Photographer James Balog and director Jeff Orlowski discuss their documentary Chasing Ice, opening in Los Angeles and Denver November 23
Practically everyone on the planet has their own opinions about global warming, one of the most polarizing topics in the 21st Century. World-renowned photographer James Balog and director Jeff Orlowski sought out to prove the drastic changes in our global climate by chronicling the eroding glaciers in the fascinating documentary Chasing Ice, currently playing in limited release and expanding to Los Angeles and Denver theaters November 23 ( to find showtimes in your area).
Through the Extreme Ice Survey, they set up a number of still cameras in arctic climates around the world, set to take still photographs every hour over a few years. Using time-lapse technology, these years are compressed into mere seconds, and you can see the proof of our rapidly-changing climate before your very eyes in this stunning documentary.
I recently had the chance to speak with James Balog and director Jeff Orlowski over the phone about this ambitious project. Here's what they had to say.
James, it seems this whole project got started with that National Geographic story a few years ago. I was curious if there was a certain point, while you were crafting that story, when you realized this had to be expanded into a bigger project?
James Balog: Yeah, I was about a third of the way through that story in 2006, when I started to get the idea that this was really a scouting mission for something much bigger that would come in the future. I started to think about revisiting these positions in years to come, and marking with piles of rock, where my camera positions were so I could recapture them in years to come. So yes, the idea started to gestate in the early summer of 2006.
Jeff, can you talk about your initial involvement in this, and starting to work with James, how this all came together for you?
Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, we met through a mutual friend, and I had known James was working on the ice project. He had the idea to do time-lapse with the glaciers, so it was really at those first installation of those cameras in Iceland. I somehow joined the team, and had the opportunity to join James and the rest of the team in Iceland. We weren't planning on making a film. The idea was to just shoot footage for posterity's sake, so that James had some footage for fundraising purposes, and really just to document what was going on, because we knew it was a unique experience. That's really where it all began. Then James invited me to Greenland and Alaska on these trips, and I just kept shooting footage of the project. It was about a year and a half into the project when we realized, with both the time-lapeses and with this couple of hundred hours of footage we had at that point, that we had the raw materials we needed for a real film. That's kind of where everything turned gears, and I started working on making the movie.
James Balog: It seems obvious now, that this all makes sense, but believe me, five years ago, none of this necessarily seemed like it was going to pay off. We didn't know if the equipment would work, and, more importantly, we didn't know if the glaciers were going to yield anything visually, that would be terribly interesting. I thought we ought to put out 25 cameras, because maybe we'd get five that would show anything interesting. Well, it turned out that we had a lot more than five, and the action on the glaciers was proceeding very, very quickly, and we had incredibly dynamic pictures, almost right from the beginning.
The time-lapsed stuff is really very intriguing and interesting to watch. I was wondering how much of a logistical challenge that posed, taking years worth of still photographs and meshing it into a video? Was making these photos into a video more challenging than some of the other things you had to work on?
James Balog: Not at all. That's relatively straight-forward, not that it was easy. Jeff did a lot of those very early, those time-lapsed composites. Far and away, the biggest thing was to figure out how to make the electronics work, how to make the equipment weather-proof, and how to deal with the financial implications of trying to keep this project alive. That continues to be a challenge, even today.
Jeff Orlowski: In regards to the time-lapses, there are over 1 million photographs in the time-lapse record now, and somebody has looked at every single picture that those cameras have taken, which is pretty mind-boggling when you think about that, the process of sifting through them, reviewing them, then selecting them to make a time-lapse.
Earlier in the film, you go over the various locations you set these cameras up, and I noticed you had a couple in Montana. I was curious about the rationale behind that, and if that yielded a lot of footage that you used?
James Balog: In northern Montana, the very last part of the American Rockies as you go north, there is a big national park called Glacier National Park. That area is losing ice at a fairly vigorous rate, and will probably be glacier-free by the middle of the century, and the park will need a new name by then. It will be Glacier-Less National Park. We wanted to have a beachhead up there, so we put a couple of cameras out. As physical features on the landscape, they're not very dramatic-looking glaciers. Most of them are sort of like gigantic snow drifts with crevasses in them, that indicate the ice is flowing, but they don't have the visual interest of places in Alaska or Iceland or Greenland.
Jeff Orlowski: There was a battery up there that was held by these waterproof cases. The handle was chewed through, somehow, and the battery fell through and took the whole system down.
James Balog: It was some kind of an animal, probably a marmot, could have been a big-horned sheep or a mountain goat. Who knows what.
