I am continuously on the hunt for a documentary or book to open my eyes to new stories or fascinating quests. On my hunt, I just so happened to acquire Extreme Ice Now, James Balog’s visually enthralling book depicting the climate crisis through gripping photography; consequently, my attention to melting glaciers and warming weather had peaked. When I found out Chasing Ice was a documentary trailing Balog’s mission, it’s easy to say I was one happy camper.
The award-winning film, Chasing Ice, documents the ceaseless journey of environmental photographer, James Balog, and his small, devoted team using time-lapsed photography to tell the story of the ice by presenting the viewer with terrifying evidence. Chasing Ice platforms bittersweet imagery of glaciers, one instance showcasing a glacier the size of Manhattan, vanishing before the viewer’s eyes, a moment both stunning and bone-chilling. All in all, Balog set out on a mission to visually expose the alarming effects society has strained upon the planet and he did it in a revolutionary way. After watching this documentary, I was left with a handful of mixed emotions; on one hand, seeing society’s effects on the environment is unsettling yet, on the other hand, I’m presented with stunning imagery and ice illustrated in sheer beauty. Needless to say, Chasing Ice left me indescribably speechless and in awe.
I had the opportunity to talk with the director of Chasing Ice, Jeffrey Orlowski, who accompanied Balog on his mission, and within our interview, more perspective is given on what it was like shooting such a powerful, yet challenging documentary:
Shelby Morrow: …what inspired you to meet James Balog and document his mission?
Jeff Orlowski: I was just interested in the work he was doing and wanting to be involved in some capacity with his work. That was really where the inspiration came from. When it started, we weren’t really planning on making a movie at all, we were really just wanting to document this glacier project and the process of building these time-lapse cameras and ultimately over a period of time it evolved into a movie.
SM: So when did see the story begin evolve?
JO: Well, from the beginning it was really compelling and interesting, but it was something that took about a year and a half of convincing James on the project before he finally agreed to make a movie.
SM: Throughout [Chasing Ice] you show the hardships Balog experiences from him having to get surgery and being unable to hike up to his cameras, to the cameras not properly taking pictures; what were some of the difficulties for you as a director?
JO: You know, the extreme conditions were something we always knew we’re going to be an issue, but that wasn’t really the most difficult part. The toughest part was the editing process of the film, for me personally, just because I had always edited short films and never tried to tackle anything of that scale. And that was really the biggest difficulty that came from that, just having to deal with cutting through 400 hours of footage and a story I had lived through and had been a part of and experienced…it’s hard to figure out how to turn that into a movie.
SM: Balog even admits at one point that he, too, was a skeptic to the crisis before beginning the Extreme Ice Survey…did you feel the same way or had you always known that this was such a huge issue?
JO: I feel like I was always aware of the issue but I never really studied it or explored it…it was something I was conscience of but I wasn’t really doing a whole bunch to necessarily address the issue. When I started the film, I was 23 and it’s something where I feel like my generation has just grown up with the conversation of climate change and it being a norm and being understood, I guess the fact that, yeah, climate change is happening. I think to some degree, I was coming from a very different cultural perspective.
SM: Because the media plays such a huge role in this crisis, have you experienced any criticism or rebuttal for [Chasing Ice]?
JO: No, that’s one of the most interesting things…and we spent a lot of time wondering why that is; we were prepared for the backlash and we were definitely anticipating it. I think one of the things is that the film presents a very visual case, I don’t want to say definitive, but it presents this visual essence that is hard to deny… I think that has played a very significant role as to why we have not seen any public criticism on the film.
SM: When you began [Chasing Ice] did you find that your goals for the documentary had changed upon completion?
JO: I think the goal was always to leverage James’ imagery and showcase that in the most powerful way…and we had to figure out how we could best accomplish that and what sort of story-framing or story device or techniques would help us get to that goal. That was always the mission.
SM: In a previous interview, the interviewer asked you, “If only one person could see your documentary who would it be and why?” You answered President Obama; so what was it like having your documentary screened for Earth Day 2013 in The White House?
JO: It was a huge, huge opportunity and very much changed our ability to get the film out there. I don’t know for sure if President Obama had seen the film yet…we screened it at The White House and a bunch of staff was there along with his environmental advisor and his science advisor, but the President was not there that day. So it was a huge opportunity for us and a huge platform for the film to be seen. Two months after our screening was when President Obama spoke publicly about climate change (laughs) I’d like to think we played a role in that public announcement. And I think we contributed and played a small part in that just like many other organizations had fought hard to do, but it is a time where the administration is starting to pay attention to the issue.
SM: So what was the reaction that you had received from The White House after the screening?
JO: Oh, definitely very positive, but I also think that we weren’t preaching to the choir. We were showing the film to people who already get it and understand the issue.
SM: There was a handful of emotionally gripping moments in Chasing Ice, including the calving of the Store Glacier in Greenland. How would you describe the feeling or reaction to that moment?
JO: It was a jaw-dropping experience having this volume of ice breaking before your eyes…it was one of those things that was a once in a lifetime experience. We never thought that we would capture anything of that scale and having waited so long for it, it was powerfully fulfilling just to see it all come together. It’s a very weird experience because it’s this astonishing beauty and horror that you’re not ready to reconcile as a storyteller and as a film-maker because we captured something that was our goal: to capture this type of imagery and wait to see it. But at the same time, you have to think about what it means, what it represents and the story that it is actually telling, a really horrific and scary story on how we are changing the environment in an unprecedented way. It’s just interesting the mix of emotions: the excitement, the glory and the beauty of the imagery versus the significant meaning of what’s going on.
SM: Like you mentioned, there is a lot of mixed emotions…is your goal to instill a sense of fear or daunting effect on the viewer or more of an optimistic [outlook] towards this issue?
JO: I don’t think our goal is to instill fear, I think our goal is to showcase the reality and to expose it…we all have the opportunity to change and we need to because the ice breakage is getting bigger and bigger. So I think that’s the main question, is that we as a society have to learn how to address it.
SM: So what would be your advice to society since we can’t really change it, but perhaps change the course that we are on?
JO: Well, it’s very simple as we need to stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere…we know that we need to get it out of the atmosphere and we need to stop putting it in the atmosphere. If we could just maintain that and then keep our planet functioning in a way that is sustaining. There’s a great analogy I once heard about how we interact with the planet. The analogy is about a bank account; imagine you have a bank account where you were gaining interest every year. Now if you lived off the interest, you can survive off of that money forever. But we’re not adding money to this bank account, essentially our reserve of resources that are available on the planet. There’s a certain ability for the planet to rejuvenate itself every year. If we live off those rejuvenated resources, we could have a sustainable society. But right now, that’s the amount that we’re living off of every year and it’s cutting deeper and deeper into that reserve and on a year-by-year basis, it going to look fine, like we’re surviving …but we’re not realizing that that we are leaning into that capital, we’re leaning into that reserve of those natural resources in a way that we’re going to hit a very scary tipping point when we get there.
SM: Do you and James plan on working together again?
JO: Yes, we are talking about a bunch of different potential collaborations and we’re trying to figure out how we can make that work.
Here's the trailer for Chasing Ice, which came out on DVD and Blu-Ray September, 2013. Make sure to see, in my opinion, the most important documentary of the year!