Filmmaking in the Arctic

Filmmaking in the Arctic

By Jobie Weetaluktuk

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Isuma: "Thought and imagination have no end." Paul Quassa

Production Delay

There was death in the community of Igloolik over the weekend. In a place where people know practically everybody in town, a death has a wide impact. The Igloolik Co-op store and The Northern Store both closed for the funeral. Still filming of JKR proceeded, but with a delay of one day, since a cast member was close to the family of the deceased.

Greenlanders Go Dog-teaming

Qillaq Danielsen is an accomplished hunter from Qaanaaq, Greenland. In the production of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (JKR), he has the role of Bosun. Bosun was the faithful Greenland Inuit companion of Knud Rasmussen. Qillaq, like Bosun, is a man of the arctic. Qillaq and his wife have twenty four dogs, two complete set of dogteams. That is a measure of a prosperous man. Igloolik's Samueli Ammaq has twelve and his son Isa has ten.

Qillaq will be using the senior Ammaq's dogs in the film, since bringing dogs from Greenland for the production involved far too many complications. The dogs have taken strange to Qillaq. Dogs always test the man who is driving them. Both Qillaq and dogs are figuring each other out. Ammaq commands his dogs in Igloolik Inuktitut. Now for authenticity Qillaq is teaching them his Greenlandic commands. Some of the commands are different but similiar. Unfamiliar inflections are confusing to a dog's ear.

Ammaq says his dogs are not as sharp as he would like them to be. Back when dogteams were the only means of long distance transportation, the relationship between man and dog was much more familiar. Today, Qillaq will take Ammaq's dogs out for another drive. Qillaq is a master whip cracker. He makes the whip hiss and crack like a shot overhead. This time he will employ his food training technique.

Troubles with the Igloo Palace

The igloo presents a special problem. The script calls for a day scene, but with one of the igloos in a very black sooty state, that will be very difficult. The great Aua's snow palace was aged with soot by the Art Department, but one of their techniques released much more soot than needed. The central place became too dark. The floors of had to be shoveled out. That's the beauty of a snow igloo. When your floor gets too dirty, you can chip of the dirty layer and bring in fresh powder. The igloo construction crew also had the idea of melting the inner layer so that sooty inner wall would just melt and drip down. In fact that is what normally happens inside an igloo. The snow melts above freezing and drips down.

The idea worked to a degree, but the soot was in too deep, a chipping technique was tested. Now the igloo construction is considering rebuilding sections all together, a process that could take another day. Another section of the igloo complex is buckling under the strain of gravity. An igloo is a series of rectangular blocks of water in crystal state stuck together. When the igloo warms up, the blocks settle and compress under the pull of gravity. Uneven compression results in buckling.

The igloo construction crew is also concerned about the weather. When a body of snow gives to pressure without crunching or breaking, it is called mang'ngu'tuq in Inuktitut: when snow becomes more malleable and harder to form into an igloo. For the filmmakers, temperatures should ideally be in the -15 to -25º C. Snow and snow structures remain relatively stable at such temperatures. The filmmakers hope for favourable weather.

Making Plaster Masks

Plastering the face of Abraham Ulayuruluk, the actor who plays Evaluarjuk, was the main concern for the day. Evaluarjuk was an Inuk man from the Igloolik area. His is a respected name and Evaluarjuk remains a name in Igloolik. The day before, in the morning, a test with a latex compound was done. Natar Ungalaaq, the 1st Assistant Director and actor, made an impression of Abraham's face. Then Ungalaaq made a studier latex impression in the afternoon. He plastered over the surface to get a stiff plaster, like one Comer would have used. Figuring out the best way to shoot the plastering scene took most of the day for Ungalaaq.

First Night of Shooting

At least the first four scenes of the Journals of Knud Rasmussen were shot between 9pm and 9am overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday. To begin the production with a night shoot is a grueling idea. This is a story about people who would do such a thing. Søren Bjørn, the Danish Production Assistant for Barok Films, stands at a road blockade in -20 C, keeping skidoos and other vehicles from getting near the set. At 11pm, a bone chilling breeze keeps him constant company.

This is an epic tale, the Journals of Knud Rasmussen. It is being told by creative people: actors, extras, writers, directors, producers, and many others. People with specific skills. People with multiple skills. Storytellers like Zacharias Kunuk, who's been up since 5am. "We might need pills to keep us awake", he joked with Natar Ungalaaq. Normally producers shoot at night only when the production is well underway.

Then to top it all off, at the last minute the co-director and cinematographer Norman Cohn has to play the role of Angakuq or Captain George Comer. Comer is known to the Inuit as Angakuq, or shaman because he had the particular skill of being able take photographic images of people, record their voices, and making plaster impressions of their faces. For these things, he was known as Angakuq, a magician of skill. In the early 1900's, such feats were beyond imagination for the Inuit. Comer's archived collection has become a valuable resource for the production of the film.


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