It sounds so easy, right? Stick a couple of cameras in the Arctic and use time-lapse photography to provide irrefutable proof of global climate change. It's a brilliantly simple concept, thought up by science enthusiast and National Geographic photographer James Balog. The complications of the expedition to actually achieve this, however, are wonderfully compelling. The whole exercise, I'm sure you'd agree, is actually profoundly moving - in more ways than one.
The entire film is predicated on the ability to translate your static images (after they are sequentially animated) into an absorbing story. We follow Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team as they first construct, then try to mount their cameras in harsh Northern conditions. The editing does a wonderful job of providing just enough context before an energetic montage shows cameras being positioned in 16 expeditions around the Arctic Circle. But after years of planning, Balog's first return to the cameras months later finds them all either destroyed or malfunctioning from the brutal weather conditions. Frustrated by his inability to make his own mark on the world and the futility of his personal sacrifices (constantly leaving his family behind, completely wearing out his bum knee), Balog is moved to tears by his failure.
New camera technology and younger crew members help re-energize the campaign, and soon the team is capturing breathtaking images, including a scene of the longest glacier calving event ever recorded. These seismic shifts are so arresting, they don't even require you to speed up the images. The ice mountains literally roll and rumble; it's a vision of true environmental apocalypse.. It's amazing we've never seen this stuff before.
For my part, I'm sad to admit that the only reason Chasing Ice registered on my radar is the backdoor Academy Award nomination the documentary received for Best Original Song (sung with sultry conviction by Scarlett Johansson). And although "Before My Time" is only featured during the film's end credit sequence, this minimalist ballad is a good way to understand the appeal of this story. J. Ralph's lyrics express the desire of not wanting to die alone, and in what could have been a painful exercise in anthropomorphism, director Jeff Orlowski lays the track over images of melting glacial ice caps. In the hands of a less talented activist filmmaker, I would have sharply resisted such contrived emotion. But because it comes on the heals of James Balog's personal struggle, there's a genuine human connection to associate with what we're watching. It's just one more example of the effective way Chasing Ice manipulates simple images at the service of telling a story.