Traversing the 'Frozen Planet': Documentary Series Takes Production to Polar Extremes

What took 38 cameramen and 38 sled dogs, 12 reindeer, 33 snowmobiles, 28 helicopters, 22 boats, two ice-breaker vessels, 10 four-wheelers, Alec Baldwin's voice, 18 nations, and eight pairs of snow shoes over four years in temperatures often hovering around -40°F? The teeth-chattering answer is Frozen Planet, an epic seven-part Discovery Channel documentary series premiering in the United States on March 18 and running on subsequent Sundays.


Episode 2, “Spring.” Cameraman Mark Smith filming
Adelie penguins on the beach of the Cape Crozier colony, Antarctica.

The BBC/Discovery co-production from largely the same crew who brought Planet Earth to the HD screen a few years ago explores the Earth's two polar regions. Shooting mostly on HD tape and some 35mm film in high-contrast environs, the Frozen crew deployed the same Cineflex gyro-stabilized aerial camera used so effectively in Planet Earth, with some notable adjustments.

"We of course had to completely winterize it for this shoot," says cinematographer Chadden Hunter, "but then we were able to put the Cineflex into service on platforms never used before–such as becoming a 'boat-gimbal' drifting amid those icy waters."

Hunter says that while just keeping the equipment running was challenging enough, a lot of otherwise routine shooting habits soon revealed their intolerance to hyper-frigid conditions. "Like pulling out a moist towelette for a lens wipe that you'd use on any other shoot, and in a split second it's covered with a sheet of chemical ice crystals. So you're busy scraping ice crystals off the lens and trying to use a dry cloth to clean it instead."

Hunter says crew members chose Panasonic VariCams for the bulk of shooting. "The VariCams were tried and tested, and they became our workhorses. But in such frigid conditions, the batteries constantly had to be changed, so we stored them down our trousers and anywhere else on our bodies where we could keep the standby batteries warm.

"When we started shooting Frozen Planet a few years ago, we were probably the last of this generation to use HD tape, and by the end of our shoot, all the other productions around us had moved on to file-based shoots. It's true that the ability to review what you just shot in the field is really amazing, but when you're in the field for months at a time and so much is stored on such small [hard drive] devices, you really have to keep your wits about you for properly downloading when you're exhausted so you don't accidentally lose loads of expensive shoot footage. With tape, it's not really a problem," Hunter elaborates.


Gyro-stabilized camera fitted to a crane in a boat on the Bering Sea
off the coast of Chukotka in the Russian Far East. This system
enabled the team to film steady shots of a team of walrus hunters.

In order to keep the cameras themselves warm enough to fully operate, the crew bought small, battery-powered heaters from Wal-Mart. "They worked down to about -25°, but when we got down to -40°, we used an old hunter's trick: We actually used sticks of coal that we lit so they'd burn slowly in little metal cases. Then we wrapped these burning bits of coal in the cases in a blanket around the cameras. So we had these $50,000 HD cameras wrapped in bits of coal!"

In all, the series filmed in every country within the Arctic and Antarctic circles during more than 2,300 crew days in the field, including six months solely on sea ice—and 134 hours under the sea ice. The production crew worked with more than half a dozen expert institutes—notably NASA (which asked to participate), British Antarctic Survey, United States Antarctic Program, PCSP Canada, University Centre of Svalbard Norway, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Institut Polaire Francias.

Series producer Vanessa Berlowitz of the BBC says that since the series was shot and produced over four years, trying to keep evolving production values and image quality consistent from start to finish was a constant challenge. "You've got to keep improving the image quality at all levels, and that's indeed difficult as you go through the whole production process over years. We had to work against having any type of unevenness," Berlowitz says.

Part of her approach to the long shoot was working hands-on with equipment makers to improve or alter hardware to better function in the particularly harsh weather conditions. "We went to Panasonic several times and said, 'We need you to improve the light sensitivity and imaging quality for the penguin sequences,' or for some underwater shooting or other difficult shots. We worked personally with the Cineflex people to winterize their [gimbal] camera."


Cameraman Didier Noirot filming emperor penguins underwater.
They are returning to breed at Cape Washington, Antarctica. The team
used a high-speed camera underwater to capture the penguins’
magical underwater ballet.

With 24 hours of sunlight per day, summer shoots required endurance. To capture footage of polar bears, for example, the crew shot over three continuous days in five-hour shifts, Berlowitz says.

"Sometimes we wound up using 35mm cameras for high-speed capture on the ice edge, literally dropping crew onto the sea ice [from helicopters]. We needed a really rugged, highly portable camera to cope with the extreme light and contrast of the ice and sun.

"We also used 35mm cameras on motion control heads [to capture] continuingly moving time-lapse shots, like we had done in Planet Earth. The emperor penguin sequence was shot in 35mm—although 90 percent of the series was not," Berlowitz notes. "The nice thing about a 35mm film camera is you can still open it up and fix it!"

Despite some sequences that look almost from another planet, Berlowitz explains that the production team has an "absolute mantra" that no images can be artificially enhanced in any way with today's easily available software tools. "Nothing is ever faked; nothing artificial is ever added in postproduction, for example. This is imperative for us. We don't recompose shots or add any layers of CGI," she says.

While most of the series is narrated by Alec Baldwin, the seventh and final episode, which examines rising temperatures and their effect on the North and South poles, is hosted on camera by renowned British naturalist David Attenborough.