Award-winning Kiwi film-maker celebrates New Zealand's last two decades on the ice

By Nico Muller

Multi-award-winning filmmaker Anthony Powell has just released this remarkable short film to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Antarctica New Zealand.

The clip celebrates New Zealand's ongoing role in the environmental protection, scientific exploration and international leadership in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and our stewardship of the Ross Dependency, where we also provide logistical support to other nations and collaborate with them on scientific projects.

New Zealand and Antarctica share a rich history and our direct connections to the icy southern world go back to the expeditions of Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton over a hundred years ago, and we have maintained an active permanent presence there since 1956. Antarctica New Zealand was established on July 1, 1996 by the New Zealand Antarctic Institute Act (NZAI Act), and is based in Christchurch.

The Taranaki-born Anthony's awe-inspiring and moving documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice had film reviewers across the world breaking out the superlatives in 2013 as it racked up more than 20 prestigious awards.

Its evocative cinematography chronicles a year spent living and working at Scott Base and the nearby McMurdo Station where the sun shines 24 hours a day during summer (October to February), and where the sun goes down for four long months (February to October) during winter and darkness envelopes the icy world.

Canadian film blogger Nicole Doucette described her experience of the film like this:

"We all know the basics: Dark winters. Bright summers. Cute penguins. But what's
it like to actually live in Antarctica, widely regarded as the harshest environment on earth?

A frozen Anthony. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016
A frozen Anthony. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016

"New Zealand photographer Anthony Powell spent a decade documenting his
experience at the bottom of the world - from the awe-inspiring auroras and animal
ecosystems, to the freezing and terrifying ice storms. But, most importantly, he
pointed his camera at the people - not just the scientists, but the everyday workers
who live on base to keep the stations running. Despite the isolation, claustrophobia, and hostile weather, Powell studiously captures every moment with humour, pathos, and a healthy dose of awe.

"In the process, Powell has developed his own specialised camera technology able
to withstand the freezing temperatures, subsequently making this the first time that Antarctica's pitch-dark winters have been properly captured on film. His remarkable time-lapse imagery and panoramic vistas have been featured in BBC's Frozen Planet and in National Geographic. Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a must-see on the big screen."

Emperor penguins at Mt Erebus. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016
Emperor penguins at Mt Erebus. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016

Anthony spoke to the Herald from Scott Base in Antarctica at the weekend, where the temperature was -35C, describing the weather as "generally good, with clear skies and wind of about 10 knots".

I did not realise calling Scott Base is just a local call from cozy and toasty New Zealand suburbia, and Anthony sounds as if he might be in the room next door.

His "clear skies", of course, were not like you and I might have experienced them, with no moon there at the moment and only starlight for illumination day and night, and no auroras, as Scott Base's winter inhabitants currently are in their darkest time of the year following the June 21 winter solstice when, fortunately, the darkness was broken by a stunning midnight full moon, which generally brings welcome illumination to their dark winter months in the two-weekly lunar cycles.

And unlike you and I, those at Scott and McMurdo will not see the sun rise tomorrow morning, having to wait till August 19 for their next sunrise.

Anthony on his knees with an engagement ring appropriate to the occasion. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016
Anthony on his knees with an engagement ring appropriate to the occasion. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016

Anthony has been in Antarctica in various roles over the last decade as telecommunications and avionics engineer, but spending his current stint as a film-maker and photographer documenting New Zealand's various roles on the continent, which will be translated into a range of documentary, educational, and even some high-tech astrophotography and 360-degree Virtual Reality projects involving outfits that include Otago Museum.

He said that they had experienced a fairly calm winter so far, with only a couple of storms, but he expected that there would change between now and October.

Anthony talked about his work, and explained that although you can see long credit lists at the end of his films, this is mostly down to the hard work in postproduction, where he relies on the assistance of many top editing, sound and other post experts.

In terms of camera crew, "it is pretty much just me, although sometimes Christine [his wife] will give me a hand." This year Anthony's film work gained some valuable assistance from film-maker and producer Rachel Whareaitu.

Christine is an American he met in Antarctica and married on the ice, after also proposing with a huge ice-sculpted engagement ring.

The Milky Way at Black Island Station. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016
The Milky Way at Black Island Station. Photo / Anthony Powell © Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection, 2015-2016

Huffington Post film reviewer Michael Sigman described Anthony's wife and collaborator like this: "Christine, who after a trip to Antarctica in the late '90s abandoned life as a writer for the alternative newspaper OC Weekly [of which Sigman was then editor] - for which she wrote a [insert superlative here, he says] cover story called "Welcome to the Ice" - and kept going back until she'd created a truly alternative experience. And I'd have to use phrases like "love at first sight" (correction from Christine: "friends at first sight") and "romantic bliss" to describe how Anthony and Christine met, courted and married - on the ice, of course."

Christine works at nearby McMurdo Station, only 3km away by gravel road, passable on most days unless a storm is blowing, performing a variety of crucial financial and administrative roles, including running the shop and maintaining the southernmost banking autoteller.

Anthony uses a variety of cameras to create his stunning films. These range from GoPros, to Canon DSLRs, and the indy-film-making workhorse, the 4k-capable Panasonic GH4, and also a Sony A7S with stunning low-light capabilities, which he uses for real-time aurora footage.

"There are not many people in the world doing that," he said of his work with the last camera.

The starring role in his equipment portfolio, however, goes to the GH4, which can handle temperatures as low as -40C. Some of his other cameras will stop functioning after 5 minutes in such cold, and the shutter of another brand he uses for some of his work gets frozen stuck in no time in such extremes.

Anthony also uses alternative power systems, namely battery packs made up of motorcycle-sized lead-acid batteries and a voltage converter to get past the fact many modern camera battery packs cannot handle the extreme cold, and the long-duration time-lapse sequences he is a master of.

Anthony granted the Herald permission to link to his portfolio of videos.

In one, we see an inquisitive penguin attacking his GoPro. I asked Anthony if this was because the bird saw his reflection in the lens? No, he replied, it is more likely the small boxy camera looks similar to the black stones the penguins use to line their nests. We can forgive the well-dressed bird for also wanting a high-tech device in his home, considering that none of us are prepared do without such mod cons these days.

Another of Anthony's clips features the sea ice in McMurdo Sound breaking up in March this year, a spectacular event which timing Antarctica veteran Anthony described as "pretty unusual" this time around.

He says the breaking out of the ice had only happened three times in the last 20 years, namely in 1998, in 2012, and again this year.

But this year's event, featured in the above clip, was unusual in its late timing. Previously these events occurred in late January, but this year it happened at the start of March. The sea only stayed open for 10 days this year before it started freezing up again.

Yet another of Anthony's many clips shows him at at work on a camera dolly in his Christchurch workshop. The time-lapse animated movie also features the Robert Scott memorial in Christchurch, which pays homage to the long relationship between the city and Antarctica, with one of its plaques also honouring the men and women who assisted with New Zealand's Antarctic Programme between 1957 and 2007.

Anthony pays tribute to the enduring influence of the greats from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, saying their huts, which are close to Scott Base and McMurdo station, still look as if they had just popped out and will soon return, and provided a constant reminder to those of today on how much different and harsher their experience must have been.

Samples of Anthony Powell's work can be seen at Vimeo and at YouTube

- NZ Herald

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