Cinematographer Jeff Orlowski outlines his work on the climate change documentary that recently made waves at the Sundance Film Festival. All photography from climate change documentary, Chasing Ice. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
James Balog is an internationally acclaimed environmental photographer and I think, is one of the greatest photographers of our time. For many years he questioned whether climate change was real, mostly because he was sceptical of the climate models from a long time ago. But in the 1990s he began to understand that the ice sheet of Greenland and Antarctica held evidence to provide a historical picture of the world’s climate over many hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, in 2006 he was sent on an assignment by National Geographic to document changing glaciers and saw evidence for climate change first-hand through glacial melting and the extraordinary rate at which the glaciers were disappearing into the oceans. It became National Geographic’s cover story in June 2007 entitled ‘The Big Thaw.’
So moved by what he had seen, in 2007 Balog started a project which would become the biggest expedition of his life: Extreme Ice Survey. The project aimed to provide visual evidence of climate change by setting up custom designed time-lapse cameras at glaciers in the Arctic – Greenland, Iceland and Alaska – amongst other places. Currently, there are 27 cameras capturing images every half an hour of daylight, recording approximately 8,500 frames per camera per year.
Inspired by his work, I joined him as a filmmaker, knowing only that I wanted to document what he was doing. It was tough; we travelled to some of the most extreme glacial environments, miles from humanity with little or no communication and where weather often changes in the blink of an eye. Filming in these conditions was challenging, to say the least, but it was worth it. After documenting James’s phenomenal work over two years I knew I had some very powerful footage to create a film.
Through Chasing Ice we have tried to bring the Extreme Ice Survey to life. In the film, we get to travel around the world and see how the planet is changing in a way that the average person would never be able to experience. The powerful footage documents what James calls ‘the story of our time’ – a defining moment in human history when we knew climate change was a problem and we had the opportunity to do something about it.
We spoke to many glaciologists, climatologists and experts in the field during the making of the film. The science is overwhelmingly clear that climate change is real, that it is man-made and that the vast majority of glaciers around the world are retreating because of the warming of the atmosphere and changes in snowfall. During one expedition, we were climbing for a couple of days on a glacier in Alaska, but when we returned a few months later the entire area had vanished and disappeared into the ocean. This was a phenomenon we were consistently seeing: ice that had taken many thousands of years to create was disappearing in a matter of months. What was most significant was that James had found a way to document this change. The power of the film is in the imagery and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
For me, this project has been a unique opportunity to watch James at work. Being so close to this incredible photographer, I have learned how he views the world and the intersection between humans and nature – something James’s lifelong body of work has consistently focused on. He often talks about ‘nature deficit disorder,’ the concept that we have become isolated from the natural world and forget how dependent we are on the planet. In the megacities around the world where humanity is king, it is only when an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, forest fire or drought strike that we remember how powerful nature is and the need to respect it.
Reviews for Chasing Ice have been extremely positive. When people see the film, the typical reaction is that they had no concept at how fast and dramatically the planet is changing. They also comment on the juxtaposition of beauty and terror; beauty in terms of the glaciers and imagery, but terror in seeing the truth about what is actually happening. Even more meaningful is when people report back saying that we have changed their opinions on climate change and that they now realise how important the issue is. These reactions are both profound and humbling, but also important, as it is only when we have a population who all agree and understand the problem, that we can commit to solutions.
Chasing Ice premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this year and won the award for documentary cinematography and has gone on to win other major awards at every festival where it has been shown so far. The positive feedback we have received means we now recognise the potential the film has for shifting perception on climate change and are working to get it seen by as many people as possible to show that climate change is a real. We humans have the solutions and capabilities to overcome the damage that fossil fuels are doing to our climate. We are able to create cleaner and greener technologies to generate energy, but it will take all of us to make the change and make a difference. I never intended to make a film about climate change, but what emerged is a film that communicates the issue in a fresh and engaging way and is a call to action before it is too late.
AS told to Emilia Hungerford, who received a first-class honours degree in Biochemistry from Edinburgh University, studied Medicine at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry before becoming a freelance journalist and environmentalist. After working for Vanity Fair, the Evening Standard and on a number of environmental documentaries, she started to conduct research in the environmental sector. Currently she is a research associate for Black Emerald, a ‘greentech’ investment bank.