When shooting his film “Antarctica: A Year On Ice,” New Zealand native Anthony Powell had to contend with a lot of things that his contemporaries don’t normally need to worry about — sub-zero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, broken cameras, digging equipment out of snow banks, frost bite and eyelashes freezing to viewfinders, to name a few.
Powell has pared down 10 years and hundreds of hours of footage into a compact, visually stunning film with an hour and a half run time. In addition to showing off the continent’s vast, snowy landscape and starry, aurora-filled skyline, Powell’s film focuses on the lives of people living at the McMurdo Station (U.S. affiliated) and Scott Base (New Zealand affiliated) on the Ross Island area of Antarctica.
“It is such a unique experience. There’s nothing else like it on the planet,” Powell said, and he would know.
Until recently, filmmaking has been mostly a hobby for Powell, who first started working in the Antarctic in 1998 as a telecommunications tech. In total, he estimates that he’s spent at least 100 months living “on the ice.”
Documenting the Antarctic experience on film had always been in the back of Powell’s mind, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s when digital technology made such an endeavor possible. As an amateur filmmaker, Powell didn’t have a million-dollar budget to play with, which means most of the equipment is cheap, or is something that he’s created and rigged himself. The advent of cheap, available digital video cameras meant he could make his film.
That doesn’t mean it was easy, however. The freezing temperatures of the Antarctic played havoc with his equipment, not only blasting it into rocks and snow banks, but impacting its very function. Camera batteries would last only ten minutes, and need to be hooked up to larger car batteries. The liquid crystals in the LCD screen would freeze, so often Powell could only point the camera in the right direction and hope he was getting the footage he wanted. Scenes that cross the screen in mere seconds took him days and weeks to capture, bit by painstaking bit.
Large portions of the film go by in timelapse. Snow drifts across icy surfaces as clouds boil through the sky. Nighttime shots offer spectacular stellar displays wreathed with the eerie green dances of aurora australis (the southern cousin of the aurora borealis).
This footage is unique because it shows the Antarctic year round. The footage that the majority of people have seen takes place almost entirely during the few summer months when film crews are able to access the remote continent.
“It’s just something that’s never been shown on film before, because your typical camera crew will only go down there for a couple of months in the middle of summer,” Powell said. “It’s just a tiny fraction of what it’s really like down there.”
As a worker on the base, Powell was able to film throughout the year, including the months of sunless darkness during the winter as well as the months of unlimited sunshine during the summer.
Another unique aspect of Powell’s film is the people it focuses on aren’t the scientists and experts that most documentaries feature, but the everyday staff, the technicians and maintenance crews that keep the bases running.
“A lot of people don’t realize the majority of the people who go there are regular tradespeople. Scientists make up only 20 percent of the people who stay there and they go there only in the summer time,” Powell said. “Their story has never been told before.”
It is through these people that Powell hopes to best connect with the audience, giving them the sense of Antarctica as a real place where people like them are living and working.
“They go in expecting the standard story that they’ve seen a hundred times before (and are) completely surprised that it’s the human story, not about animals or the science projects going on,” Powell said.
Living in the Antarctic isn’t easy, as Powell’s film shows. In addition to the extreme cold and dry air, people deal with issues like Vitamin D deficiency from lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in winter, and something called T3 syndrome, which causes a thyroid hormone to go into the muscles rather than the brain. This leads to problems such as short-term memory loss, Powell said, where it’s common to forget the names for common objects or the reason for entering a room. The purpose of the film is to document the entire experience, which includes physical and psychological issues. Powell isn’t the only one interested in this.
“NASA has been dong some studies on us down there,” he said, “because it is about the closest thing to going to colonize Mars or something. It’s interesting the psychological studies and the physiological changes that you do go through.”
After a recent early screening of the film in New Zealand, Powell said that a man came up to him and thanked him. He’d worked in the Antarctic before and tried to tell his family about it but couldn’t find a way to properly convey the experience. After watching the film, he told Powell that now, finally, his family could understand what it had been like for him.
Another thing that seems common among the people who work in the Antarctic is how attached they become to it, enough so that they return year after year.
“Most people, when they go there, they think it’s a good bit of adventure to go down there and check it out,” Powell said, “but once you’ve actually spent time there, you come to realize how amazing it is and you tend to become quite protective of it and wanting to look after it.”
While conservation isn’t the main theme of the film, Powell added that it’s certainly there as subtext.
After compiling all of his footage, Powell made a rough cut himself that clocked in at two hours. Then he launched a Kickstarter campaign online, which provided the funds to hire a professional editor. Eventually he won the attention of Park Road, the post-production company owned by filmmaker Peter Jackson (of “Lord of the Rings” fame) and was given access to their resources for final cutting and polishing.
Powell hopes that audiences will come away with a further understanding of Antarctica, having viewed a broader spectrum of footage, particularly during the lesser-known winter months.
“One of those things that really surprised me was most people have this image of it just being cold and dark and oppressive down there in the winter,” Powell said, “but it’s actually incredible the amount of color you get in the sky and the landscape. It’s not just a black-and-white landscape.”
The main thing to remember about “Antarctica: A Year On the Ice,” is that it includes footage and insight into a little-documented area of the world.
“It’s definitely something that no one’s ever seen on film before,” Powell said. “It’s definitely something new.”