Chasing Ice, a new documentary by Jeff Orlowski, follows award-winning environmental photographer James Balog on his journey to capture rapidly-eroding glaciers in the Arctic. Balog was once a skeptic about climate change and a cynic about the nature of academic research. But through his Extreme Ice Survey, he discovers undeniable evidence of our changing planet. In the film, Balog deploys revolutionary time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers. His hauntingly beautiful videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate. Chasing Ice premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won for Excellence in Cinematography, and was recently awarded the 2012 Environmental Media Award for Best Documentary.
At the film’s press day, Balog and Orlowski talked about how their pioneering film makes global warming visual and emotional in a way that has never happened before. Balog discussed what spurred his interest in climate change in the Artic and how the retreat and thinning of glaciers are symptomatic of a much greater global condition of human disturbance of the natural environment. Orlowski revealed why he wanted to work with Balog and how he prepared and met the challenges of shooting his first feature film in extreme conditions. Hit the jump to read more about what they had to say:
Question: James, how do you go from animals to glaciers? What is it that spurred your interest?
JAMES BALOG: Well, really this is all part of a lifelong creative exploration and evolution. Since the beginning of my career in my late twenties, I made the decision that one of the crucial subjects of our era was the intersection of humans and nature. The way I thought about it at the time was that this boundary zone, this contact zone between humans and nature, was this terribly important area. It provided essentially endless creative opportunities for things to explore and things to look at. After a little bit of zigzagging around there in my late twenties and early thirties on a number of different subjects on that theme, I settled in on the animal tangent for a while. It was sort of my furry period, you could say, and I did a lot of animal work for eight or ten years. Then, I got this idea to work with the intersection of humans and technology and that was a body of work I called “techno-sapiens” and that overlapped with some of the animal work as well. Then, I worked on trees, about a six-year celebration of the country’s, of the United States’ largest, oldest, strongest trees, and that work came out in 2004. And, as that work was going along, I was sniffing around on climate change and trying to figure out what I could do with climate change photographically. It became pretty obvious that the storyline on climate change would wind up having to be something connected with ice. I couldn’t think of anything else that was photographable, that was visual, that would help manifest climate change. All of a sudden, in late 2004, the phone rang one day from The New Yorker wanting me to shoot a story on climate change. One of the locations I had to shoot was at a glacier in Iceland, and that, in turn, led to a National Geographic proposal that I made to the magazine, and then the rest is history.
In the film, you use time-lapse cameras to capture dramatic evidence of the world’s changing glaciers. In light of everything you’ve seen, is there a solution? Is it even possible to reverse what we’re seeing?
BALOG: What we’re seeing, in a really specific sense of masses of ice, is not going to reverse anytime soon. If we do everything right, starting tomorrow, we’re looking at a very long time cycle to recover that ice. But I’d like to point out that this project is really not a celebration of endangered landscapes per se the way my work on Endangered Wildlife was. Endangered Wildlife is about animals that are literally going extinct. Well, guess what? There’s going to be ice for a long time, so it’s not like we’re trying to say “Please recover that glacier coming down that fjord in Greenland.” It’s more to say that the retreat of the glaciers and the thinning of the glaciers are symptomatic of this much greater global condition of human disturbance of the natural environment, the basic physics and chemistry of the planet. That’s the real signal flag that we’re trying to raise here, to think about how ice is a manifestation of these systemic changes in the basic operating system of the planet.
Jeff, as graphic, visual and empowering as the time-lapse photography is, equally thrilling is your work filming James and the various expeditions and visits. What led you to become involved and to subject yourself to these essentially inhumane conditions?
JEFF ORLOWSKI: I honestly just wanted to work with James knowing him as a very skilled photographer, and I had interest in pursuing photography at the time, and I had done some video work and some film work for short projects. Really my foot in the door was volunteering to shoot video for James. I had never made a feature film before. We weren’t planning on making a film. This was just my opportunity to join him on this trip. And, as I was reminded of earlier today, the very first trip to Iceland, I had jeans. I didn’t have the right clothing. I didn’t have the right gear. There was one trip to Alaska that we went on where I actually fell into ice water up to my neck. That’s another story that I don’t tell often. I was filming. There was a piece of ice that was on the shore, and I thought I could step on that and get a different angle. James was canoeing between these pieces of ice. I shifted my weight onto this piece of ice and learned that it was floating and that it wasn’t pinned down on the sand, and as the piece of ice just sank, it was like slow motion. I rolled off the ice. The huge yellow rain slickers were filling up with water. I came down to my neck. I put the camera on the shore. I just managed to put it down on a piece of ice on the side, and I got out and tried to stay warm for the rest of the day. When we got back to the hotel, I’m peeling the layers off, and he saw me wearing cotton, and I didn’t even realize…
BALOG: (laughs) What are you thinking of?!
