New Zealand filmmaker Anthony Powell spent 10 years working on Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a striking documentary that makes use of special cameras designed to withstand extreme temperatures. We talked to Powell about the incredible challenges of filming in the relentless cold.
Antarctica is no mere nature film — it's also a look at what sort of person would want to live in such extreme conditions. Summers can be rough, of course, but imagine spending the winter in Antarctica: Months of constant darkness filled with hurricane-level storms and temperatures so devastatingly cold that a task as simple as stepping outdoors could be deadly. And it's not just physically challenging; the handful of humans who hunker down for the season — an international crew scattered among the continent's different bases — must battle cabin fever, boredom, impossible cravings (movie dates, sushi … cauliflower?), the dreaded Polar T3 syndrome, and more.
We caught up with Powell over the phone from Christchurch, just days before he was due to leave for another stint in the frozen South.
io9: How are you feeling about heading back to Antarctica?
Anthony Powell: I'm excited! I've actually been away for two years now, so I'm itching to get back there.
How many years have you spent there, total?
I started going in 1998, and cumulatively I've had over 100 months on the ice. I've wintered over nine times. I started working at New Zealand's Scott Base, which is just over the hill from the American McMurdo Station. After three years at Scott Base, I met and married an American lass from Orange County, California, who was working at McMurdo. We got married down there, and basically for the last 10 years I've been working at McMurdo.
And we see your wedding in the movie! Do a lot of relationships form in Antarctica?
Definitely. A bunch of friends of ours who have met down there have gone on to get married later on.
The title of the movie references "a year on ice," but you actually filmed it over a decade. You must have had hundreds of hours of footage — how did you decide what to include?
It was always a case of trying to portray the experience of what it's like to be there for a year. Initially, I was shooting a lot of the landscapes, and it took me a good seven years before I had [figured out] how to make the camera work in the cold. Over the last several years, I've been concentrating on the human side of the story to go along with the rest of the visuals. As a general guideline, I tried to follow the emotional life of what it's like for people who go there — the experiences we go through. As for what to include and not to include, my guide was if I saw something and had an emotional reaction to it, that's what I put in the film.
How did you create a camera that could function in such extreme conditions?
When I first started going there, I was shooting a lot of slide film. That was extremely frustrating, because you'd shoot photos for a year, get them developed when you got home, and then you'd see all the mistakes that you made. You'd have a lot of problems with film snapping in the cameras from the cold. When you get to the more extreme temperatures, you have to vary your exposure length because the actual chemical reactions slow down. And you get the film winding inside the camera, because it gets so dry you have static electricity discharges, so you end up with lightning bolts on the film.
I got my first digital camera around 2003, and at that point the learning curve just went through the roof, because you could see the results straight away. The biggest problem is the camera power supply. I was hauling around car batteries just to keep the cameras going. Motion control systems, anything commercially available, are basically a waste of time, because they'll have rubber drive belts and plastic pulleys, and they all just turn brittle in the cold and snap. I was resorting to really basic technology — like pieces of twine that still behave in the cold. In general, the simplest technology just works the best, because there's fewer things that can go wrong.
But right around minus 40, the lubricating grease inside the camera on the DSLRs will start to stiffen up, and the shutter will become sluggish. When you get to about minus 75 Fahrenheit or so, the actual physical properties of some of the electronics inside the camera will actually start to change — all sorts of weird things with the exposure value. I've lost a few cameras to stormy conditions. One camera I had bolted to a fence post for five months, and when one of the storms came through, I went and checked it the next day. When I opening up the camera, inside it was packed solid with snow, even though it had been all closed up, and wrapped up. The snow was just that fine, and had been driven so incredibly powerfully into the camera.
One of the themes of the film is the difference between Antarctica's "summer people" and "winter people." What qualities does a "winter person" has to have in order to make it through the season?
In some ways, it suits a more introverted personality. You have to be happy in your own company, but at the same time, be happy around other people, and able to work with other people. But you definitely need to be resourceful, and inventive. If something breaks, you can't just pop out to the hardware store and get a replacement. You have to make do with what you've got on hand. You need to be fairly easygoing. There's something kind of weird about how your emotions get amplified down there. Little things can become really big things. Then, of course, just being able to entertain yourself, because you've got so few options for other entertainment.
What did you think of the Werner Herzog documentary on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World?
All his films have got his slightly twisted way of looking at things, and I think he made an entertaining film. I think he did a good job of capturing it from his point of view, but it's definitely an outsider's point of view.
And, I have to bring up The Thing. Is that a popular film to watch down there?
I would have to say, in terms of movies set in Antarctica, it's probably the most accurate of them all, apart from having flamethrowers and shotgun racks in the hall. And the shape-shifting aliens, I guess.
What's accurate about it? The way it depicts, like, boredom and camaraderie?
Yeah, and just all the little details. The interactions when you see them in the cold conditions, and how they actually do look genuinely cold. Plus, the quirky personalities that you get.
Can you talk a bit about T3 syndrome?
Everyone goes through it, to a certain extent, but some more than others. T3 is an abbreviation for a long name, [triiodothyronine], for a thyroid hormone. Apparently it's one of the things that promotes tissue regeneration and regrowth. In extreme cold conditions, it gets drawn away from the brain and into the more critical systems, into the muscles. Your brain function tends to slow down over time. There's also just the fact that we become vitamin D deficient from the lack of sunlight. It's pretty much institutionalized, too, because by late winter, a lot of the work that we're doing becomes extremely boring and repetitive, fixing everything that broke over the previous summer research season. Your brain just starts to shut down.
The most common symptom is memory loss. I'd be, like, working on a piece and realize I needed a Phillips screwdriver to adjust it. So I'd walk into the tool room next door and think, "What did I come in here for?" Then I'd go back to working on the equipment, and go "Oh yeah! I need that screwdriver!" So I'd walk next door again, and stand there thinking, "I know I came to get something, but I can't remember what it is!" And it repeats, until you finally get the thing you need in your hand.
What do you think the most surprising thing is about Antarctica, and why?
Probably just the sheer amount of color. Prior to going there, I thought of it as being this white, desolate wasteland, but there's really so much variety to the ice itself. It's really hard to capture with a camera, but it's just so incredibly vibrant.
Also, one of the most surprising things that people don't realize is that most of the workers who go there aren't scientists. The actual infrastructure required to keep the bases running means that everyday workers — tradespeople, electricians, carpenters, chefs, cleaners, communication techs — actually make up the majority of the population. People have this preconception that in order to be there, you have to be a scientist.
How do you get a job in Antarctica?
Basically, you just apply for them when they pop up online. Do a Google search for United States Antarctic Program jobs on the National Science Foundation page with links to different contractors.
Do they do psychological tests, just to make sure they don't hire Jack Nicholson in The Shining?
They do! The [summer-only] staff don't have the mental screening. But all the winter-over staff have to go through a psychological evaluation every year. They've been doing that for the last 12 or 13 years because of a couple of incidents in the past, fights have broken out, that sort of thing.
Does anyone ever really adjust to the cycles of days — those periods when it's light all day and night, or always dark?
I've found it's harder to adjust to the 24-hour sunlight than it is to adjust to the 24-hour darkness. Probably about 50 percent of the people who go there have sleep problems at some stage. [In the summer], you can be socializing with a group of friends and you step outside to go to bed and you get bright sunlight in the middle of the night. It throws your body clock off. In the winter, it's probably not too different from living in the northern states, where you might drive to work in the dark, be under artificial lights all day, then drive home in the dark. It probably isn't until three months of darkness before you really start to miss the sun. But I think I missed the stars and the nighttime before I missed the sun.