I recently saw the film "Chasing Ice" directed by Jeff Orlowski. It's a really great documentary film that follows the story of National Geographic photographer James Balog and his quest to document in photographic form the accelerating decline in glaciers worldwide. The film has won numerous awards, including a Sundance award for the cinematography, for which Orlowski must share the acclaim with Balog, whose startling time-lapse sequences of retreating glaciers drive home the message about the perils of a changing arctic climate. A less talked-about element of the film is the sound design. The film features two breathtaking scenes of a glacier calving. Calving is the dramatic breaking-off of huge chunks of a glacier as it 'flows' into the ocean. When these massive pieces break off they float away as icebergs. "Chasing Ice" shows a calving event which is the largest ever caught on tape. Essentially, a chunk of ice about half the size of Manhattan breaks off of a glacier in Greenland while the cameras are rolling. It's an astounding thing to see on a theatre screen.
The scene was shot from 2 miles away, so location sound was most likely just buffeting arctic wind and distant rumble... I left the theatre wondering how they went about designing the sound for such a powerful scene. How do you create the sound for something that perhaps no person has ever before witnessed? Well, these are exactly the kinds of questions we like to talk about on the Tonebenders podcast, which, if you've been following the blog lately, you'll know is the sound-design podcast that I just recently started co-producing. So I contacted the sound designer on the film, Dustin Cawood, to talk about his experience working on "Chasing Ice." He spoke to me from his edit suite at Skywalker Ranch in California and I was able to put these questions and others to him, and we also talked about about another big project he worked on this year, Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln." I can't wait to share that interview in an upcoming episode of the podcast. Mr. Cawood is a very interesting guy with lots of great insight into the sound design process.
"Chasing Ice" really struck a personal chord with me, right from the opening scenes: photographer James Balog, camera in hand, intrepidly climbing over iceberg bits and venturing into the frigid waves breaking on Jökulsárlón beach in Iceland. I recognized the beach right away, since my wife and I spent our honeymoon traveling and camping throughout Iceland. We spent a day right there on that same beach.
Iceland is indeed a cold land of vast glaciers, but that's not the full story of this remote island. We traveled through the country in late June, during the height of the melting season, when daylight lasts 24 hours. As the glaciers melt in the spring, the water overflows the land on it's way to the sea, and creates waterfalls everywhere you turn. The most iconic waterfall in Iceland is Gullfoss. It's located a short drive from the capital city of Reykjavík, and about 5 minutes away from the eponymous Geysir, the country's most powerful geyser. Gullfoss is a spectacular sight to behold as it cascades over many different levels of cliff rocks until it finally drops into a deep crevasse in the earth’s crust. From certain viewing angles, the water tumbles over the falls and then seems to completely disappear. I was able to record a bit of the sound of the water coming over the “staircase” section of the falls. Take a listen as you look at some of the pictures we took that day.
Those rainbows are not photoshopped, it is just a magical place.
One camping stop on our trip was in Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park, (I have no idea how to pronounce that) near the Skaftafell visitors centre at the southeast end of the country. We read in our guide books about a great hike in the national park that would take us to Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall that flowed over a cliff made basalt columns. So after dinner at our camp site we set out on our quest. The strange and startling thing about Iceland is the seemingly incompatible landscapes that exist side by side. Our hike took us through green pastures dotted with with trees and covered by tall grasses and wildflowers. All the while we were just a couple of kilometers away from of one of the largest glaciers in the world, Vatnajökull (area: 8,100 km²). It was worth the hike for sure. By the time we arrived at Svartifoss, it was well into the evening, but of course the sun was still high in the sky. After a good hike deep into the wilds, in an already fairly remote area of the country, the waterfall we came upon was just about the most peaceful thing I have ever encountered. Again, here is some sound from Svartifoss to listen to while you look at some photos of the area.
The final Icelandic water sound I'll share is the water rolling in on Vík beach, which is along the island’s southern coast. This beach is a popular tour stop because of it's black lava sand as well as the view of Reynisdrangar. Reynisdrangar is a formation of rock columns jutting out of the ocean just off the beach. Legend says the rocky formations came to be when trolls were struck by sunlight and turned to stone. The very locaction where the following audio was recorded has since been featured in the music video for Holocene by Bon Iver - go to the 5:08 min. mark of the video to see the rock formation in all its glory. (Svartifoss Falls are also featured in the video at 2:51 and Jökulsárlón beach can be seen around 2:15.)
Here is the sound of the waves rolling in on Vík beach.
I love this sound because of the strange combing effect the basalt columns produce as the waves rush past them. I could listen to it all day.
At the time, when I was seeing all these beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, I was only thinking how breathtaking and amazing they were to behold. After seeing the film "Chasing Ice" I now realize these recordings are the chilling sound of the glaciers seeping away into the ocean, never to return. How depressing is that...
Here are some photos of some of the other waterfalls we encountered throughout Iceland. All photos courtesy of Ehrin Albright (the good ones) and myself (the out of focus ones).
For more blog posts and recordings from my Icelandic adventure click here.