If you enjoyed the hurricane last week, then chances are the issue of climate change is currently on your mind. While there are still an irrationally large number of people out there who will deny the facts, the world is changing drastically and things will be getting far worse before they get better. National Geographic photographer James Balog is particularly affected by this issue given that he’s spent the last few years of his life photographing icebergs and glaciers, noticing that they were depleting at a rapid rate. He embarked on a several year journey to document this shrinkage with carefully mounted time lapse cameras and discovered the situation was far worse than he initially feared.
First time documentary filmmaker Jeff Orlowski followed Balog on his ice melting quest, capturing some remarkable and evocative images himself as they embarked on an endlessly dangerous and exhausting project. Orlowski was there to film all of Balog’s revelations as they happened as well as the multiple occasions when the entire crew’s life was endangered in the process. The result is the remarkable new doc Chasing Ice, a film far more enlightening and thrilling than could possibly be expected from the subject matter. We recently got a chance to speak with Orlowski about his experience making the documentary, his relationship with Balog, and how he accidentally captured the most frightening sequence in the film.
Dork Shelf: What drew you to this subject matter? Was it James Balog or just the climate change subject in general?
Jeff Orlowski: It definitely wasn’t the subject matter, it was much more about wanting to work with James. I met James through a mutual friend. I really respected and admired his work and just wanted to work with him. I wanted to be close to anything he was doing be involved with whatever he was doing. I met him about a year before the project started and as he was getting it started, my friend just kept pushing James to let me tag along and join the team. Ultimately James did show a little resistance because I was a young unproven 23-year-old filmmaker and he had another guy on his team who had a lot of experience doing film work, but ultimately I was allowed to join in on the trip. I volunteered my time and shot as much as I could as well as I could. Then he invited me to join him to Greenland and Iceland and I just kept following him.
It was really special because back then we weren’t planning on making a movie. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was just to document everything and from my perspective I was shooting all of this video footage hoping that it could end up in a promo-video or something. But we knew what he was doing was very special. We knew it was unique and important. We wanted to create a record and never knew what was going to happen. About a year and a half into the project we had strong footage and a great story. We knew that all of the special cameras and equipment was documented and when that started to show drastic change, I really wanted to make a movie out of it. It took a while to convince James that was something that we should do, but I finally got him to sign on to the idea. The rest, as they say is history…plus many years of editing and work.
DS: Since you were part of his team, what was the collaboration like between you and James on the movie? Did it break down into something as simple as “his project, your movie” or was it more fluid than that?
JO: I would say that for a lot of it we were working together. For the first year and a half or two years we were all out in the field together. I would help install the cameras. I was helping carry gear or whatever. We were all in it together because they were very small teams. I would go out and it was privilege if there was more than four people. Six people out on the field was an extremely rare circumstance. So that’s how it stated. Then when I started focusing on making the movie, I kind of passed off duties to other people. It was very collaborative from an artistic perspective. He had an incredible influence on how I look at the world from a photography perspective. I feel very privileged just too spend that time out on the field with him. He always talks about getting the best possible photograph and watching him dedicate so much time and energy to making the perfect photograph made me strive for that same level of quality in the video.
DS: Since James’ photography is so remarkable, both in terms of the quality of the images and the risks he takes to get them, did that put any added pressure on you a as a filmmaker while working with him?
JO: I don’t think it was pressure. I didn’t ever feel it as pressure. I felt it as motivation maybe to some degree. And also, we all just strived to do the best possible job we could. There were times when I’d shoot a time lapse and show it to James and we would get his feedback. Adam [LeWinter] and I would often say while shooting, “how would James do this? How would he approach the scene?” It’s interesting because I spent a lot of time with James at Photo-conferences and Photo-expos and things like that. He is not a gearhead. He doesn’t like talking about gear or equipment, which is what they normally what they do about those events. But he loves talking about philosophy behind photography and that’s something that I never really thought about or had access to. Because James’ perspective is that making a beautiful picture depends on what he picture is telling. A photograph means so much more when it’s telling an important story. So how do you convey a philosophy behind a photograph to make something that’s more than just a pretty picture? When James shows his pictures in a lecture and explains why he took them, it takes them to a whole other level.
