by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
“Arctic Tale,” the documentary about the Great North, a walrus and polar bear, is about to open in theaters across the country. Dove spoke recently with the cinematographer, Adam Ravetch, whose wife Sarah Robertson directed the picture.
Adam began the interview by thanking us for “getting the word out,” regarding his film. Adam’s credits include “Amazing Moments: Most Extreme Moments” for television, a “Nature” episode, and “Ice Puppy” from 1991.
“Wow! You mentioned ‘Ice Puppy,’ said Adam. “That was so long ago. I love that!”
“Arctic Tale” is a beautiful film which shares the stories of Seela the walrus and Nanu a polar bear. It is a powerful story about life and death in the Arctic. Ravetch has a strong background in several areas which led to his involvement in the film.
He spoke enthusiastically about the genesis of his film beginnings. “It started for me in college,” he said. “At San Diego State University they had an amazing dive program. I took about seven dive courses there from beginner to dive instructor. And I also studied Marine Zoology. I really had a passion for diving so I taught diving in the Florida Keys and I pursued a master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach where my advisor was a guy named Dr. Don Nelson. His big claim to fame was as a big shark researcher. He figured out that grey reef sharks do an aggressive display by putting their pectoral fins down and they arch their back and they swim in a figure eight before they attack, if you’re in their territory. Because of that, all these documentary companies came to interview him. As a result, I went from being a grad student to a production assistant on all these documentaries.”
“It was there I met a bunch of underwater cinematographers and I thought that was something I would really like to pursue. I got a job with a guy out of Canada who had a television series, a hundred half hour parts—it was very similar to Cousteau. So he trained me as an underwater cameraman, mostly in tropical areas. At the very end of it, he wanted to do a couple of arctic shoots.”
Ravetch said he went ice diving where all the white baby harp seals are born on top of the ice. He knew the cameraman job was ending soon and, “I had to make a decision and I wanted to get into making films. When I made that ice dive it was sort of an epiphany because it was this really wild world underneath the ice with frozen corridors and lots of unknown animals that lived in the Arctic. So I figured I had a window of opportunity to document the lives of animals that no one really knew before.”
“I met my wife about that time and she had an attraction for the Arctic and her skill sets were writing and literature. We went to the north and started after walruses. Walruses became the main focus, not because I loved walruses but I was told by a local guy in the Canadian Arctic that if I was in the water and a walrus were to pop up, to get out as quickly as possible because it’s an animal that could hold you, knock your head off and suck the very flesh off your bone! I was like, ‘Ok, that sounds like something I’d like to follow!’ We were surprised that there was such a large animal left on this planet we didn’t know very much about.”
Ravetch has obviously gained a lot of knowledge about walruses. He mentioned they nurture their young for three years and seals generally do this for no longer than ten or twelve days and then get rid of them.
“We were attracted to that teaching process it took to give the skill set to walruses to make them adult. Then when we were in the pack ice with the young walruses we saw that they had help, they had a family. The nanny walrus was always with the mother and calf and that was sort of the birth of our anti-character.”
“Wherever there were walruses we ran into bears and we found this parallel story with how it was a family raising the baby for three years and in the polar bear world it was a solitary mom raising her young for three years.”
We asked Ravetch what the challenges were of filming underwater. “Diving itself takes a special skill set. But now, you’re going into water temperatures that are twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. Without a suit you’d last about five minutes in those waters. I wear a dry suit. Dry suits are big zip-lock baggies that don’t allow the water to touch your body, and then underneath that you wear tons and tons of underwear to keep warm. Even to learn how to use a dry suit is a whole different thing than a wet suit–there’s a different buoyancy to it.”
Ravetch elaborated on other problematic situations including entering a sealed breathing hole under the ice which is only thirty inches in diameter. He didn’t want to use ropes because of their tendency to be captured on film, so he had to keep track of the breathing hole or he would be swept away from it, unable to get out.
“There are all these challenges when dealing with animals that live eighty percent of their time in water under the ice. And don’t forget, with the walruses we were worried about getting our brains sucked out!” he laughed. He actually built small shark cages following a trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History where he measured stuffed walrus heads in the exhibits, so that if a walrus did attack him, he could swim to the cage. The idea was that it would be small enough so the walrus could not fit its head into the cage to pursue him. The bars would be far enough apart so he could swim out. “My first images were filming walruses from the cage,” he said.
“I think about what we know about the oceans and of course there’s a lot of scientific knowledge. But if you think about it, a lot of what we know about the oceans comes from the photography and the cinematography. My heroes are the first generation and bold explorers that entered the water, not knowing how animals would react to them. So when we got into the Arctic, it was really a goal to take what they did and go beyond that and document things that have never been seen before so that we could contribute to the greater natural history archives.”
We asked Ravetch how he and his wife, co-director Sarah Robertson, broke down the duties in making the documentary. “We have to wear many different hats,” he said. “It’s not like one person has one job. Sarah didn’t really have a background in cinematography but early on when I was in the water, and we wanted to try to get simultaneous coverage, I showed her how to use a camera. Some of her shots appear in the film. It was more like we had to do whatever it took to get the filming done. We wore the hat of in-field producers, and sometimes we would become our own assistants. The main thing was the results. We had to have people in the field that could shoot and capture footage.”
