Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Penguin Counters, a documentary

Penguins could conceivably hold the key to human survival

Feb 01, 2015
  The Penguin Counters is documentary film that follows an adventurous team of field biologists on a journey to the Antarctic, where they track remote penguin populations to monitor the impact of climate change.
Is it possible that perhaps these little cute birds hold the key to human survival?

I sent The Penguin Counters Filmmakers Peter Getzels & Harriet Gordon Getzels a few questions their way about the project.

How did this film come to be? Can you talk about that process?

The Antarctic has been this magical place and as a climber, for as long as I can remember, I’d been dreaming about getting into this pristine world. Ernest Shackleton had been my hero. The opportunity to go to the Antarctic arose when we moved to Washington DC from the UK where we’d been making films for British television for many years. For the first few months we stayed with a cousin we barely knew. I had no idea her husband, Ron Naveen, counted penguins for a living.
Right from the start we talked about making a film about Ron’s work, and it seemed like a slam-dunk. We wanted this to be an independent production. But that meant we had to wait until the time was right; and it took a number of years for Ron to have a a bit of extra funding and accommodation to help get us there. This was a real ‘grab the cameras and go’ kind of project. We shot 72 hours of material. Once we saw what the story arc would be, we launched a Kickstarter campaign, which turned out to be more successful than we expected. From there, the Pew Charitable Trusts came on board. Like Ron, they see penguins as the canaries in the coalmine for global climate change.

Name a few interesting facts you discovered about Penguin Counters that you didn’t know before?

Ron Naveen – chief penguin counter extraordinaire – is the most penguin-centric person we know. His team are field-biologists who work in a much wider range of environments on all kinds of projects. But none of them are bonafide adventurers or explorers, kitted out in the latest gear. They’re doing a job which requires long periods of time away from home, immersed in an extreme geographical world, and they do their work in a thoroughly dedicated way. They’re not formally trained for the conditions they encounter, but they seem to take it in stride. We still can’t figure out how anyone can count single units by the tens of thousands, but penguin counters don’t seem to have any difficulty with this.

What was the hardest thing you and your film crew had to endure while shooting this documentary?

The bleak, grey, cold of Deception Island. Hurricane-force winds in the Drake Passage. Winds so punishing they knocked us down and blew the cameras out of our hands.

What was your favorite part of this entire journey?

Just being there; the idea that we had finally made it to the Antarctic was pinch-worthy on a daily basis.

The film’s musical score is amazing. Can you please talk about how you decided Robert Neufeld was going to be the musical composer for The Penguin Counters?

As a film about a perilous journey, filled with mood and atmosphere, we knew we had to have an original music score. Our editor laid in scratch tracks from one of Hollywood’s best composers, Thomas Newman. It worked incredibly well, but we’d never have been able to afford the rights – if they were even available. So the bar was set very high. Robert Neufeld – who was a musical prodigy as a child and has since gone on to have a great career in film composition – was a friend and colleague at the National Film and Television School of England.
We spent a lot of time talking to Robert about the story we were trying to tell, and the ranges of mood and drama set against the living, breathing, deadly world that characterizes the Antarctic. As a climber and nature photographer, Robert also has an innate understanding of the power of the wilderness; and an extremely poetic soul. He did an amazing job; and really appreciated our commitment to keeping the film independent.

If you could go back in time, is there one thing you would do differently to this film?

There’s always things one wishes had been different but the challenge in film is to work with what we have. More then any other verité film we’ve made, this was filmed in a virtual bell jar. Spending an even longer time in the Antarctic would be the top of the list.

The Penguin Counters premieres at the 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival February 1st at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. A second screening is scheduled for the following day. For times CLICK HERE.


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