Glacial retreat: 'Chasing Ice' documents an environmental crisis

Introducing a screening of Chasing Ice at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, program director Trevor Groth described the movie as "one of the most exquisitely visual documentaries I've ever seen, and it addresses one of the most important issues."

Groth was proved right on both counts. Director and cinematographer Jeff Orlowski picked up the award for Excellence in Cinematography (U.S. Documentary) on the last night of the festival. As for the importance of the issue, the documentary (opening on Nov. 9 via Submarine Deluxe) follows award-winning photographer James Balog on the Extreme Ice Survey project as he uses time-lapse photography, conventional photography and video to illustrate the effects of global warming and the dramatic retreat of the earth's glaciers.

"One part of your brain is saying, ‘This is spectacular, this is beautiful,’ while at the same time another part of your brain is saying, ‘This is horrific, this is not good news for the future of the world,’” says Balog. "The photos are the memory of the landscape because it’s gone, changed forever."

The audience reaction reflected Balog's view with gasps of shock as the time-lapse photos revealed glaciers collapsing and disappearing before our eyes, mingled with gasps of wonder at the stunning ice landscapes. Balog's nighttime photographs are particularly awe-inspiring, as is Orlowski's filming of the team's precarious climbs onto ice ravines and spectacular moments of “calving” when huge chunks (“the size of Manhattan”) peel off the glaciers to roll into floodwater. It’s a terrifyingly impressive sight and, according to Balog, at close range the sound is like a 747 taking off.

Balog’s interest in nature began in his early childhood. His fascination with wild places led him to study geomorphology at university, then he switched to nature photojournalism as a way of more directly exploring the “contact zone” between man and nature.

Through his work for National Geographic and his many self-directed projects, Balog has redefined environmental photography, whether his subject is endangered animals, giant trees, or Arctic ice sheets.

"James has influenced my perspective on history and posterity,” Orlowski declares. "It’s something I never thought of in that fashion, that the planet is changing as fast as it is."

Orlowski, who started his career as a still photographer until he discovered a love of the pace and depth of cinematography, began work on the EIS project purely as a reporting exercise, but when the results of the time-lapse photography emerged, he and Balog realized they had a documentary in the making.

Speaking in Park City before he knew he'd won the cinematography award, Orlowski gives credit to Balog as a great visual influence and mentor.
"James is an incredible artist and an incredible photographer—it’s been an invaluable experience for me to shadow him and see how he approaches different scenarios," he says. "When setting up cameras, we always had in the back of our mind: ‘What would James do in this scenario?’”

Despite his passion for the project, after shooting ice for three years, Balog wondered how he would find more to say in the photographs, but every time he went out, there would be further visual revelations. "Right down to the very last shoots this year in the Alps and Iceland, they are some of the very best pictures I've shot in my entire career."

With such controversial subject matter, Balog has had what he describes as plenty of “vitriolic attacks” by people wishing to debunk the visual evidence he presents. "It’s par for the course," he notes. "There’s a massive industry that makes its money from burning carbon."

"The story had to be told," says Orlowski, "and in a story form that an audience can relate to. We wanted to tell the story of the glaciers but also about James' passion."

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