Jeff Orlowski

Campaigners for action on climate change inevitably trot out that familiar line: “the science is in.”

But while “science” implies lab coats, libraries, laboratories and expensive government-funded projects, director Jeff Orlowski’s Oscar-nominated documentary Chasing Ice demonstrates this isn’t always the case — even for studies considered among the most important of our time.

Orlowski’s subject, National Geographic photographer James Balog, set out in 2007 to document climate change by deploying time-lapse cameras in the earth’s harshest climates. The resulting data, which took years to collect, is a combination of science and art: gobsmacking photographs that document startling changes to glaciers across the world. As Orlowski discovered when he began following Balog, the team behind his highly regarded Extreme Ice Survey weren’t exactly showered with money and resources.

“This wasn’t a multi-million dollar NASA project to document science. It was started by a regular photographer, a regular guy, who had an idea for a project and built it in his garage,” he says. “It was really a backyard, homegrown, do it yourself project, and that’s to my mind some of the beauty of what James was able to accomplish.”

Chasing Ice is a compelling combination of personal adventure and climate change documentation, with a focus on the precarious measures with which melting glaciers are measured. The film’s many money shots of glaciers (sometimes the size of cities) collapsing are stunning to look at, but their implications ghastly.

“When you get them (great shots) and you’re watching the footage you think holy crap, look at what this means, think about what this means and what kind of implication this has on society. It’s this constant struggle between beauty and horror,” Orlowski says.

From his home in Colorado, Orlowski discussed with me the many challenges associated with making Chasing Ice, which is currently playing at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova and opens in Sydney and Canberra April 18.

+-+-+-+-+-+-

One of the subjects in Chasing Ice makes a point about how James Balog and the team relied on putting delicate instruments in the harshest climates in the world to measure melting of glaciers. This really surprised me. I had no idea temperamental devices were used to document such important science. Is this kind of surprise the general reaction from those who’ve seen the film? 

To some degree yes. The reality was that this wasn’t a multi-million dollar NASA project to document science. It was started by a regular photographer, a regular guy, who had an idea for a project and built it in his garage. He used as many off the shelf parts as possible. He thought he could do all of it with off the shelf parts. Ultimately a bunch needed to be custom designed to handle the very sophisticated requirements we had and we got help from various organisations to build certain parts. But it was really a backyard, homegrown, do it yourself project, and that’s to my mind some of the beauty of what James was able to accomplish.

If part of the beauty and allure of the project was that James built it as a kind of DIY backyard job, isn’t that – considering how important this science is – also a bit concerning? That it takes one guy in his backyard to make stuff you expect would be funded with millons of dollars?

Yes and no. I hear what you’re saying but what James was wanting to do was a very broad and wide-ranging visual study of these glaciers. He partnered with a lot of scientists who were looking for specific data and was able to register some grants through those scientific partnerships. But what the scientific community is typically looking for is great depth that is very specific in a certain area. What James was looking to do wasn’t something most scientific fields of academic research would be pursuing. What James wanted to do was get a good sense of what glaciers all around the world were doing — to make it visual and to communicate it visually. For James it was a combination of art and science coming together. It was trying to figure out a way to communicate how the climate is changing in a way that reflected his artistic sensibility, his artistic style, in a way he could communicate to the general public. That is something science in general is not as good at. The scientific community is much more focused on writing research papers that get published, that are peer-reviewed within the scientific community and aren’t really focused on communicating things to the general public. So from that perspective what James was doing was something that would have been harder for him to get funded through the traditional scientific stream. Certainly not at the time.

On the subject of art and science colliding, it seems to me that you as a filmmaker – and James as an artist – were faced with an interesting conundrum. You naturally want to film those money shots, the shots of glaciers melting. They look insanely beautiful, like warm glowing Kryptonite. But these beautiful shots suggest a potentially ghastly reality, don’t they?

They do. You’re picking up on a great topic and it’s something we struggled with regularly. It’s something we spent a lot of time discussing, when we had these realisations that we were out on the field as photographers and videographers wanting to capture these things. When you get them and you’re watching the footage you think holy crap, look at what this means, think about what this means and what kind of implication this has on society. It’s this constant struggle between beauty and horror. This imagery we’ve collected is really a piece of historical evidence, in a large way. This is what our climate looks like right now, how it’s changing right now, and how it’s changing as a result of human activity. I think it will be looked at in the future as forensic evidence of the evolution of the climate due to human activity. We tried to capture it in a way people have resonance with and can relate to and feel emotional about, because that’s the only way people are going to care.

