The American filmmaker discusses his extraordinary Arctic eco-doc, Chasing Ice.
Those who still need visual evidence that climate change is real need look no further than Chasing Ice. Following photographer James Balog as he sets up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic, Jeff Orlowski’s documentary is a breathtaking clarion call to anyone who has eyeballs: a jaw-dropping invitation to witness the beautiful and horrifying destruction of our planet.
But Orlowski’s portrayal of one man’s mission to wake up the world didn’t start out as a documentary. LWLies spoke to the first-time filmmaker about melting glaciers, making a difference and taking snapshots of the end of the world.
LWLies: Chasing Ice is a huge project to take on for your first feature film. How did it come about?
Orlowski: I had the good fortune to be on the very first trip that James Balog did to the Arctic to install his time-lapse cameras [for his project called the Extreme Ice Survey designed to monitor melting glaciers]. The intention at the time wasn’t to make a film; it was to document the trip and produce promotional material for him. That’s how I got my foot in the door. Then, every trip that we went on – first Iceland then Greenland, then Alaska – crazier and crazier stuff kept happening. A dog sled crash, a helicopter emergency landing, time-lapse cameras failing because of weather damage. And we filmed all of it. After a year of following him around, we had a couple of hundred hours of footage and I knew we had enough to make a film – with my help, hopefully a good film. I then tried to convince James to let me go ahead and make a movie and stopped doing work for him.
You appear in the film early on as a 'videographer'. Is it weird to see your own vox pop in there?
It is weird. But I didn’t want to be in the film commenting as a director, I wanted to be commenting as one of the team. That’s the only reason I’m in the film at all; those experiences were shared by four people. So, for example, the big ice calving scene [calving is when a chunk of ice breaks away from a glacier], Adam and I were the only people who saw it happen. I’m not explicitly in the scene – you can hear my voice – but I’m one of only a few people who can comment on it.
It keeps the focus away from filmmaking and on James. It gives his struggle a more personal angle.
Exactly, yeah. We wanted it to be about the experience of the team as much as possible – not a science lecture but a film about the adventure. After all, nobody normally gets to visit these places!
There are contributions from James' wife and his daughter as well. Was it tough to get him on board with such an intimate portrayal?
It was hard to get his initial approval. He didn’t want to be the central figure. He’s so used to being behind the camera that he wasn’t comfortable being in front of it. But once he realised that his story is a genuinely compelling story, he understood the value and importance of doing interviews with his family. They were all really supportive and willing to talk about James’ obsessions and his work ethic and the impact it has on them. The original edit actually had a lot more personal stuff in there, but we decided it wasn’t necessary for the story we were trying to tell.
Even just a human standing next to those massive glaciers humanises it – it gives nature a scale.
Absolutely. The scale is something we tried to tap into every step of the way. The landscapes are huge. There’s nothing in modern civilisation that can even come close to giving a sense of how big it is. We tried to include anything that would give a sense of scale, whether it was a helicopter, a human or a boat, anything that gives you a sense of just how big it is.
Just before the big calving, you zoom out from a helicopter by a glacier and you lose sight of it almost immediately…
Yeah, I love that shot. It worked out really well in terms of timing – and just shows how it easy it is for something as significant as a helicopter to disappear out there.
What goes through your mind when you see a piece of ice the size of Lower Manhattan just fall into the ocean like that?
It’s interesting. You get a bunch of conflicting thoughts. The immediate response was, 'Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this is happening and we’re getting it on film.' We’d been there for weeks just waiting, so for it to finally happen, we were cheering and hollering. We were excited. That audio is recorded of us being so elated. We kept it in the original edit, but there was this incompatibility between our emotions as photographers capturing something we’d never seen before and comparing that to the audience, who are seeing the horror that it represents.
You spend months sitting up on that cliff to capture that calving image in the freezing cold. How tough was it to film?
It was tough, but it was the only way that it could get made. We went in knowing that it would be tough. Plus this is my first feature film, so in a way, ignorance was bliss and we just had to deal with the reality; there was no way around it. When you’re forced to be in minus 40°C, you learn how to adapt pretty quickly. Honestly, the stuff in the field, that was the fun part, that was why I wanted to be part of it in the first place, because we got to go to these incredible places. The hardest part was actually the editing.
How many hours of footage did you have?
Four hundred hours. As for photos, we have over one million in the time-lapse archive and a couple of hundred thousand stills – and that’s just the beautiful shots. One of the great things about the project was that we had the chance to edit and work with so many amazing images.
It must have taken several years to edit. How difficult was it to fund that?
The only way it happened was through a lot of donated time from my producers. I spent a couple of years editing for free because I was the only one who had the time, but ultimately we brought on another editor to help finish the project and we had to fundraise for him It was very difficult to make it happen – it was a lot of passion, but also belief that we had something really important to tell. That was what continued to drive us. We just had to figure out how to do it.
You used the word 'obsession' to describe James' approach to work. Did that almost fanatical determination rub off on you?
Yes, definitely. I sit thinking about it sometimes. James has kind of rubbed off on the whole team. His passion and dedication – when you’re out in the field with someone like that, you can’t slack off. You have to put in 110 per cent energy and commitment just to keep up.
In the last year, there seems to have been a big increase in the number of environmental documentaries. It’s almost an unofficial movement among filmmakers to raise awareness of climate change…
I certainly agree with that. It’s a function of artists and storytellers wanting to address critical issues of the time and climate change isn’t just high up on the list, it’s potentially the highest thing on there. People often ask, 'ice melts, so what? It’s thousands of miles away. What impact will it have on my life?' The reality is that climate change has an impact on all of us. If we don’t have a stable environment, then our food supply, our water supply, everything comes under question as to how sustainable it is. We think we’re separate from nature but we’re not – and I think that’s one of the things that James wants to highlight in his work. What you’re describing is definitely a reflection of these artists wanting to reveal this very important issue to the public and pay attention.
If people see this film and wonder what they could do about climate change, what would you say to them?
The Chasing Ice website has a bunch of information, both on screenings of the film as well as what individuals can do to help in their own lives, but it’s an interesting question – we were making this to a large degree for an American audience that is still very skeptical about climate change. In the UK and Europe and most countries around the world, there’s a far greater awareness of the fact that it is happening – and that it is manmade. There’s a lot of denial in America. The answer we give when we’re at screenings in the States is to shift perception, to get people to understand what’s happening.
J Ralph’s music plays a big part in the tone of the film. Scarlett Johansson sings a song, 'Before My Time', over the end credits that’s incredibly moving. Whose idea was that?
That was his song, his composition. When we were talking about the end credits, I knew we wanted some kind of emotional transition for audiences leaving the theatre. We had so many photographs I wanted the visuals to carry right through to the end. It was our intention – and I’m glad it’s working out this way – that people would sit through the whole credits. I think it’s a balance of the photographs and the song that keep people engaged. Josh and I were talking about who could do it and I’d heard work that he’d done with Scarlett before and said that if he could get the same quality out of her voice, then she should do it. I didn’t hear the final song until just before we went to the mix and when I heard it, it was perfect.
Are you planning to release the song at all?
We’ve posted the end credits online now. We’re keen to include the song on the DVD too.
After all that editing, the thought of putting together the DVD extras must be a nightmare.
[Laughs] Yeah. Everyone keeps telling me they’re looking forward to the DVD extras and I am as well – but I’m not looking forward to making them. The film is already a kind of making of story, but we might have to do a making of the making of story!
Chasing Ice is released in UK cinemas 14 December.