Fortitude – Case Study
by Drew Cook – Safety Adviser and Mountaineering and Arctic Expert
fortitude: ˈfɔːtɪtjuːdˈ | noun | courage in pain or adversity
We were bound for Svalbard, an archipelago of islands frozen into the Arctic Ocean betwixt the northern Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. It is the northernmost permanent human settlement on earth, yet we mere humans were not top of the food chain. Polar bear outnumbered people and if the carnivorous Ursus Maritimus didn’t get you, then the sub-zero wind-chilled temperatures would.
“Svalbard” translates to “cold coasts” and its unique, untouched arctic wilderness and wildlife in a rugged yet fragile setting presented health and safety challenges rarely found on a location shoot.
It was essential that the cast and crew were prepared pre-departure and a series of meetings and kit briefings ensured all were ensconced in a layering system of natural fibre thermal base layers, fleece mid-layers and down waterproof and windproof outer garments. Extremities could be lost in seconds to the windchill, which would often reach -30°C, and fingers, toes and noses all required special attention for fit-for-purpose, task-orientated workwear where the user could complete the task at hand (often having to touch bare frozen metal components) and still retain feeling in their digits. Some of the crew were already accustomed to such apparel having worked previously in Iceland, and I had guided in Antarctica. However, newcomers to the cold environment sourced discounts and online bargains whilst others took advantage of industrial cold storage outfitters! As well as cast and crew, equipment needed to be kept warm. Thermal jackets were fitted to cameras, batteries were swaddled in chemical hand warmers and portable devices clad in handmade insulated pouches.
On location, a ground agent was sourced to provide logistical back-up and provide snowmobile mounted guides armed with bolt action Mauser rifles and flare guns who maintained a constant vigil against any encroaching polar bear. The filming of Fortitude had to capture the raw and remote beauty of the land meaning sets were often located ‘off-piste’ where the fragile permafrost and tundra forbade the use of wheeled transport. Instead we had to employ tracked vehicles such as snowmobiles with sledges, piste-bashers, sno-cats and STVs (Scandinavian Terrain Vehicles) that ferried cast, crew, equipment, props, set, supplies, food and shelter back and forth across the frozen tundra and glaciers.
Logistically complex, transport dependent, and climatically adverse, each day required detailed planning and punctual execution, which took a couple of days for cast and crew to acclimatise to.
The first two days of filming was located on an ice field and went into the darkness of night. The wind was up, ice and snow crystals or spindrift gusted across the barren icescape and once the sunset, taking with it what little psychological warmth it offered, filming felt endless and unendurable. Crew pondered what possibility was there of successfully completing the shoot if it was like this for the next three weeks…
Scripts demanded that the cast were required to expose various parts of their anatomies for the love of the Arts: one principal actor had to lay on the ice with his arm handcuffed to a pylon overhead. We pre-warmed the handcuffs in the costumer’s armpit prior to attachment, disguised thermal camping mats beneath the snow, and kept repeated shooting of the scene to a minimum. We maximised recovery time with a handcrafted thermal ‘mitt’ packed with chemical handwarmers that we thrust the actor’s frozen and tingling hand into. Costume swathed him in foil blankets, sleeping bag and hot water bottles. Another principal had to flee from a building into the wilderness bare chested – repeated takes meant him going from hot to cold many times. We were conscious of not getting him sweaty and overheated and conversely, not allowing him to slip into hypothermia. One of the Costume Department doggedly followed the principal Actor everywhere and each time the director shouted ‘CUT!’ she would ‘bag’ the Actor in a huge down thermal bag with sleeves in and ply him with hot juice.
Svalbard Glacier, North of Mile 7 Road (Old Airport) / -18 Degrees C / Windchill: -30 Degrees C
Eventually the wind desisted and the temperatures soared to a balmy -18°C and with the correct planning and preparation, dynamic risk assessing, safe work methods, positive health and safety attitudes, and – above all – teamwork, all the Cast and Crew worked together to maximise a tolerable yet safe working environment.
After three weeks of arduous filming in adverse conditions, the whole unit and cargo were freighted back to the UK and into Bristol where the country was experiencing some of the worst winter weather on record with snow blizzards and temperatures as low as -3°C – if only Bristol knew where we had been!!!
With credit to Fifty Fathoms Productions, the Norwegian Production Unit and the Ground Agent, a cast and crew of over 100 returned safely with only two recorded incidents of slips on the ice. An elbow bruised and a knee banged – we all know how painful that can be!
For Season 3 of Fortitude, we certainly displayed courage in pain and adversity!
Schental’s Fjord House, Bear Valley / -20 Degrees C / Windchill: -32 Degrees C