Jeff Orlowski ‘07 is the director of “Chasing Ice,” a 2012 documentary nominated for Best Original Song at the 85th Academy Awards that examines the world’s receding glaciers. Chasing Ice, for which Orlowski won an “Excellence in Cinematography for U.S. Documentary Filmmaking” award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, focuses on the efforts of photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey to document the effects of climate change by capturing glacial recession with time-lapse cameras.
The Daily sat down with Orlowski to discuss his time at Stanford, his lengthy collaboration with Balog—who he met senior year through a mutual friend—and his plans for the future.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you become involved in filmmaking?
Jeff Orlowski (JO): My real introduction to film was through the Stanford Film Society. It was completely undergrad-run, with some funding from the University, and it was just all students wanting to make short movies.
I got involved in the workshop through a friend, and we worked on about 10 different films over the course of one semester. Just having exposure to so many directors and producers and working on so many projects—it was really just a lot of fun and exciting to get involved in something like that.
Then I took one documentary course through the communications department, and that was pretty much the only film production class I took. I guess I took one experimental video class, but that was pretty much it. And then it was just going out and shooting and kind of learning by doing.
I did a short film, a 40-minute film, with a friend here senior year, and that got into a bunch of festivals and won some awards. And it was just kind of getting into the cycle of working and getting some recognition and wanting to keep doing it.
TSD: What were your original career plans?
JO: Before this, I wanted to be a photographer, and before that, I remember in high school debating if I wanted to be a photographer, a professional mountain biker or a programmer.
TSD: How did you get involved in “Chasing Ice?”
JO: I started working on this film when I was still here, but we weren’t really planning on making a film at the time. The goal really was just to shoot video to capture what this guy James was doing, which was a photography project.
TSD: Did you and James come up with this idea together?
JO: He came up with the idea to do these time-lapses—that was his original concept. My main goal at first was just to shoot video and document all of it. I kept traveling and shooting, and it was about a year and a half into the project when I finally convinced him to make a movie. It wasn’t something he was interested in at first—we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the experience, so he was originally not that interested in making the film, but after a while he realized the potential it would have.
TSD: Was it hard balancing filming with schoolwork?
JO: I finished my classes two semesters early…so it didn’t conflict with any classes I was doing. So I was just doing shoots on campus with friends and getting to travel and work with James. I started my spring break of senior year and went to Greenland two weeks before graduation. It was fun.
TSD: What was the most difficult part of making the film?
JO: The fundraising was probably the most difficult, and, second to that, the editing process, because I had very little experience in both those things. The shooting out in the field was the easy part, for me and for most of our team.
We were all experienced campers and outdoors people. And the conditions were harder than I had expected, but you learn how to adapt with that. When it’s cold, you can learn how to deal with how cold it is. But the other aspects of building the team and making something of this scale are much more difficult to do.
TSD: Would you say the film is more a portrait of Balog or a depiction of climate change?
JO: We originally intended for it to be just a portrait of James. We originally wanted it to just be called “The Photographer,” and it was just of his personal life and his photographic career. And the ice project was…just a theme in his work.
[But] we realized, through screening it to a lot of people, that we were missing the bigger story—that focusing on James’ individual story was too small of an issue and that we had the resources, the footage and the story itself to tell the story about climate change through James.
So we shifted to that, and there are still some remnants of the original film in there, but instead of looking at it as a story of James, I look at it instead as a story of Extreme Ice Survey, and James is that glue that made that project happen. It’s his entire past career’s worth of work that got him to that point.
TSD: At what point did you really adopt the climate change cause?
JO: I never really felt like I was an environmental activist, and I still don’t like that phrase—I think of myself more as a humanitarian than an environmentalist. But I was always aware of the issue, and I wasn’t really doing anything about it.
The process of making this film really pointed out how horrific some of these consequences are. What the scientists are telling us is coming down the line—and it’s some really tough stuff—really compelled me to want to do more about it. So I think we’re trying to use the film to shift opinion now.
That wasn’t the original goal, but seeing the impact it had on people, we wanted to have that impact, and we wanted to recognize how significant this is.
TSD: Were there any moments when you felt like you were in too deep?
JO: Many times. But, like I said, before we were making a film, I never felt that. At first, I was just following James for the ride. But when we started working on the film, I had this thing that wasn’t being accepted into film festivals, that was just being rejected regularly, and I just thought that I was an artistic failure, and that all this effort and time that we were putting into this movie was just going to be a regular, poorly made independent film.
That’s what I was bracing myself for, and just kept editing it and working on it, and it finally just kind of came together.
TSD: How did your film get into Sundance?
JO: Sundance is amazing in that it’s a very merit-based submission system. We submitted once and got rejected. Then, we re-submitted 2 years later, after we had spent a lot of time working on the film, and they ultimately accepted the movie.
TSD: How did it feel seeing your documentary screened for audiences?
JO: It’s been amazing to see how through something you kind of spend five years working on in isolation—and the editing process is difficult and lonely—and you see it received by the public in such an enthusiastic and supportive way.
It’s amazing how different those emotions feel. I mean, you can feel down in the dumps and then feel like you’re changing the world. And it’s been a great learning process—it’s been a great evolution going through that. It’s hooked me more and more to wanting to make films that audiences can engage with.
TSD: Were you surprised by the reaction to the film?
JO: I definitely did not expect it to be as overwhelmingly positive as it’s been. It’s been amazingly supportive. The reviews online, the recognition from audiences, it’s been very strong. So that was beyond my expectations for sure.
TSD: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
JO: Ideally, in 10 years, I’d like to keep making films that can impact the world. I recognize the potential and the power that film has in influencing change and influencing perspective. I feel like we’ve really succeeded with “Chasing Ice” in accomplishing that goal, kind of raising awareness about that issue. I’d like to keep using the medium for other projects and other subjects, both documentary and narrative film.
TSD: Did you go to the Oscars?
JO: I did. It was amazing, and so much fun. Our composer was nominated for his song (“Before My Time,” composed by J. Ralph), so it was just amazing to be there, and they played the song. It was great.
This interview has been condensed and edited.