James balog
James balog

Q&A with acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog & director Jeff Orlowski on their award winning documentary

In 2005 acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog headed to the Arctic to capture images to help tell the story of Earth’s changing climate. Having been somewhat skeptical about climate change he discovers undeniable evidence of our changing planet. This set him on an arduous and life-threatening task to prove it not only to the world, but to himself!

EIS field technician, Adam LeWinter on iceberg, Columbia Bay, Alaska; June 19, 2008.
EIS field technician, Adam LeWinter on iceberg, Columbia Bay, Alaska; June 19, 2008.

In his feature film, Chasing Ice [+], Balog deploys revolutionary time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers. Traveling with a team of young adventurers across the brutal Arctic, Balog risks his career and his wellbeing in pursuit of the biggest story facing humanity. As the debate polarizes America, and the intensity of natural disasters ramps up globally, Chasing Ice depicts a heroic photojournalist on a mission to deliver fragile hope to our carbon powered planet.

CHASING ICE is directed by Jeff Orlowski, cinematographer for the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), and an award-winning filmmaker. A Stanford University graduate, he has been working with Balog since 2007 and has shot over 300 hours of footage of EIS in the field.

EkTitli.Org got in touch with James Balog and director Jeff Orlowski whose hauntingly beautiful videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate.

Could you tell a little about the movie and what inspired you to create a movie of such a kind that involved tremendous risks?

JB: We actually did not intend to make the film. The film grew organically out of the Extreme Ice Survey. It really was an afterthought. I thought it would be valuable to document the field action and we might use some of the footage on the Web site or in my lectures. It took Jeff (director Jeff Orlowski) a year and half to convince me that we should make a movie out of it. It wasn’t until he cut a trailer that I realized that the potential was there and that he just might be able to pull it off. But, creating a 5-minute trailer doesn’t compare to making a feature-length film. Jeff spent the next two years cutting the film. He leaned on family and friends for financial support and his friends for advice and guidance. When he submitted the unfinished film to Sundance, it was accepted. Everything took off from there.

And Jeff, how did you get involved?

JO: I was connected to James Balog through a good mutual friend, and we met on occasion in Boulder, Colorado every time I visited. I was a photographer, and a huge fan of James’s work, and really wanted to work with him. In 2007, he started his project called the Extreme Ice Survey and I offered to help for free. I went with him and a team to Iceland when he started installing his first time lapse cameras, and I filmed the entire trip. It was mostly just to document what he was doing, and to have a record of the project. Then I went with him to Greenland, and then Alaska, and then kept traveling with him, filming everywhere we went.

Over time, we had collected a great archive of the project, and I knew we could make a great film out of it. There have been so many efforts to document climate change, but this one was unique.  As James’s time-lapses started to come back from the field, we knew the project was working. So I put all my efforts into making a feature doc, built a world-class team to support me, and spent the next few years dedicated to ice.

How many locations did you shoot at and how did you select them?

JO: The list is too long!  Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Glacier National Park in Montana, the Alps, Bolivia, Canada… Wherever James went, we followed. James selected the locations to install his time-lapse cameras based on wanting to capture a very broad representation of glaciers all around the world. He wanted his Extreme Ice Survey to show people how glaciers are responding everywhere–not just in one small region; so we followed him everywhere. Beyond the work in the field, we filmed scientists and experts all around the country who could help explain why James’s work is so critical.

Adam LeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland
Adam LeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland

Could you share your experiences while filming the movie?

JB: In the course of shooting assignments on retreating glaciers for The New Yorker and National Geographic in 2005–06, I was stunned to see that extraordinary amounts of ice was vanishing with shocking speed. Ice that had taken centuries to form was disappearing in just a few years, months or even weeks. This was geologic-scale change happening not just in the dim past or distant future, but right here, right now, in our own time. These observations were the catalyst for the Extreme Ice Survey and ultimately, Chasing Ice.

What were your biggest challenges during filming?

JO: The biggest challenge was the harsh environments. We had weather as low as negative 30 degrees. One winter night in Greenland, I thought I was going to freeze to death in our cabin. Our kerosene heater was leaking gas so we decided to go to sleep without it. I woke up in the middle of the night from my own teeth chattering. I rubbed my body to stay warm, and suffered until sunrise. But as cold as it was and as difficult as it may seem, it was all the fun stuff. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I’d much rather be out shooting than editing!

What kind of efforts have gone into the making of Chasing Ice?

JB: It’s very challenging just to reach some of the camera locations. Some are so remote that EIS team members were probably the first people to ever visit the sites. Field teams reach the cameras on foot and on horseback, by dogsled and ski, from fishing boats and helicopters.

Chasing Ice Director Jeff Orlowski films in Survey Canyon, Greenland, in the summer of 2009.
Chasing Ice Director Jeff Orlowski films in Survey Canyon, Greenland, in the summer of 2009.

The movie has won numerous awards, how has the reception been?

JB: Chasing Ice won dozens of awards at film festivals including Sundance. It was short-listed for an Academy Award and was recently screened at The White House. The film is now airing on the National Geographic channel and will be available on Netflix and on DVD soon.

Do you feel the understanding of climate change by people varies from geographies and the strata of society they belong to? Does their economic situation also play a role in their perception?

JB: Climate change is a universal issue that affects every man, woman and child no matter their political or religious beliefs, age or economic status. WE are all part of the problem and we can all be a part of the solution.

If yes, how do you educate and empower them?

JB: What is most important is that we all do whatever we can with the skills we have. We all have to use our voices, our power and our money to spread the word.

Many self-aware citizens have a similar question, “What alternatives do we have? Is it economical?” Especially in this part of the world. What is your advice to them?

JB: Again, do what you can with the skills and resources you have. The path forward is being traveled by individuals committed to improving their own lives and communities and by school children who understand more than anyone how different the world will be for their children if we don’t act now.

Chasing Ice” features some very moving images of how climate change is impacting our Natural world. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

JO: As James says, he wants people to realize that these images are visual evidence of climate change. His time-lapses capture that process in action. It’s really hard for the average person to see the impact that humans have on the planet, especially when we live in a huge, beautiful country like America. You can drive across the States and spend days just looking out at huge open fields, and think, “how is my little car supposed to be having some sort of impact on all of that?”

Yet what James has documented is that visual record. It’s something that people can see and feel that represents what the science has concluded. Glaciers may seem really far away, in a distant world that nobody ever goes to, yet we humans are changing them. I hope that Chasing Ice can take James’s work and make it real for people; to take the beautiful world of ice and to make it tangible and bring it close to home. If it helps change how people think about their relationship to nature, and how human beings exist on this planet, I’ll consider it a success.

To participate and make a difference, visit http://www.chasingice.com/make-a-difference/spread-the-message and to volunteer visit http://www.chasingice.com/make-a-difference/volunteer



To watch the movie at a theatre near you, click here to see the various locations and timings it is being screened at http://www.chasingice.com/see-the-film/showtimes-2

More: James Balog at TED | James Balog’s official website | James Balog on Wikipedia | Extreme Ice Survey |

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