Jeff Orlowski. Photo courtesy of Chasing Ice
Jeff Orlowski goes to the Arctic to film James Balog’s documentation of the rapidly disappearing glaciers. We hear all about it. [30:20]
Excerpts from Chasing Ice, used courtesy of Chasing Ice, LLC
Excerpt from the soundtrack to Chasing Ice, composed by J. Ralph; used courtesy of Chasing Ice, LLC.
TRANSCRIPT OF PODCAST
[Excerpt from Chasing Ice]
Jo Reed: That's photographer James Balog in a clip from the documentary Chasing Ice which is directed by Jeff Orlowski. And this is Art works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
The Sundance Institute is best known for its film festival now in progress. But that's only one of its many innovative programs, another, more recent arrival, is Film Forward, collaboration among Sundance, the NEA, the NEH, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. It's designed to enhance greater cultural understanding, collaboration and dialogue worldwide by engaging audiences through select films and conversations with the filmmakers. One of its 2013 selections, the feature documentary Chasing Ice tells the story of photographer James Balog who launched the extreme ice survey. Balog installed time-lapse cameras across the Arctic to capture a multi-year record of the world's changing glaciers. It took years of struggle and ingenuity to achieve, but in Balog's astounding photography we see mountains of ice disappearing into the sea at a breathtaking rate. James Balog was joined in his endeavor by a team that included filmmaker Jeff Orlowski. Orlowski wanted to document the Balog's work, and the result is the feature-length film, Chasing Ice. Chasing Ice illustrates the power of film to make the invisible visible, and in the process spark thought and dialogue.
I spoke with Jeff Orlowski soon after Film Forward announced Chasing Ice as one its selections, I wondered how he had got involved with James Balog and the project in the first place.
James Orlowski: James is a great photographer. He's based here in Boulder, Colorado. I met him through a mutual friend. And he was doing a lot of work for National Geographic and other publications like that when I had first met him. And I learned that he was doing this project. He had this idea to do time lapses of glaciers and that's really where all of this started. And I wanted to work with James. My background was in still photography. I had a real passion for still photography, and I wanted to work with him just to learn more and more about the world of still photography. And he was getting this project set up, he was going to Iceland, and I was able to be involved by offering to shoot video. So, the first trip to Iceland was in March of 2007. And I was there volunteering my time to shoot video and to tag along, and just to shadow him effectively. And that was the first trip we did, and everything kind of snowballed from there. We went to Greenland. We went to Alaska. We kept installing these time lapse cameras. And I got to see how James worked and his mindset and his approach to storytelling, his approach to photography. And it was really just a great experience.
Jo Reed: Okay, I'd like to backtrack and talk a little bit more specifically about James' project. You're talking about time lapse photography. What exactly did James attempt to do?
Jeff Orlowski: He was doing an assignment for the New Yorker Magazine and he went to Iceland. And he saw how some of these glaciers in Iceland were changing very quickly. And he went there and he went back a couple of months later, and saw the before and after. And the idea that he had was to set up cameras that would live there for multiple years, and photograph the glacier every hour of daylight, and to automate that process of documenting what was happening to the landscape. And he thought it would be easy. He thought, you know, you can just buy parts off the shelf and install these cameras, and capture what was happening, but we very quickly learned how difficult it was going to be. The cameras had to endure -40 degree temperatures, 200-mile an hour winds, and winters without any sunlight whatsoever, and they had to last for very, very long periods of time. And there was no equipment that was designed for those purposes. So James had to invent it. He invented a new timer. He had these custom parts built. He invented these housings that would keep the cameras safe and protected from the elements for multiple years, and we installed them. And they've been out there now for almost six years, and the photography has just been continuing.
Jo Reed: Now where are the cameras located?
