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Arctic Drift: Breathtaking Beauty & Critical Danger In A Year On the Ice



LBB speaks to the team behind the incredible documentary that follows scientists on the most ambitious climate research expedition yet

Arctic Drift: Breathtaking Beauty & Critical Danger In A Year On the Ice
Image Credit: Steffen Graupner

Following a team of brave scientists on the most ambitious climate research expedition to date, 'Arctic Drift' is a breathtaking two hour documentary filmed over an entire year of exploration in the North Pole - one of the most beautiful yet hostile environments on Earth.

The MOSAiC expedition saw over 500 scientists and crew aboard the Polarstern, a 12,000 ton German icebreaker, as it moved with the Arctic flow, heading into uncharted territory. The ship spent 390 days (150 without sunlight), 600 miles from the nearest land and circumnavigated 1,550 miles in total.

The documentary was produced by Wild Blue Media and Fremantle’s German label UFA Show & Factual. On the initiative of CEO Nico Hofmann, UFA Show & Factual secured exclusive access to film MOSAiC. Music and composition were handled by BMG Bespoke, bringing together several departments to provide production music, artists and Icelandic composer Biggi Hilmars creating the original score. 

With stunning 4k cinematography and cutting-edge technology, 'Arctic Drift' both celebrates the beauty of the North Pole while bringing to the forefront the critical state that we find ourselves in as climate change threatens to melt the ice into non-existence. 

To find out how this epic project came together, LBB’s Sunna Coleman speaks with UFA Show & Factual’s senior producer/director Philipp Grieß, Wild Blue Media’s producer/director Ashley Morris, BMG’s senior director (Original Repertoire Service) Rachel Menzies, and composer Biggi Hilmars.

LBB> The Arctic Drift documentary follows an international team of climate scientists on an incredible year-long expedition. How does it feel to be part of such an epic project?

Biggi Hilmars, composer> Very exciting! One can hardly imagine the feeling of being stuck in the middle of the Arctic where anything can happen weather-wise, as well as dangers connected to wildlife animals such as polar bears, foxes or seals. I am very proud to have put my stamp on this incredible project, especially due to the environmental and scientific factor, whereas all these great scientists and filmmakers put their life at risk to research the state of the Northern Arctic and its effect on climate change.

Rachel Menzies, senior director - Original Repertoire Services, BMG > So grateful to be able to contribute, even in a small way to such an important project and subject. As the project developed, I remember watching the footage and being in complete awe of the entire expedition team, so completely dedicated to the science and mission. 

LBB> Filming in extreme locations such as the Arctic must come with a lot of production challenges and obstacles. UFA, can you tell us a bit about the planning and solutions you came up with? 

Philipp Grieß, senior producer/director, UFA Show & Factual> Doing a film in the North Pole, we were confronted with four major challenges: the bitter cold down to minus 45 that can even go down to minus 55 with windchill; the darkness of the polar night that lasts almost six months; the harshest environment on Earth; and that polar bears are your only companions on ground that is sometimes just a few centimeters of frozen water over a 4000m deep ocean.

We carefully prepared and tested special equipment. Our main camera was a very robust Alexa mini with mechanical lenses to avoid freezing of electrical parts of the lens. And because of the enormous temperature gradients between outside on the ice and inside the ship, we always had to have one camera outside and one for inside. 

We also had drones, gimbals, action cams, time-lapse grips, sliders, underwater cameras and a fancy set of special lenses - for example a waterproof super-macro to film zooplankton or the structures of Arctic snow flakes. There is no hardware store around the corner at the North Pole so we had every part at least twice on board! Everything summed up to around 1.2 tons of equipment. 

Image Credit: Lianna Nixon

LBB> Where do you even begin processing a year's worth of filming? Tell us about the scale of the project and how it was organised and broken down.

Philipp, UFA Show & Factual> It definitely sounds like a difficult challenge: five camera teams, 300 protagonists, one year of filming. But we had a very clear briefing for each team and very supportive protagonists. The basic storyline was clear from the beginning: the journey of the icebreaker Polarstern through the Arctic ice. 

We filmed 389 days on-board and on the ice around the German icebreaker Polarstern. The only connection was an icebreaker with supplies every 3-4 months and a very fragile low-res internet connection via satellite. It is the most northern long-term documentary ever. 

Ashley Morris, producer/director, Wild Blue Media> The footage captured by the camera teams was stunning as they followed the scientists through the many challenges they faced. From the ice cracking beneath their feet and violent storms, to encounters with polar bears and how the global pandemic threatened to shut down the entire expedition – it was an adventure full of difficulty and danger.

LBB> And BMG, when it comes to the sync and music, what was your brief from the client and how did you go about finding the right fit?

