December In The Arctic Circle

I wanted to share some of my experiences of filming in Lapland & Sweden particularly with looking after your equipment in sub-zero conditions. My experience will be particularly relevant to any self-shooters or those one-man banding doing their own audio as well as shooting.

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December 2018

December 2018 & my destinations were the Kakslauttanen artic resort & the Ice Hotel in Sweden. So far north that the sun doesn’t rise & I had just 4 hours of twilight each day. Over the course of the series of World’s most incredible hotels I had been shooting on the Sony PMW F55 however going into this trip I wanted a camera which performed better in low light which is why I chose the PXW FS7 mk2.

I had realised over the course of the series that my second camera operator who had been cross shooting with me on FS7 was getting much better low light performance.

FS7 mk2 is half a stop better on Sensitivity (2000 lx, 89.9% reflectance) compared with the F55. That combined with a metabones E-EF speed booster & faster EF lenses & higher native ISO means it is very well suited for run & gun low light shooting.

Before now the issue had been cutting down the amount of light for the FS7 shooting in the high contrast conditions of Abu Dhabi, India & Kenya. Even with the ND wheel on 1/64 you still need solid ND filters in front of the lens to shoot fully open however now with the sun permanently below the horizon the FS7 was the perfect choice for shooting in the arctic circle.

Now Sony’s specifications for the PMW FS7mk2 specifies the operating temperature as 0°C – 40°C. I had already tested the upper operating limit in Abu Dhabi without issue pushing it to 45°C however filming in sub-zero temperatures did have a noticeable impact on the camera.

My second camera operator first reported issues with his camera in that he was seeing motion blur & ghosting in his viewfinder. It looked like it was shooting on a slower shutter, as if he was below 1/25 shutter. I had not seen this issue as I had been filming inside the Ice hotel which was -5°C however he had been outside getting some GVs where it was -16°C.

"We were seeing motion blur and
ghosting in the viewfinder"

The liquid crystal in our viewfinders was freezing.

We took to some ski-doos to shoot a sequence on the other side of the frozen lake. As the Ski-doos set off & we tried to film from them I too saw the same motion blurring in the viewfinder. The wind chill made the temperature now below -24°C, ice was being thrown up from the convoy of snow mobiles, icicles were rapidly forming on our facial hair & the cold was penetrating our thermal layers. Most concerning however was that the cameras were failing.

We reached an island in the centre of the lake, this was to be our stop & we were to setup for a ski-doo arrival shot. We had to alter our shooting style so compensate for the motion blur we were seeing in the viewfinder, pans & tilts on the tripod were out and following any close ups also accentuated the visible effects of motion blur. We shot some wide lock off shots which suited the beautiful landscape & meant that we could get arrival shots without noticeable motion blur.

We had to stop and take stock as we couldn’t afford for our cameras to cease working, we had limited daylight and a tight schedule but we had to break before our cameras did. We got a fire going in a Lavvu (traditional Sami shelter) and brought our cameras into warm up. We reviewed our rushes using the directors monitor and we were glad to see that the motion blur we were seeing in the viewfinders were not being recorded.

It was obvious that the liquid crystal in our viewfinders was freezing. I had seen something similar before with Go pros when the LCD displays get sluggish and struggle to respond to changes. Reassured that the cameras could continue but we should keep motion of the camera and on screen to a minimum we concluded shooting our sequence which was thankfully a sit down sequence around a fire.

To get through the following days filming we fashioned viewfinder covers out of balaclavas which they issued to the guests of the ice hotel. I wrapped three balaclavas around each of our three FS7’s and slipped a hand warmer into the outer layer each day. This remedied the problem of the liquid crystal freezing and we had no further issues with the cameras.

Plastic can become very brittle and shatter in these temperatures

Now you can get arctic covers for these cameras and I did pack two in my kit however they made operating very difficult and were more of a hinderance for run and gun shooting. The fact is the cameras bore up very well once we protected the viewfinders. You just need to be aware of any plastic parts as plastic can become very brittle and shatter in these temperatures. Be wary of camera straps with plastic buckles as they are likely to break and you don’t want your camera dropping as a result.

The other issue we faced was a common one but with a slight twist being as we were in sub zero temperatures. I am sure most people have encountered condensation on the lens, stepping out from an air conditioned car or building to humid air of New Delhi had held me up on my previous shoot or closer to home coming in from the cold to shoot a sequence inside.

Well, in the Arctic circle we experienced this however when we came in from the cold (-16°C) and stepped into the ice hotel itself at -5°C the lens would instantly steam up then form into a solid sheet of ice.

If you get frustrated trying to de-mist a lens then imagine what it is like to de-ice one. The best method is not was to use your credit card to scrape the front element clear but I found my using a hand warmer wrapped in a lens cloth had very rapid results.

Unfortunately, budget dictated that I had no sound recordist on this shoot so I has one man band on the audio. Going into this shoot I had thought that my biggest issues were going to be battery life and stiffening of microphone cables.

One reoccurring issue I had however was condensation forming in the lavalier microphone capsules. The symptoms sounded like RF interference, it occurred most frequently when I went from outside to inside. I first had it in Kakslauttanen artic resort when I followed a contributor into one of their famous glass igloos. After a minute or so inside I started to experience RF, I put that down to being inside a small structure with the metal skeleton as it was a struggle to find a clean channel.

Once we had stepped back outside the issue faded away. The Issue reappeared again once I was at the ice hotel in Sweden. I had been following a contributor without issue when he led us into deluxe room. Like all the other bedrooms it was made entirely of ice however it has its en-suite bathroom which was a warm space.

Following our contributor through the double airlock doors to stop heat exchange we continued our interview in the bathroom. After a minute of filming the audio started to crackle building to a roar of unusable sound. As the warm air entered the microphone capsule it condensed. The resulting short circuit sounded like RF interference, I learnt to carry a spare capsule on my body to keep it warm. I those situations you just need to halt the sequence and switch the microphone and that always cleared the fault.

The day was relentless

If you are planning a trip to film at sub-zero temperatures then from my experience I would suggest:

  • Carry spares of essential cables, XLR audio leads, radio mics capsules, headphones. The freezing temperatures can make these very brittle.
  • Be wary of plastic components like microphone clips and be aware of tripods with plastic spreaders which will be in direct contact with the snow and ice. I had several plastic components shatter even internal components… the battery tray inside my DSLR shutter release snapped where it was spring loaded the plastic gave way.
  • Take hand warmers, lots of hand warmers they are very useful for clearing lenses and strapping to your lens grips.
  • Wear layers and get yourself some merino wool base layers and a buff.
  • Pack a head torch if going to the arctic in winter
  • Protect your viewfinder LCD from the cold. Balaclavas work perfectly.
  • If you can afford to have an inside camera and outside camera then that will help with acclimatization issues from condensation.

We wrapped at 7pm after the sun had set, we had managed to record all of our audio sequences and had salvaged the shoot and saved face with our hosts.

I am so glad we could do the shoot justice as the Qasr Al Sarab was a breath-taking location to film in.

We finished the day with a beer overlooking the infinite view of the desert and emptying the sand from our shoes. The next day we scheduled in a 3-hour timelapse at the poolside. We flew back with our cameras, a sense of achievement and an excellent episode in the can.

As for Abu Dhabi Customs…

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