ORLOWSKI: He said “Why are you wearing cotton?” I didn’t even know at the time that that was taboo. So, I wasn’t fully prepared for the extreme nature of these locations that we went to. When we were going to do the tougher stuff, when we were going to do the climbing, James, to his complete credit, made sure that the whole team had a lot of the safety techniques and the climbing techniques and skills that we needed to be able to potentially save each other or rescue each other if something went wrong.
How were your knees?
ORLOWSKI: I wore knee pads all the time. On the Greenland ice sheet, I had these huge skiing kneepads that they use, because when you’re filming, you’re constantly bending down, kneeling down, and kneeling directly on a piece of ice is not comfortable, so those kneepads actually helped quite a bit. I’m trying to learn from James’ lessons.
That must have been hard if you were already having difficulty with your knees and then to be in that extreme climate and terrain?
BALOG: That scene in the film where I’m rappelling down into that big river channel and then I lean over the edge of the channel and photograph that waterfall, that was just a few months after I tore my knees up in Iceland. My wife was opposed to me going. My doctor was opposed to me going. Our team and I were going back and forth for many weeks, if not months, trying to figure out how we could reduce the damage and the potential risks to my knee of being out on that trip. The guys were really protective of me when I was out there. Nobody let me carry heavy loads because it’s carrying the heavy loads when you’re twisting and gyrating around on the ice that really chews you up.
How are the knees holding up now?
BALOG: Pretty well. I can still climb and speak, I think. (looking at Orlowski) I know what you’re going to say. I know it! (laughs) This is a story that’s never been told.
ORLOWSKI: That I point out earlier.
BALOG: On this trip, one of the things I was most nervous about, of all things, was how I was going to go to the bathroom on this trip. Typically, you squat down and do what you have to do, right? But my knees were so shredded that I couldn’t squat down. I spent weeks stressing out about it wondering how I was going to.
ORLOWSKI: We were debating whether or not the trip was going to happen because of this.
BALOG: Because of whether or not I could go to the bathroom.
ORLOWSKI: Yeah. So his ingenious solution was to take one of those camping folding chairs made out of canvas, and a hole was cut, and he had his proverbial throne.
BALOG: These guys loved to make fun of me every morning out there on the ice. I’d go off to the side of the camp somewhere.
And this one factoid is why every child in America is going to want to see this film.
BALOG: We had a lot of potty humor on this trip.
Can you talk a little bit about what shooting in those types of extreme conditions was like and what were the challenges you had to deal with?
ORLOWSKI: To some degree, the challenges were obviously tough, but there was no alternative. There was no other option. We knew that to cover this story we had to endure these cold temperatures so there was no room for complaining or really acknowledging how difficult it was. That’s what we had to do. Some of the worst weather we ever had wasn’t filmed on the very first trip because we were concerned the cameras would all get ruined in the snow and the sand and the terrible conditions. So, it’s something where I think we were always prepared for that level of difficulty with the cold temperatures.
Was there anything special you had to do in terms of handling and protecting your cameras?
ORLOWSKI: I was surprised by how well they worked. Some of the very first trips we were actively using this blimp that was designed to keep the camera insulated and we were putting hand warmers in it, but it just made it very inconvenient to work with and inconvenient to shoot. Sometimes the batteries die faster. Some of the LCDs on some of the cameras don’t refresh as quickly. The Sony cameras that we ended up using for most of the film did a great job and you keep an extra battery inside your inside jacket pocket. You swap them out when they’re going low, and when they get warm again, they give you a bit more life. There were a lot of things that I learned. I think the biggest thing that I learned was in preparing back-ups, that whenever you bring back-up gear, to bring things of a different make and model, that you don’t bring two or three of the exact same thing. I had some audio cables that froze and got very stiff in cold temperatures when another company’s cable didn’t do that. That’s something that I couldn’t have prepared for and couldn’t have tested in advance.