Jeff Orlowski: They're in Greenland, in Iceland, in Alaska, some in Canada. He's installed cameras at Mount Everest right now and he's looking to install more cameras in Antarctica and in South America. Right now, the cameras shoot every half hour of daylight. So ten minutes ago we had 34 cameras all around the world take another picture. And as we go back, we go back to the cameras a couple of times a year, we collect the data, we collect the memory cards and then they get edited together, and you can see what happened to the glacier over five years. You can watch five years of history unfold in 30 seconds. And it's really dramatic. It's really powerful because we never anticipated the glaciers to change as much as they are. We've been really surprised by how much change these cameras have documented. I think pretty consistently at almost every location we've been to, it's been startling. You go back there-- you know, you're at a location one summer. You go back there a year later and you look at the landscape and in many cases it's mind blowing just to see how big the changes are. There's no real way to compare it in the normal life that we live in, you know, in an urban environment, a suburban environment because the scale is so big. You look at in all directions and all you see is ice for miles and miles and miles. And it's really hard to wrap your head around how big the places are. So, it was a real challenge in the film and in the photography to showcase scale references. We would constantly put people, or boats, or helicopters, or anything that would give the viewer a sense of how big these places are. We were constantly trying to incorporate that into the imagery.
Jo Reed: I just want to ask another technical question. You said that James had trouble with his equipment. You're there documenting this process, did you have problems with yours?
Jeff Orlowski: I was really surprised by how well the video equipment held up. And to some degree, there's some equipment that we had that had hard times at -30 degrees, -40 degrees, which you would expect. But overall, it performed very, very well. The difficulty was really dealing with the entire workflow. We had cameras that were shooting on digital memory cards and we had to do downloads and backups out in the field in those conditions. And in some cases, we had a generator with us and extension cords and, you know, power strips where we were charging batteries, and powering cameras, and powering hard drives, and computers, and doing all of this data management out there in those harsh conditions.
Jo Reed: Did you know video or film when you started working with James?
Jeff Orlowski: I had a little bit of a background in it and I had done some film workshops in college, and I had done some short films. And it was enough to get my foot in the door, I guess. But, there was a lot of learning as we went along. When we first started we weren't planning on making an actual feature length film. That wasn't the intention. The goal and what I was trying to offer to James was shooting video for his own promotional purposes, for him to make YouTube videos, and fundraising videos, and things like that. And it was about a year to two years into the project where we had amassed this huge collection of footage, and we saw how powerful the time lapses were. And with all of those materials together, I started pitching James on letting me make an actual movie. “Let me make a feature film,” and we can take his story and share it with the world and share the images with the world. So, it took a while to win him over, but ultimately he saw the potential in that. And then, we started working on Chasing Ice.
Jo Reed: So, your first big involvement with film is in fact this project, Chasing Ice.
Jeff Orlowski: To a large degree, yes. This is my first feature film. I had done short films before that and films that had gone to festivals and won awards, but they were much smaller in scope. I don't think anybody on the team anticipated how big Chasing Ice would become in terms of the amount of time and effort, and work that went into it. It was a five-year long project. We spent about two and a half or three years shooting out in the field, and it was about two and a half years of editing as well. So, it very quickly grew into something bigger than any of us had anticipated.
Jo Reed: Let's talk about that first trip to Iceland. Describe the circumstances and the environment that you went into.
Jeff Orlowski: I was very underprepared. That's the first and foremost. I remember being out there--
Jo Reed: I was going to say, you're from New York. What do you know from Iceland?
Jeff Orlowski: It was far, far colder than I had anticipated. I brought pretty much all the layers that I had and thought were appropriate, and still was very, very cold. I didn't have the right shell pants. Somebody on the team lent me a pair of shell pants. I was wearing cotton jeans under some of my layers. I didn't have the right gloves. I didn't have the right boots. There were days where my toes were just absolutely numb for hours on end. And you very quickly learn what's right and what's wrong, and you very quickly realize that you need better equipment and better clothing. James, to his credit, he prepared all of us pretty decently. He let me know what kind of gear we needed, and we had all the right technical gear. I just was underprepared from a clothing perspective.
Jo Reed: How cold was it?
