The Arctic Expedition: A documentary on top of the world
Anthony Christopher is not accustomed to feeling disconnected from the buttons and focuses on his own camera.
Shrouded in the pitch-black veil of December arctic darkness, mitted with thick gloves, and clinging to a camera cloaked in a special weather cover, his hands fumbled clumsily across an interface he had long ago memorized in his nearly 30-year career in film and television. Frustrated, he yanked his right hand free from the glove and began shooting the alien landscape.
1 … 5 … 10 …
He stood on top of the world, thousands of miles from his home in sunny southern California.
15 … 20 … 25 …
The magnitude of the entire journey began to set in; after months of planning and negotiating, he had arrived.
27 … 28 … 29 …
Suddenly, without warning: stabbing, relentless pain.
Between the 27th and the 30th second, frostbite had seared through Anthony’s exposed hand like a sharp knife.
“There was no warning,” Anthony recalled. “I was ok, I was ok, and then slice.”
He was rushed back to The Amundsen — a 330-foot Canadian Coast Guard ice cutter — and treated on the spot. It would take six months for him to regain full feeling in his right hand.
PREPARING FOR DEPARTURE
The Arctic Expedition is Anthony’s passion project.
Having done production, marketing, and distribution at an international level since the early 1980s, he had successfully engineered or partnered in the campaigns of dozens of major organizations including NASA, Boeing, Pepsi, Nissan, Cox Communications, Sony, Miller Brewing Company, Disney, Wells Fargo, JEEP, Capital Records, Arista Records, General Motors and others. He was one of the producers of the first End Hunger Telethons. In 2011, he produced for JEEP and Activision “Maximum Warriors” – a live action version of Call of Duty-Black Ops for internet and mobile viral marketing distribution – prepping the marketplace for opening day sales.
Yet Anthony has also long been interested in environmental and educational issues, and has done myriad work for the University of California, the Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Ocean Institute, amongst many others. In 2012, he founded My Clean Water Act, an online/offline awareness program about clean water that reached 1.7M consumers.
In early 2008, Anthony started piecing the production puzzle together for a feature-length documentary on climate change. He would be following the work of 250 scientists from 26 different countries aboard “the world’s most state-of-the-art floating laboratory,” The Amundsen. The Canadian Coast guard would be their mobile host.
The project would be historic on several fronts. Conducting scientific research across the arctic sea for 15 months meant that the international team of scientists was going to observe and research and during every season of the arctic sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It was the first time scientists from all disciplines worked shoulder to shoulder inputting data into supercomputers and it was the first time a comprehensive report was created on how climate change and global warming is affecting the northern most part of our planet,” Anthony recently told a southern California newsletter.
It took approximately nine months for Anthony to negotiate the rights to the film and prepare for the excursion. He had meetings with scientists, Canadian officials, and production crews. And he needed to purchase speciality gear designed for extreme climate: camera covers, clothing, sub-zero batteries. The Canadians had warned him: “Don’t think you can just go to a ski shop and pick up some gear.” He was given special instructions about attire and preparedness.
Two days before Anthony was set to depart for The Arctic his speciality jackets arrived.
“I pulled one out and thought, oh my gosh, I’ve made a horrible mistake. It was so light, so relatively thin.”
He put the jacket on while inside his living room.
“Within moments I felt like I was in an oven,” he said. “I was stunned.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Anthony would thank the Canadian Coast guard for their advice.
THE NEW WORLD
On December 3, 2008, Anthony departed his home in Newport Beach, CA. He remembers vividly that it was a clear, 70-degree day. It took five plane rides and a helicopter lift to land before landing on the Amundsen.
“The day we arrived on the ship, it was 40-below,” Anthony said. “And even though we had been told countless times that it was going to be cold, it’s still a shock to the system.”
And since it was December, it was also completely dark for 23 1/2 hours a day.
Because the ship could only accommodate 84 people at a time, every six weeks scientists and crew members would rotate in and out. Upon arrival, everyone would go through “indoctrination” at the hands of Capt. Stephane Julien.
“He was very Napoleonic in making us understand that security came first,” Anthony said. “It’s his way or the highway and there aren’t any highways out there. And it wasn’t until I experienced the Arctic that I appreciated his directness. You don’t normally get ‘second chances’ in the Arctic.”