BALOG: But we found that the time-lapse cameras would basically freeze up at about minus 40 Fahrenheit. Somewhere around that temperature the electrons stopped moving inside those cameras and you couldn’t get a picture any more. When we started the project, the big question was if you have cameras frozen for X number of weeks like that at those kinds of temperatures, will they come back alive once it warms up. We had tested these things inside a big warehouse that the U.S. Geological Survey has where ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland are preserved. It’s this huge airplane hanger with racks and racks and racks of these four-inch diameter cores that came out of Antarctica. So, we put the cameras down there for a week before we deployed them, and they came alive okay. But that’s not the same as being out there for months and months. If this had been a NASA project, all this gear would have been tested for a year and everybody would have known exactly what was going on, but we didn’t feel like we had that luxury of time. It was like okay, we’ll do the test for a week, hope that that’s a good enough example, and we’ll go forward. So, when we went into the field, we didn’t know what would happen if the cameras were frozen for weeks, if not months, at a time. But, in fact, the things worked. As long as it was up above about minus 30, minus 35 Fahrenheit, they seemed to work okay.
ORLOWSKI: There was one weekend in Greenland where every single camera froze and stopped working, but then the next week they came back to life.
If you had to pick one part of the film that you could point to if you were talking to someone who didn’t believe in global warming, what would it be?
ORLOWSKI: I think the 800,000 year chart, the one chart in the film where we animate. These are the cycles. This is what is natural over time. This is what nature has been doing for 800,000 years without any human influence. Those bottom marks are ice ages and then we see the warmest periods. And then, we see when humans come into the equation and we have the Industrial Revolution, and that’s when we see carbon dioxide rise. We know that the carbon dioxide is causing the greenhouse gas effect. If there’s one singular piece of information, I would say that that’s the crux thing.
BALOG: If I can put my own point on it, to me, the summary point around that graph is that nature isn’t natural anymore. We are now beyond nature’s normal variation in terms of how the atmosphere is composed. Nature did something for a million years. It actually goes back a lot further than that, but the ice core records show a million years. So, nature has this normal oscillation within this zone, and all of a sudden, we’re forty percent outside that zone. There’s only one reason for that and that’s the impact of fossil fuels, and that’s what the skeptics need to get through their heads. But, that said, I want to come back to what you were about to say, we don’t see this as a Democrat or Republican issue. We don’t see it as conservative or liberal. This is a universal, human issue and we try and keep it on that plane. It’s desperately unfortunate that other people have put it in these various doctrinaire boxes.
Did you see the 20-minute segment that aired last night on 60 Minutes that featured five experts in the field of global warming?
BALOG: No. One of the producers from 60 Minutes called me last Thursday or Friday and they said “We just heard about your film and we really want to do this. Is anyone else doing it?” I said “Yeah, about 20 other media outlets right now.” And they said “Oh well, is there some story that we can do that’s distinct.” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” “Well, when are you going out into the field?” “Next year.” He said, “Okay, we’ll do it next year.”
What you’re doing is so far and above what these other five are doing who said it was a journey for them how they came to accept global warming.
BALOG: For me, too. But the critical thing to understand is that with these pictures, we’re only looking at a relatively short snapshot in time. Our pictures alone don’t prove anything yeah or nay about climate change. It’s our pictures in conjunction with and in the context of this very long record of understanding that science has been able to accumulate. We are merely animating the reality and the validity of the climate story as represented in these extensive science measurements that have been made by thousands and thousands of scientists over decades and decades all around the world. There are a lot of points of evidence that overlap and triangulate on the same story, and we are just a great visualization of their story.
ORLOWSKI: The distinction is that now you can see it for the first time. Prior to now, it’s always been charts and graphs, and any scientist who goes on television says their point and then somebody else can kind of rebuke that point with another fact. But here you have James who is figuring out how to make it visual and make it emotional in a way that has never happened before.
For both of you, what’s your favorite country to work in and why?
ORLOWSKI: In terms of shooting? Iceland.
BALOG: I’m quite fond of Switzerland. I love Switzerland. It’s not in the film for time-lapse, but I go there almost every year to do what’s called repeat photography. I have a bunch of camera positions where I go back and I just reshoot where I was the year before and see how the glacier has changed. I think the Swiss have developed an extraordinary ability to combine civilization and wild nature all in one place. We’re still trying to figure some of that out in the United States. We put wild nature off behind in preserves and we have civilization and we wreck nature all over the place. But the Swiss have a much better symbiosis between these two modalities. I love Switzerland, but in terms of what’s in the film, probably…I don’t know. They’re all pretty cool.
ORLOWSKI: If the question is where would I like to go back to, I think I’d like to go back to Iceland. You’re still close enough to civilization, but you can still have the experience of these beautiful landscapes.
BALOG: There are great things about Greenland, great things about Iceland, and great things about Alaska. It’s almost like trying to choose your favorite child and you can’t do that. You love them all in different ways. Alaska is an incredible place, even though we kind of take it for granted because it’s just up the Pacific Coast here and it’s a 4-1/2 to 5-hour plane flight. It’s like what’s the big deal. Alaska is really, really cool. So they’re all great in different ways.