Rachel, BMG> As soon as I’d had the initial creative meeting with Wild Blue Media, I knew I wanted to commission Biggi Hilmars to score the project. I have worked with Biggi in the past on advertising projects (a particular highlight was working on a full orchestral score TV campaign at Abbey Road Studios) – and was confident in his ability to deliver something really special for this project. 
Wild Blue were after a delicate, intimate score to capture the sparseness and beauty of the Arctic landscape. Biggi combines classical, electronic, avant garde and popular influences that conjure a deeply original sound. His use of repetitive piano motifs, haunting strings and soaring Icelandic vocals perfectly evoked the authenticity and significance of the subject matter.

Ashley Morris, Wild Blue Media> I wanted the score to provide an immediate sense of place and it was crucial to me that it should sound like it comes from the North. I wanted a soundtrack that conveyed the cold and the haunting beauty of the Arctic ice, and was very keen that it involve sparse Nordic vocals. As soon as I heard Biggi’s work, I knew he would be ideal.

LBB> Biggi, what was your creative process and vision for the documentary?

Biggi, Composer> I set out to work with weather nuances in the score. Being from the North myself (Iceland), I know how cold and dynamic weather sounds, and I used classical instruments in mixture with vocal textures and electronic elements to interpret the vast, panoramic, cold, powerful, yet fragile weather and environment of the Northern Arctic.

LBB> How does the music aid storytelling in the documentary?

Rachel BMG> Music can be such a powerful tool in achieving emotional connection with an audience. Biggi’s compositions enhanced the storytelling process through his use of themes and motifs, and by introducing new concepts and musical characterisation within each work. In addition, the use of a musical thread which connected the composed works ensured a consistency and familiarity throughout. 

Biggi, Composer> I wrote and produced a handful of themes for the film, aiming to create a coherent whole. In some cases the music is very calm and minimal, whereas in other cases it’s more powerful and intense during hazardous scenes. I guess we could say the score sounds cold and Nordic, which we thought was essential to the story and the documentary happening in a nearly untouched place in the wild North, where no-one has hardly ever been before.

Image Credit: Esther Horvath

LBB> Did you learn any interesting facts about climate change that you weren’t aware of during the making of this documentary?

Philipp, UFA Show & Factual> The Arctic is disappearing. For millions of years the ocean at the North Pole was always frozen, cooling down our planet. Now, the ice is gone. We’ve lost 70% in the last few decades. 70%! I knew that man-made climate change is a problem for our planet but I did not know how urgent it is. That it is actually happening in front of our very eyes. I realised that it is not something we can avoid anymore, we can only learn to adapt – and we have to do everything possible not to make it even worse. 
The Arctic seems so far away. It is not. It’s just 2500 miles away from London. Or to quote one of the scientists on board: “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic – it’s not Las Vegas.”

Biggi, Composer> I learnt that the Northern Arctic has a great influence in cooling down the earth, which makes it habitable for us human beings. One of many reasons why we need to start taking action against global warming.

I’ve been so fortunate to have been involved on several projects in the past couple of years that are connected to climate change. Including the Nordic TV drama series ‘Thin Ice’ by YellowBird and Sagafilm, and the BBC feature documentary ‘The Last Igloo’ by Swan Films to name but few. This is such an important topic and something we all need to be aware of.

Ashley Morris, Wild Blue Media> The Arctic sea ice regulates our planet’s temperature by reflecting the sun’s energy back out into space, but as that ice melts, the system - our planet’s refrigerator - is breaking down. The Arctic is now warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the huge changes there will have far reaching consequences. Not only will it affect global temperatures, but it’s also likely to profoundly alter the weather where we live. The amazing work undertaken by the expedition’s scientists is our best chance to understand exactly what’s going on so that we can all make informed decisions about how to tackle climate change. But even before the data is analysed and the numbers are crunched, there’s plenty the scientists already agree on – these huge changes are happening very fast and they will affect each and every one of us. We must act quickly.

LBB> What were your favourite moments during this project?

Biggi, Composer> The whole journey of creating the score and seeing it come to life was very enjoyable, as well as getting to work with the fantastic team at Wild Blue Media, BMG and Fremantle.

Philipp, UFA Show & Factual> What touched me a lot was the first polar bear who welcomed us to the Central Arctic. He was strolling around in the camp with his cub, super curious, elegant, powerful. It was very obvious who the real king of the Arctic is, and that we were just visitors that should deal with the Arctic with respect and humility. It is an environment as beautiful as it is deadly. 

I think it is a very inspiring story that 20 nations, 70 institutions and over 600 people from all around the world came together to work on a common goal. A breakthrough in Arctic climate science that will affect us all. And I am super proud that UFA Show & Factual, Wild Blue Media and Fremantle teamed up - against all odds - to document this epic mission. 
Even though the pandemic is currently the biggest global challenge, I hope we learn by mutually overcoming this and then apply to how we can react to the even bigger threat of climate change and species extinction. We have to act. Now! 

Image Credit: Michael Gutsche

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BMG Production Music, Thu, 25 Mar 2021 14:49:01 GMT