High Artic, High Definition

By SF Said

high-arctic-high-definition-montage-1.jpgImages from the shoot

On location with the remarkable independent film-makers of Igloolik

From March to May this year, I was in the Canadian Arctic with the makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, as they shot their new feature, The Journals Of Knud Rasmussen (www.sila.nu). These are some extracts from my production blog.

Monday, April 04, 2005: First Days in Igloolik

The first thing that hit me was the light. It was late afternoon when I arrived in Igloolik, but the light was so bright and pure; the sky was the palest, clearest blue I’d ever seen. I spend a lot of my time watching movies, and movies are made of light, so I think a lot about this subject.

It’s different everywhere you go. Even between London and Cambridge, there’s such a difference. But I’ve never seen light like it is in the Arctic.

That was one reason why I loved Atanarjuat so much: it had the most amazing light. I remember Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn telling me that what I was seeing on screen was just a vague approximation of what was really out there. I didn’t think much about it at the time – I was too busy enjoying the film – but they were right.

In all the years I’ve been writing about cinema for The Daily Telegraph, I’ve never felt so strongly about a film as I did when I saw Atanarjuat at Cannes in 2001. I remember whooping with exhilaration as the final credits went up. As well as the journalism, I was also programming for the Edinburgh Film Festival at the time, and selecting Atanarjuat for Edinburgh was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. The public response there was overwhelming. It was clear that other people were just as astonished by the film as I was; the question and answer sessions after the screenings were packed, and electrifying. I’ll never forget legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler coming up to Norman and complimenting him on his camerawork.

So when Zach and Norman invited me to come and visit Igloolik, I couldn’t say no. It meant putting my life on hold for more than two months, and skipping Cannes this year – but once I knew they were shooting their new film, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I had to see the place for myself; and I had to see how they did it, how they made such amazing work.

And now I’m here. I’ve been in Igloolik since last Tuesday, watching the preparations for the shoot of The Journals Of Knud Rasmussen. Of course, I’ve seen all kinds of different light and weather since I got here; every day’s been different. I’ve seen snow so fine it looked like tiny diamonds, shimmering in the air. But I’ve also been out in a howling blizzard, a total white-out, where I couldn’t see two steps ahead of me on the road. I’m told this is just normal life in the Arctic; but for a London film journalist, the idea of making a movie in these conditions is something remarkable in itself.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005: First Night of Shooting

9pm - I arrive at Norman Cohn’s house for the first night of shooting. All the streets around his house have been sealed off by Unit Manager Francis Choquette and his team. They will remain sealed until the shoot finishes.

Over the past week, Norman’s living room has been transformed into Captain Comer’s turn-of-the-century ship’s cabin. It has been refitted with wooden planking on the floor and walls, and thick beams on the ceiling. The props on Comer’s desk include period pipes, maps, and a walrus tusk. In the corners, we see his fine collection of Inuit weapons. On the walls and shelves are other Inuit artefacts: shaman necklaces made with polar bear claws and caribou hooves; ulus (semi-circular cutting tools); ice masks. The floor is covered with rugs made from polar bear fur and Arctic fox pelts. There is no way you would ever guess that only a week ago, this was a modern domestic residence. Or that one of the film-makers is still living here!

9:30pm – Zach Kunuk coaches Norman in his Inuktitut dialogue. In addition to doing the cinematography, codirecting and producing the film, Norman is playing the part of Captain Comer. Meanwhile, the ship’s lamps are being lit. There’s a debate about where and how they should be placed. Thinking their way into the mindset of Captain Comer, the crew decide on the best and most likely placement. There are four oil lamps and two candles on one side of the room; a Qulliq (seal-oil lamp) and another couple of oil lamps on the other side.

10:00pm – All the electric lights are turned off. Norman shoulders his new Sony High-Definition 24P camera, and surveys Comer’s desk through the lamplight. “You’ve got to see what this looks like!” he says. The camera is hooked up to a monitor. It looks fabulous. The lamplight is incredibly rich and warm; it glows off the natural wood surfaces. The colour contrasts are very strong; the blacks deep, the bright colours vibrant. “Now we need someone to sit in Comer’s chair,” says Norman. “SF: sit in Comer’s chair.” So I sit in Comer’s chair, posing as Evaluarjuk, while Norman and Zach decide that there is no need for any electric lighting: they are going to shoot in here using lamplight alone. The camera is that good.

