As the weather goes kablooey around us, Submarine Deluxe is finally releasing Sundance cinematography-prize-winning doc “Chasing Ice” (November 9), the debut documentary by 27-year old filmmaker Jeff Orlowski about James Balog, a National Geographic photographer who has traveled across the world to capture incredible time lapse photography of receding glaciers. Balog began his journey as a climate change skeptic, but now devotes his life to photographing and lecturing about the effect climate change is having on the Earth’s ice. (Bill Moyers interviews Balog here.)
The film recently won the 2012 Environmental Media Award for Best Documentary. It also garnered the Environmental Award at the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and won Audience Awards at the 2012 South by Southwest, River Run and Hot Docs film festivals. The film features the original song “Before My Time” with music and lyrics by J. Ralph (“Man on Wire,” “The Cove”), performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell.
Watch our exclusive clip from “Chasing Ice” below.
Jacob Combs: Before you came on, how long were Balog’s cameras out in the field?
Jeff Orlowski: The time lapses in the film, most of them were about four years in time span and some of them were three years, based on the success of the cameras. But they’ve been out there about five years, and they just continue to shoot.
JC: You started out working on the project as a photographer, right?
JO: My background is in still photography, and I transitioned into cinematography and filmmaking in college. I joined the project and the team mostly to work with James and be involved and get on board. And I just kept following him and filming him everywhere he went. I got to go to Greenland and Glacier National Park, and I did a lot of camera installations with him. It was about a year, maybe a year and a half into the project where we had a couple of hundred hours of footage and we had this story that we had been capturing. We were seeing what the time lapses were showing—the glaciers were in fact changing. We weren’t really sure what had happened before we installed the cameras. So with all that evidence and with the camera success and all the footage that we had, that’s when we decided we were going to make a film out of it. That’s when I brought a team together, I brought my producers on board, a writer on board. We kept working on the film and I later brought another editor on, and the last two years I’ve been in postproduction, revising the story and filling in the holes.
JC: James went through a process as a climate scientist of coming from a place of skepticism to really being struck by what was happening. What was your growth in terms of the science?
JO: I wasn’t a climate skeptic, personally. Also, I’m 27 years old, so I grew up in a different level of consciousness than James. So from my perspective, I’ve always been passionate about environmental issues, and that’s always been a motivating force for me, so working with James on the project was kind of a no brainer. At the beginning, I didn’t want to make a climate change film at all because we’ve already seen them. Making something new and unique from a climate change perspective is very difficult, so I wanted in the beginning to make a movie about James. Obviously we went through a lot of development in the story. At one point, I thought I just wanted to make a film about ice! About how ice around the world was changing. But over time, we had the realization and the solidification of what the story was. And it ended up being that it is a story of climate change seen through James’s eyes. And that’s what his work and the project is all about. It was worth the time that it took for the story to get to that place, because we’re all so much prouder of what came of it.
JC: What’s it like filming a photographer? And especially since you started on it as a photography project, what do you think the film does differently than his photographs do in the telling the story of the ice?
JO: The photography is kind of the center point of the whole film. It’s shot around the photography, it’s edited around the photography, and we’re trying to leverage the imagery to the best degree possible. I think the biggest difference is how photography and film, as mediums, are treated differently in our society. James has his imagery, and the way he shows them mostly is by doing lectures. He goes out to 500 people at a time, and he does presentations and he has to travel, for him to show the imagery. More than anything, I think film has the potential to distribute his story faster and easier. It’s taking his story—to some degree, a consolidated version of what he does in his presentations—and it’s showing it in a much more visceral way and a much more emotional way. Behind the scenes, you get to see the passion and the dedication of the guy, and how far he pushes himself to the limits to capture the story. The film accomplishes a number of things and makes it available to more people, but it is trying to leverage the imagery and the photography as much as possible. I think that film is a continuation of photography in many ways. It is 24 frames per second, so when you can start off with great images of nature and the photography he’s done, and try to create a film that allows the viewer to be immersed in the film for 75 minutes, I think that’s definitely worth it.
JC: So Sundance was a big part of getting it out to a larger audience.
JO: Absolutely. It was the first film Sundance screened to all of the volunteers. The Q&A that we had with the volunteers was really funny—it was the first time I screened the film publicly and could see the response, and a number of people were asking, ‘how can we get the film out, can you get in into schools, what kind of institutional distribution can you do? How can the film be leveraged in all of these different markets so that we can get people to see it and influence opinions?’ Right away, just from the very first screening, the response was one of sharing the mission and the climate change story that James has to tell and wanting people to see that to hopefully inspire change. Sundance is the best exposure we could have.
We’re trying to figure out the best opportunities for education and outreach efforts. One of the concepts is a Convince the Skeptics campaign. Because everybody always asks us, ‘What can I as an individual do about climate change?’ I’m not telling people to change a light bulb. Those are things that people are either doing already out of self-respect, or they’re not doing because they don’t care or they’re a skeptic or they’re a denier. So our mindset is that the biggest issue surrounding climate change is perception.
We need to recognize that it is a problem that we need to deal with. There’s a very large vested interest that has been intentionally confusing the whole debate. The oil companies make their whole living and their egregious profits off burning carbon. They don’t want the status quo to change, and as any good business would, they’re trying to protect their interests. But we need the American public to recognize that this is an issue that we need to do something about, and the only way that can happen is by changing perspective. Everyone has some climate skeptic friend that they know, so we’d say, ‘make it your mission to share the story of the ice and the glaciers with them.’ It’s a small contribution that could do a great deal.
JC: Do you have anything else in the works? What’s on the horizon for you?
JO: I’ve got two documentaries, one that we started shooting and another one that’s in early development. And I have a narrative, a biopic, that’s still in the early stages. I have three films in the pipeline, but I haven’t had that much time to dedicate to them because I’ve been so busy finishing up “Chasing Ice.”