Jeff Orlowski: The first trip wasn't too bad; you know, all in the freezing temperature range, but not much colder beyond that. But when you're spending hours and hours outside filming, hiking, carrying gear; you know, you go hike and find a location and then you start sweating and then you're sitting around for a while and you start getting cold, it can really get down to your core and kind of chill you from the inside out. The coldest temperatures we had to deal with were in Greenland in the wintertime. And we were outside, hiking around and working in -40 degrees. We were camping out in a little hut and there was one night where we had a little propane heater, and it was leaking gas. We were about to go to sleep and we smelled this gas coming out and we knew that was a really, really bad sign. So, we turned the heater off and we all went to sleep that night and I woke up in the middle of the night. I was so cold that I actually woke up from the sound of my teeth chattering. That's what startled me awake. And I was just waiting, waiting for the sun to come up so I can get up and start moving around. There were some very, very cold days.
Jo Reed: And many of the places you went to were also quite desolate. How did you get to that place in Greenland, for example, in the middle of winter?
Jeff Orlowski: It's very, very difficult to get to those places. And some of the biggest expenses on the whole trip were just traveling out to those locations, and to pay for the excess baggage fees to get our camera gear and equipment out there. Our team is based in Boulder, Colorado. We fly to the East Coast go to Copenhagen, fly from Copenhagen back to Kangarlussuaq in Greenland, and then you take another commercial plane up to Ilulissat, and then you would take helicopters from there to the actual glacier. I mean it's a two to three day trek just to get to like places where we were working.
Jo Reed: And then you would set up camp there.
Jeff Orlowski: We'd set up camp. Sometimes we would dog sled. Sometimes, you know, we would travel by boat. There was a variety of different ways that we would use to get to those locations and then you'd be out there for a week, two weeks, sometimes longer; bringing all the food and all the provisions that, you know, are keeping a team of four guys alive and safe, or in some cases the team was just two people. So, the level of self-reliance is very, very high. The level of trust in your team is very high. Knowing that if somebody falls into a crevasse, your life is dependent on your one partner, your friend saving you and getting you out of there. There were times where we were camping out at a location and we were supposed to be picked up, and the helicopter was supposed to come and bring us back to the main town. Picture perfect blue sky day, everything's perfect, and we get a call from the airport saying that the weather at the airport is terrible. It's foggy. They can't take off. Helicopters can't fly. And the way it works in Greenland is if you miss your time slot on a charter flight, they don't squeeze you in the next spot. They actually put you at the end of the list. And when there's availability down the line, that's when they go and fly the helicopter and pick you up. So, there were times when we were out there, we were supposed to get picked up and they said, “Sorry, bad news. You're not getting picked up today. Let's check back in tomorrow.” And the next day comes and they're like, “Oh, still too booked. Let's check back in the next day.” There were times where James was out there for five days waiting for a helicopter to come pick him up. Fortunately, we anticipated needing extra food, extra fuel, and all the resources. But, there were some uncomfortable, unfortunate circumstances out there, just waiting, completely at the mercy of the weather and the airlines.
Jo Reed: There were many things that struck me about your film, Chasing Ice, but the one that I'm thinking of at the moment is James is kind of dauntless, isn't he? I mean knowing that he's going to get wet. There's ice everywhere and the ocean is coming in and he takes his boots off because he knows he's going to get wet. And I'm looking at this and I'm thinking, “Don't feet freeze?”
Jeff Orlowski: Absolutely. James is willing to push himself very, very far for the purposes of his art, and his photography, and his imagery. He is very, very dedicated to making the best possible work that he can do. One of the great positive side effects of that is that everybody on the team was really putting in 110%, you know, wanting to keep that same level of dedication and commitment to all the work that we were doing. But, it does put you at risk in some cases, and James puts himself in dangerous situations. That scene that you're describing, he didn't want his boots to get wet. I mean if his boots get wet, then you've got a couple days of wet, cold boots that aren't going to dry out in those cold conditions. And his experience taught him to, you know, its better off to take his boots off, to stand in this absolutely frigid, ice cold ocean water and endure the temporary pain so that he can get the photography that he wanted and get the shots that he wanted. It was a couple hours of kind of recovering afterwards. I've got footage that didn't make it into the film, but him back in the little cabin that we were at, with his feet in a sink trying to warm his toes back and get feeling back into his toes. It's just a testament to how far he's willing to push himself for the pursuit of his photography.
