When three whales became trapped by rapidly thickening winter ice near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988, an unlikely coalition that included Greenpeace, oil companies looking for positive publicity, and the indigenous Iñupiat people sprung up to assist them. Eventually, a series of holes was cut in the ice so the whales could breathe as they traveled toward a potential escape route, and a Soviet icebreaker provided the final breakthrough to save the day. This story is told in the new film Big Miracle, directed by Ken Kwapis and shot by John Bailey, ASC. Principal photography took place in the autumn of 2010 in and around Anchorage, Alaska; a second unit led by Peter Collister, ASC captured material in Barrow. “The extreme weather made for an arduous experience that pulled everyone together into one of the best ensembles I have ever worked with,” says Bailey. “I was fortunate to have three fabulous camera operators, Matt Moriarty, Andy Shuttlesworth and Jim McConkey, who rotated duties, and camera assistants Steve Cueva, Jozo Zovko, Dennis Seawright and Haydn Pazanti. My longtime gaffer and friend, Michael Moyer, key grip Art Bartels and their crew shone even under the most trying conditions.” He recently spoke to AC about his work on the project. American Cinematographer: How was the decision made to shoot in Anchorage? John Bailey, ASC: Ken felt strongly that the native faces in the film should be real North Slope Alaskan Iñupiat. Also, Alaska’s generous tax incentives for film production helped. My big concern was that we choose an area where the sun, if it were out, would be available to us most of the time. I figured that shooting west with a southern light would give us less of a sense of light change than if we were shooting frontal light or changing crosslight. The sun rose in the southeast, never exceeded 30 degrees in the sky, and set in the southwest. That made lighting continuity fairly easy to maintain. The only problem was that as the shoot progressed, the sun’s position moved so low that it was intermittently blocked
by office buildings in downtown Anchorage. It’s an odd thing to be out in the middle of what is supposed to be the North Slope, above the Arctic Circle, and have a skyscraper shadow fall across your set. Your previous movies with Ken were shot in the anamorphic format, but you chose to shoot this in 3-perf Super 35mm. Why? Bailey: Ken and I both love anamorphic, but I was a little concerned about using it on this picture given the severity of the weather and the long equipment trail back to Panavision in Woodland Hills. If ever a film I have done cried out for the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, this was it — the ice fields are enormous. I was a camera assistant on a 16mm shoot in Barrow 40 years ago, and I had always dreamed of going up there again. It’s an infinite horizon where you can stand at the end of the earth and see nothing but white for 360 degrees. I thought widescreen would be best for capturing that. Also, the film dramatizes a collective effort, and the wide aspect ratio gave us the opportunity to shoot medium close-ups and still have three or four people in the frame. Out on the ice, we spread people fully across the frame, and we also reached into deeper space within the frame. That staggered depth required the greater depth-of-field of spherical lenses. Was the need to capture subtle gradations of white in all the snow and ice the main reason you chose to shoot on film? Bailey: I love film very much, but we decided to shoot film for a number of reasons. Yes, whites were crucial, and I felt that the [exposure] curve, especially the response of film in the white area, would be more delicate and nuanced than it would appear in any digital format. I also expected to be in situations where I might have more contrasty light than I might like, with limited opportunities to fill it in, because the open spaces were so wide. I knew we’d have very little ability to bring in huge supplemental lighting or fly large silks to control the contrast. I knew film would be more congenial in those situations. Another concern was the dependability of digital equipment in very wet conditions. Any problems I’ve had with video cameras in the past were often the result of dampness. The weather on this project was a formidable opponent; we would arrive [on set] in pitch black, the temperatures were often in the teens, and sometimes there were 40-mph and 50-mph winds. Everything had to be de-iced, thawed out and heated up in the morning. It took a long time to get the equipment up and running. We had a lot of freezing rain, and everything that was electronic was affected — we even had trouble pumping up the dolly. What were your considerations when it came to the Arctic sunlight? Bailey: The sun was never very high. It was almost always a beautiful, raking light, but it disappeared fast in the late afternoon. We didn’t have an extended magic hour. We lost more than 3½ minutes of light every day, and by the last few weeks of our shoot we were getting less than six hours of usable daylight each day. Once the sun was down, we did have a pure, albeit brief, magic hour, with the sun below the horizon and open skylight, but most of our scenes were day or night scenes, so we didn’t have much chance to use magic-hour effects. Also, the light was very unstable. Most of the time it was filtered sunlight or overcast, and when the sun did come out, it was hard and clear, and we’d have to try to match it. We flew one 40-by-60 silk from a big construction crane, and we had a bunch of 20-by-20 silks on rolling stands that we could move around. But it was hard to put up a lot of silks because of the wind coming up the Cook Inlet from the ocean, and because there was nothing to which we could tether large silks. Everything had to be guyed from overhead. To maintain continuity, we used three or four 18Ks banked up and coming through a silk. Sometimes, to give a little feeling of sunlight, I used the 18Ks spotted down with warm gels. Because the sun never got very high or intense, I was often shooting at a T4 or T4.5. That made it easy to counter the ambience or subtly suggest a sense of source with an 18K. The snow-covered ice gave us free fill light bouncing up. Around the ice hole, where many scenes take place, a soft wash of filtered sunlight helped break up the monotony of the ice. But there were a couple of scenes that I just let go without any attempt to add light. The sky was white, the ice was white and there was no sense of horizon. It was like shooting on a limbo stage by creating a disorienting space. How did you re-create Barrow in Anchorage? Bailey: The ice field was a completely constructed set. We shot at the harbor, with the high-rise buildings of Anchorage behind us. The production designer, Nelson Coates, and his team dug a 17-foot-deep hole and lined it with concrete to keep the seawater from seeping in. That was for our mechanical whales. All the angles you see there suggesting 360 degrees were actually shot within about a 90-to-120-degree radius at that hole. We did what I call ‘Jack Webb Overs,’ where you keep the actors in the same place and just swap them to the other side of the frame for a complementary over-the-shoulder. I learned this technique when I operated for Ric Waite [ASC] on the TV show Emergency! in the 1970s. If there was any sense of the source, I’d have to scrim the light off and bring in an 18K on the other side. But Ken is great at logistics, and we plotted our coverage carefully. Tell us more about how you work with Ken. Isn’t this your fifth film together?