In this Times Insider piece, Jonathan Corum explains how a team of four reporters and videographers were able to shoot a series of virtual-reality films in Antarctica, without seeing any of the footage.
McMURDO STATION, Antarctica — We landed on the ice in time for Thanksgiving dinner: 41 turkeys and 140 pies.
Thanksgiving is the first long weekend of the year for the roughly 700 support staff and 200 scientists who work at McMurdo Station from October to February, through the southern summer. (About 125 people stay on to keep the station running through the long, dark Antarctic winter.)
McMurdo was an eight-hour flight south from New Zealand on a military cargo plane. We left the lush greenery of South Island and touched down on the Ross Ice Shelf, a flat plain of floating ice extending to the horizon.
Four of us made the trip: Graham Roberts oversees virtual-reality projects at The Times; Evan Grothjan has filmed Times VR projects on five continents; Justin Gillis is a climate reporter; and I am the graphics editor for the Science desk.
We were confined to the station for the first few days, until we completed our orientation and field safety training. A mountaineer in a “Gut moose?” T-shirt showed new arrivals how to secure a tent on snow, drill an ice anchor, prime a camp stove and recognize hypothermia.
(One survival takeaway: If you’re ever stuck in a tent in remote Antarctica, don’t bother using your signal mirror for signaling. There’s probably nobody on the horizon to see your flashes, anyway. The best the mirror can do is keep you distracted by providing something interesting to look at: yourself.)
After training, we were allowed to leave the relative safety of the station and film ice in all its forms: the seasonal sea ice covering McMurdo Sound, the pressure ridges dotted with Weddell seals and their weaning pups, the Texas-size floating pancake of the Ross Ice Shelf, a cascading edge of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and more glaciers than we could count or name.
Several McMurdo veterans told us that we saw more of Antarctica in two weeks than most scientists see in five years. We took that in part as a caution. All the logistics, fuel, resources and time devoted to us could have been spent elsewhere, on science. But we also took it as a challenge to recreate some part of our Antarctic experience and share it with our viewers, in virtual reality.
Our VR camera equipment is the best available, but not well suited for freezing temperatures, glacial winds, volcanic dust and military aircraft. We packed at least two of everything, including prototype cameras we used to take the first virtual-reality stereo footage ever shot in Antarctica.
Our main camera was a ring of 16 GoPros. Those cameras share a power source — a 25-pound block of lithium batteries that makes airplane security cringe and is awkward to lug across ice — but they don’t share memory, so Evan had to keep track of multiple sets of 16 tiny memory cards, swapping them out barehanded in the freezing temperatures whenever problems arose.
Each of the 16 cameras captured a small part of the scene, but stitching the shots into a 360-degree stereo image required the huge computing power of Google’s cloud. McMurdo’s internet connection was painfully slow and shared by 900 people, so uploading footage was impossible. We had to shoot every scene without knowing how it would look when we got back to New York.
We packed hand warmers around our cameras to squeeze a few extra minutes from the batteries, which drain more rapidly in the cold. We learned never to change lenses in the field, because McMurdo’s volcanic dust gets everywhere.
And one morning we were so focused on rigging a gyroscope-stabilized pole to film inside a helicopter that we forgot to bring our normal tripod. Evan became a human camera stand, striking a yoga pose and trying not to shiver in a stiff wind blowing at 25 degrees below zero.
McMurdo Station is the largest outpost in Antarctica and is run by the National Science Foundation. We visited on a media grant, which encourages reporting on science in Antarctica. And we worked closely with the Rosetta project, a collaboration of Columbia University and other institutions to map the structure of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Weather is the great unknown, and the great breaker of schedules. Our first week was spectacular — sunny and hovering at a balmy 20 degrees at McMurdo, which allowed us to film more locations than we thought would be possible. But our planned flight to the South Pole was scrubbed several times when the weather turned against us. In our final try, we circled the pole five times in heavy clouds before the flight crew abandoned the effort to land and returned to McMurdo. Though we never set foot on or filmed at the pole, we circumnavigated the world five times in the attempt.
After two weeks in Antarctica, it was time to leave. We’d been warned that returning to New Zealand would be strange: When you step off the plane you can smell the humidity. Your phone comes to life after weeks of silence and brings with it the distractions and interruptions of the outside world.
We arrived in New York with 10 terabytes of footage and produced The Antarctica Series of four virtual-reality films shot on, above and below the ice: “A Shifting Continent,” “McMurdo Station,” “Three Six Juliet” and “Under a Cracked Sky.”