10:45pm – Shooting is scheduled to start in 15 minutes, yet this is the most relaxed film set I’ve ever seen. Zach is calmly smoking a pipe. Norman is eating a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Art Director Louis Uttak is fixing some props; Sound man Richard Lavoie is setting up the clapper board. Everyone is remarkably calm, given that this is the first day of filming. But then that seems to be the way of things around Isuma. It’s as far removed from the world of monstrous film industry egos and star tantrums as it’s possible to be.

11:00pm – The actors arrive in full costume and makeup. They look terrific, especially the older women, who are sporting traditional face tattoos. Gradually, they settle into the cabin. They have never rehearsed these scenes, or even been in this space together. They all know the script, but the way in which the script is realised will be discovered as we go along tonight.

11:30pm – The set is cleared. The first scene is set up. Zach sits at the monitor; Norman looks through the camera. He is also acting in this scene, so after the shot is designed, he must then switch positions. There is no storyboard; the set-ups get decided here and now.

12:20am – And – action! Scene one, shot one, take one has commenced. The Journals... are underway.

1:15am – Two takes later, a new shot is set up, from a wider angle, involving more of the actors. Zach arranges them in space with great precision, fine-tuning the composition. They improvise their Inuktitut dialogue, talking and laughing together.

Mid-way through the scene, Norman takes the camera hand-held to shoot from another angle. They keep talking, keep improvising.

1:50am –We all watch the playback together. It’s good; there’s a sense of real life being observed. And it looks absolutely stunning.

3:00am – Another group shot, with more improvisation. It’s fascinating to me how these scenes are made. The film-makers set up the camera, and then encourage the actors to interact with each other. The scenes often take different angles and emphases from the script, depending on what evolves. While Comer seemed a strong character as written, in the scenes as filmed, he is really only there to help establish the Inuit characters, especially Evaluarjuk (Abraham Ulayuruluk) and Nuqallaq (Natar Ungalaaq). Though Nuqallaq has almost no dialogue, Natar is bringing great presence to the part.

3:20am – A much-needed break for sandwiches and soup, which are delicious.

4:00am – The next set-up features a long improvisation by three women and an accordion. Perhaps only a few seconds of this will make it into the final film. This style of film-making means that a lot of material will be shot which will never be used; but even so, it’s done in one take.

5:00am – The final scene of the night features the singing of an ajaja song. It is hair-raisingly beautiful, and in the context of the film, heart-breaking. I find myself crying, twice. But then, it is very, very late.

6:20am – Taima. It’s a wrap. The first night’s shooting is completed, and some great material has been filmed. I feel like I’ve seen something very special.

high-arctic-high-definition-montage-2.jpgImages from the shoot

Friday, April 08, 2005: At the Snow Palace

Shooting starts today in the Igloo Snow Palace that’s a 15-minute skidoo ride out of Igloolik. It’s an amazing piece of architecture: seven igloos, all linked together. There’s a central spine of three large structures, each big enough for a dozen people.

Off the middle igloo, there are four smaller ones, which are still tall enough to stand up in comfortably. In the film, this is where Aua the shaman (played by Pakak Inukshuk) lives with his family. In reality, the making of these igloos was supervised by Igloolik elders David Irngaut, Louis Uttak and Pauloosie Qulitalik, who apparently also spent last night sleeping here.

I’ve never been in an igloo before, and I feel kind of boyishly excited as I enter the Ice Palace. I’m amazed at how warm it is inside. It’s freezing cold outdoors – much colder here on the flat tundra than it is in town, where the buildings help to block the wind. Inside the igloo, even without the Qulliqs (seal oil lamps) burning high, I feel warm enough to unzip my parka, remove my furry hat and gloves. (I shouldn’t be amazed – the igloo is a great example of human culture working in total harmony with the environment – but still, I find it surprising that something as cold as snow should be such good insulating material.)

It’s beautiful inside an igloo, too. The blocks of ice rise upwards in a graceful spiral towards an air hole in the ceiling (Kagnirq). The roundness of the construction feels very peaceful – as does the light, which is white-blue and seems to sparkle as it filters in through walls of snow.

