We take a look at some of the most challenging locations to film, hearing from those who have braved them
Film production takes us to some of the most inhospitable locations on the planet. From Nepalese peaks, to subterranean caverns. These regions promise awe inspiring footage, but getting them on camera is easier said than done.
The Arctic region is a unique area among Earth’s ecosystems and makes for stunning film footage. Phytoplankton, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants and human societies.
The region has also become the focus for environmental change. With ever-changing conditions as the sea ice melts, cultural traditions and wildlife adaptations, one of the challenges is narrowing down the options and specific locations/destinations in such an expansive place.
“Filming in the Arctic can present many challenges but those are far outweighed by the many rewards,” Says, Jason Hillier, VP Product Management at Arctic Kingdom.
Hillier has extensive experience working in this region, and has managed expeditions for RedBull Media House and Freeride Entertainment.
“The opportunity to film iconic polar wildlife, icescapes, stunning geography and Inuit culture are often the focus for film-makers traveling North. The story of climate change and its impacts on the Arctic, its wildlife and people, is one of the most difficult topics to shoot.”
Often, the most ideal locations for a film are in remote, seldom-visited places that require extensive planning for travel and logistics.
“Axel Heiberg Island (79°N) for one of, if not, the most northern feature-length film ever shot. Developing and implementing a light-weight, self-sufficient 22-person mobile camp for a month on an isolated island this far north in Canada’s High Arctic was no easy feat. Getting them there and back safely involved a massive set of challenges from transportation,” Remembers Hillier.
The Artic is not for the foolhardy. The region poses extremely challenging conditions for film crews with high winds and freezing temperatures- average winter temperatures can be as low as −40 °C (−40 °F), and the coldest recorded temperature is approximately −68 °C (−90 °F).
Indeed, Dom West and photographer Joshua Holko of United Film Works discovered this when filming polar bears for their award winning film, ‘Ghosts of the Arctic’.
“As anyone who shoots in the outdoors knows, it can be hard even at the best of times. This was next-level,” They Said.
“The first day of the shoot was actually the coldest—the still air temp was -29C. It was bitterly freezing,” the two remembered.
“The effects of the cold on our bodies was the toughest challenge. We needed our fingers to operate the touch screens, yet we could only suffer for about 30 seconds without gloves before the frost bite started to set in.”
Joffe trekked over 120 miles per day in the Arctic region of Svalbard to capture a glimpse of the elusive polar bear, spending 16-hour days in the frozen tundra, braving -30º, enduring frostbite, and battling failing equipment.
Hillier is only too aware of the risks involved. “In July 2017 we ran an expedition on Axel Heiberg Island (79°N) for one of, if not, the most northern feature-length film ever shot. Developing and implementing a light-weight, self-sufficient 22-person mobile camp for a month on an isolated island this far north in Canada’s High Arctic involved a massive set of challenges from transportation, communications, and safety.”
Lechuguilia Caves, New Mexico.
Lechuguilla Caves are the eighth-longest explored cave system in the world. It is most famous for its unusual geology and rare formations, including a variety of rare speleothems preserved in pristine condition.
The caves lie within the ancient coral-reef-turned-mountain range, the Guadelupe Mountains, National Park, straddling the Texas-New Mexico border.
Since their discovery, the caves have attracted film makers and have been captured on film for National Geographic’s series ‘One Strange Rock’, and the BBC documentary series Planet Earth.
“Filming in Lechuguilla presents many technical challenges,” Warns Michael Ray Taylor, author Cave Passages, Dark Life, and a forthcoming book on wild southern caves.
Taylor has extensive experience navigating this complex cave system, and knows the dangers awaiting film crews.
“Everything taken into the cave must be carried down multiple rope pitches and through tight crawlways before any filming locations are reached. The cave’s constant humidity can fog lenses and fry electronics despite all precautions.”
But the greatest difficulty is the delicacy of the very subject you are there to record.
“Extreme care must be taken to avoid shattering delicate formations found nowhere else on Earth, Says Taylor.
“Often the original explorers flagged a single path through a new chamber, dictating the route that all others must follow, not only because of National Park rules but because it is the only ethically responsible way for humans to enter such a special place.”
A highly experienced caver, Taylor offered his advice for anyone seeking to film in Lechuguilla’s impose cave system.
“Anyone on a film crew must prove their mastery of caving skills and endurance on long underground trips long before entering Lechuguilla. Everything from your boots to your lamp will have been specially selected for the trip, then tested first in other caves.”
“Anyone traveling from sea level must spend several days on the surface acclimating to the elevation before being allowed underground. To photograph the most delicate chambers, you must carry clean clothes and neoprene socks, changing out of your dirty cave gear at the threshold.”
But the rewards are well worth the effort. “Once you finally reach your destination, all the training, expense and weeks of planning are instantly worth it. You have entered a magical realm,” Says Taylor.