In Chasing Ice you’ve got snippets – and I’m sure there was no shortage of footage – of broadcasters on TV networks such as Fox News carrying on about how there is no such thing as man made climate change, how the jury is still out, a yada yada. When you make a film such as this, which is partly cause-based, you inevitably run into people who are rusted onto their beliefs. Were there any of these sort of people, any die hard sceptics and naysayers, who changed their minds after watching your documentary?

If you go to YouTube and search for Chasing Ice there is one clip called Chasing Ice, Changing Lives. It’s a photo one of our volunteers posted after one of our screenings in Los Angeles. It will attest to exactly what you’re asking and it’s something that really blew us away. This woman who describes herself as Fox News loving. You know, a watching Bill O’Reilly every day kind of a person. She was talking about how profound the impact of the film was on her and how she had to completely rethink everything she had been doing about the issue. We felt very humbled to have had this level of impact on somebody. To a large degree it’s a filmmakers dream, to be able to have that level of impact. We’ve been having that, hearing lots about it and been really thrilled that it’s been happening.

A person such as this is clearly the kind of audience you want to see this film. But when you play it at film festivals – correct me if I’m wrong, but this is certainly the case in Australia – you’ll generally play to left of centre crowds. A few hippies in the audience will rattle their bangles and love it. How have you gone about showing Chasing Ice to people who might not wish to see it?

We are very conscious that the film naturally preaches to the choir and it’s something we’re trying to move away from as best as possible. It comes down to screening in as many venues as we can. We’ve done proactive marketing campaigns to try and bring it to people who wouldn’t necessarily see it. It’s a tough issue. It’s tough to get around but we’re trying our best to not preach to the choir.

At the end of a lot of documentaries that play along these lines, and in recent years Food Inc. comes to mind, there is a segment where the filmmakers try to empower viewers to make a difference. You feel inspired to go to the supermarket, buy your organic eggs or your free range chickens. But it’s much more complicated with Chasing Ice, isn’t it? How does somebody get engaged and feel empowered when they can’t actually do anything themselves?

It’s a tough question. It’s something we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. We avoided having an explicit call to action at the end of Chasing Ice for a number of reasons. We thought the goal of the film was to inform and inspire people. If they want to make a change they can go ahead and connect with us through places like our website and find ways to do that. For us it was always an interesting balance between this film revealing James’ work versus feeling like it is preaching a certain message. We didn’t want it to be political and we didn’t want it to be preachy. We tried to keep it as best as possible focused on James’ experience, his story and what he captures on his time lapses. To some degree a lot of people make their own judgement on what to do about it…we didn’t want to include a list of ten things you can do to make a difference. We didn’t want to include things like that because we felt like it didn’t fit within the message and tone of the film.

One of the key challenges when you’re making a film like this – and Al Gore touched upon it in an Inconvenient Truth – is to effectively communicate the science and to do so without making the audience feel like they’re dummies. Chasing Ice does this very well: the interviewees use a lot of analogies, there’s 3D graphs, pictures, all sorts of comparisons to get things into perspective. But were there particular facts and strands of information you wanted to include but chose not to because it was too difficult to communicate?

I think for us it was almost the opposite. For a long time we didn’t want any science in the film. I wanted to keep it as science-free as possible. We didn’t want it to feel like a talking head lecture. We didn’t want it to feel like a slideshow. We wanted it to feel like an adventure film, and at a certain point we realised we actually needed to include more science so that people would understand the context and the meaning of this project. Why is James doing this? Because of these reasons. Why does it matter? Because of this research. So our goal to a significant degree was to keep the science as minimal as possible. It was only when the science was very relevant, very understandable, very visual, where we thought it could explain James’ work in a poignant way – that’s when we decided to include that material. There is a lot of science we wanted to include but didn’t because we wanted to keep it about the adventure.

Chasing Ice is currently playing at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova. 

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
JOIN NOW