Extreme Weather Advisory: Shooting Red Knot on a Research Vessel in Antarctica

Think your set is cold? Director Scott Cohen takes us through the once-in-a-lifetime experience of making his feature Red Knot aboard a ship in the Antarctic ocean.

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Imagine you’ve been invited on board a research vessel to Antarctica, and you have the opportunity to use the entire vessel to make your first narrative feature film, leveraging the ship as set piece, transportation, lodging and canteen. The only catch: You have two and a half months to write the script, cast and pre-produce the film. This was how our film, Red Knot, came into focus.

I brought 17 extraordinary talents on board a 300-foot enhanced steel research vessel, for a 23-day expedition to Antarctica. We were joining another small crew of 22 led by the artist Gregory Colbert along with a collection of scientists and artists doing their own work. All told, we were 63 passengers on board the Ushuaia guided by 35 crew members on one amazingly tough ship. In addition to our core teams of seasoned filmmakers, 30 other invited guests also embarked on the trip, among them: the sculptor Gregory Ryan; Antarctic naturalist Matt Drennan; and a number of other scientists, doctors, writers, and friends including the whale biologist Dr. Roger Payne and his actress wife Lisa Harrow, both of whom feature in Red Knot.

Looking back, what’s most surprising about this scenario is that we were able to convince people to improvise around a very general storyline and a sketch of a script while crossing the roughest sea in the world. Our goal was to tell the story of the fictional characters Chloe (Olivia Thirlby) and Peter (Vincent Kartheiser) as they navigate the travails of their young marriage in the context of a real voyage toward the southernmost reaches of the Earth. Although I imagined a story about a young man who invites his wife to go to the driest, windiest, most inhospitable place on earth for a honeymoon, I never fully contemplated that we would also be documenting the trajectory of our own experience as artists and filmmakers. A major theme of the film, brought into high relief by the extremities of its settings, is the long-buried correspondence between humanity and the natural world. Spending time at the bottom of the world, outside of the customs and social structures according to which we usually live our lives, I found myself contemplating time in a different way and examining our place in time.

We boarded the ship in Ushuaia, a city at the southern tip of Argentina, and set out across the unknown vastness of Antarctic convergence. We made stops at the Falkland Islands, crossed the intimidating Drake Passage, and circumvented the perils of the Weddell Sea, where Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was famously trapped, frozen, and finally crushed in an ice floe. Eventually, we found ourselves in the most beautiful, unfettered place on earth—Antarctica.

Olivia Thirlby as honeymooner Chloe

Olivia Thirlby as honeymooner Chloe

Tech Specs:

Camera: 1 Aaton Penelope 35MM Cameras, 2 RED One Cameras, 1 Canon 5d, 1 Canon 7d [footage from all mediums are in the film]

Lenses: COOKE S4i MASTER PRIMES, ANGENIEUX OPTIMO

Film: Black & White – 5222 Film Stock, Color – 5219 500t Kodak

Lighting: Very basic grip package, handful of C-stands, few sandbags, clamps, small HMI lights (nothing bigger than 1200), small tungsten units, bulps – all manned by one gaffer. Insane!

Processing: Fotokem and Deluxe

Color Grading: Joe Gawlor at Harbor Picture Company

Mixing the Aaton Penelope, RED One, and Canon 5D

Our choice to work on multiple film mediums was driven by discussions between myself, cinematographer Michael Simmonds and A.D./co-producer Atilla Yücer. Because we knew the scenes would largely be improvised around a story blueprint, we chose to bring RED cameras. However, we were nervous about shooting digital cameras for a number of reasons:

(a) We were concerned about how the digital media would react to white reflective surfaces

(b) We were concerned about our ability to repair these cameras if there was any kind of mechanical failures

(c) We felt a desire to shoot the exteriors of the ocean and Antarctica on film.

In the end, we made the decision to shoot all exterior outward facing coverage on film, and all interior and scene-like footage on the RED One. We felt there was a meaningful logic to using film for outward facing and digital for inward facing.

I knew that I would bring my Canon 5D Mark II cameras and shoot whatever and whenever I could. I had a suspicion that I might need those cameras to capture little moments of life on the boat but we had not done the A/B test in pre-production that we did for the 35MM film (Aaton Penelope) and digital (RED One). We knew from those tests that the digital footage would marry beautifully with film once we added some grain in post to the RED digital footage. And we also decided to shoot the 2-perf 35mm film in a 2:39 aspect ratio, thus saving some film stock and creating an epic wide view.

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The 2.39 aspect ratio of Red Knot

The great surprise in post-production was how much we needed the Canon 5D footage, (as well as some 7D footage shot by the artist Fiona Struengmann and art director Todd Murphy) to convey yet another feeling. Montages, a dream sequence and other bits were cut in with Simmonds sumptuous imagery and somehow it all worked.

