To create the Academy Award-winning documentary March of the Penguins, Director Luc Jacquet and Director of Photography Laurent Chalet had to find a camera that could withstand a year-long shoot in the Antarctic.
Freezing temperatures, sudden storms, and isolation demanded a camera that was extremely rugged and reliable. The camera they selected was the Aaton XTRprod. To capture the film’s breathtaking footage, two cameras were winterized at Aaton’s factory in Grenoble, France.
To film March of the Penguins, the two-person crew, cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison, lived in the Antarctic for more than thirteen months. They lived with the emperor penguins, closely observing them and always looking for an opportunity to film. To capture the film’s exquisite underwater footage, an undersea cameraman would periodically visit. Together they captured the moving story of the penguins’ annual ritual of mating, birthing and survival.
Once the crew arrived in the Antarctic, they did not leave until filming was complete. In those conditions, there was no way to get the cameras serviced. As DP Laurent Chalet explains, “this meant, in addition to taking everything in duplicate, that we had to choose a ‘film’ camera that was as mechanical as possible, strong enough to operate in -40°F (–40°C) temperatures and that we could fix easily in case of problem.”
Aaton cameras have a reputation for this kind of reliability and performance. For the documentary Au Sud du Sud, Aaton prepared Aaton cameras for similar conditions. The film, by Laurent Chevalier, tells the story of Dr. Jean-Louis Etienne who led a group of six men across the Antarctic. The experience of working on this project in the early ’90s gave Aaton the technical knowledge and experience that the March of the Penguins team was looking for.
With this in mind, Laurent Chalet talked to Aaton about customizing one of their cameras. Chalet decided 35mm equipment would be too bulky to maneuver in the terrible weather of the Antarctic, but Aaton’s 16mm XTRprod provided the ideal combination of the maneuverability, reliability, and image quality. For an upcoming BBC production, however, two Aaton 35III cameras were used in the Antarctic. Planet Earth, one of the UK’s largest TV productions, will air this fall. The 35IIIs for that production were winterized in Grenoble and rented through ICE Film Equipment.
Because time was short, with only two weeks to finish the job of completely winterizing two cameras, the March of the Penguins project was a collaboration between Aaton and Cinecam, the Paris rental house that supplied the camera gear to production.
Once the camera package was set (two XTRprods, fully equipped with B&W video assists, 400’ and 800’ magazines, Origin C+ master clocks, extension eyepieces, and Aaton 12V NiMH on-board batteries), testing and winterization could begin. Aaton’s Pierre Michoud worked closely on the project.
First, to determine which elements had to be modified, tests were conducted in Aaton’s environmental chamber where the temperature was set to -40°C. “The standard XTRprod heated movement performed flawlessly and did not need any modifications, except to be re-greased with a synthetic lubricant able to withstand temperatures below -70°C. Other internal moving parts, like the cameras’ magnetic drive, were not heated to keep the cameras’ overall power consumption as low as possible,” explains Michoud.
In the extreme cold of the Antarctic, parts made from metal alloys can actually shrink. To combat this, modifications were made to some of the cameras’ mechanical parts. The eyepiece and viewfinder frictions were loosened allowing them to move in the cold, and special cold weather silicon oil was used. At those temperatures, film stock becomes brittle, so both the 800ft and 400ft magazines were modified. The take-up, feed side spool friction, and belt tension were reduced to put less stress on the film rolls.
Cinecam’s technicians modified the lenses for the Antarctic environment. “All the grease was removed and replaced with appropriate low temperature lubricant. Silicon power cables with Teflon coated internal wires were used, because Silicon and Teflon remain quite flexible in cold temperatures compared to normal cables, which become very stiff,” explains Michoud.
Because the camera crew would be wearing bulky polar gloves, simple tasks like starting and stopping the cameras could be problematic. To solve this, Cinecam’s technicians designed a custom remote on/off switch, similar to those used by construction workers to remotely operate cranes.
