Nothing Good Comes Easy: Documenting ‘Project Antarctica’
Adventure photographers have all the best stories: Climbing mountains, riding out storms, encountering exotic animals, and often enduring quite a bit of suffering along the way. Photographers traveling to Antarctica will of course encounter these challenges and more. But for photographers, filmmakers, and longtime friends Tim David Müller-Zitzke, Dennis Vogt, and Michael Ginzburg, the obstacles were the point.
The result is their new documentary film, Projekt Antarktis (Project Antarctica).
“For us, Antarctica was a great symbol for something that’s almost impossible,” says Müller-Zitzke. “You’ve got the crazy temperatures, the unpredictable weather, and the difficulty of going through the Drake Passage—one of the stormiest seas in the world. It was such a great challenge for us, and a great way for us to motivate our audience to go for their own dreams instead of just staying at home and being afraid.”
The trio spent a year planning logistics, cobbling together cameras and equipment from Sony, and arranging sponsorships (including sponsorships from Adobe Germany and Adobe Stock—in exchange for those sponsorships, they produced photographs that have been made available on Adobe Stock and created German-language tutorials on using Adobe Photoshop CC, Photoshop Lightroom CC, and Premiere Pro CC.
A JOURNEY BEGINS
Their trip began in November 2017, with a flight to Frankfurt and then on to Buenos Aires. But things came to a screeching halt when customs officials there demanded payment to release camera gear worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. After a few days, the German trio found a customs broker who sorted things out for a steep fee. (Even so, it would be a year before a $64,000 submersible remote-control camera on loan from Sony was returned to the team.)
From there, it was on to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost point of the continent, where they hopped aboard the Ortelius. This 300-foot vessel with room for 100 travelers and crew members served as their floating hotel and launchpad for the next few weeks.
“We were all really sick, just lying in bed for days, and we had all this pressure to film ourselves and shoot hundreds of photos, so there were definitely a few points where I was regretting the trip,” says Müller-Zitzke. “But in the end, we got all the shots, we got to mountain-climb in Antarctica, we got amazing photos from the helicopters and the Zodiacs, and it was all totally worth it.”
NEW PHOTOGRAPHIC HORIZONS
To capture all those images, the team had two Sony Alpha 7Ses and a Canon 5D Mark III for photography, a Sony NEX-FS700 for slow-motion video, and ten GoPro cameras for action shots. Müller-Zitzke had hoped to bring a drone for aerial photography, but their use is severely restricted given the possibility of crashes, which could scatter hundreds of lithium batteries all over fragile wildlife habitat.
Filming in Antarctica isn’t easy. The team had to wait out bad weather for three days before conditions were safe enough for helicopters to fly to a colony of Emperor penguins. With temperatures as low as –22°F, batteries lasted about 20 minutes, which meant filling a backpack with 30 batteries for a single outing. And when temps rose to 35°F, slush and melting water often found their way into camera housings, wreaking havoc.
“We were prepared for the cold, but not for the splashing water from the ship and melting snow getting into the cameras,” says Müller-Zitzke. “Toward the end of the shoot, we had broken displays which meant shooting blind, not even knowing the camera’s aperture, and just hoping that it worked. We could’ve done a better job of preparing for the conditions, but admitting our mistakes was part of the whole idea—we wanted to show people that [even when you’re working on your dream project] everything isn’t always perfect.”
Although the documentary details the irritating delays, the confined spaces, and the coffee cups sliding across tables of their own accord, most of the still images are postcard perfect: colonies of Emperor penguins, bright red kayaks cutting through icy waters, and arches formed by glaciers. Müller-Zitzke and friends edited all of those images using Photoshop, and even filmed a few tutorials during the trip. But they’d have to wait until they’d returned to Germany to upload images and video: although the ship offered internet access via satellite hook-up roughly three times a day, the steep price and the poor connection made it impractical.
And that added yet another layer of depth the journey.
“After months of preparation and stress leading up to the trip, it was actually quite nice to be on board the ship and have no access to the internet—like a digital detox where no one is talking to you except for the people on board,” says Müller-Zitzke. Suddenly the day feels twice as long, and everything feels more intense—you think more about the conversations you just had, you hear more, and you even taste the food more.”
That digital isolation also gave them a better opportunity to get to know their fellow passengers—scientists, journalists, other photographers, and some adventuresome tourists who wanted to see penguins in their habitat.
After the month-long journey came to an end, Müller-Zitzke, Ginzburg, and Vogt got to work paring their 130 hours of footage down to 90 minutes to create Projekt Antarktis (Project Antarctica). They premiered the film in their hometown of Bremerhaven in October; then they spent six weeks showing the film in 60 German cities, to consistently positive reviews.
“People really seem to love the concept of a film that isn’t a ‘perfect’ BBC documentary,” says Müller-Zitzke. “Instead of hiring crews to spend three years filming, then adding a voice-over from a narrator who never set foot on the continent, we just showed our own trip—and that’s what people seem to like about it. It’s really a film for everybody.” The team has already received requests to subtitle the film in English and Mandarin (watch for updates on the film’s website).
Of course, you can’t travel to a pristine, but threatened, part of the globe without discussing climate change, so the film contains a few critical messages about its impact on Antarctica. But that was never the filmmakers’ primary goal.
“When we all decided to go into media, people kept telling us, ‘You can’t make a living doing that,’” says Müller-Zitzke. “Our film is a response to all the people who tell you that you’d better do something ordinary and safe, something that your parents will be proud of. Because it is possible to get a job in a creative field if you’re passionate about it; it’s not always easy, but no job is always easy. Our dream came true with this big adventure, and the movie is our way of asking people: What’s the goal you want to reach? What’s your Antarctica?”