DS: Because it was such a physically demanding production was there anything that you weren’t able to shoot because of the conditions that you wish was in the film?
JO: You know, of the worst weather we experienced wasn’t shot because we were just so busy taking care of ourselves that we couldn’t be bothered (laughs). That was also at the beginning of the trip. So I think some of the worst weather wasn’t captured. There were some treacherous scenes where the cameras went out. But I think the film represents pretty accurately what the trips were like and what we experienced. There were about a half a dozen life-threatening experiences for the members of the team.
DS: Yeah, the sequence in the helicopter in particular—[At one point while flying out to a shooting location the helicopter malfunctioned and the entire team almost plummeted into isolated frozen waters.]
JO: Some of the worst stuff in the helicopter actually wasn’t even filmed. I didn’t have any communication with the pilot. I couldn’t hear what was going on in the headsets. So we were on the flight and the helicopter just started to turn around. I had no idea why. All I heard form James was, “we’re going back to the airport, there’s a problem.” So I didn’t think it was a big deal. It was only after we landed that I learned that we were losing oil pressure. We were losing the second engine as we came into the airport. So it was a bit of an “ignorance is bliss” situation on that one. I was kept in the dark, but I was just trying to film as much as I could at that point, so I got it anyways.
DS: Was there any point when it looks like this project or film might have to be cancelled because of the immense physical/technical difficulties?
JO: James is too obsessive and passionate. When he gets an idea, he finds a way to make it happen. I don’t think there was any real risk of the whole thing being cancelled. However, James was really stressed though out the whole process from a funding perspective. He’s not an experienced fund-raiser and he had to learn all of that during this project and had to raise a lot of money to make it happen. It was very difficult for him to do that. So, that was probably the hardest part of the process. At times we scaled back the ambitions and the goals based on what was available. From a film perspective, this movie couldn’t have been made without the many, many hours of donated time that everyone put in. We had $1.4 million of donated time and that’s the only reason that we were able to make the movie.
DS: How did you feel when James became physically unable to go out on the field but refused to give up on the project despite his medical conditions?
JO: It’s interesting because we had mixed feelings. We saw him out there hobbling and not only was it difficult him, but it felt dangerous for him and we worked really hard to make sure that we were always being safe. You know, we sometimes questioned if he should be hiking or what he should be doing. But there was one night when James’ knee was really bad and he was on crutches. He went out and we spent hours looking around one landscape by a lagoon. James saw something in one piece of ice and photographed it and it created a beautiful shot. It was my favorite photograph from the whole five years of working with him. Had he not gone out that night, that image wouldn’t exist. So, his dedication and drive is a testament to the work he creates. More than anything else, it just makes me want to try harder.
DS: What sort of impact does everyone involved hope the film will have?
JO: Well, we didn’t start out with that sort of goal in mind. We just wanted to share this story about James. Because of the response that the film has had, and it’s been really humbling to read what’s been written about the film, we are hoping that in some small way we can help shift the perspective on climate change. It’s interesting because it’s been kind of dismissed as a political issue and hasn’t really been brought up during the debates. It’s a shame that this has even become a political issue. It should be apolitical. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, this is something that’s going to affect all people. Especially after Sandy. You can’t say it was directly the result of climate change, but it does fit in exactly with what scientists have been saying is going to happen as a result of climate change. They called it a “once in a lifetime Frankenstorm.” Well, we’re going to see more and more of them. So if we’re ok adapting to more events like that, then ok let’s burn more fossil fuel. But we know what’s causing the problem, we know what to do about it, and yet there’s no political action pushing against it. I think part of the reason is just because the public has become so complacent. There’s a lot of intentional confusion that’s been put out there around the issue. It’s the same tactics that were used with the cigarette campaigns. There are a lot of organizations spending a lot of money trying to confuse the public about this issue and they are succeeding.
DS: Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing next?
JO: Well, right now all of our efforts are focused on getting Chasing Ice out there, but we do have few documentaries and a narrative feature film that we are starting to work on. I can’t really talk about them right now, unfortunately.