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'Chasing Ice:' Experimental Cameras and Time-Lapse Recordings Chart Climate Change

11/20/2012 5:50 AM Eastern

The time lapse footage in the documentary Chasing Ice manages to capture quite dramatically large-scale environmental transformation in some of the most remote regions of the world. Through time lapse recordings, the film compresses years into seconds and shows ancient mountains of glacial ice in motion as they disappear. As the debate about climate change polarizes America and the intensity of natural disasters ramps up globally, Chasing Ice depicts a photojournalist on a mission.

In Disko Bay, Greenland, 20-story-high icebergs broken off from the Greenland Ice Sheet float into the North Atlantic, raising sea level. Photo by James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey

Chasing Ice premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now in limited release in the United States. The film will be broadcast on National Geographic Channel in the first half of 2013. (The National Geographic Society was one of the sponsors of the production.)

Before there was a documentary, there was a project dubbed the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which was organized by photographer James Balog to reveal the impact of climate change via an extensive ground-based photographic study of glaciers.

Balog deployed 30 cameras to capture time lapse stills; the cameras were mounted on jagged rock formations, cliffs and other inhospitable sites across three continents. The goal was to record long-term ice melts that, in retrospect, will never be seen again. The EIS included ice formations in Alaska, Glacier National Park in Montana, Bolivia, Canada, and in Europe—Greenland, Iceland and the Alps.

“James is a [still] photographer, so his mindset was, How can I make the most compelling imagery that captures this climate change?” says Jeff Orlowski, the documentary’s director and one of its cinematographers. “So he was taking one photograph at one location, and then he’d go back to the same spot and take another shot six months later. But we soon realized we were missing the most interesting elements of the story—basically all the stuff that was happening in between those photos. It wasn’t until a year and a half into the ice survey that we realized we also had the makings of a great documentary.”

Photographer James Balog installs a time lapse camera at the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. This camera has lived at the Columbia Glacier for more than five years, photographing every hour of daylight, and has captured massive retreat at this location. Photo by Tad Pfeffer, Ph.D.

At the same time, Orlowski says, everyone realized Balog himself was a colorful personality that would play well on screen. Orlowski eventually shifted his focus to encompass James Balog as a compelling character in the film as well as the ice survey.

Another “character” was the weather. “The hardships became the norm. There were no other options. Dealing with -40° F? That was the reality,” Orlowski says. He jokes, however, “But as cold as it was, and as difficult as it may seem, that was the fun stuff. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I’d much rather be out shooting than editing!”

“Back in 2007,” Orlowski remembers, “we started out using the Panasonic AG-HVX200 and a [Focus Enhancements, now VITEC Multimedia] FireStore external hard drive recorder tethered to the camera with a FireWire cable because it was giving us better quality than HDV.”

While shooting in such extreme cold, Orlowski says he had to keep the hard drive snuggled deep inside his coat pocket to keep it warm, with a fragile cable protruding from his jacket to the camera.

“It’s really, really hard to operate these cameras when you have three layers of gloves on. I kept a pen attached to my jacket and used the point of it to poke at all the buttons. Somehow it seemed to work fine every time,” he says.

Jeff Orlowski shoots in a canyon on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo by James Balog

“Panasonic later came on board with a partial sponsorship and gave us P2 cards, but the following year [2008] the Sony EX1 came out and so we upgraded, and most of the film wound up being shot on the Sony. We used HDV cameras for a small amount of footage, and also a VariCam,” Orlowski says. “The film is really designed for the big screen and was shot and optimized for a large theater screen and proper sound,” he says, a claim backed up by at least one early “reviewer”—actor, director and Sundance founder Robert Redford.

Chasing Ice owes much of the power of its compelling visuals to time lapse photography. Worldwide trends of glacial retreat have been documented as a timeline record for all to see thanks to the Extreme Ice Survey and the ingenuity and ruggedness of Chasing Ice’s production hardware. Adam LeWinter, the EIS project engineer who later also became one of the film’s cinematographers, was in charge of the design, fabrication and installation of the still camera systems, and the maintenance they would often require.

Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski check one of their many cameras during their “Glacier Watching” trip to Greenland. Photo by Jason Box

“Most of the equipment we had for the ice survey were not off-the-shelf items, so the first thing we had to figure out was how to attach these camera systems to the side of mountains, and to tricky rock formations and cliffs, and hope they survived under really severe conditions, such as 200 mph winds, lots of snow and ice, and animals,” LeWinter says.

“James [Balog] is a sponsored Nikon photographer, and therefore we were going to use Nikon DSLRs—and the nicest was the Nikon D200, with a quality digital SLR sensor, and fixed focal length lenses. We later discovered the D200’s shutter—and later the [newer] D300’s—froze up at around -36°. We eventually wound up using our own type of controller for the camera systems—designed and built by National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Program at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.”

Orlowski says postproduction proved to be one of the tougher tasks in the whole project, whose source was more than 400 hours of raw footage. The team used an Apple Mac Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro 7 and Adobe After Effects.