree ring. The scientists can drill a core sample to study the ice from hundreds of thousands of years ago. The skeptics say that the environment is always changing, and that’s true. There are these cycles of it getting warmer and cooler, with ice ages coming and going. But you can see where humans come into it, and there are very clear signs that we’re breaking out of that cycle. Because of that record, we know that CO2 is now 40% higher than it has ever been in 800,000 years. The irony is that the ice that we’re using to educate ourselves about global warming is now disappearing.…
KEN MILLER is a curator, writer and editor. He recently published Opening Ceremony, a 10-year history of the New York fashion brand; he previously published Shoot, a photography compilation for Rizzoli. Miller is currently curator of a series of global photography exhibitions for Fujifilm, and he has been a curator and consultant for UNIQLO, Leica cameras, the Phillips de Pury auction house, Land Rover and MINI cars.