Three tiny wooden lifeboats fight to stay upright in the ice-choked polar seas. Exhausted, chilled to the bone, and dressed in filthy ragged clothing, the men row with all their might against the furious currents. The sheer black cliffs of an island loom just ahead in the thick mist. Predatory leopard seals circle the boats, eyeing the men as potential prey. Suddenly, one of the boats drops into the trough of a wave, disappearing to the tip of its mast. A few moments later it reappears, with one man standing impossibly at the tiller. He is called Shackleton.
But it is not 1916. It is November 1999, and the scene is a dramatic re-creation for the giant-screen film Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure. Many feature films and television dramas have dealt with the early exploration of the Antarctic. But the producers of this giant-screen film envisioned something entirely different: Their filming expedition marks the first time dramatic re-creations of early explorers have actually been shot in the Antarctic on a major scale. And the film itself is larger-than-life, filmed with IMAX® cameras for giant-screen theaters worldwide.
"The clarity of what you see on that six-story-high screen is the real challenge," says production designer Roger Crandall. "With a feature or television film, you can get away with cheating. In IMAX [filmmaking], for example, you have to use period construction methods to build a replica packing crate, because the audience will notice if you use modern drywall screws."
Crandall and his art department created a detailed array of period polar gear, from tents, sleds and camp stoves to sextants, tools and pocket watches. Their meticulous research extended to researching the types of labels on cans of polar rations.
Costume designer Cathren Warner researched period polar gear extensively, studying actual expedition clothing in the archives of the National Maritime Museum and Burberry's, both in England. Burberry's outfitted numerous explorers in the early 20th century and supplied her with the same type of cotton gabardine fabric used for Shackleton's coats. Warner created expedition garments for 28 men.
The original images of Endurance photographer and cinematographer Frank Hurley provided crucial details for the construction of Shackleton's lifeboats, the James Caird, the Stancomb Wills and the Dudley Docker, named for three of the expedition's financial backers. But visual accuracy wasn't enough; these seaworthy replicas were required to withstand Antarctic swells, pack ice and gales. Safety was a primary concern, for each boat would carry seven to nine men.
To build and sail the replicas, the producers turned to Bob Wallace, a Boston sea captain and shipwright. Wallace knows the polar seas well, as skipper of the scientific research vessel Abel J. He examined the original James Caird and pored over Endurance Captain Frank Worsley's diaries and Hurley's photographs before beginning work in a Uruguayan boatyard with his team. A longtime Shackleton aficionado, Wallace not only brought the boats to life using traditional construction methods, but also did a star turn, appearing as Shackleton in the film.
Using these lifeboats, the crew filmed re-creations of Shackleton and his men rowing amid the pack ice and towering icebergs of the Weddell Sea, navigating to landfall on forbidding Elephant Island and sailing the James Caird off South Georgia.
Although the crew sailed to the ends of the Earth for the sake of historical accuracy, one important period detail was missing in the Antarctic: sled dogs. Shackleton sailed with 69 dogs aboard the Endurance, but none are permitted in the Antarctic today. In 1994, an international environmental protection measure required all non-indigenous animals to be removed. In order to film scenes with dogs, the production team re-created Shackleton's "Ocean Camp" on a frozen lake in Utah. Additional wave tank shooting in Utah provided special-effects shots of the James Caird nearly capsized in a storm, scenes deemed far too unsafe to attempt in the Antarctic.
Still, the re-creations crew felt the power and fury of the Antarctic elements firsthand. During the final day of shooting at Elephant Island, the weather deteriorated rapidly as the rowers in the three boats gamely fought with strong currents among the icebergs. Shooting was stopped for safety reasons. Crew members boarded the Shuleykin, but a rising 10-foot swell prevented the loading of the three lifeboats. Over the next 12 hours, the crew repeatedly struggled to bring them onto the ship. In the end, the three wooden boats succumbed to rolling seas rising more than 14 feet and sank off the coast of Elephant Island.
For producer Scott Swofford, the experience brought a new appreciation of the Endurance story. "That day was the closest connection we felt to Shackleton's odyssey. The courage of those men was amazing. The unpredictable elements and safety concerns made every foot of film a gift we gladly received."
To learn more about the dramatic reenactments in the film, visit the NOVA/PBS Online Adventure site by clicking the logo below.
Photo Credits: © 2001 WGBH and White Mountain
Films, LLC, Photo : Reed Smoot