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NEIL HARRAWAY : Freeze Frames


With the premiere Sunday of "Antarctica: Planet of Ice," the Discovery Channel wraps up a nature story, a travelogue and an environmental statement in a package that is overlaid with the drama of personal risk and the raw sheen of violent beauty.

It also will cool off anybody's August evening.

The Antarctic, an icy and desolate expanse of 5 million square miles, sprawls around the South Pole, at the base of the globe, generating much of the world's weather. Whipped by blizzard winds so frigid that metal snaps and boiling water tossed into the air freezes instantly, the Antarctic is called the most hostile place on Earth. Both the cruelty and beauty of its midnight winter, four months without sun, are captured in this documentary that could be subtitled "Visit to a Strange Planet," with its surreal reversals of light and darkness.

The heroes are the scientists, a handful of thoughtful, quiet-spoken young men and women (picked because they are "able, stable and compatible") who spend the midnight winter in quarters as vulnerable as a spaceship, monitoring and communicating by satellite network the climactic health of the entire planet.

But the scene-stealers are the emperor penguins, a waddling, tobogganing crowd, simultaneously regal and comic, whose amazing annual trek to hatch and raise chicks in the depths of the violent winter is chronicled in the first episode.

Neil Harraway, executive producer for Television New Zealand, discussed the project, by telephone from New Zealand, with Times Staff Writer Connie Koenenn.

Although this production is described as a miniseries, it actually is a three-part documentary. Why did you choose this format?

I've given up the idea of definitive documentaries--too often they end up being too general and shallow. Here we are presenting three focused stories: "Emperors of Antarctica" follows the emperor penguins as they breed; "The Longest Night" documents the winter experience of the New Zealand science researchers, and "Solid Water, Liquid Rock" explores Mount Erebus and the disparate topography of the region itself. I hoped that by focusing on the particular, one could tell a story about the whole.

Nevertheless, the scope of the project seems quite ambitious.

Yes, it was enormous. I've been to Anarctica four times to do wildlife documentaries, and had some inkling of the ecological stories it has to offer, but we had never tried the winter films. Max Quinn, the cameraman and director, and Don Anderson, the sound-man technician, stayed at Scott Base, the New Zealand research base on McMurdo Sound, for 10 months. And during the darkness and blowing snow of the winter months they made arduous treks to the Camp Crozier hut to record the emperor penguin colony.

Life is very difficult at that temperature--your breath just freezes on your beard or clothes. It's a place that can be very unforgiving. I wanted to go along, but I wasn't talented enough. They are both extremely ingenious--they used the heating element of a toaster to rewire the camera housings so the cameras wouldn't freeze.

Why do we find penguins so fascinating?

They're like honorary people. Everyone thinks they are cute, and they are. Actually they are birds with limited intelligence, but incredibly well-honed survival instincts--humans could learn from them. As this documentary shows, they have no territorial aggression--they huddle together in huge clusters to overcome their common enemy, the icy cold.

We identify with penguins, but do you find most people are fuzzy about the North Pole and the South Pole? We sort of clump them together, except we know that Santa lives at the North Pole?

Yes, and there are huge differences. The Arctic North Pole is a frozen ocean surrounded by land, so you get land animals such as reindeer, polar bear and foxes. The Antarctic South Pole is a frozen continent surrounded by ocean which means sea birds and sea animals such as seals, whales and penguins, but no land animals. But they get all mixed up in public perception.

Both places have big science programs, but the Antarctic was just discovered in the last century and science has just been a permanent major activity there since 1957.

What are they learning?

The "Longest Night" episode touches on some of this: Not only are the seas rich in life, we have a lot to learn from the frozen wasteland, too, about the world's weather. We can read the world's history in the ice core and the rocks. And the atmosphere is so pure we can measure the ongoing effects of the greenhouse gases and the ozone depletion. A place like the Antarctic that has been pristine for a long time is a great laboratory. The air is so clear and crystalline you can see four times farther than here in New Zealand.

"Antarctica: Planet of Ice" premieres Sunday at 8-11 p.m. (all three parts) and repeats 11 p.m.-2 a.m. on the Discovery Channel.

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