What about Mount Everest? At the end of the film it said you had cameras there?
BALOG: Yeah, we do. We have five cameras out there. That’s a spectacular place. I’ve been to the Himalayas a half a dozen times and I love it. I’m just kind of tired of going literally twelve time zones around the world. I would rather go six time zones and get to Iceland or whatever it is.
Where around Mount Everest are your cameras?
BALOG: There are four right at the base of Mount Everest itself looking at the Khumbu Glacier. They’re all right up above base camp at about 19,500 feet, and two are looking at the big panorama of the Khumbu Glacier and all the big mountains, and two are looking right at the Khumbu Icefall where the ice comes pouring down off of Mount Everest. And a fifth one is back down the Khumbu Valley by Ama Dablam, this big Matterhorn-shaped fang of the mountain, and they’re looking at the Nare Glacier on the south face of Ama Dablam.
How many time-lapse cameras do you have out around the world right now?
BALOG: Right as we speak here today, 34 are out on 16 glaciers right now.
ORLOWSKI: (checking his cell phone) And they took pictures two minutes ago. There were 34 new photographs taken.
BALOG: Click, click, click. Those little eyes out there.
ORLOWSKI: Finally, some automation in the process.
And it’s working.
BALOG: Never enough though.
What’s the most surprising thing that you learned in the process of making this film, not only about the environment, global warming and glaciers, but also about yourselves?
BALOG: I have often thought that my work with wildlife taught me the meaning of patience, and my work with the big trees taught me the meaning of humility, and my work with the ice has taught me the meaning of mortality. That, to me, has been the takeaway for this. It makes me feel, in combination with those experiences plus my particular age in the human life cycle, it makes me realize that this is all finite. It’s not going to last forever. I just turned 60 this summer and so this experience we have is a transitory thing.
ORLOWSKI: Well, I don’t think any of us really expected to see the ice change as much as we observed, so from the very beginning that was a bit of a shock and a surprise. But, I think in regards to personal growth or change and what I learned about myself, we submitted the film to Sundance in 2009 and we didn’t get in. And we submitted it to half a dozen of the biggest film festivals and we didn’t get in. We spent another two years working on editing the story. For us, I took the rejections as a sign that the film wasn’t ready yet. We had opportunities to take it to other film festivals, and we could have just released it to the world, but we felt a responsibility to do justice to the story and to the significance of this and to do it right. We put the extra time in and put the hard work in, and when we got the phone call from Sundance two years later saying that they accepted the film, that was more than anything a validation of the hard work and that the hard work paid off. I would say that the success of that was probably the proudest moment too.
BALOG: He proved to himself how tenacious he actually is. He’s incredibly tenacious, and EIS, the whole thing, is a terribly tenacious project. But, as a filmmaker, this guy is super tenacious.
Is there anything in your upbringing that has you thinking about your mortality?
BALOG: Isn’t that interesting. I was thinking about that on the plane yesterday, in fact. There are two things. One is negative and the other is positive. I was raised a Catholic as a boy and went to a Catholic boys’ high school, a private school, and kind of drifted away, candidly, in my latter teen years. I consider myself deeply spiritual but not in an institutional, religious kind of a way. In Catholicism, we’re surrounded by these images of martyrdom and doing penance and doing some suffering to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. And I certainly embedded that in my psyche and I have lived that very effectively. (laughs) So that’s the negative side. The positive side is this real humanist respect for the value and purpose and meaning of our existence and the willingness to sacrifice and do good things in celebration of that existence.
It’s always interesting when I see films of harsh weather and the elements. What is it that’s important for the audience to know about the camera person who has to walk up there first and get that shot which often people don’t realize?
ORLOWSKI: Most of the time they don’t. Once in a while, it comes up in a Q&A about who was filming that. People comment on realizing that somebody else had to shoot that. I think it’s fortunate that we were able to show James suffering in those harsh conditions so that people understood how hard it was for him to do the work, and that’s really all I feel was necessary. I mean, I was going through the same experience that James was, so whether he was in front or I was in front, none of that really matters. We were both enduring those weather conditions and trying to do the best job that each of us could do in those conditions. So, the fact that people see James suffering, that’s fine.
Where do you see yourself going in the future? Will the two of you be collaborating again on other projects?
BALOG: We’re peddling the bike so hard right now, we can’t think much further than about two hours out. But, we’ve been batting around a bunch of ideas collectively and we also have ideas individually about things we’d like to do. I’m certainly not going to stop looking at this intersection of humans and nature. It’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years and I’ll keep on going. I’ve got at least two major project ideas that I’ve been chewing on for several years in my head and I’ve been trying to resist them both. But I have learned over the years that when they don’t go away and they’re still in there, you probably have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to do something about them.