Still, the experience was so simultaneously breath-taking and mind-opening that Anthony insisted that to this very day he would return in a heartbeat. He recalled the incredible bonding experience of the ship’s crew, the scientists, and the filmmakers. He fondly — almost romantically — described filming scenes of pristine and sublime beauty.
“The ship’s crew and the scientists had to work synergistically 24/7 because the science dictated the schedule. And in close quarters, that created some remarkable friendships.” Anthony said he still keeps in touch with the captain and members of the crew.
He regrets, however, that he never caught some of the most magical moments on film.
“There was one night, it was bitterly cold, more than 50-below,” he said. “I framed a shot of a Canadian Coast guard crew man under the moon and there was this blue hue like I had never before seen in nature. I got set to film it and my camera malfunctioned. I was devastated. It was almost like the girl who got away; I’ll never forget it.”
On another occasion, Anthony was taken aback by some camera work of one of the filmmakers.
“Three times a week a bar was open on the ship,” Anthony said. “And this was a young guy, so he never missed a night. He came in one summer morning and he showed me some stills. Now, as a filmmaker, I deal in light and texture, and I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and these were stunning.”
Anthony asked his younger colleague when he had taken the shots.
From then on, they filmed around the clock.
It wasn’t all camaraderie and cinematic magic however. After the early frostbite experience (he had since replaced the gloves with a better pair provided by the Coast Guard) he would be frostbitten on two additional occasions.
And then there was a harrowing encounter with a shelf of ice that had broken off, approximately the size of Texas. The Amundsen had become stuck in ice and the ice was heading directly toward them. According to the ship’s instruments, it was a matter of hours before it would arrive.
“It didn’t matter who you were,” Anthony said, tapping his finger on the table while thinking about that day. “Every ship crew member, every researcher, every filmmaker was out there with shovels, chain saws, and ice picks working to dislodge the ship.” Exacerbating conditions were 70-80 mile-per-hour winds in temperatures 10-degrees below, without the wind-chill factor.
“We dislodged it and got out of there just ahead of disaster,” Anthony said soberly. “That was almost an out-of-body experience.”
The out-of-body remark is an apt one. Today Anthony calls the Arctic “a spiritual place” and he is honored to play a role in telling its changing story.
THE CLIMATE CONSENSUS
“I never set out to make a propaganda film,” Anthony said. He added that he doesn’t affiliate with any political party, and that while he initially suspected climate change was a concern warranting further study, he wasn’t all too confident that the metamorphoses were potentially disastrous.
Additionally, one of the chief scientists on the voyage, Dr. David Barber, had spent 10 years of early academic study as a climate change skeptic. Now, according to his biography at the University of Manitoba, Barber has written “100 articles in the peer reviewed literature pertaining to sea ice, climate change and physical-biological coupling in the Arctic marine system.” His work is internationally renowned and his position on the issue is clear: climate change is real and it’s occurring at breakneck speeds.
Anthony doesn’t want to give away the narrative conclusion of the film, but he confirms that the international team of scientists were “all on the same page” by the end of the 15 month journey.
“They all felt climate change was going to affect weather, economies, health,” he said. “And they all felt that the strategies that countries are using in dealing with the challenges are far too conservative.”
“It’s been very strange to watch the world evolve since I returned from the Arctic,” he added. “Pretty much every single thing they said would happen has happened. We are seeing stronger storms, greater levels of flooding and drought, more record temperatures. It’s not even a question of whether it’s going to happen; it is happening.”
While he admitted to feeling the anxiety all filmmakers feel upon wrapping a project, Anthony said he is confident the documentary will find its audience.
Because of the available research technology, the number and variety of disciplines of scientists, and the elapsed time frame of the entire project, Anthony can honestly call the work “unprecedented.”
“And this film is the only footage in the world that shows this historic project even existing.”
The Arctic Expedition is dedicated to Daniel Dube, Michael Thibault, and Klaus Hochhelm, who lost their lives in 2012 in a helicopter crash while conducting research.
Daniel had been Anthony’s helicopter pilot in the Arctic.