With Polecam to the Antarctic


Whale Wars is a documentary-style reality television series that airs on Animal Planet, and follows the activities of the eco-activist group, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Last year, I was aboard Sea Shepherd’s flagship, “Steve Irwin” as Director of Photography and, along with a 5-man camera team, documented the “war” between the Japanese whalers and this band of hardcore animal-rights activists.
The Sea Shepherds dispute Japanese claims that whaling performed in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is legally accepted research rather than the banned act of commercial whaling. The society’s founder, Paul Watson, allowed the Discovery Channel to make a reality show documentary which follows his crew in their attempt to deter Japanese ships from hunting whales off the coast of Antarctica. The result of the Season II footage my team and I shot was edited into an eleven-part series, in comparison to the seven, 1-hour episodes of the first season.
The biggest challenge was in pre-production. Equipment and personnel had to be dialed in precisely as there were many cinematic and severe-location requirements to consider. Because we were aboard an unsupported ship for more than 3 months, and had just one refueling stop, we needed to be sure that all the gear - from cameras and lighting, to editing decks and monitors, were exactly what we needed,with redundancy on everything. Likewise, the film crew needed to be comfortable living aboard a (vegan!) ship while in terrible Polar conditions, and in extraordinarily close quarters. Discovery’s Producer, Monica Martino and I were both veterans of the same network’s Deadliest Catch series, and the majority of the remaining crew were Aussies or Kiwis, well-versed in Southern Ocean expeditions.
Wexler helped out by providing us with 17 cameras in total - the main handheld cameras were Sony Z7’s that we all grew to love. The professional-style lens and sharp viewfinders made the Z7’s our favorite workhorses. The Sony Z1’s were used as backups, and after several water-canon encounters with the Japanese harpoon boats, enough Z7’s were destroyed that we had to rely solely on the Z1’s. Once those were dowsed with frozen seawater, we resorted to our “stunt-cam”, the Sony A1U.
There were five cameramen in the field so I assigned each shooter a primary camera that was his to ‘baby’ during the expedition. We all did our best to protect our cameras from the elements, and in the extreme conditions, and over such a lengthy shoot it, became quite a personal thing. The guys who kept theirs alive would put emblems and stickers on them, with one cameraman even sleeping with his!
As the encounters between the activists and the whalers became more intense, the Japanese were regularly hitting us with water cannons and projectiles from their ships while we were on the small, rigid-inflatable fast boats. Considering the constant battle with sea spray and the harsh Antarctic weather, it’s amazing that the cameras held up for as long as they did. All of us ended up getting hammered by water cannons during the encounters, with every shooter ending up damaging or destroying the primary kit. Some of the equipment came back to life after repairs were made, but in the end we killed five out of the seven Z7’s and four of the back-up cameras.
The cold was fierce. As a Coloradan I’m used to dealing with low temperatures while filming skiing and mountaineering, but sea spray and salt water was the thing that wiped us out. We had Petrel rain covers for most of the boat action and we also carried a Z7 in a watertight splash bag, but the camera inside a splash bag at sub-zero temperatures became almost useless. The best footage we got was from our cameramen staring down the water cannons until the last second then protecting the camera from the blast as best he could with his body. Nevertheless, constant droplets on the lenses, combined with keeping batteries warm and tape-drives dry proved to be challenging to say the least.
Early on in the 90-day shoot it became clear that every time we went outside, we were dealing with a high level of danger. The small boats were the worst: they were difficult to shoot from during normal operations, but the frozen waves and smashing impacts made conditions almost unbearable. Shooters were coming back from encounters physically exhausted, in some cases injured and with little usable footage. I solved the problem of coverage in the small boats by installing fixed-mount cameras and POV helmet-cams during the more intense actions to help fill in the sequences.
Due to the high risks involved none of our crew were keen to go into the small boats so we mostly went by rotation, with the exception of one Sea Shepherd volunteer who acted as an additional shooter. Kiwi cameraman Simeon Houtman happily operated even in the most questionable circumstances, and was the one guy who was always willing to suit up, head out, and meet the water cannons head-on. The up-close footage he captured of the encounters with the Japanese fleet was outstanding and added greatly to the overall excitement of the series.
We had the luxury of putting some specialized equipment aboard too. I operated the deep water housing for some underwater sequences, and I also brought my Polecam system, with which we were able to get some incredible footage. The Polecam provided a great intermediate perspective that was somewhere between that of our handhelds aboard the ship and those of the boat or helicopter shots from farther away. No other jib system could have given us the kind of footage that Polecam provided. It was lightweight and maneuverable enough to get shots from various positions around the deck, even in the pitching Antarctic seas. The great results meant that production was begging us for as much Polecam / POV footage as we could get, and during the four crossings of the Southern Ocean in insane conditions we were able to oblige them!
The ship's rigging gave us many headaches due to the swing of the jib arm. With adjustments to the Polecam length, and some creative placements of the base, we could get a camera in the most unusual places. At one point I even attached the arm to myself, and climbed 30 ft up the mast to get some really crazy perspectives. The Polecam was also instrumental in getting us ‘hero shots’ of the crew from high-to-low angles that otherwise would have been impossible. There is literally no other way to get a remote-head jib shot off of a moving deck – under the conditions we were in, there is no way I’d go out there with my CamMate!
We had round-the-clock watches and would venture out onto the frozen bow or climb up the mast for dramatic camera angles. On the return journey from Antarctica to Hobart, Tasmania, we hit a major storm. In full survival gear, including harnesses, webbing and carabiners, I went out on the bow with Australian cameraman Jamie Holland. We tied ourselves into the foredeck rails while the ship crashed into 70-foot waves, and rode the swell for seven hours. The footage we got from our bow-riding escapades was once-in-a-lifetime stuff as we were sometimes engulfed in walls of water. We knewwe were getting great title-sequence shots, yet were unable to convince any right-minded Sea Shepherd volunteer to join us in the deluge, so the personnel you see in most of those shots is actually a member of the film crew. The one person we were able to convince to ride the bow during the storm was Captain Watson himself, who hesitantly tolerated the waves for a few ‘hero’ shots. Ultimately I was swept off my feet by a gigantic wave, and declared the martini shot.
The number and intensity of the encounters between Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling fleet last year was beyond any experienced during their 30-year history of confrontation. The end result of Whale Wars Season II is spectacular. As producer Monica Martino and I watched the raw footage, we were thrilled by the quality. The crew managed to capture every major conflict between the activists and the whalers from multiple angles. We filmed the Japanese whalers during every aspect of the horrendous harpooning and processing procedures. What we witnessed in the Southern Oceans will hopefully inspire viewers around the world to demand an end to the slaughter of whales, and for me that would be a worthy outcome.

Tags: polecam | iss040 | animal planet | steve irwin | sea shepherds | z1 | sony z1 | cammate | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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