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‘Antarctica: A Year on Ice’: Recording the Remarkable Environment (and Real Life) at the South Pole

This cinematic study of life at the South Pole consists of imagery shot over more than a decade, including over nine grueling winters.

Without interruption since 1956, Americans have been studying Antarctica and its interactions with the rest of the planet from three permanent research stations there. New Zealanders have been carrying out polar research there since 1957. For many years, director/cinematographer Anthony Powell (Frozen Planet) has been conducting his own Antarctic research, whose results were published theatrically last fall in the form of the film Antarctica: A Year on Ice from Music Box Films. The documentary is slated for Blu-ray and streaming distribution this spring.

This cinematic study of life at the South Pole consists of imagery shot over more than a decade, including over nine grueling winters. Principal photography took place on Ross Island near Antarctica, home to the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station and New Zealand’s Scott Base, operated by Antarctica New Zealand.

Powell learned that you need to be careful about looking into camera viewfinders when you have ice built up on your face and eyelashes. It is easy to freeze your eyelashes to the camera.

The project is not a nature documentary, per se. Instead, it follows the comings and goings of the men and women working in Antarctica—including the early courtship and marriage of Powell himself to a colleague, Christine. Powell says, “A big part of the motivation for the film is just trying to show it from the point of view of a regular person who knows the place, so other people can appreciate what an amazing place it is and why I love it so much.”

Powell chose to work with DSLR cameras (primarily Canon), grinding through several models over the years of production. One of the many challenges working in temperatures often hovering below -60° F was preventing his eyelashes from freezing to his equipment, not to mention dealing with frozen fluid head tripods and LCDs.

“My first digital camera was a Minolta DiMAGE 7,” Powell says. “There are a couple of shots in the movie that were done with the Minolta. Back then, intervalometers [for counting time intervals] were unheard of commercially, so I had to design and build my own. After that I upgraded through a long line of Canon DSLRs, starting with an EOS 20D that lasted about 14 months before I wore out the shutter. My EOS 5D Mark II recently had the mirror fail after quite a few years of abuse, so as a temporary fix I wedged the mirror up with a bit of plastic so I can at least shoot in live-view mode.”

Because several goals on Powell’s production wish list had never been attempted in such harsh conditions over such a long period of time, the native New Zealander quickly learned that the simplest solution is often the best. “Filming in the winter, I had to learn how to do it all myself through trial and error. No one else had done it before, so that is another reason it took so long to make the film.”

Powell says of Antarctica, “It is the last pristine wilderness left on the planet. The skies are clear and free of light pollution, letting you see more stars than you can imagine. The auroras and nacreous clouds can fill the entire sky sometimes. It is just breathtaking.”

He continues, “With motion control systems, the very basic ones are the most reliable. Direct-drive DC motors with metal gearing. Plastic gears become brittle, rubber drive belts will go solid and snap, and LCD displays will freeze and become unreadable.” For dollies, Powell deployed a cart with large scooter wheels, pulling it on “open tracks” (needed to keep them clear of ice build-up) and using common fishing twine (and very much not nylon).

Fortunately for Powell, some of the movie’s most dazzling scenes did not require a half-frozen human working behind the lens. The film offers several visually stunning time lapse segments—including one eight-second sequence where the ice shelf meets the frozen sea ice that Powell says took nearly five months to capture. He had to hike out to the camera every three days to swap out the camera batteries and memory cards. Another otherworldly digital capture is the Southern Lights, known as aurora australis, the southern counterpart to the Northern Lights (aurora borealis).

To shelter his fixed cameras from the elements, he would sometimes slide woolen hats and ski masks over the units, which looked funny but usually proved successful. “After a while I gave up trying to heat the cameras, since the power demands were far too high for remote locations where you have to manually haul batteries around. As long as you’re not shooting more than about one frame every few seconds, the cameras kept working happily down to about -40° F.” He adds that once ambient temps plunged to about -75° F, “things would get a bit weird with exposure values.”

Powell sometimes put hats over his cameras to keep out the weather.

The jaw-clenching frigid air did provide at least one bright spot: Powell found that extreme cold helps reduce sensor noise in long-exposure night shots. As for camera power supplies, Powell typically relied on large 12-volt lead-acid gel cell batteries running through a voltage converter to step down to the right voltage for the camera. “Lead-acid may be bulky, but it’s the most reliable in the cold,” he says.

One significant challenge Powell and other station staffers faced each winter didn’t concern production equipment, lack of food or fear of frostbite. Polar T3 syndrome, a condition characterized by a reduced amount of thyroid hormone T3 in people who spend an extended time in Antarctica, may exhibit as “short-term memory loss, low energy levels, loss of vocabulary, zoning out and staring into space, and forgetting names of people or everyday objects like the salt on the dinner table,” Powell says. “T3 is a generic term we use to describe the symptoms almost all of us begin to feel later in the winter.”

Powell says the condition is thought to be caused by several factors, including fatigue from extremely long work hours, lack of sunlight over many months (causing a vitamin D deficiency) and maintaining often-mundane daily routines in an unfriendly environment.

Shot at -40° F.

After principal photography, Powell assembled the film with story editor Simon Price at Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand, using Adobe Creative Suite. (Park Road was simultaneously working on the New Zealand-based Hobbit films.) The post house was responsible for all final online editing, color grading, narration recording of Powell with dialogue editor Chris Todd, and the theatrical surround sound mix. Park Road Post also generated the film’s DCP.

Tom Prebble served as sound designer. Original music was composed by Plan 9, which performed much of the original score.

“In some ways Antarctica is a bit like going and living in a monastery for a while. It gives you a very different perspective on your life back home,” Powell says. “You have very few possessions and it’s great. All the clutter, all the noise, all the expectations of modern society are removed. Less can be so much more. You get to focus on the important things in life … which, ultimately, are other people.”