Inside Aua’s living quarters, there are comfortable seating ledges spread with caribou fur rugs. A kettle hangs over a Qulliq. In the kitchen area there’s a healthy supply of food: a walrus head (complete with whiskers and tusks), some seal, some fish. There’s an assortment of knives and ulus (cutting tools), and a row of toy Qamutiks (sleds) made of caribou jaws.

It all looks very timeless and real, not like a film set at all – except for the High-Definition camera and sound gear, ready to roll!

Thursday, April 14, 2005: The Blizzard Scene

There’s a strong wind blowing through Igloolik this morning. It’s not quite a blizzard – there’s reasonable visibility – but the air is full of snow, and it looks like it’s getting worse. I find the skidoo ride over to the Igloo Snow Palace quite traumatic today. A layer of ice forms behind my glasses; I feel the moisture around my eyelashes freezing. The wind seems to be ripping the skin off my face, stripping away the flesh, cutting right down to my skull. Of course it isn’t, it’s just giving me mild frostbite at worst, but I’m only a Londoner; I find the weather in Toronto or Montreal quite intense enough. For me, Igloolik is just off the scale.

The plan for the day is to start with an episode in Aua’s igloo, where the great shaman Aua scolds his daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik); and then hopefully move on to a scene set in a blizzard, as long as the blizzard gets worse by the afternoon. (These must be the first film-makers in history to pray for a blizzard to get worse.)

The filming in Aua’s igloo goes well. It’s Leah’s first major dialogue scene as Apak, and I have to say here and now, she is fantastic. Especially in close up, her gestures and glances are very eloquent. She delivers her lines with an intense look in her eye; there’s no doubt that Apak is character with great shamanic power in her own right.

Towards the end of the filming, we hear the unmistakable howling of dogs outside. The dog teams have arrived to shoot in the blizzard! I go out to look at dogs. They’re beautiful. Each team has eight white Arctic Huskies, their faces all snowy, pawing the ground.

The blizzard scene they’re hoping to film is a big one, with Inuit and Danish characters making a difficult journey through dangerous weather. We spend a couple of hours preparing, as the weather gets steadily worse: windier, colder, snowier. Visibility is diminishing, though there’s still enough to film in.

I stand outside in the middle of it. The wind is strong; have to dig in and make an effort to stand still, otherwise would blow me over. The snow is whipping into my face again. I go back into the relative warmth of the catering tent, and chew on frozen bread until the shots are set up, and the film-makers and actors go out into the blizzard.

Half an hour later, they’re back. Camera Assistant Felix Lajeunesse staggers into the tent first, bearing the precious HD camera, the only one we’ve got. He puts down, in obvious pain. His hands are red and raw. Lucy Tulugarjuk warms them up; it’s obvious that he has no feeling left in them. “The camera stopped working,” he tells us. “No more filming today.”

It seems that they got the first shot of the scene, but they started on the second, in the middle of all the whipping snow and wind, the camera flashed up a warning, and then stopped working altogether. They tried to eject the tape, but the eject button wasn’t working. They tried manual ejection, using a screwdriver, but the whole mechanism had locked.

Some of the actors come in, looking freezing despite their thick furs. “Ikki!” they all say (“Cold!”) I go out to see the others. Director Zach Kunuk has ice in his moustache; Kim Bodnia (playing Peter Freuchen) has ice in his beard. Norman Cohn’s eyelashes are frozen solid with chunks ice the size of coins.

“We got one shot, and it was fantastic,” he says. But they didn’t get the whole thing. They’re going to have to do it again. Not today, though. Right now, they’re just trying to get the camera working again.

So that’s a glimpse of what’s it’s like, film-making in Arctic, trying to do hi-tech work outdoors in the middle a blizzard. Sometimes, it’s just not possible. Sometimes, the conditions defeat you.

But you don’t give up. You find the patience, resourcefulness and determination to try again, and again, and again. And they will.

SF Said writes on film for The Daily Telegraph and co-edits film pages of Plan B. The sequel to Varjak Paw, his critically acclaimed fiction for children (and adults), is due in the near future. His trip was made possible with the generous support the Canada Council for the Arts.