Jo Reed: Early on in Chasing Ice, you filmed an extraordinary event at Store Glacier in Greenland, called calving. Can you explain what it is that you saw and filmed?
Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, pretty much everybody has seen footage of calving events. When we think of ice breaking off or ice melting, most of the footage that we see on the news is of a calving event, and that's when a piece of ice breaks off the glacier and falls into the ocean. It lends for these big spectacular events because it's very directly the process of ice melting and going into the ocean and causing sea level rise. And those things have been seen all the time. But, what we were trying to do was capture some larger events. The one that you're referencing happened at this glacier in Greenland, is on the Western Coast of Greenland and we were there setting up one of our time lapse cameras. And in the process of being there, we saw that there was a peninsula. It looked very strange. It was very irregular. And I set up the camera in this mode that would record indefinitely. It would just shoot forever and when you told the camera to stop, it would save the last hour worth of footage. And I set the camera up, I had it rolling and we were going back to installing our camera, the time lapse camera, and in that process of us being there, in the 45 minute window that we were at that glacier, this peninsula broke off and rolled over into the ocean. And the scale of this thing was huge. It was five football fields long, and about 300 feet above the surface of the water. And it took about seven minutes for it to break and slowly roll over and fall into the ocean. And it was a spectacular event. I mean it was the largest calving that anybody on the team had seen. At the time, it was the largest calving that had ever been filmed and shot in HD. And it was a very powerful moment. Consequently, or subsequently, we ended up filming a much larger event later on in the project at the Ilulissat Glacier. And that calving event was something that Adam and I were camped out for. We were waiting specifically to capture something like this, a very large calving event. And this one, it took 75 minutes. It's actually the entire length of the film. Chasing Ice is the same length of time as it took this piece of ice to break off. And the glacier retreated a full mile while we were there watching it across a calving face that was three miles wide. So, it was a huge, huge volume of ice, the size of lower Manhattan, breaking off and rolling into the ocean.
Jo Reed: Now why were you there at Ilulissat? What made you think that something major was going to happen there?
Jeff Orlowski: Well, that's a great question. And we had a time lapse camera there already for the past year. So, we had seen what that glacier had been doing. It's also a very large glacier. It's one of the most productive glaciers in the northern hemisphere. I believe it's the most productive glacier. So, it puts out more ice than any other glacier in the northern hemisphere. So, it's really a conveyor belt of ice. It's just churning out icebergs regularly. And we knew that if there was place that could reliably have a calving event, that's a place, where we would see something like that. You know, it's worth mentioning, it's worth noting that calving events have happened, for very, very long periods of time. As long as ice has been going into the ocean, ice has been breaking off and calving in this fashion. So, there's nothing really special about the fact that this is happening. The important point is that it's happening more frequently than it used to. It's happening with much greater frequency. It's happening at a faster rate. The glaciers are moving faster. And the calving event that we captured is really symbolic of the process of ice going and turning into sea level rise. So, it's really trying to represent what's going on in a very big way, and we were trying to show people what that actually looks like and feels like.
Jo Reed: What did it sound like?
Jeff Orlowski: When you're close to a calving, it sounds like a plane is flying right over your head. I mean you feel the rumble. It sounds like jet engines just churning all around you. [Excerpt from Chasing Ice plays]. And you can imagine these huge, huge massive pieces of ice, 3,000 feet tall pieces of ice, you know, the size of the Empire State Building, breaking off and rolling over in slow motion as they're churning; all these icebergs in the ocean and they're flipping over and it's really cacophonous.