The Gobi Desert a large desert region covering parts of northern and northwestern China, and of southern Mongolia.
Gobi is also home to one of the rarest bears Mazaalai, dinosaur fossils and bactrian camels, as well as other areas of interest including; Flaming Cliffs, Mining operations of Tavan Tolgoi, and Energy Center Monasteries for Buddhist pilgrims.
The region’s extreme climate often makes it a challenging location in film in. In southern Mongolia, the temperature has been recorded as low as −32.8 °C (−27.0 °F). In contrast, in Alxa, Inner Mongolia, it rises as high as 37 °C (99 °F) in July, with rapid temperature changes occurring not just seasonally, but within 24 hours.
“Filming in the Gobi Desert is an unpredictable science,” Warns photographer Timothy Allen. Allen, who has worked on projects including the BBC’s Human Plant and Discovery’s Animal Planet Channel, has filmed in the region several times.
“Winter is the most challenging season to film here,” Allen says. “When the temperature is this low your equipment stops working; anything rubber on a camera freezes and snaps off, digital screen displays falter, and batteries fail.”
Windstorms in the Gobi also cause problems. “The sand whips up and displace everything, we once lost a cameraman while filming wolves here for the BBC.”
Procuring information on North Korea is perhaps a Fixer’s ultimate challenge.
North Korea holds a fascination amongst journalists and film makers across the globe. In our age of hyper connectivity, when Google, Twitter and Facebook, place information at our finger tips, North Korea remains an enigma. Just a handful of journalists have been granted permission to view the country, and even then, access is strictly regulated.
It is not a challenge for the faint hearted. Failing to adhere to the countries strict press and media regulations can result in deportation or even imprisonment.
“It is a dangerous job,” reflects a Fixer we spoke to, who has worked on several projects in the country.
Most seeking to film in North Korea apply for permission to attend one of rare press tours operated by the government. Few succeed in procuring any uncensored information about the country.
Several fixers operating in South Korea have succeeded in providing filming opportunities in the country. To hear from those who have managed to film here see our interview with these fixers. (LINK TO korea ARTICLE).
The explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 is the most severe radio-ecological disaster in history. Repercussions were unprecedented. 134 servicemen were hospitalized with acute radiation sickness, resulting in 28 deaths from the radiation effects, with around 14 further fatalities within the following ten years.
Today the deserted town of Pripyat, in northern Ukraine, attracts film makers looking to document the eerie remains Chernobyl. The 2012 thriller ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ shot several scenes here. It certainly makes for post-apocalyptic footage; crumbling soviet tower blocks, abandoned playgrounds and remains of a funfair. The apocalyptic scene is a stark admonition of humanity’s self-destruction.
So is it safe? Well, tour operators claim there is little danger. According to Chernobyl Tours, the levels of radiation able to cause acute radiation sickness (ARS) remain only inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus, the enormous “Object ‘Shelter’” construction, which keeps the reactor remnants behind the extremely thick reinforced concrete walls.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian officials maintain the site will not be inhabitable for another 20,000 years, and visitors are screened before entering the 19 mile exclusion zine surrounding the site.
The Himalayas are perhaps the most scenic mountain range on earth. Lifted by the subduction of the Indian tectonic plate under the Eurasian Plate, the Himalayan mountain range runs, west-northwest to east-southeast along the Indian subcontinent in a 2,400 km arc.
The region’s geology, hydrology, flora and fauna offer stunning footage, and the mountain range has become a site of pilgrimage for many in the film industry. Today the Himalayas are far more accessible, thanks to a plethora of specialised logistics firms operating here.
Nevertheless, it remains a treacherous environment for the unprepared. Avalanches, rock falls, and extreme temperatures pose significant threats, and have only too often proved fatal for the unsuspecting traveller.
Richard Goodey, Himalayan guide and photographer specialising in expedition filming logistics for Lost Earth Adventures reflects on the potential dangers faced filming in the region.
“The most complicated filming trip I’ve worked on was leading 40 people on a traverse of Nepal filming a documentary. We had four tonnes of kit and were on an extremely tight schedule. We had a convoy of around ten 4×4’s and were in the foothills below Shishapangma, the world’s 14th highest mountain shortly after the monsoon. The roads were a wash-out on sloppy mud until we arrived at a gigantic landslide that had wiped out half a kilometre of road, rendering it completely impassable.”
Planning is essential for film crews operating in the region, and it pays to be resourceful and well connected.
“After a couple of phone calls we arranged a flat bed truck and a 30-seater coach to meet us on the other side and a team of ten porters assembled within two hours,” Says Goodey.
“Vehicles were emptied and around a million pounds worth of camera gear was strapped to people’s heads and backs and the show continued!”