The Emperor penguin, one of the most impressive birds in Antarctica was one of many subjects cinematographer Malcolm filmed during the production of the 70mm Imax film Antarctica. Not only did he film these colorful, one metre high birds on the sea ice, but to give the audience a true appreciation of their stateliness, he took the bulky Imax camera and its underwater housing into their spectacular under ice world.
Compared to normal open water diving, diving under ice is enormously problematic, challenging and extremely demanding. Seawater temperature is often as low as minus 1° Celsius, which necessitates the wearing of especially designed dry suits to help keep out the cold. Any exposed skin on your face quickly becomes painfully numb upon entering the water and even after it has acclimatized to the cold, your face feels as if you’ve just been to the dentist. Even getting out of the water after ice diving can be an experience in itself. You can’t just quickly climb out of the water expecting to dry off and warm up, when air temperatures are often below minus 20° Celcius. Before each dive the team had to erect a special shelter for protection from the elements and to prevent themselves from becoming dangerously cold.
The Imax underwater camera kit is as large as a car engine and weighs a hefty 90kg (or about 198 lbs). It’s a big piece of camera gear and its use was made even more difficult under the conditions encountered in Antarctica. For example, when Malcolm was working under the ice, even the simple task of holding the camera caused the warming blood to be squeezed out of his fingers making it necessary for him to wear extra thick mittens underwater. Mittens may help stop your hands from freezing in the bitter cold, but they also restrict the operation of both the camera and diving gear alike.
Filming penguins underwater in this dangerous and hostile environment required Malcolm and his team to cut an opening in the sea ice and lower a specially developed safety cage into the hole. This safeguard removed the possibility of attack by marauding Leopard seals. The cage, just large enough to fit two people, also stopped divers from being dragged away by the unpredictable currents under the sea ice and gave him a perfect vantage point from which to film. For one Emperor penguin sequence, Malcolm crammed himself into the bottom of the safety cage to film scientist Gerry Kooyman entering the water. To get the shot, he had to be upside down and hold his breath to keep bubbles out of frame. Using his feet for stability, he had to try and ignore a stream of icy water leaking into his dry suit past a neck seal. Ice water sneaking in feels as if someone is pouring battery acid into your suit and quickly chills divers to a point where they can become hypothermic.
Malcolm says all this discomfort was worth it however, because the wonderful underwater ballet performed by the Emperor penguins as they rocket towards the surface of the water and onto the ice, creates a spectacular sequence in the Imax film “Antarctica”.