Extreme science caught on film
Documentary filmmakers spend seven weeks in one of the coldest places on earth, all to find a story in science
On a spring day, with temperatures a balmy -20 degrees Fahrenheit, documentary filmmaker Anne Aghion
and her three-person crew made their way to the exposed rock of the Olympus Range, Antarctica -- one of the driest and coldest places on the planet, on the only continent committed entirely to science and exploration.
The film crew spent seven weeks in a tent, trading baths for baby wipes and heaters for cooking stoves, filming their only neighbors: Four geologists led by Allan Ashworth
, a professor at North Dakota State University and Adam Lewis, a postdoctoral researcher at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Ohio. Aghion filmed as Ashworth collected fossils from the time when Antarctica's landscape sported deciduous shrubbery, liquid lakes and insects. Ashworth's fossils, together with volcanic ash deposits that Lewis collected, will help determine when Antarctica froze over, and just how long it took.
Like scientists, documentary filmmakers often spend weeks in their subject's natural environment, collecting data and returning home to synthesize the findings. Both the filmmakers and scientists have left Antarctica; In the coming months, the researchers will examine half a ton of samples
they collected, while Aghion sorts through 200 hours of footage. Each will produce a unique picture of life on the Antarctic continent.
On an unseasonably warm January day in New York City -- about as different from Antarctica
as it gets -- Aghion and I discuss her latest trip over coffee.
Q: What was your impression of Antarctica? What surprised you?
A: It's a real luxury in our day and age to be isolated like that, to be so disconnected. Nobody can reach you. It's like the world stops and it's about really being where you are. It's restful. You're not going in every possible direction at once.
Q: How did you decide to follow Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis' work? Why these two scientists in particular?
A: I was really interested in the deep field dynamic: Being in a tent, isolated for a long time, which is harder and harder to find in Antarctica. There are not that many people who want to go through what this group goes through. [Scientists] go to camps that are more established... where you have heat.
When you're out there, a lot of your time is spent making water, keeping warm, cooking food. There was a lot of time devoted to that, to survival.
Q: Did you see discoveries in action?
A: [Ashworth and Lewis] would walk around and sort of pick a place and dig and suddenly there'd be a (fossil) leaf and I'd be like, 'what's going on here? Is this for real?' So yes, we had moments like that. And a lot of the places they were digging, it wasn't just one leaf. It was like, hundreds -- a miniature forest.
Q: After your work with the survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, "In Rwanda We Say..."(2004), what made you decide to follow scientists?
A: Scientists have an idea of what they're looking for, and where to look. But, once they get there, they're completely open to what happens. They're just looking at the landscape for clues, and digging and digging and digging. Then from what they find, they start to build a narrative. I hadn't realized to what extent their work involved storytelling.
It's the same thing I do. I have an idea of where I want to go, but then I never know what I'm going to find. It's only as I go along, that I start to build a narrative. I know less about what the film is going to be today, than I did four or five months ago when I set out.
More information about the project, which was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, can be found on Aghion's Web site
. The film, as yet untitled, is scheduled for release in early 2008.
Photo (on homepage) by Anne Aghion.
Sylvestre Guidi, Director of Photography, and Richard Fleming, Sound Recordist filming in early September in Antarctica, as part of a film project directed by Anne Aghion, a grantee of NSF's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.
Links within this article:
D. Bruce, "Antarctic flies," The Scientist
, May 8, 2003.
S. Pincock, "Hot bacteria near Antarctica," The Scientist
, April 1, 2006.