We asked Adam about some of the other challenges in getting the film finished. “The Arctic is a brutal place to work,” he said. “Its temperatures range from forty below zero in the winter time and in the summertime the ice goes away so you have to use boats and that can be hazardous, especially with walruses sometimes as they will actually puncture the bottom of boats and leave you paddling for the nearest ice flows.”
Ravetch said they used a snow machine one night and camped on the edge of the ice. The next morning they broke some ice and went in search of newborn walruses. “One morning we woke up and the boat was gone!” he said. “The ice had broken off and it took the boat with it. So we got another boat from town to go find that boat! And then when I was out in the middle of the pack the engine stem on that boat broke! Now I was literally paddling for the pack ice. Those were the days we didn’t have GPS or satellite phones and we only had one radio. It took 72 hours for us to be rescued, but we always kept filming. We got some remarkable images of walruses during that time.”
We asked Ravetch what was the most rewarding aspect of completing the film? “It’s so liberating to be able to tell a story with a dramatic narrative construct. To really follow two animals in a coming-of-age story and to be able to have the freedom to emotionally influence an audience, versus doing a documentary where you’re throwing a lot of facts at people and it’s like school, you’re lecturing them. That kind of storytelling is wonderfully liberating as a filmmaker. What we really wanted to do is to put a face to climate change. I think the way to do that was to follow these animals in their intimate travels and journeys and to be with them as the Arctic was warming in the here and now. The film really celebrates the remarkable qualities of walrus and bears—their ability to be bold and their remarkable acts of courage. We always think we see a lot of ourselves in them.”
Ravetch said Queen Latifah was at the top of their list to tell the story, and fortunately enough, they landed her as narrator. “Walruses are a matriarchal society,” he said, “mothers and daughters growing up in the Arctic. We needed a woman whose voice could handle the gravitas of the Arctic with its vastness, and she had a great alto voice. We also needed a lot of humor— we wanted to put humor into this film because it does have a heavy message, and Queen Latifah is great at that. What I really love about her is what I call her quiet strength in the more somber moments in our film. We directed her for a day in the studios and she nailed it.”
We asked Ravetch about the testimonials of the children at the end of the film, which he said came about by a collaborative group of people. “We all sort of weighed in and commented on what we wanted them to say.” He said he wanted those who were inspired by the film to learn what options they have. “We wanted to give a couple of simple ideas that people can do in the here and now in order to combat climate change and that’s how those (testimonials) came about.”
We neared the end of the interview by asking Adam Ravetch if he believes man does have an impact on the climate, environment and possibly global warming. “I think what is very optimistic is that most people believe the earth is warming. I think that’s a huge amount of awareness. I obviously believe that there is a human impact. For that side of the coin, I think what Al Gore has done with ‘Inconvenient Truth’ and with the live earth concerts of reaching so many millions of people, or billions of people. I think that anytime we want to try to make change it’s going to take critical mass and so awareness is the big thing. For those who aren’t sure if it’s human induced, we already see the exhausts that are spewed out in the southern cities from cars. The chemical toxins are laden and cumulatively stored in the fats of the top of the food chain in the Arctic, the whales—polar bears are full of these chemical toxins. And so is the breast milk of the Inuit when they feed and nurse their babies. So this is something that comes from humans. There’s a European haze that you see in the Arctic, and that’s something that comes over from all of the output of the pollution in Europe. It actually travels by currents up in the air, over to the Arctic.”
“This is my point. The scientists are saying that in ten years, if we don’t do anything, that we might be beyond a tipping point to really do anything about the warming world. So you could say, ‘Hey, what if the scientists are wrong? What if it isn’t human impact?’ But I say, ‘What if they’re right? The population is going to double or triple in the decades to come. Why don’t we live more in a sustaining attitude? Why don’t we have cleaner air and cleaner energies? It just makes a lot of common sense, rather than waiting to have some major crisis happen where we won’t be able to counter it.”
As the credits roll in “Arctic Tale” they mention that there were composite characters in the movie. Ravetch went on to say that Nanu and Seela were composite characters, and that there was no way they could follow one animal year after year, due to weather, their large ranges, and some which die out, etc. He said these two characters in the film represent the best of the walrus and bears they have seen over the years. The filmmakers used organic names to keep it relevant to the Arctic.
We asked Ravetch about his future plans. “We have a non-profit foundation called Arctic Exploration Fund. Its mission is to keep a consistent presence in the Arctic, to document climate change. That may turn into a sequel some day. Another film we were interested in developing, because we like the narrative construct, wrapping natural history footage in the framework of a dramatic story, is an ocean and survival film. We’re developing it right now. It has a theme of lost knowledge, how we’ve really lost our connection to the ocean and our abilities to subsist off it.”
Ravetch concluded by saying early feedback on the film has been really positive. He marveled at what took place at an early screening in San Francisco where the audience was made up mostly of kids. “The kids were talking to the screen, to the characters.” He was pleased they reacted that way. “It was amazing, it was an extraordinary experience.”
Adam Ravetch seems to be an extraordinary filmmaker, an intelligent man who is willing to endure great hardship in the Arctic in order to make a constructive narrative, framed within a dramatic film. He didn’t care what hat he wore. He just wanted to see the film completed. And it was.