The film shows the problems you had with your knee. I've had several knee surgeries myself, so I know what that's like. Were you having issues with that before this whole thing started?
James Balog: I had my first problem back in the mid-90s, and then nothing happened until 2003, when I tore another piece of cartilage badly, while working on a mountainside where we were photographing a large tree in New England. Still, I was OK. That was 2003, and everything was fine. Then, in the course of EIS, carrying heavy packs, going down hills with heavy packs. In one case, I was compensating for one of my field partners who had a really bad back and couldn't carry any weight. I would up carrying somewhere between 80, 90, 100 pounds, which is a really, really heavy pack, especially on steep and unstable ground. I just kept grinding up my knee cartilage and meniscus worse and worse, and, eventually, wound up having to get the surgery that's shown in the film, then re-injuring myself several months after that surgery by doing something on a glacier in Iceland that wasn't too smart. It had definitely not been prescribed by the doctors.
I have to say, the footage at the end is absolutely remarkable. Can you talk about the decision to go back there? Was it more of a hunch? Did you think it would happen on that massive of a scale?
James Balog: I had been working in Greenland for several years, at that point, and that idea hatched in March of 2008, when we were flying home from a winter dog-sledding trip to the cameras. We talked about it a lot on the flight going further south, that we should come back in the spring and just camp out and wait until something big happens. It still seemed kind of dicey. There could have been an eight-week window when something would happen, and I could only afford to keep those guys up there for three weeks. It was a little bit nerve-wracking to see if we were going to pick the right three-week window. We were reasonably sure that something big would happen, but the scale of it, completely surprised us. It was way more immense than we ever imagined it could be.
There's a point in the movie where it's said that we are actually causing these kinds of climate changes. If there are people who see this and want to start making a difference, is there one thing you would say they can do in their daily lives to hopefully reverse this cycle?
James Balog: Well, we all have our own answers, but, for me, my message is spread the truth about what's happening about climate change, and use your voice to spread the truth and stop the fiction and delusion that's going on in our society. It's really about using your voice and using truth that I feel we have a contribution to make as image-makers. We don't make wind turbines and we aren't engineers in public policy, but we can re-shape public perception.
Jeff Orlowski: I would agree with that. it's something we get asked a lot. We didn't come into this as activists. We came into this as image-makers and storytellers. When people ask us what needs to be done, it's sometimes hard for us to give them... they don't want to hear 'Change your lightbulbs' or 'Drive an electric car.' That's the stuff we've been hearing for years and years. We really think we can use the imagery as a tool, and people can use the film as a tool to spread what's going on, so people understand what's going on. Convince a friend, convince a parent, convince that uncle you've been debating with for years and years, that's where people can make a difference.
James Balog: Climate change is a universal issue. This isn't left of right, Republican or Democrat. This is a universal issue that effects the health, well-being, and safety of everybody in this country, and everybody on this planet. We want it to be seen as such, a universal issue, transcending politics. We need to unite around dealing with this, for the sake of all of our well-being.
I know this is further down the line, but with the wealth of footage you have, are there segments you plan on including on a Blu-ray or DVD release?
Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, I'm both excited and not very much looking forward to the process of making the DVD extras. The excitement is because we have so much footage and there's so much really good material we have to make a really strong behind-the-scenes story of what it took to make the movie. We have an iPad app that is being launched very soon, that has a lot of the time-lapses. We're starting the app with just a limited number of resources on there, but once we can really push everything out through the app, it will be one of the main locations where everyone can see the images and time-lapses.
What would you like to say to anyone who is curious or on the fence about this, to get them to see it in theaters?
James Balog: Come and see our evidence. It will grip you in your gut, and it will be a great adventure.
Jeff Orlowski: We really tried to design the film for anybody to see. It doesn't matter what your stance is politically, it doesn't matter what your stance is on environmental issues, it's something that's designed for a very general audience. If you are skeptical on the issue of climate change, that's all the more reason why you should see the film.
Great. That's about all I have. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed the film.
James Balog: Thank you. We appreciate your attention.
Jeff Orlowski: Thank you very much, Brian.
You can watch the superb documentary Chasing Ice in Los Angeles and Denver November 23. You can also for information on current and upcoming showtimes near you.
Chasing Ice was released November 23rd, 2012 and stars James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Adam LeWinter, Louie Psihoyos, Kitty Boone, Jeff Orlowski, Sylvia Earle, Dennis Dimick. The film is directed by Jeff Orlowski.