Photographer Maria Stenzel Debuts Short Movie on the Antarctic

The Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI) hosted a screening of a short film about the daily life of scientists working in the Antarctic filmed by the college’s photographer, Maria Stenzel on April 18. Violinist Michi Wiancko, who composed an original film score to accompany the film performed it live at the screening.

In addition to her work for the college, Stenzel is a freelance multimedia journalist and has worked for National Geographic for 20 years.

In April 2016, Stenzel spent a month aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer icebreaker filming the work of benthic marine biologists, physical oceanographers and phytoplankton specialists on their voyage to the western Antarctic Peninsula.

The expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation, studied why marine life thrives in Andvord Bay and how calving glaciers impact marine life.

Michi Wiancko is an internationally acclaimed violinist and composer who has performed and toured with many ensembles and soloists, including the Silk Road Ensemble, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. She runs Antenna Cloud Farm in Gill, Massachusetts, which hosts music festivals and artistic retreats.

Martha Umphrey, the director of the CHI, introduced Stenzel and Wiancko.

Before the start of the performance, Wiancko explained how she uses a looper pedal, a tool that helps musicians add layers to their live act, in her performance.

She records a segment of music, loops the segment and then adds layers to that loop. A loop cannot be deleted once it has been recorded, she explained, and she would improvise on top of the loops.

Stenzel then spoke, explaining that the film “is not a science film in the sense that you are not going to see any interviews. You’re going to see scientists at work. Everything was shot from the drone or GoPro cameras that were mounted on the helmets of the scientists.”

The film followed scientists as they went about their daily lives, doing things like retrieving the equipment that they had previously set out and working with the data that they collected. It also showed the beauty of the Antarctic landscape with its glaciers and swirling waters.

Following the screening and performance, Stenzel and Wiancko answered questions from the audience.

First, Stenzel talked about how she edited hundreds of hours of footage into a 10-minute short film. The film was originally for Live Art Magazine, a live performance event, so she knew the time limitations beforehand.

She also mentioned that, in the beginning, Wiancko had wanted the film to build up to a climax, but Stenzel said that “science doesn’t work that way.”

“I wanted to show what fieldwork was like, and fieldwork is repetitive — it is a gamble,” she said.

Stenzel then talked about the scientific instruments that were shown in the film, such as the weather station, the moorings, the sediment traps and the conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) sensors.

The moorings were left in a water column for four months to record the water temperature and current direction, and the film shows the scientists’ joy upon retrieving it and finding that it was still intact. The film also showed the scientists’ disappointment upon discovering that the sediment trap had been clogged by an algae bloom.

Stenzel also talked about her experience documenting scientific work. In 2011, Stenzel covered the scientists’ voyage in the Antarctic for the National Geographic, but they never reached their destination due to inclement weather and the story was never published. In 2016, the scientists reached out directly to Stenzel. “This allowed me the freedom to do much more video footage than I normally would have because the primary product for the [National] Geographic would have been still images,” she said.

Wiancko talked about her initial reactions to the footage that she received and how she went about composing the score for the film.

“I think Maria thinks that she sent me this research footage, this scientific documentation, but what I received was a real work of art,” Wiancko said. “The beauty in this, and the depth of sitting with these images in a non-intellectualized way, I thought was really powerful.”

Wiancko was also drawn to this project because her late father was an Arctic explorer. “So it felt already very personal to me, and after I saw her gorgeous work, I just knew it was going to be easy inspiration,” she said. “It has its ups and downs, it has its moments of silence, moments of peace, moments of humor, moments of frustration, so it tells a story … which made it easy to write to.”

Wiancko drew inspiration from the sounds of nature in the film. “I began by envisioning the different sounds that different forms of water would make, so like sloshing, the tinkling of drops, the sound of ice, even the sound of penguins’ feet slipping on ice — it’s such a rich sound world … I’ve never been anywhere remotely like this, but when I imagine what it sounds like to be in Antarctica, I started with just that musical imagery of water and ice and snow,” Wiancko said.

Looking towards the future, Stenzel talked about the Antarctic Treaty System, which decreed in 1961 that Antarctica would be set aside as a scientific reserve and banned military activity on the continent.

The treaty expires in 2048, and there are already competing claims from countries to the land. Stenzel expressed her hopes that the treaty will be renewed.

Stenzel went on to talk about her first trip to Antarctica for the National Geographic. After that trip, she continued to cover scientific ventures in Antarctica for the magazine and said that her goal was to “try to combine the beauty with the science.”
Stenzel said that her freedom during the 2016 expedition came because she didn’t have to write a story about it.

She said that she drew inspiration from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. “In documentary film, they’re fighting against the primacy of the spoken word over knowledge that you gain simply through observation and other sensory experiences,” she said.

Stenzel also talked about her short film’s relation to other films about Antarctica. “Everybody, when they make a film about Antarctica, they always talk about it being the roughest place on the planet, and the coldest, and the driest, and the windiest and all this stuff, which is true, but you get tired of hearing these adjectives … I just simply wanted to show the work and how exciting the work can be and how boring it can be, and how it goes around the clock.”