Crash Course in Arctic Filming
Well, here I am at 78 degrees North, in a little town called Longyearbyen, a small outpost on a tiny archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It is as close to living on another planet as you can get. When you are in town it is very easy to forget that this is the absolute limit of human settlement on earth, but it’s when we leave to go out and shoot, that things really get interesting.
The first and most arduous task is the morning ritual of getting dressed. On average, you have to wear three to five layers of clothing before you leave the front door. Clothes made of natural fibres whenever possible. Fabrics like wool and cotton can be wrung out and will breathe if they get wet. You can always spot people that have been here a while, it looks like they have entered a contest to wear as many animals as possible. Seal skin boots, leather trousers, wool under layers, fox hat and polar bear jacket, probably not the most PC kit but it really works.
Should you want to go further afield, a full Arctic snowsuit is a requirement. Now, if you have never had the pleasure of wearing a full cold weather survival suit, the experience goes something like this:
- Lift the full suit and lay it out on the floor, as it weighs about 20kg and there is no practical way to put it on while standing.
- Having opened the zips down the legs to help, attempt to get your snow boots through the leg holes. However, for some inexplicable reason, the cuffs are NEVER quite wide enough.
- Take a short break and notice that, even though it is -20C, you are now dripping with sweat.
- Next, lift the suit up and zip it up the front. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be morbidly obese and have arthritis, now is your chance. This giant suit limits your movement to about 10pct of normal range of motion.
- Put on your lining gloves, outer gloves and then mittens. Now, you lack all manual dexterity.
- Damn… forgot my Balaclava, buff and hat. Remove gloves and get your head gear in place. Now, breathing and speaking take considerable effort. Your ears feel like you have cotton wool stuffed into them.
- Get your helmet and goggles on. Hooray! Tunnel vision! Your field of vision is limited to what’s directly in front of you and as an added bonus, all this kit prevents you from turning your head.
- Finally, check that you and your co-workers have no exposed skin. Even the smallest break results in frostbite. (The bridge of my nose can attest to this)
- Half blind, deaf, weighed down with 40kg of gear and with a complete in-ability to pick anything up, you are ready to go out and film.
Once you leave base there are a few practicalities / laws of physics to keep in mind when working at -30C. Never exhale near your viewfinder as it will fog and the moisture turns to ice INSTANTLY (at -26C you can through a cup of boiling water in the air and it freezes in mid-air). Once this has happened, you will basically be filming blind, as it is almost impossible to thaw. One technique that helps is to hold your breath when near the VF and turn your head to exhale away from it.
Keep the camera as warm and cushioned as possible. I put a polar jacket over top. An exposed battery will last 30 minutes, tops. When you need to change out a new one, be careful or you will end up with frostbite on you fingers. The V-Lock system that has proven so popular in recent years is positively diabolical in the cold. The locking mechanism on the V-Lock system, whether metal or plastic, turns brittle as glass in these temperatures. This is because of something called the Glass Transition Temperature, here is a really good explanation from the folks at MIT HERE. Even the slightest bump or quick battery change can result in the lock shattering like …., well, glass. (Think Terminator 2 and the liquid nitrogen scene) If this happens your shoot is finished, I speak from bitter experience.
Now you are ready to role, except you are filming in a place that is entirely white and the sun just circles overhead taunting you, never setting. It is “surface of the sun” bright in the summer and dark as a coalmine in the winter. Yesterday I had every ND I could find on the camera (2.7 or 9 stops and I was still at f11) As an added bonus, we are shooting on PMW-500s with the stock Monochrome VF. You really haven’t lived until you have tried to film a slightly off-white polar bear in the snow on a Black and White VF. I have attached my Alphatron EVF to get around this. It also flips open to get around the fogging issues.
Every step you take will be like walking through treacle because the snow is just hard enough to support your weight for a moment before giving way as you take a step. This, combined with all the additional weight, is the best reason to use long lenses. After five steps or so, you will be exhausted and the action will be over. You will have to adapt your filming style or shooting here will actuality break you.
I have found it is far easier to move back when you are shooting. There are quite literally no obstructions and everything is incredibly far away. Often you see what looks like hills in the near distance, only to realise it is a mountain 30km away. With no trees, you have literally no reference for distances.
Now that your filming is finished you are ready to return to base. With any luck, the weather will hold out on your return journey. If it doesn’t, you are in for a real treat. The Arctic whiteout. I know what you are thinking, ‘I know what a whiteout is, I have seen it a million times in films’, but here is the bit you will thank me for later. The thing they never mention in films and on tv is, with no horizon for reference on a snow machine you loose all equilibrium. Not only do you start to see things but you also get surprisingly sea sick. With 3-4 layers of face protection this can result in a hilarious / horrible episode of ‘Can I Remove My Balaclava In Time?’. But whatever you do, never get off your snow machine while this is happening! If you are on a glacier, the Ski-doo will bridge crevices that, should you try and stand on them, you could fall through. This happened a couple of weeks ago.
Still Sound Fun?
I would not trade this experience for the world. If you are ever given the opportunity to go to Svalbard or somewhere similar, take it and don’t look back. Stay safe and enjoy every moment. You cannot leave this place without it profoundly changing you as a filmmaker and as a person. Yes, it is tough and it can be intimidating, if not downright terrifying, but it is incredibly rewarding as well. Speaking for myself, this is why I got into this media lark in the first place and If I were to hazard a guess, a good number of people reading this as well. Enjoy.
Now I wonder if they need a filmmaker on the ISS or for a mission to Mars.