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Capturing Devastation: How “Anthropocene” Documents The Human Epoch

Featuring stunning landscape photography, documentary feature from the multi-award-winning team of Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky surveys a new era of human-driven geology.

Elephant Tusk Burn, Nairobi National Park, Kenya, Courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018.

A cinematic meditation on humanity’s massive reengineering of the planet, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is a feature documentary film four years in the making from the multiple-award winning team of Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky. Distributed by Kino Lorber, in partnership with Kanopy, Anthropocene screened in theaters across the U.S. this past September for a nationwide one-day screening event coinciding with the U.N. Climate Action Summit.

Third in a trilogy that includes Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), the film follows the research of an international body of scientists, the Anthropocene Working Group which, after nearly 10 years of research, is arguing that the evidence shows the Holocene Epoch gave way to the Anthropocene Epoch in the mid-twentieth century, as a result of profound and lasting human changes to the Earth.

At the intersection of art and science, Anthropocene witnesses, in an experiential and non-didactic sense, a critical moment in geological history — bringing a provocative and unforgettable experience of our species’ breadth and impact. The film is part of a multidisciplinary project exploring human impact on the Earth, including fine art photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research. Anthropocene Interactive, which is available through The Anthropocene Project website and via the Anthropocene AVARA Media app, combines documentary storytelling with responsive gigapixel essays, 360° film, and 3D modelling to fully immerse audiences in these photographic worlds, allowing them to journey to some of the most imposing, stunning, and remote locations in the world.

From concrete seawalls in China that now cover 60 percent of the mainland coast and the biggest terrestrial machines ever built in Germany to psychedelic potash mines in Russia’s Ural Mountains, metal festivals in the closed city of Norilsk, the devastated Great Barrier Reef in Australia and massive marble quarries in Carrara, the filmmakers have traversed the globe using high-end production values and state-of-the-art camera techniques to document the evidence and experience of human planetary domination.

“I was amazed that we got permission to film in Russia,” de Pencier recounts in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine:

“All our research indicated that it’s never been harder to get a North American camera crew into the country since the Cold War. And we were pushing it even more by trying to get into underground mines in the Ural mountains and into the ‘closed city’ of Norilsk. To film in the subterranean, psychedelic potash mines, the tunnels of which span over 3,000 kilometers, we needed an invitation from the mining company. Norilsk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is a one company town of around 175,000 people. It has the largest colored metal mine (chances are your cellphone has palladium in it from Norilsk) and heavy metals smelting complex in the world, and is one of its most polluted cities. There is no road or rail access. Because of its strategic importance and gulag forced-labor history, even Russian citizens need special permission to go there. It took a long time to process the visas and I felt the odds were insurmountably against us, and that we were just going through the motions to say we had tried. Then one day they arrived. Incredible.”

Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida, USA 2012. photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Made without a traditional script, production for Anthropocene took place over the course of a little more than three years, capturing upwards of 200 hours of footage from 43 locations spanning 20 countries on six continents. Twenty-nine different cameras were used over the course of production, some of which were sent up in the air in helicopters and on drones, into the ocean, strapped to the front of a train and into a purpose-built protective casing to film the felling of an old growth tree in British Columbia.

“When we were planning the underground shoot in the Berezniki mines, our biggest challenge was how to get a tracking shot through the tunnels without having stands and hot lights appearing in the frame,” Burtynsky details:

Aerial view of phosphor tailing ponds near Lakeland, Florida Credit: Photo courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018.

“I wondered if the whole area could be captured using photogrammetry and then stitched together digitally and animated. After some research we found an expert in Atlanta, Benjamin von Cramon, who helped us capture the tunnels using tens of thousands of images. We then reconstructed these in software. The resulting sequence lasts no more than 20 seconds but took months of planning, tons of resources, and a lot of experimentation. It could not have been achieved any other way. I always get a kick out of watching when it comes up in the film.”

Anthropocene is presented by Telefilm Canada and The Rogers Group through the Theatrical Documentary Program, and produced with the participation of the Canada Media Fund, Bell Media, Telus Fund, the Ontario Media Development Corporation, and Bell Fund in association with TVO, the Ontario Film or Television Tax Credit and the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit.

Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016 photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Workers in underground potash mine in Berezniki, Russia 2018 photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Smelting operations at NorNickel factory, Norilsk, Russia Credit: Photo courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018.