Can you elaborate on what those projects are?
BALOG: The Extreme Ice Survey will go on indefinitely. That much has become clear. When we started it, we thought it was a three-year project. At three years, we thought it was five. At five years, we realized we can’t stop. The historic record is too important, too great, and our donors are rah, rah, rah, we love this. This is important. We are preserving this amazing memory for the future, so we keep on going. In fact, I’d like to expand the Extreme Ice Survey to cover South America. I’ve also got an opportunity to do some Antarctica work and so we’ll deepen our coverage. I’d like to look at melting permafrost in the Artic. That’s a big story. It’s not very sexy. As far as I know, it’s about brown mud essentially, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how to do pictures of that, but it’s a profoundly important story, and I think I’ve got a thread in my head that will connect from that melting permafrost to all kinds of things that are happening down here. We’ve already been shooting for the past couple years on how climate change is altering dust as it moves across the American West and winds up on snowfields in the Rockies. We’ve also been looking at how climate change alters tree cover, forest cover. It actually kills off the trees through the agency of pine beetles down on the ground. So, it’s all about these collision things between the human world as remanufactured by humanity and nature in its natural condition.
Can people go to the Extreme Ice Survey website and get more information and donate?
BALOG: Yes, absolutely. The place to go is actually Earth Vision Trust. I started a new 501c3 whose mission is to be a visual voice for the changing planet. We hope to influence a billion people with these images over the next ten years and Extreme Ice Survey is one of the projects now under Earth Vision Trust. It’s been the only thing I’ve been doing, but now it’s one of the buckets under Earth Vision Trust, so you can go to http://www.earthvisiontrust.org And the other thing I don’t want to forget is there’s a 288-page, large format art book published by Rizzoli that’s called Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers and that’s in the book stores now. It was just released a little while ago, and that’s part of this whole storytelling around the ice and climate.
Are you going to put any extended sequences on DVD?
ORLOWSKI: Yes, that’s our plan. Absolutely. We have so much footage, and we will get around to that at some point in time, but DVDs won’t come out until this summer. We have an iPad coming out over the next couple weeks as well. We have some great iPad and IOS developers who are donating a lot of time to make this happen.
Will you have any materials on your website that are geared to high schools?
BALOG: Well, the intention is that the iPad becomes educational material that can be repurposed through any of these educational levels. The business of being in curriculum development and writing stuff for different school levels, I don’t think my life is long enough to deal with that, but the iPad can put it all out there.
ORLOWSKI: When the DVD is going out, we’ll have educational materials that go out with that for schools. Right now the iPad is an introductory thing just to help market the film. Over time, we’re going to be able to develop it more and more and put a lot more content into it.
Chasing Ice opens on Friday the 9th in New York and it’s opening on the 23rd here in L.A. Are you excited to see your film being distributed in theaters?
BALOG: We’re getting huge news coming back from the distributor in the past hour that Cinemark Theatres has just come on, too. They want to release it in a bunch of cities. That gets us into suburbia. We’re no longer in the urban art houses. We’re now in suburbia. Toronto did very well this weekend. That was the Canadian launch, and I think Vancouver and Calgary maybe are this weekend, so we’re hoping for great things.
I’m thrilled about Cinemark because their cinemas are in the grassroots areas.
ORLOWSKI: One of the emails, I counted 24 new bookings as of today. From this weekend’s success, 24 new bookings, and that doesn’t include potential Cinemark and whatever else. We have an exclusive clip that’s being featured on the Apple Trailers page that’s going up today, so that will be on all week.
BALOG: It underlines one thing that we were talking about. We haven’t talked about this all day actually. Half of our job is fieldwork. The other half is public outreach and education. I personally spend the majority of my time by far on outreach and education and fundraising and administration. The easy part of my job is packing up and going out into the field. That doesn’t happen often enough actually.
You’ve broken new ground with this project. It’s exciting that others interested in exploring climate change can benefit from your pioneering efforts and what you’ve learned and seen in the field.
ORLOWSKI: That’s what it comes down to.
BALOG: A friend of mine, who was the founding editor of a couple of famous adventure magazines, interviewed me as I was sitting in JFK yesterday morning ready to fly out here, and he said “Where does all this come from? Why do you get obsessed about this?” And I said “You know, it comes from climber mentality, the fixation on first ascents and that you want to do something new. You want to do a climb that nobody else has done before. This is a photographic version of a climber’s obsession with first ascents.