Making a documentary film is often a long arduous process. Now, imagine going through that in the Arctic?
This the place that Director Sarah Robertson and Cinematographer Adam Ravetch chose to document their most recent film, Arctic Tale. This story is an epic adventure that explores the vast world of the Great North. The film follows the walrus, Seela and the polar bear, Nanu, on their journey from birth to adolescence to maturity and parenthood in the frozen Arctic wilderness. Once a perpetual winter wonderland of snow and ice, the walrus and the polar bear are losing their beautiful icebound world as it melts from underneath them. Narrated by Queen Latifah, the film features music from Cat Stevens, Ben Harper, Aimee Mann, and The Shins.
How did Arctic Tale come together?
Sarah Robertson: Well Evan, Adam and I have been working for 15 years in the Arctic. Going out on our own with our own camera and filming. We specialize in underwater so we did a lot of underwater work with walruses. We've just been collecting over the years. We've been working with National Geographic TV for many years and then just in the last three or four years we all said, "We'd love to put the Arctic world up on the big screen," and we've been working to do that together. So, March of the Penguins made it all a little bit easier.
As a film like Arctic Tale takes some time to make, are you able to work on anything else?
Adam Ravetch: Once we zeroed in on the project, 2 and a half years ago we started to edit, the answer is, "No, you can't work on anything else." It completely and totally consumes us. In the beginning, like Sarah said, 10 to 15 years ago, we didn't have any interest at all. We had to start collecting material and then get it to people, to convince people, that we could make a film out of this. Once we're zeroed in on a project it's very difficult, how much it takes in the field and in the office and in the edit room, it just totally consumes you. You really can't do anything else.
As you're editing a documentary of this nature, are there re-shoots that go on to supplement the footage?
Adam Ravetch: Most definitely. We're making a story and we want to make sure we've made the very best story we can. One of the things that we actually found out, that happened once we finished our rough cut, was that over the years we were shooting so close, so intimate, just using a very wide angle lens and being inches away from the animals, we almost neglected some of the scope of the Arctic to show its vastness. There was 3 reshoots that we did during the editing process. One of them was just strictly aerials. Aerial cinematography so that we could get the audience to step back and see how vast the Arctic was. Other shots, maybe we would try to put a bear walking in the wide vast area but most of it was already finished up to that point.
How are you able to follow your subjects? How can you tell them apart from the other animals?
Sarah Robertson: Nanu (the polar bear) and Seela (the walrus) are actually composite characters. It would have been impossible to follow the same animal for 8 years. So they represent several different animals that we've encountered in the North, and to us they are the best of their species. They represent the best qualities that we saw in those animals in the North. Even just following a pair of animals was quite a challenge.
What was it about the Arctic that made you want to tell this story?
Adam Ravetch: What's wonderful about the Arctic is that it's underexposed. There's very little material out on the North. That's what drew us in the beginning, as young and ambitious photographers, we really just wanted to find an unknown region of animals that we could really document the detailed lives of; that really very few people knew about. As the filming went on and we started to craft Arctic Tale, we really thought we had a responsibility to deal with the issue of climate change. We didn't want to tell a story about the Arctic and say to everybody, "Everything's okay, look how beautiful this place is." No, we wanted to show what's happening in a real time.
Just this last April I was in Greenland and it was raining in the wintertime. January through March, it rained. The ice didn't form until 3 months late, so it's actually something that's happening as we speak.
What was the most difficult part of making this film?
Sarah Robertson: As hard as it is to make a Hollywood movie, which was pretty new territory for us, I think still working in the field of the Arctic would be... it beats working in Hollywood. Not by much, but by a little bit. Just dealing with the extremes, the weather, the unpredictability of the Arctic was very tough.
Adam Ravetch: There's a shot in the movie where Nanu climbs the back of her mother as she walks off, and the animals are latching and wrestling. That shot, we set out in March, it was about 25, 35 below, we were tracking that mother and cub unit. We had to travel 2000 miles with a snow machine and a sled, sleeping at night in the igloos. At night we'd have to build an igloo. It takes about 5, 6 hours to build one, then you'd have to cook your dinner after that; you had to thaw out the snow to make fresh water. At the very, very end of that after being visited by bears at night (laughs), in the pitch black, they were teasing us, we finally set up and got that 20 second shot.
Now, I'm sitting in theaters and I listen to an audience, I see the film and I hear them laugh when Nanu is pulled up on the back of her mother, and it really makes me feel how worth it it really was. To endure that much time, that much hardship on ourselves, to get this beautiful nugget. Many of the shots in Arctic Tale were done that way.
When you're shooting in those highly adverse conditions, how can you even think about getting a good shot? Doesn't self preservation kick in and you just want to get warm somewhere?
Adam Ravetch: You're right. Sometimes it's so brutal. When it's 40 below, we did one winter, it was almost impossible to make the camera work. My hands, I have to use thin gloves, I can't use thick gloves to change the f-stop or the shutter on the camera. So, it is brutal but again it's cumulative. Over the years we've seen, if we just endure, if we just wait, if we just come back one more season we're gonna be revealed a secret that no one has ever seen before. There's such a great reward in seeing something for the first time and then bringing it back to share with the rest of the world.
What would you like audiences to take away from watching this film?
Sarah Robertson: I think the whole movie was really made to celebrate the animals. Their wonderful qualities, their capacity to learn and to be resourceful. We're using the animals as a metaphor, really, for human beings, especially young people, to be inspired by the animals and see they can take initiative and they can take the bold steps that are going to be necessary for us to change the way we live; in response to climate change.
What do you folks have coming up next? I know that after this you probably want a break...
Adam Ravetch: We're developing a couple of ideas we'd like to make. We want to continue with our natural history backgrounds, making feature length films for the big screen. We're very interested in continuing with films that not only entertain and educate, but also have these environmental themes, some timely themes. One issue we're really interested in is the oceans. How we've lost our knowledge of the oceans and what's happening there. We're probably going to direct ourselves toward that next.
Arctic Tale comes to theaters in limited release on July 25 from Paramount Classics. It gets a wider release August 17.