Interview: Jeff Orlowski and James Balog provide stunning proof of climate change in ‘Chasing Ice’
This award-winning documentary does a lot more than preach to the choir
Acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog was once a skeptic about climate change, but no more. As a result of his his multi-year Extreme Ice Survey project, he has documented irrefutable proof of the changes that global warming is wreaking on our planet. In Jeff Orlowski’s new documentary, “Chasing Ice,” Balog’s revolutionary time-lapse photography records what is happening to the world’s glaciers. His hauntingly beautiful images compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking (and terrifying) rate.
Traveling with a team of young adventurers across the brutal Arctic, Balog relentlessly pursues one of the biggest stories facing humanity, a story that has polarized many in this country. I sat down with Balog and Orlowski in a Los Angeles hotel room, far from the life-threatening environments where they’ve spent the past several years working on this powerful film.
MSN Movies: It must have been so incredible to spend time in these far-flung and beautiful locations—not to mention insanely dangerous and terrifying!
Jeff Orlowski: Oh, but that’s the fun stuff!
James Balog: I know! Some of that seems like a distant memory now and I’m grieving the fact that we’re not still out there in the field!
James, when you started your Extreme Ice Survey, was it always in the back of your head that this might make a good film?
James: Absolutely not! It was not part of the mindset at all.
Jeff: I really had to twist his arm!
James: We had enough to worry about just getting out there to do our work. I didn’t want to think about another camera crew or any additional fundraising. We were already financially stretched to the limit!
Jeff: It took a while to win him over, but when I realized we had a really compelling story, I brought a team on including the producer who did “The Cove.” And I told James that we’d do all the fundraising, he wouldn’t have to think about any of that.
James: I thought he was smoking dope at the time…but he’s a confident devil and manages to pulls things off that seem pretty impossible!
That sounds like a good description of you, too! Jeff, filming in those harsh environments had to be one of the biggest challenges. Did you call on James’ expertise as an environmental photographer?
Jeff: Oh, certainly. And there were a lot of days where the weather was so bad we didn’t even try to go out there.
James: Yeah, in some of those storms, if you tried to go out and shoot, the cameras would be ruined in about twenty minutes.
I assume you’ve ruined your share of cameras over the years?
James: Yeah, at this point I’ve been climbing all over the world for about 40 years in extreme weather. I’m comfortable in those conditions and know how to deal with all of the logistics. I was protective of the team’s safety on this shoot and you also worry about those expensive cameras. I have destroyed a few over the years and it doesn’t make you happy when you see them sitting there full of water with all the electronics shorted out!
Jeff: There’s a scene that didn’t make it into the film where James is taking photos on a beach and gets splashed by a huge wave. The camera got fried and he gets rather upset during the scene but we ended up pulling it out of the film.
But I’m really glad you kept in that scene where James realized he didn’t get any footage from that malfunctioning camera. It was such a real moment and shows the difficulty and frustration that are part of such projects. I have to say I feared for the lives of you and some of the people on the team at certain points in the film. Is it as dangerous as it looked?
James: It’s actually much worse! The reality of what we’re dealing with on a daily basis is worse than some of those gripping moments in the film. There was one trip to Greenland where some really crazy stuff happened that we didn’t even capture on camera. And I’ve had a bunch of near-death experiences on helicopters or small aircraft but you just get kind of obsessed.
Knowing what the film was about, I expected to walk out of the it wanting to put a gun to my head because the world is coming to an end! But I didn’t feel that way even though it shows some very serious issues we have to deal with. Was it a conscious decision to avoid using a more doomsday approach?
Jeff: Absolutely. We didn’t want it to seem like a totally depressing story, we do think there’s hope and we’ve seen how the film itself is shifting people’s opinions. We tried to leave the film on a hopeful message. My hope is that people come out of the film feeling that this is a tough situation but we can do something about it. There are a lot of films about climate change that feel more like propaganda. We didn’t want that and we didn’t want it to be like a science film—we wanted to show James’ real human experience and his amazing images.