Once the camera modifications were complete, Laurent Chalet came to Grenoble. He spent two days at the Aaton factory, a week before leaving, familiarizing himself with the cameras and working in the climatic chamber. Pierre Michoud recalls, “realizing that you can hardly hold a magazine after 2 hours at -40°C (your bare hands get stuck to it…), he decided to use a mag cover made of insulating fabric.”
At Grenoble, Chalet and Michoud tested the film stocks (Eastman EXR 50D 5245 and Vision2 5218), and decided on a filming procedure. “Laurent would first load the mag at 0°C, and then bring the mag to -40°C. One battery was used to power the camera movement heater, which was automatically turned on by a thermo switch. Then Laurent would switch to a new fully charged battery when he needed to roll the camera.”
Once they arrived at their Antarctic location, the crew was always at the mercy of the weather in the coldest place on earth. Sometimes storms changed the light, and they would have to work in powerful one hundred mile an hour winds and blizzards.
Chalet describes how they worked. “Once on the ground, we agreed on a method, a daily routine, which was based on solidarity and enthusiasm. Instead of taking turns, we worked together as a team. We would get up at 5:30 AM, prepare the equipment for an hour and a half, load four magazines of film (it was out of the question to do this on the ice), get dressed, and take off for a day of shooting, carrying about 130 pounds of equipment each. Only two things prevented us from filming: the weather, and running out of our daily film stock when we were out on the ice.”
“Aaton could not directly support the camera crew in the field simply because nobody had access to the location for most of the year the crew spent in Antarctica,” explains Michoud. “The two person crew was based in Dumont d’Urville, a French scientific base. Some of the scientists were mechanical engineers who could perform minor repairs if needed, which was another reason the production chose film cameras.” Aaton supplied Laurent Chalet with spare parts like mag belts and mag door locking levers before he left.
“The only direct contact I had with Laurent was by e-mail. During the year, I remember only one e-mail regarding a magazine jam, and I helped Laurent solve the problem. All of the other e-mails were a diary of the unforgettable experience he was living,” recalls Michoud. “I know the crew did not experience any major problems with the equipment, even though the shooting conditions were sometimes very difficult and dangerous. Once, they were caught in a storm with 100 mph winds at -25°C. It took them 6 hours to reach the safety of the base, although it was only a mile and a half away from where they were shooting that day.”
Even while coping with these critical technical, environmental and survival concerns, the crew had to remain always ready to film the penguins in their natural habitat. This in itself was quite a challenge.
Chalet recalls, “In order to approach the chicks to film them, we built a sort of scooter, which could roll on the ice, on which we rigged the camera. Our main concern, always, was to create the least possible disturbance. Even at the cost of losing calories crawling on the ice!”
Jerome Maison says, “The marine scenes also, which were filmed by Patrick Marchand, were particularly difficult. But, the result is so stunning! To be able to see this graceful animal in his own element – water – after watching him ‘endure’ his condition out of the water…”
Chalet explains how they captured the film’s extraordinary scenes of the penguins. “You have to know the animals you are filming, to be able to anticipate their reactions. You need a lot of patience to see how things develop, and you need a little bit of luck…
“This is what allowed us to get the images of the penguins walking in file. Thanks to the ornithology lab of the Dumont d’Urville station, we knew where the penguins were going to gather, but we did not know when. Not having that information meant we had to be at the ready every day, because this is an event that occurs only once a year. The bit of luck we had there was that there were more than 1,200 penguins, which is very rare. Usually there are several hundred, 500 at the most.”
The team’s dedication, perseverance, and endurance paid off. They shot of 120 hours of film, which became the critically praised and successful documentary March of the Penguins, winner of the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award in 2006.
Pierre Michoud relates a similarly happy ending for the two XTRprods, “the cameras have been ‘de-winterized’ and are now being used on some very warm locations on the French Riviera…a well deserved rest.”