The first question that comes to mind when talking to South Pole resident Anthony Powell may be “Are you okay?” After all, Powell spends four months a year in darkness and braves 60-below-zero temperatures while trying to operate delicate camera gear on a regular basis. But in fact, the New Zealand native proves himself to be a thoroughly sensible nature lover. “Being able to step outside for a lunch break at noon and see crystal clear stars overhead is pretty special.” says Powell, who’s devoted much of the past decade capturing Antarctica’s natural wonders on film.
In Antarctica: A Year On Ice, a new doc that premiered November 28, Powell uses time-lapse photography to paint a rare picture of the region’s pristine wilderness. The documentary’s most spectacular sequences record the Southern Lights phenomenon, technically known as “Aurora Australis” and shown about 1 minute 30 seconds into trailer below.
Powell explains, “When these magnetic fields intersect with solar discharge, it’s like this force is going to swallow you up and lift you up into space. It’s a mind blowing experience.” One resident interviewed in the film recalls falling to her knees, awestruck by the spectacle she likens to “green fairy dust.”
Speaking by Skype from New Zealand a few days before his return to Antarctica, Powell explains how he filmed until his hands went numb in order to share the South Pole’s stark beauty with the rest of the world.
Like American wilderness photographer Tom Lowe and filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, Powell found that time-lapse techniques served his subject matter better than conventional cinematography. “Camera technology doesn’t exist yet for filming Aurora in real time at a quality that would hold up on a movie screen,” Powell says. “Time lapse is the only way to capture that.”
Setting up cameras for days or weeks at a time posed a raft of challenges. Fluid-head tripods froze. Cameras got knocked over by the wind. Internal mechanisms got packed with snow blown into the crevices by gale-force gusts. But Powell crafted his own work-arounds, crafted motion control systems with twine and persevered. “We have one shot of ice ridges changing shape that lasts about eight seconds on screen but actually took five months to shoot in real time,” he says.
When Powell first moved to Antarctica in 1997 to work as a telecom company technical support staffer, he tried using old-fashioned film stock. “I learned that in the extreme cold, because it’s so dry, there’s a lot of electric charges inside the camera. My first year in Antarctica, after 12 months of shooting, I got the film developed and saw all these streaks on the film. From that vantage point, digital technology is a huge advantage and it also works better in low light.”
Digital cameras presented problems of their own in frigid weather, though, Powell recalls. “It took a few years of trial and error to figure out how to make my cameras work in 60-degree-below-zero weather. When I’d try to set up the LCD viewfinders, the liquid inside would freeze solid. I’d hold a corner of my hand to function as a view finder but I could only do that a couple of times before my hand would go numb from the cold. At a certain point you just point the camera in the right direction and hope you’re doing it right.”
Powell, a natural-born tinkerer, crafted clever hacks to conquer weather-related limitations. He built his own camera-timers, used car batteries to power camera mechanisms, and made motion control systems that were literally held together by string. “I was better off with really simple technology,” he says. “String works fine at minus 70, whereas rubber or plastic components become too brittle and snap.”
While night skies, penguins, and epic ice formations command center stage in Antartica, the documentary also sheds light on the international community of scientists who call the South Pole home. Many suffer from sleep disorders and short-term memory loss caused by so-called “T3 Syndrome.” “It’s a thyroid hormone in the brain that promotes tissue regeneration,” Powell says. “In extreme cold, the hormone’s drawn away from the brain and into the muscle because the body wants to take care of core functions first.” As a result, he says, “Your brain tends to slow down and you start to forget things. You’ll be sitting there at dinner and say, ‘Can you pass the, um, the white stuff?’”
South Pole full-timers interviewed in the film talk about their resentment of “summer people,” who arrive to conduct research when the sun comes up, then leave after a few months as darkness falls. But for all their eccentricities, Antarctica’s human inhabitants come across as intensely independent 21st-century pioneers. Powell, who met and married his wife in Antarctica, says, “The common thread for most people who live at the South Pole year round is that they have an adventurous spirit. They don’t want to be stuck in the nine-to-five world.”