'Arctic' a tale of polar opposites

Persistent filmmakers make walruses, bears part of the family

The breathing of a polar bear woke up filmmaker Adam Ravetch. The bear was poking its nose against the canvas of the tent, pushing on Ravetch's ear. After an initial flash of fear, the co-director and his Inuit guide gathered their wits. The guide grabbed a rifle and fired into the air. The noise scared off the bear.

That close call on a remote desolate island off northern Canada was one of many Ravetch and his wife and co-director, Sarah Robertson, had during the 15 years it took them to make "Arctic Tale," which Paramount Classics bows July 25.

They consider the film a wildlife adventure movie rather than a documentary. It tells the intersecting adventures of Nanu, a polar bear cub, and Seela, a walrus pup, in a narrative that follows several cubs and pups and their families to create composite characters. The filmmakers spent two years editing more than 800 hours of footage they shot in harsh Arctic conditions, which involved everything from weathering blizzards to being in an underwater cage surrounded by angry walruses.

The idea for "Arctic Tale" came to the duo — who were coming off an underwater TV show — when they were in the Arctic looking for a topic for a possible docu. The wheels of creativity started to spin after Ravetch took a dip in the icy water and a walrus popped up near him. Their Inuit guide "went crazy" because walruses have been known to slice prey with their tusks.

Not too long after, while on an Inuit hunt, the couple witnessed a mother walrus latch on to its harpooned baby. "The mother was holding it above water to breathe," Ravetch said. "It was an emotionally distraught event. She was hugging her baby and not letting go."

The couple decided to focus on walruses because they seemed to be a mammal that no one really knew much about.

As for the polar bear angle, "Science said (bears and walruses) never intersected, but we started to see this happen more and more frequently," Ravetch said. "And it started to happen when the ice would break up earlier and earlier."

One of the points the film makes is that the animals are interacting because of climate change.

Although the ice packs might be melting, the filmmakers still faced frigid conditions to capture their subjects on film. "We were doing a lot of survival, just living and waiting for the weather to clear so we could do our filming," Ravetch said. "I went back 10 different springs just for one sequence. That's why it takes so long to make a film up there."

After the polar bear incident, Ravetch built a cabin, and he and Robertson came back seven times over seven summers, staying on that particular island for six- to eight-week stretches.

"In the beginning, I was kind of a running gun guy," Ravetch said. "I would come in, try to get close fast, disturb the situation and shoot quickly. And not really get any good footage.

"What we learned early on is that there is no place to hide in the Arctic," he said. "We didn't do blinds, used no camouflage. We really just showed ourselves and let the animals know we're there. And then they go about their behavior — and that's how we got close.
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