And like the best documentaries, make us want to go home and learn more about the issues on our own.
James: I think that if there are any heavy messages in the film, the inspirational value redeems it. I hadn’t quite thought of it in those terms until our recent opening in New York. I had so many people come up after the screening and say, “You really inspired me.” I think the film captures people and lifts them up.
Your time-lapse photography of the glaciers is breathtakingly beautiful but also terrifying. Do you often find this tension between beauty and horror in your work?
James: You know, I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” about fifteen times. There’s a part in there where Kurtz, the character that Marlon Brando eventually played in “Apocalypse Now,” is on his death bed and he’s saying “the horror, the horror!” Conrad talks at length about the tension between beauty and horror, Kurtz is there in this beautiful place but he’s seen this dark underbelly. This dynamic is what has animated a lot of my work. When you’re an environmentally oriented image maker in the modern era, you have to recognize and acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of horrific things that are happening all around us in this world. For example, the acidity of the ocean has gone up thirty percent in the past several decades. Thirty percent! Dissolving coral reefs, plankton—dissolving, for God’s sake, that’s a horrible thing! But say you want to do something about endangered wildlife and all you show is bloody corpses, that just doesn’t get you anywhere, you have to come in with the beauty first, you have to find some visual trope, something you can make interesting, provocative, captivating imagery out of, and then you can deliver whatever horrific message is underneath it. Seduce with the beauty in order to bring in the other story!
How do you respond at this point to people who completely dismiss the reality of climate change and see it as some kind of left-wing conspiracy?
James: The answer is simply that we’ve experienced this. This is what we saw, this is the evidence we collected, here’s the visual record of it. And this is how we in the collective scientific community interpret this. You other guys can create some other story about what melting and collapsing ice means—it will be a ridiculous fiction, in my opinion, but feel free to create your fantasy! We believe that we’ve been telling the truth about what is happening.
Have you had the skeptics at your screenings?
James: Not so much yet, but I’ve given many presentations about the Extreme Ice Survey in rooms that were full of people that were fundamentally NOT predisposed to this message, they had open animosity toward it. I’ve gone into some of those rooms thinking, “I better really be on tonight,” and I just get up and tell my story. What usually happens is you have people coming up to you afterwards and shaking your hand saying, “I used to think this was a bunch of liberal propaganda, I didn’t understand how real this is, thank you for telling this story!”
Is the Extreme Ice Survey an ongoing project?
James: Yes, thanks for asking, I don’t want people to think that it’s over! The project goes on indefinitely and we’re hoping to expand it next year. There’s a series of sites in South America I’d like to put cameras on, possibly in Antarctica as well.
And what about people who do leave the movie in some kind of panic. What can they do?
Jeff: Well, we’re partnering with an environmental group called 350.org, so if people want to get involved they can go there. But the big issue that we’re trying to tackle here is a shift in perception, that’s really our primary goal.
Were you disappointed that this issue was barely mentioned during the recent presidential campaign?
Jeff: We intentionally timed the film to come out after the election. The issue has been unfortunately politicized. We believe it’s an apolitical issue that is going to affect all humans for all time and it’s really doing a disservice to humanity by turning it into such a political hot potato. To answer your question, yes, it was disappointing that it was never mentioned in the debates or the campaign in general. But President Obama did acknowledge it in his acceptance speech which was very encouraging. I’m hopeful that with this leadership we’ll see some changes made over the next couple years.
So when’s the screening at the White House?
James: We did have a few screenings on Capitol Hill, and I know there is a copy of the film on the President’s desk. I hope he watches it with his whole family!
No official response from the Tea Party Movement yet?
James: We had some blog attacks by some of the famous paid lobbyist-types who haven't even seen the film yet. They're entitled to their delusions!
Jeff: I like that—they’re entitled to their delusions! We should use that more often!
“Chasing Ice” is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities, with many more to come. Click here to find out if it’s coming to your area and to learn how to get more involved.