There are few people—filmmaker or otherwise—with the experience or skills necessary to shoot video and bring back a story from the most remote and coldest corners on the planet. By his own admission, Boulder-based photographer and videographer Jeff Orlowski was not one of them.
This guy...goes out to capture the golden fleece, to capture the evidence of climate change that no one has ever seen, gets it, and shares it with the world.
Though he is an experienced rock and sport climber, his familiarity with big ice and crampons and ice axes was nonexistent when he volunteered to follow National Geographic-sponsored photographer James Balog to Iceland to document receding glaciers.
Five years later, his award-winning film Chasing Ice, which opens in theaters on November 9, has garnered accolades from Sundance (Best Cinematography) as well as a mounting slew of film festival trophies.
While nominally a story about climate change, Orlowski admits in order to keep the film entertaining he purposely tried to limit overdosing the audience on science and statistics and play up the role of one man’s search for evidence. The film follows Balog’s quest, which began in 2005 and dubbed the Extreme Ice Survey, to photograph disappearing glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana by deploying more than 20 still cameras that recorded the backward creep of glaciers rimming the Arctic Circle.
I recently caught up with Orlowski for a wide-ranging chat on all things Chasing Ice.
TakePart: Are you surprised by the documentary’s success?
Jeff Orlowski: Both surprised and more than a little humbled.
I’m surprised because it took us two and a half years to edit the movie, with much of that time spent gathering criticism from friends and filmmakers. Rather than be discouraged we took that as a sign that the film wasn’t ready yet and worked on making it stronger and improving it. When it got accepted at Sundance last year, that was a huge success for us, and it’s just been taking off since. It’s been mind-blowing.
TakePart: The film went through several versions. What’s the difference between what the film ended up being versus how you envisioned at the start?
Jeff Orlowski: When we first started making the movie I didn’t want to make a film about climate change. An Inconvenient Truth had just come out and there were a bunch of other films out there about climate change. I didn’t think we had something seminal to say about climate change. In the beginning we actually called the film The Photographer and it was focused on James’ past work, on his personal life and as a photographer.
All of the ice footage and ice story was in there, and when people looked at early versions of the film they said it felt like it was two different stories. James’s story and the story of the ice. So it wasn’t until a year into the editing, thanks to a lot of feedback, that I realized we needed to completely restructure it.
TakePart: You’re upfront in the film that you were somewhat hesitant to get involved initially given your lack of experience on the ice.
Jeff Orlowski: I’d never done any work on ice, so any resistance was out of concern for safety and practicality. But I couldn’t say no to working with James, for me that was my goal, to work with him and to learn from him as a photographer. On that first trip to Iceland I volunteered my time to shoot video, which is what let me get involved with the project, gave me the opportunity to prove myself.
TakePart: Despite the best of intentions it’s somewhat rare that expedition videos ever get made, much less win awards.
Jeff Orlowski: We weren’t planning on even making a movie. At the beginning, the video I shot was just to be used to make YouTube videos, promotional videos and to preserve a record of what James was doing.
It took me a year and a half to get James’s approval to go ahead and actually make it. When we realized that the time lapses were so strong and that we had all this incredible footage, plus James’s story, the struggles with the camera failures and all that stuff, we knew we had the raw material to make a really compelling movie. Only then did I really start pitching James on letting me go ahead and make the film.
James’s expectations are a little different than the average person. He is a perfectionist, a brilliant person, and true artist. I am constantly impressed with how he thinks about the world and about human’s relationship with nature. But I think he is very content with the response the film because none of us ever expected it to get this far.
TakePart: Documentaries traditionally have a difficult time attracting big, mainstream audiences. What is it about Chasing Ice that is so appealing to people?
Jeff Orlowski: I think some of the most successful documentaries in recent years, like The Cove, succeed because they are telling an individual’s story. In The Cove, you follow Rick O’Barry, you learn what he’s doing, and through him as a vehicle you learn about what’s happening to the dolphins. Which is very similar to what we were trying to accomplish with Chasing Ice.
I don’t look at it as a film about climate change. I look at it as being about James Balog the photographer. The film happens to be about climate change and we learn about climate change during the process, but the subject of the film is James and his story. People are watching the amazing journey of this photographer, a journey that few people will ever be able to go on, about this guy who goes out to capture the golden fleece, to capture the evidence of climate change that no one has ever seen, gets it, and shares it with the world.