“Aquarela” begins with a car zipping straight across Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which usually remains frozen January through May. And then the car disappears, plunging through the thin ice. Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky captures the moment at the world’s oldest, largest, and deepest freshwater lake in an astonishing feat of fast-frame-rate cinema that showcases the power of water all over the globe. It also placed its director and crew into terrible danger.
“It was obviously dangerous while shooting to suddenly see something like this,” said Kossakovsky. “Suddenly, the car appears in the shot and we see it just fall through the ice to the bottom of the lake. We realize it can happen to us. This was a moment. We were far away. We obviously wanted to help them. We start moving toward them. When we came close, we realized there was no ice around. It was like the ice was moving like waves, it was already melting so much. You immediately face reality. You suddenly realize the power of water.”
That is what “Aquarela” is about. Kossakovsky chased stunning images of water around the globe, using Arri digital cameras that shoot at 96 frames per second (alas, only a few cinemas are able to project that format; most will be 48 or 24). The movie has no narration to explain where you are, or what’s going on — just crashing Dolby Atmos Sound and a heavy-metal score from Finnish violinist/composer Eicca Toppinen. Kossakovsky improvised locations and shot without a script, trying to show the water’s POV. The effect is hypnotic, haunting, and terrifying.
A 12-minute cut of that Siberian sequence was worth $1 million in financing from Participant Media, which backed 40 percent of the $2.6 million budget. “Whoa, this is incredible!” said Participant documentary president Diane Weyermann. “The main character is obviously water. I could see it would be an immersive approach to the subject. There’s virtually no people and 12 lines of dialogue in the entire film. For us, it’s about climate change, but the film could potentially reach a very different audience who would be going to see a film about the power of nature, which comes across in a visceral, emotional way. “
The filmmakers arrived in Greenland prepared to shoot giant glaciers ready to fall apart, but were warned they might have to wait two months for anything to happen. As soon as they began to unpack their equipment, “it started that second,” said Kossakovsky. “It was unbelievable, really impossible. I’m so unbelievably a lucky man. Everything happens in a way I want.”
That included being able to get close to the calving glaciers; the ice hitting the water can create a tsunami. Kossakovsky found two intrepid sailors willing to take chances with their two-masted 100-foot schooner, the Polski Hak. He’s grateful to them, and the gods of luck and miracles — not to mention understanding financiers and producers — that he got the shots he did without killing anyone, including himself.
Similarly, Kossakovsky wanted to film a 400-meter ice floe in Greenland from underwater — but if a mammoth iceberg shifts direction, you are dead. He got the shot, anyway, capturing wonderful blue walls with bubbles that indicate melting.
Kossakovsky persuaded the Polski Hak crew to across the Atlantic in a three-week voyage from Portugal to Greenland; his camera team adapted military equipment to stabilize the camera. The boat’s captains, Hayat Mokhenache (a diminutive woman with 11 ocean crossings) and Peter Madej (20 ocean crossings) navigated 30-foot waves and 40-knot winds in what Kossakovsky calls the worst storm in 100 years. At one point, Madej climbed a 98-foot mast to wipe water off the camera lens.
“We were not able to go out from the storm,” Kossakovsky said. “The storm took us. There is a saying: ‘The first week of a storm, you think you are going to die. The second week, you want to die. But the third week, you realize you will not die and you have to fight.'” Thanks to his experienced helmers, his crew survived, but the boat wound up off the coast of Newfoundland.
Another scary proposition was shooting the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, Venezuela’s Angel Falls, with a 2,368-foot plunge. “We were trying to come behind the waterfall … and get no drop of water on the lens,” he said. Another magical moment from that shoot: The camera pulls back to reveal a perfect, densely saturated, arching rainbow over the falls.
“How did you get that shot?” asked Weyermann. For Kossakovsky, the answer is something of a trade secret. “There is not a frame of CGI in this film,” she said. “That’s his alchemy. He doesn’t want to share the recipe.”
Part of his crazy genius is finding crew able to pull off his vision. He found ace German cinematographer Ben Bernhard after holding a contest to find the best camera assistant focus puller for his 2011 documentary “¡Vivan las antípodas!” Who could follow a condor flying with a 600-meter lens? “I met 196 people and choose one young boy,” said Kossakovsky. “He was 28, and then we came to film condors in Patagonia and he did an amazing shot. No one believed it.” They’re been shooting together ever since.
For the hurricane footage, his second assistant cameraman Derek Howard got himself from New York to Miami — despite closed airports and massive winds and flooding — to grab dramatic shots inside Hurricane Irma. Kossakovsky and his team did not fully realize the danger they faced until they saw the rough cut.
“We understood it when we saw it,” said Kossakovsky. “My team was so shocked. Like, ‘Did we make it ourselves? Did we experience this and we are still alive?’ Whoa. It was heavy metal. OK. We start using heavy metal, strange music, just to express more the strange emotions which you cannot believe are possible.”
Sony Pictures Classics releases “Aquarela” on August 16.