3 lessons from the making of “Frozen Fortress”.

Chasing an amazing story can be an incredible adventure, but on rare occasions it can even be dangerous. And of all the challenges we face as storytellers, I’ve found the weather to be one of the most trying—especially when it comes to the cold.

Ask any filmmaker who has endured freezing conditions, and they’ll tell you how the brutal winter cold can be debilitating to both humans and machines. But with the right gear and an undefeatable mentality, you can outsmart the elements.

My short film “Frozen Fortress” is a great example of a story I had to fight off frostbite to tell. Here’s how I left with a great story and all of my fingers intact.

3 lessons to help you fight off the cold and follow your story wherever it takes you.

Lesson 1: Follow an Amazing Story Wherever It Takes You

Mike setting up his  Canon 1Dc  and    Kessler   .

Mike setting up his Canon 1Dc and Kessler .

Like many of my passion projects, “Frozen Fortress” began as something else entirely. Since 2011, my wife and I have been making a time-lapse film called “Operation Origami: The 100 Cranes.” And for one of the scenes, we wanted to film the Ice Castles in New Hampshire.

The man-made Ice Castles are a magical collision of ice caves, frozen waterfalls and glaciers, formed into towering archways, caverns and tunnels. They’re located about a four-hour round-trip drive from my house, and I had no plans of making regular trips there with my crazy schedule—especially with a newborn son on the way. But once I was out there filming, I was blown away. I had something special here and I knew I needed to share this beauty with the world.

I visited a few more times to get more footage, and then I reached out to my friend Julian Tryba who made “Boston Layer-Lapse,” a film that has racked up more than a million views on Vimeo. Julian, immediately seeing the potential, was excited to collaborate on the project. In the end, we made a total of eight visits with four to six hours of travel for each visit to bring this film to life.

The first big lesson to be learned from the making of “Frozen Fortress” is to follow your storytelling instincts when you know you’re onto something special. While I originally set out to film an entirely different story, I knew the beauty of the Ice Castles needed to be shared with the world, and I was able to endure the challenges I faced because I believed in the story.

Lesson 2: Telling Great Stories Requires Fortitude and Endurance

Mike adjusting the  Kessler Second Shooter  in subzero temperatures.

Mike adjusting the Kessler Second Shooter in subzero temperatures.

When shooting a film like “Frozen Fortress,” there are a lot of factors you have to consider. But, most of all, you have to believe in your story enough to endure the elements.

When most people visit the Ice Castles, they are there for just 20 to 30 minutes and then head off to a warm car. But shooting time-lapse involves standing by your gear and making sure everything is running properly for hours on end. For this project, the longest period of filming in a single day was ten hours. That’s no bathroom breaks and not doing much of anything outside of adjustments and setups of the gear for 10 straight hours. To top it off, several of the shoot days were in subzero temperatures, and even after dressing for the conditions, I still ended up with a mild case of frostbite. But I put up with all of this because I believed in this story.

The second big lesson to learn from filming “Frozen Fortress” is that you must have fortitude and endurance to tell an incredible story. The conditions I described above might have been too much for many filmmakers. But I stayed focused on what I wanted to accomplish, and found a way to tell an amazing story.

Lesson 3: Use Gear You Can Depend On

Canon 1Dc ,  Kessler   Second Shooter , Nasty Clamp & Flag.

Canon 1Dc, Kessler Second Shooter, Nasty Clamp & Flag.

A key component of “Frozen Fortress” was the Kessler Crane Second Shooter 3-Axis system.  The Second Shooter is a digital pan and tilt head, controller and slider motor that allows for three keyframe moves on each axis. These moves are not just for time-lapse but also for live motion.  

On night shots we dragged our shutters, which required the use of the shoot/move/shoot mode, which prevents motion blur on the camera move. For daytime shots we used continuous mode since we were between F12 and F22 and motion blur was not an issue. On one select shot, where 4K video was used, I used loop/scrubbing mode to use the system as a live video motion control rig.

The Second Shooter was a workhorse and did an amazing job working in -20 degree temperatures to the point of the display having a delay on response due to the extreme cold.  My iPhone could not handle the cold and shut down several times but the Second Shooter just kept working.  Mind you this was for an average of six hours a day in 18 to -20 degree cold in a massive structure made of solid ice.

For cameras we used the Canon 1Dc, 1Dx, 7D and 6D. Normally you would not want to use a high cost camera like a 1Dc to shoot time-lapse but the benefit of having one in this type of environment—cold and wet—for hours on end was a must. And it afforded us the ability to go straight to 4k video using the same camera. The cameras all did well in the cold but it was difficult keeping ice chips and snowflakes from landing on the lens during shots.  I used a Nasty Flag French flag system to keep snow off of the longer shots that were over two hours each.

The third big lesson to learn from the making of “Frozen Fortress” is to use gear you know you can depend on, even when its not the cheapest. This means investing in gear you know can be trusted whether you’re shooting in extreme cold or blistering hot circumstances.

The Bottom Line

To tell amazing stories, you have to face countless challenges, and extreme weather can be difficult to endure. And as the making of “Frozen Fortress” demonstrates, the blistering cold can certainly test your limits as a filmmaker. But with an undefeatable mentality and some dependable gear, you can outsmart the elements to tell an amazing story.

Have you ever endured extreme conditions to tell an amazing story? Share what you learned in the comments below.

"Frozen Fortress" FEATURED GEAR

BY Mike Sutton

Mike Sutton is the co-owner of Frozen Prosperity. You can follow him on Twitter at @mns1974 and Instagram at @frozenpros. To view his portfolio, visit FrozenProsperity.com.