How to Shoot in Antarctica

Not many of us can say that we’ve shot on every single continent, but Kenneth Browne is here to tell us how he dealt with one of the toughest shooting locations on earth.

Imagine filming in an environment that’s far below freezing temperatures, doesn’t have a setting sun, and only limited private transportation in and out. Opening up your tent to see absolutely nothing. What kind of problems would you face? What do you pack?

Browne works with The Escape Pod, based in Chicago. In 2016 he went down with a small team to show off the EGO Power+ snow blower for a TV commercial. I mean, if it works in Antarctica it’ll work anywhere right? The team of three — producer, DP, and creative director — stayed with Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions who host expeditions across the continent. In this case, they managed to travel over with a group of people looking to complete a marathon. The cost of this varies widely, but one can expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars.

The ticket for the chartered plane, as well as the extensive amount of equipment needed for the shoot.

“We piggy backed on a marathon trip, with a ton of gear, on an old Russian plane,” explained Browne. They brought the regular lightweight gear you’d expect: DJI Ronin, tripod, Sony a7R IISony FS5, and Zoom H6 audio recorder. What added to the heft was two snow blowers that they needed to bring down with them. “The runway where we landed was an outpost a couple miles outside the main camp,” said Browne. “I remember getting off the plane and the wind just hits you.”

The Challenges

Setting aside the obvious, how does this extreme location affect shooting? If a reader would happen to get the chance to visit the Antarctic, what should they watch out for?

“Packing and bringing equipment was a pain” according to Browne. “We flew from southern Chile so had to deal with a layover too. It’s not like you can get a direct flight from Chicago.” The team was due to stay for three days, however got stuck due to bad weather and needed to stay an extra day. It gave them more time to shoot but of course they wanted to get out as soon as they could.

Camera batteries needed to be kept separate from the equipment, and kept in the sleeping bag overnight. This was to prevent batteries from dying under the the harsh conditions. Similarly, fog in the lens was an issue that the team faced. “Basically anything really important stayed in our sleeping bags,” I was told.

Luckily one piece of tech that was guaranteed to work was the snow blower. It was electric and was designed to work in extreme temperatures. Apparently a gas-powered snow blower can have issues in the cold (which sounds counter-intuitive to me). Pity it's not particularly lightweight.

The soft, clouded light bounces right of the snow leaving very little shadow detail.

Overcast Lighting

The most striking thing that Browne talked about was how an overcast day changed the lighting so dramatically. It creates a huge blanket of soft light. As a result, you can’t make out shadows anymore. Apparently Browne had trouble walking over bumps that he couldn’t see, and shooting needed to be postponed until the clouds drifted past. I can’t imagine being disoriented by soft lighting like that.

Then when the sun is out, there’s still no protection. “You can bet we packed ND filters,” he joked. On the plus side, having so much daylight (24 hours of it) meant that they could wait for the perfect lighting. “A day trip wouldn't have been enough.”

Right now Browne is back in Antarctica, following six other continents, in an extensive series of marathon races. I guess once you've been there before, it's a piece of cake to go back.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Working in broadcasting and digital media, Stephen Kampff brings key advice to shoots and works hard to stay on top of what's going to be important to the industry.

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Good luck with the snow blower to clear a path. It's a losing proposition.

Great story and a great spot as well which makes a compelling case for reliability under the most extreme of conditions.