Jo Reed: It's so surreal and I'm thinking of the one at Ilulissat where at one point I thought, “Oh, my God. Is that a whale coming out of the ocean?” It just seemed that way. It was just roiling.
Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, there's this one piece that broke off and kind of submerged from underneath the water, and it looks exactly like a whale. It looks like there's a whale head and you see this eye. And it's really, really amazing, and I'm thrilled that we caught it and we captured it. We had nine cameras running capturing that calving event. And that specific one, you know, if that was a whale, it was 3,000 feet tall. It was a massive monstrosity. One of the interesting things, we were talking about scale earlier, it's really hard to convey the scale of these calving events because these pieces of ice are so big. And one of the interesting things that I observed was one of the scale references is actually gravity, and the speed of gravity. And when you see some of these things breaking and you see these plumes of water and ice being shot up into the air, and you see how long it takes for a piece of ice to break off and hit the ocean, that process, watching that happen, and it looks like slow motion, but it's not. And many of them are all completely in real time and when you see it break and fall and hit the water, you realize how tall those landscapes are.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about the paradox about filming a disaster in progress, but one that has breathtaking footage?
Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, that's a really, really great observation. It's something that we struggled with regularly or thought about regularly because it's this very weird balance of beauty and horror. When Adam and I were out there, our goal was to capture this calving event. We were set on a mission to document this event, or something like it, you know, at this scale. And it sounds kind of weird, but we were stalking this glacier. We were waiting for something to happen with our cameras ready to capture what was going to happen. And so, when the calving started, we were excited. I mean there's a lot of footage that didn't make it into the film, but audio of us like whooping, and hollering, and screaming, and very excitedly watching this historic event happening before our eyes that we got to capture, that we were filming, and that was a huge success for us. But, when you think about it and you kind of take that step back, it was the realization of what this meant and what it represented, and the horrific feeling of how catastrophic this is in many ways. And throughout the entire project, it was excitement that the cameras were working. Yes, the time lapses were working, we got the data, and then we would look at the images back in the cabin or in the tent and we would-- you know, it would hit us and you would see how much the landscape was changing, and how impactful that was. And so, it was constantly this juxtaposition of emotions. And really, the way we figured out how to approach it from a story perspective, all the credit has to go to James because he figured out how to make it beautiful, and he wanted to make it beautiful. And he had done projects in the past. We include some of that in the film, previous work that James had done. And he did a project on hunting. And he did a project on endangered species. And he did all these other past projects about these important issues. And he did a project on hunting where you saw the blood and the gore. And you saw somewhat not the brutality, but you saw some of the messy sides of the world of hunting. And the photographs are very hard to look at. We actually kept some of the most horrific shots out of the film because they were just so gruesome and so gory that we didn't really want to showcase that. But, it was hard for James to share that story with an audience because people didn't want to look at those photographs. You know, that's not a photo that somebody wanted to frame and put up on their wall. So, when he did a project of endangered species, he wanted to figure out how to communicate that in a way that would get people enticed and get them interested in the subject matter. So, he photographed these endangered species in a very beautiful setting and beautiful context. He did very studio-like portraiture and fashion-like photography. And he set up these backdrops and used beautiful lighting. And those are prints where, you know; you can hang them up on your wall and stare at them for days because they capture some of the essence and the beauty of these creatures in a beautiful gorgeous setting and a landscape. And so, with that realization, when James wanted to photograph climate change as an issue, he didn't want to photograph the coal, and the oil, and the dirty side of the issue. He was trying to figure out how to photograph it in a beautiful and in an aesthetic way. And I think to his complete credit, like he figured out how to make this story of climate change beautiful through the ice. And it was the ice that allowed him to showcase what we were losing as a society, as a culture, as citizens on this planet. This is what we're losing; this is what's at risk because of what we're doing, because of man-made climate change. And it's a way to get people engaged in the story in ways that they might not otherwise get engaged with.
Jo Reed: Well, it's visualizing the statistics in some ways, or visualizing what is invisible.