Different mediums have their own distinct feeling and logic. It’s important to ask the logical questions about what makes sense for what we’re trying to achieve. But it’s also important to simply get coverage and footage from the environments you are creating from whatever medium possible. In our case, we tried to edit the film at first without the 5D because I was insecure about mixing the lower res mediums. Ultimately, though, we really needed it in order to convey our story and it turned out to be an unexpected treasure.

A Motley Crew

Our cast of characters reads like the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s preparation for his second ill-fated journey to Antarctica. People didn’t always have exactly the right credentials but they were passionate, dedicated and up for the challenge. It was cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ blind faith and his willingness to endure three weeks at sea with an enormous camera package on his shoulder that gave us a fighting chance to lens this film; and the unyielding design support I received from the painter and sculptor Todd Murphy, who had the audacity to take a hiatus from a monumental body of work to be the Art Director of the film. Add to the mix Garth Stevenson, who I’d heard playing beautifully haunting sounds in a New York yoga studio and insisted that he join us and compose in Antarctica. The glue of it all was my co-producer and A.D., Atilla Yücer, who was insane enough to take on the challenge of making a feature with a skeleton crew on a ship in Antarctica. But he was smart enough to assemble the key superstars of a film set – gaffer Mark Koenig, focus puller Joe Maples, line producer Zoe Boxer, the extraordinary Alex Eaton (who is now head of video at Rolling Stone), the Oscar-nominated Saar Klein who was our editing eyes and ears on board, and the second unit D.P. Ian Bloom who managed all our data and captured footage when he had a spare second.

The project brought us the world-class sound designer Jean-Paul Mugel who agreed to be a one-man sound department; and his wife Judy Shrewsbury who did all of the costume design in just two weeks, remotely from Paris, without a script or the chance to meet the actors. She selected all of Chloe’s clothes from Olivia Thirlby’s closet over Skype.

Jean-Paul Mugel was miraculous in his ability to manage a very complex situation but it was virtually impossible to build a sound library in addition to the scenes we were shooting everyday. After working for a many months with the genius sound mixer Richard Beggs, I decided to return to Antarctica on the same ship to record some additional sounds unfettered by the scenes themselves. I went for a 10-day Christmas bomber mission as a guest of the captain who helmed the Ushuaia during our shoot. I was trained by a colleague in New York, rented some very basic gear and blessedly went back to Antarctica without 16 people in tow.

Shooting on a Freezing Boat

During pre-production some of my team had been thinking about how to create a look of different environments on the ship. But it wasn’t until artist and sculptor Todd Murphy came on board as A.D. that we had someone who could subtly influence the look and feel of each scene without changing much at all. Murphy made micro adjustments using photos, blankets and mirrors to enhance the set piece that was our ship.

“Nature is an antagonist,” was the sentiment of my cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and I can’t disagree. A combination of rough seas, cold weather, constant daylight, an extremely slim lighting package, dark rooms, narrow corridors and a perpetually fatigued crew made the shoot a real endurance test.

Gaffer Mark Koenig worked with assistant cinematographer Joe Maples to wedge lights in corners and create enough mood and lighting to achieve a believable look. The main issue was always time: the fact that we were passing situations and scenery we’d never see again. We were always negotiating between exterior scenes and interior scenes. With one gaffer, it was very difficult to get enough set ups done on a 23-day shoot at sea.

More than anything, we feared the cold and the possibility of our equipment breaking down. And while there were times when the cold impacted our battery life, or made it difficult to get a digital camera on quickly enough to capture unfolding drama, we ultimately did not have major mechanical failures. And I attribute this to the care my crew took in protecting our gear from water and unnecessary exposure to the cold.

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An Antarctic vista captured on location for Red Knot

Perhaps the scariest event took place on one of the warmest days. On this particular day, while the crew was shooting from the shoreline, a loud cracking sound was heard from across the bay. We looked up to see a giant ice shelf nearly 10 stories tall collapsing into the ocean. I was about 500 feet up the hill but I heard someone from a zodiac yell, “Run!” at the top of his lungs. And then I saw my crew grabbing the RED camera, tripod and other equipment as fast as they could, running toward higher ground as a giant wave – 10 to 15 feet – curled toward the beach. It was one of those dangerous moments that the ships crew warned us about. My crew barely escaped.

With research, we had the proper foul-weather gear (Arctic muck boots were indispensable.) With good gear, doubles of all essential equipment and a solid crew, we brought all cast and crew back in one piece. MM

Red Knot opened in New York on Friday, December 5, 2014.

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