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In October-November 1999 and April 2000, the Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure production team undertook two expeditions to the Antarctic for the purpose of tracing and re-creating the travels and trials of Sir Ernest Shackleton's British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The first filming expedition embarked for the Antarctic in early October 1999 to film scenes from Shackleton's extraordinary saga in the locations in which they took place: South Georgia Island, Elephant Island, the Southern Ocean and the Weddell Sea.
The IMAX® cinematographers shot breathtaking aerials of the Weddell Sea's majestic icebergs, barren ice floes and debilitating pack ice. They filmed re-creations of Shackleton and his men camping on the floes and then rowing in open sea, en route to Elephant Island. On uninhabited Elephant Island, they documented the black cliffs, the narrow beach on which the crew camped for five months while waiting for rescue, and the abundant seals and penguins that aided their survival. And, they shot scenes of the James Caird sailing off of South Georgia Island, where Shackleton finally reached civilization, facilitating the rescue of all of his crew members.
The producers chartered two ships to reach the remote locations. The 236-foot Russian Akademik Shuleykin, with an ice-strengthened hull for polar seas, housed most of the 40-person film and support crew. The smaller Chilean vessel Laurel carried a helicopter and SpaceCam system for aerial shooting. A total of 178 pieces of art department, film, and survival equipment weighing 41,000 pounds was shipped from the United States.
The film crew undertook extensive technical preparation prior to shooting, including cold-chamber testing of all equipment. Since they would be unable to replace damaged equipment, the crew duplicated and triplicated critical items, including three IMAX cameras. On location, splash bags and housings kept out seawater and mist, compressed air blowers removed spray from lenses, and heaters fended off extreme cold. A cold soak room aided in controlling condensation as cameras were moved from freezing temperatures into the warm ship. A custom-designed boat with a gyroscopic mount helped stabilize the film image in rough seas.
As producer Scott Swofford explains, the production crew grappled with the same elements as the early explorers, for the problems of filming in the cold environment were compounded by the marine climate, high winds and rough seas. He says, "Very early on, it became obvious that the filmmaking would sometimes become as intense as the story we were re-creating. There was no 'take two' for many sequences: We only had one chance to capture the image."
Potential danger abounded in the various locations. Maps warned that the coastal waters of South Georgia Island and Elephant Island were largely uncharted, and weather conditions were highly changeable. For example, a fast-rising gale trapped several crew members on South Georgia, where they spent 21 hours sheltered in an abandoned whaling station as winds reached 108 mph.
"The logistics were much more complex than we expected," says director of photography Reed Smoot. "We had a very narrow window when the weather was severe enough to tell the story, but not yet too dangerous to film." Small boat scenes were too risky if the swell rose more than eight feet.
During the spring 2000 filming expedition, the production crew traveled to South Georgia Island, where they filmed the mountain peaks, crevasses, glaciers and snowfields over which Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean trudged for 36 continuous hours, during their traverse of South Georgia Island. They also shot Stromness, where Shackleton and his men stumbled, exhausted, into the whaling station.
Also in spring 2000, beyond highlighting the landmarks on the final leg of Shackleton's long ordeal, the Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure production team documented the experiences of three of the world's most-accomplished climbersReinhold Messner, Stephen Venables, and Conrad Ankerwho retraced the historic steps of Shackleton and his two companions across glacier-clad South Georgia Island.
Providing safety and logistics during the two Antarctic filming expeditions were David Rootes and Nick Lewis, scientists seasoned through years with the British Antarctic Survey. Together with their team of polar guides, they advised on everything from navigation to safety and environmental protection. When the crew staged Shackleton's "Iceberg Camp" with a full complement of costumed actors on an ice floe, Rootes tested a floe for stability, then put safety measures into play during shooting. Actors wore flotation vests under their costumes, and eight boats, a helicopter and two ships were ready if problems arose. For scenes of Shackleton, Worsley and Crean on the South Georgia traverse, for example, mountaineer Lewis led the way in costume, checking the snow for crevasses.
To learn more about the filming expeditions, visit the NOVA/PBS Online Adventure site by clicking the logo below.
Photo Credits: Photo: Kelly Tyler, Courtesy
of NOVA/PBS Online Adventure