Jeff Orlowski: Completely, the word “invisible” is perfect. We talk about climate change as being an invisible subject. You can't see carbon dioxide changing in the atmosphere. You can't see the greenhouse gases. You can't see temperature rising over time. And how do you represent that in a visual way, in an emotional way? And James figured out how to do that through the ice by doing these time lapses. By showing how the landscape is changing over time, people can really feel and see what climate change looks like.
Jo Reed: Well, Chasing Ice was chosen to be part of Film Forward. First of all, can you tell us what Film Forward is and what its mission is?
Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, Film Forward is a program where Sundance has teamed up with the NEA, the NEH, and the President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities. And they've chosen eight films this year to showcase, and they're sending them around the world to represent what filmmakers around the world have been working on. Most of the films are very cultural in nature. They're showcasing different cultures, different communities, and very human stories. And ours is a little bit outside of the, you know, the norm of all the other films because it is more of an environmental story to some degree. And it's really showcasing the work of this photographer and his personal voyage, and kind of odyssey that he goes on. We're really excited about it. We're humbled that we've been chosen to be part of this program, and we're really just thrilled that the film gets to go to many more places and locations, and kind of spark conversation and dialogue about the issue.
Jo Reed: What do you want people to take away from Chasing Ice?
Jeff Orlowski: That's a good question and I feel like my response has probably been changing, you know, since when we made the film and what the original intention was, and where we're at now with the film. The original goal was just to show James' story and to show the imagery, and reveal to the public, this is what's happening. I think the goal now is that I hope that people recognize-- to some degree that they recognize that climate change is happening and that it's man-made. But, there's almost a bigger underlying message in there, and that is that we're not as separate from nature that we would like to think, or that we've been trained to think. Like you said, I grew up in New York, I'm from New York City, and when you live in a big urban environment like that, you're so protected and isolated, and everything that you need is available. You know, all the food, all the resources that you need are, you know, at the flip of a switch, or you've got your tap water. And everything is just convenient. And that's how civilization has evolved over time. But, one of the real things that I think James has taught me is-- has reminded me, really, just how dependent we are on nature, how dependent human civilization is on nature. We're not as removed from it as we think. And consistently, it's not just a matter of climate change. We're seeing it in all different aspects of environmental issues. I don't consider myself an environmentalist personally. This is not an environmental film from my perspective. I consider myself a humanitarian and these are human issues. You know, climate change is a human issue. We can't do things as a species that is only intended for short-term gain, or for shareholder profit, or for immediate financial recoupment. We need to be doing things from a business perspective, from a food perspective, agriculture perspective. We need to be doing things that will last forever that all future generations can continue to do. And if we can't accomplish that, then future generations will greatly suffer as a result of our inappropriate actions now.
Jo Reed: Tell me about what you're doing now. Didn't you start a film production company called Exposure?
Jeff Orlowski: Yes, that's my company and the goal for me with Exposure is to use film and storytelling as a medium to bring these issues to light, and to have conversations surface about these important issues. As an artist, I look at film as really being one of the most powerful mediums that somebody can work with. It's a medium where people still respect in a very thorough way. You know, you pay full attention. You're dedicating your full complete attention in a dark room for an hour and a half to whatever the artist, whatever the filmmaker wants to share. And you can't get that online. You can't get that in a lot of other mediums. I think theater and film are the only places where you even have that level of complete engagement and dedication to the art form. And from my perspective, it's really powerful because you can get it out there and it can go viral, it can go online. You can spread the story in a very, very big way through the medium of film. So I'm hoping to use Exposure as a means to share important stories with the world.
Jo Reed: Well, I have no doubt that you will, Jeff, if Chasing Ice is any example. It is really a spectacular film that is guaranteed to provoke discussion and deep thought. So, thank you.
Jeff Orlowski: Thank you very much. Thanks for the interview.
Jo Reed: That was director Jeff Orlowski; we were talking about his film Chasing Ice, which was chosen by the Sundance Institute as a 2013 selection for Film Forward.
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