By Paige Donner
Werner Herzog’s new documentary is a lyrical look at life in Antarctica. While in postproduction on Grizzly Man, Herzog applied for the National Science Foundation’s grant for artists and writers offered specifically for a filmmaker to film in Antarctica.
“I applied letting them know very clearly that I would not do a film on fluffy penguins,” said Herzog, who also once said that he “directs landscapes.”
Herzog’s promise to shoot with a skeleton crew — just himself as director and sound man and his longtime cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger — is what won over the NSF. “James Cameron, who also does documentaries, applied for the same grant but he had 36 crew members on board, so they said, ‘No, that’s too much,’” said Herzog. “I told them I will not waste any additional resources, this will be a film of two men; the cinematographer, no assistant, and I will do the sound and direct the film.”
He said it was a real shock when he got permission to go to Antarctica, “because I had not expected it and I had no clue as to what I would do there.” When asked if he was able to bring extra and back up equipment, he said: “Nothing extra. That would have been too much. You fly down there and you have to come back with a movie.”
Some of the conditions he encountered while filming at temperatures of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit were astonishing. “The sunlight is so intense! You can film with no reflectors, with no artificial light. The visibility is a mile into the distance. There are vistas of whole science fictional landscapes. It’s just incredible,” he said.
The decision to shoot on digital was a practical one. “Normally, I’m a man of celluloid but we had to shoot on digital,” Herzog says. He used a Sony Hi-Def camera with a second, smaller digital camera as the only backup. “When it gets very cold, of course, you can still shoot on celluloid, but you need batteries and heating equipment and assistants to carry the heavy batteries and you have to keep it warm because celluloid, when it’s 30 degrees below Fahrenheit, cannot bend in tiny loops around the camera. Basically, raw stock behaves like uncooked spaghetti. You can bend it but then it breaks. The perforation on the sides of the film becomes very brittle.”
Capturing high-quality sound in Antarctica was also more difficult than Herzog expected. He and his cinematographer stayed at McMurdo Research Station with a group of Italian researchers. Herzog had to tape thick blankets on the walls and around the room where he and Zeitlinger conducted interviews for the film to drown out the “Italian operas” taking place down the hall. He said he always advises filmmakers that sound quality is the single most important element in conveying the professional level of a film.
Encounters at the End of the World is distributed by Discovery Films. It was a hit at both the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and will be shown at Sundance in January.
Herzog once said: “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” Encounters at the End of the World shows us how beautiful and oddly humorous that icy landscape can be.
Written by Paige Donner