Frederique Olivier, Camerawoman on Penguins: Waddle All the Way

Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel / Discovery Channel

Intrepid camerawoman Frederique Olivier has traveled the world capturing stunning images of wildlife in its natural habitat. For the Discovery Channel's new two-hour special, Penguins: Waddle All the Way, premiering tonight at 9 p.m., Olivier faced a very tough shoot indeed: Braving Antarctica's harsh elements for just short of a year. Olivier tells mental_floss how she prepared for the marathon shoot, the conditions she faced, and the footage she's most proud to have captured.

You spent more than 330 days in Antarctica for Penguins: Waddle All the Way. How did this particular shoot compare to some of the other shoots you’ve done? How challenging was it?

Amongst extreme environmental shoots, I have taken part in several other polar expedition shoots, amongst which was another Emperor penguin shoot in 2005 for BBC's Planet Earth and many shoots in the SubAntarctic, which is extremely wet. Australian desert shoots were also pretty difficult due to extreme heat, but that's probably because I spent too much time in Antarctica.

Antarctic shoots are especially challenging because of the extreme cold and winds, and really humans aren't supposed to be there. Because of this, conducting standard wildlife camera work becomes even more of a challenge. Being immobile for many hours waiting for a 10 second event to happen, not being able to move to warm up your extremities, was probably the biggest challenge in the winter months, and risky for the body. As soon as you pull out in order not to risk being frozen, what you intended to film happens, as per normal. It was physically and mentally demanding but very rewarding when the images were in the can.

Doing it for over 300 days without much of a break was an even bigger mental challenge. With the Spycams, the shoot relied on shooting as many hours of footage as possible in order to capture special events. Although some Spycams can be left operating on their own, the presence of a cameraperson is necessary at most times to at least monitor the colony.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

How do you prepare for a shoot like this one?

The best way to prepare is to gather the right gear for the tasks. One has to be fully self sufficient down there, so we prepared large quantities of sea ice safety gear to live on the frozen sea, and even larger quantities of down to survive in extremely low temperatures, which went down to -30 Celsius, without wind—i.e., -64 Celsius with the windchill factor of a 40 knot wind. The latter freezes your skin in a couple of minutes, so face masks were a must.

I was lucky to have done a lot of work in Antarctica and could rapidly re-adapt to working camera gear with thick gloves or wearing blizzard googles. Customizing personal equipment and preparing systems were key to the shoot.

This shoot was especially long so it was like a marathon. Living in an isolated place with limited contact to the outside world for so long away from friends and family is a social/mental challenge in itself. The very limited amount of daylight during winter rmonths does not help and we were happy to see the days get longer after midwinter

This shoot was special because it partly relied on a large number of Spycams to collect the footage, which made it an even bigger challenge.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

When did you go to Antarctica? What was the longest stretch of time you spent there?

We left Hobart for Antarctica on February 18, 2012 and returned on February 1, 2013, so yes, it was more than 330 days uninterrupted. Some of it was spent transiting on a small rolling ship—5 days either way—crossing the sea ice to reach Dumont D'Urville station.

Antarctica is one of the remotest places on Earth and can not be accessed with any ship or plane during the austral winter months, because of the darkness and the sea ice. Emperor penguins breed during winter and there is no way to conduct a shoot following them from their arrival on the sea ice to the departure of their chicks without spending nearly a year down there.

As mentioned above, the challenge was as much in the duration of this shoot as in the exposed conditions we worked in. Sometimes you come out of looking 10 years older!

An additional challenge is that the footage had to be sorted and logged on site and was compressed and uploaded via satellite on a regular basis. This added a tremendous number of hours of computer work at the end of already long and challenging days.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

Did you have a crew with you?

We were a film crew of two, myself as a camera and Martin Passingham as remote camera assistant. We were based either in a small hut a few kilometres from Dumont D'Urville station or at the station itself, where we shared life with 27 French people. We were the only Australians at the base, although I am French also.

What sort of shots were you trying to capture? Did you have a wish list, or was it just sort of “head out there and see what you can get”?

There wasn't really a wish list because one never knows what special events are going to be captured with the Spycams. The key for such a shoot was to have the cameras deployed for as many days and hours per days as possible.

However, Emperor key behavioural shots, such as Egg exchange and Chick exchange, were definitely on the list and I was lucky to have witnessed them years before so I knew what to target.

But we also, by chance, managed to capture some very special footage totally unexpectedly such as the laying of the precious egg by the female—a world premiere.

Which shot was the toughest to get, or which shot are you most proud of?

Shots that were extremely difficult to get were the chick departure shots. It was never obvious where and when they were going to decide to jump, some waiting up to 48 hours to make the big step. A patience testing game ... The chick or egg exchange shots of course are also very challenging ones to achieve as the birds do hesitate for hours prior to doing the business.

But the egg laying shot was probably my most special shot because it was never captured before. And my favorite would be the underwater chick departure shot, the combination of a challenge and a premiere.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

How did your previous experience filming birds, and filming in Antarctica, help you?

Having done an Emperor penguin shoot before certainly helped me a lot as I knew the birds, how sensitive they were to humans and what to look for in terms of behavior, which is a huge advantage. It was an incredible opportunity to get to winter with Emperor penguins a second time and to date, I believe I am the only person who has done two Emperor winter shoots—a bit mad! Having done a winter shoot before helped better prepare for this one, although this second shoot was completely different from the first one.

Did you see any penguin behavior that surprised you?

The behavior that mostly surprised us may have been the lack of defense reaction of the Emperors towards predators like giant petrels when their chicks get attacked. Although they are a very big bird and can be swift (enough) and threatening with their big beak, they are very pacific and few of them showed any aggressive behavior, even towards a nasty predator.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

When you’re shooting in Antarctica, what kind of equipment do you use? Did you have to modify it specifically to shoot penguins?

The equipment we used in Antarctica was partly standard camera equipment and a large proportion of Spycams, which are animatronics cameras; we totalled 16 of them.

The Spycams were of course disguised as Emperor penguins in various postures and used together with a large number of Egg cams. The main challenge for the development was to create Spycams that would be close enough to reality that the Emperor would be tricked to believe they were one of theirs or even show an interest as a potential mate or chick … and it worked! The mechanics and electronic behind those are complex and many had to be modified to bear the extreme cold and still function filled with snow.