Making Antarctica

Some notes by John Weiley

If you described the equipment you would like to take on an expedition to Antarctica; light, flexible, easy to operate….you would be describing the antithesis of an IMAX camera.

IMAX equipment delivers images of unmatched clarity, sharpness and size but you pay a price for that…. It is very big, very heavy and very demanding.

Part of the sense of ‘presence’ comes from our use of very wide angle lenses and we have to get those lenses very close to the action…you can’t use long lenses to pull things up close; there are no tricks.

To give you the feeling that you are “really there” we have to actually BE really there…….we cannot give you the feeling that you are falling into a crevasse unless we really do fall into that crevasse. We do sometimes look around and say to ourselves “This is completely insane…” but as any war photographer will tell you, looking through a lens makes everything seem less dangerous.

A typical day…

We had been told that there was a great ice cave in the tongue of the Erebus glacier. When we at last located the entrance we found that it was about 10 metres up a vertical ice cliff . Not a huge obstacle ,but hauling a tonne of equipment up an ice cliff is not the easiest way to start a day.

My tiny, heroic, crew had a continuing joke among themselves that I would always decide that the hardest place to reach was the best place to take the pictures. Before we climbed into the cave they had bet me that I would want to shoot in the most remote cavern. When I saw the first cavern I was sure that they would lose their bet. It was breathtakingly beautiful, a palace for an ice queen. However I did decide to have a quick look into the next great space … and the next and the next ….and to my great surprise there was no doubt that the most beautiful was the very last one I could get into.

There was a small problem. To get into the ultimate cavern it was often necessary to take off your thicker clothing and push your body head first through holes then slither down an icy tube (reminding yourself all the time that glaciers move very slowly and that the feeling that this one had decided to squeeze you flat was just a fantasy…)We gradually worked our way into the heart of the glacier but when we were just one ‘squeeze’ away from the bottom of the beautiful crevasse that I’d chosen we found that the camera, even stripped down to basics, just would not fit through the last tube. After such a struggle no one was ready to compromise so with pocket tool kits the camera was completely stripped, the pieces handed through, re-assembled and we shot the sequence.

Water was a constant problem. A zillion tonnes of it frozen solid all around, but not a drop to drink. To melt it you have to carry stoves and fuel and the place is so cold and so high (3000m – and the low air pressure at the poles effectively makes it closer to 4000m for cooking purposes). You seem to need a litre of fuel to make a litre of water! And you learn to eat quickly…It was often below minus 30 so if you wait for a minute for your food to cool you will find you are crunching on icicles among your beans.

‘Used food’ is another constant problem…..Everyone is committed to keeping Antarctica completely pure and free from all foreign organisms. So there can be no hiding behind a big ice block to ‘go to the bathroom’. The problem is solved by including with the survival gear a folding toilet seat and a supply of plastic bags. Using this is indescribably uncomfortable but presents no ‘aesthetic’ problems because (for once) the extreme cold is useful. The problem arises when the helicopter comes to pick you up……Nothing is left behind, not so much as a cigarette butt. The ‘used food’ (rock hard) gets loaded along with everything else. But pilots like to keep their cabins nice and warm….Experienced travellers learn to double up on bags!

Electronic equipment hates cold weather. Our stills photographer and sound recordist, Susanne Burtscher (from Vorarlberg and perhaps the first Austrian woman to reach the South Pole) was burdened by a very sophisticated still camera and DAT sound recorder, neither of which would work in extreme cold. The solution she found was to carry them under her clothing against her stomach.

This made the machines happy but was hard on Susanne. When the equipment became so cold that it would not operate she had to slip it back into her underwear to get it going again…..

The basic, early model, IMAX camera that we took as a reserve kept on working in all conditions. The newer camera, that was to be our main camera, hardly worked at all. After our return we discovered that the film advancing mechanism in the new camera was made of sophisticated rare metals which were very strong and light but, unfortunately contracted in the cold at a different rate to the rest of the mechanism and so would jam. The old camera, with all of the parts being of the same metal, had no such problem.

One of the absolutely unforgettable experiences I had in Antarctica was diving into a cathedral size, water-filled ice cave inside a glacier. The water was so pure that it was invisible and when I looked at the other divers they seemed to be flying effortlessly through air.

That experience of “flying” inspired the central sequence in my next film – a 3D IMAX film “Imagine“.

The Crew

Transport limitations meant that we had to manage with a very small crew. Four people were there from start to finish (two shooting periods of three months each) Malcolm Ludgate, cinematographer; Andy Glasser, grip: Susanne Burtscher, sound recordist and myself. For the first three month shoot we also had Tom Cowan as cinematographer. Other helpers (ranging from the heroic to the hopeless) came and went.

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