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Short Film Showcase: Up Close With King Penguins and Elephant Seals

Just above Antarctica off the island of South Georgia, lies a breeding hotspot for elephant seals and king penguins, known as Gold Harbour.  Filmmaker Richard Sidey captures incredible raw footage and natural sound of this wild bounty as part of his series, Speechless. “[W]ith the absence of narrative, the viewer is left to create their own narrative and their own experience, without being told what to think…and gives everyone the possibility to see these places for what they are without the restrictions of cost and environmental impact” he says. We asked Sidey to tell us more about his trip to Gold Harbour and the series.

What inspired your trip to Gold Harbour?

The purpose of this voyage to South Georgia was ecotourism—for a few privileged people from all over the world to experience and learn about the astounding island. Few places in the world host such abundant populations of wildlife, and in South Georgia they are painted against an impressive and dynamic backdrop. Known as the “Alps of the South Atlantic,” South Georgia is a paradise for nature photographers. I have been part of various expedition teams, working on several small vessels as the expedition photographer, and together we guide tourists at these destinations, as well as provide lectures onboard.

Did you have any exciting encounters with the wildlife you filmed for this segment?

King penguins are fantastic to photograph, and they are ever so curious. Take a seat by yourself for a moment and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded. They’ll be staring down your lens, testing out the durability of your boots and pulling your hair within minutes. Elephant seals I like to keep at a bit more of a distance, not only because of their size, but also because the breath on those guys will knock you out.

Can you tell me more about the Speechless series?

The idea of Speechless evolved as I was attempting to creatively share the experiences I had at these remote destinations with family and friends at home. Words always failed, and I found that most nature documentaries are too factual to develop an emotional response. So I developed these mini-documentaries, stripped of music and narration, to stand alone as a raw, roughly edited episode, containing only what I saw and heard over a period of two to three hours. What I found is that with the absence of narrative, the viewer is left to create their own narrative and their own experience, without being told what to think. This means everyone’s experience is unique, and it gives everyone the possibility of seeing these places for what they are without the restrictions of cost and the environmental impact.

Speechless: The Polar Realm has evolved from the web series and will be a stand-alone, nonverbal feature documentary of the polar regions, including regions in the high Arctic, subarctic, and Antarctica and its surrounding islands. The film relies on a visual narrative and is accompanied by an original score by New Zealand composer Miriama Young. I decided that music was needed to hold the feature together, serving to some as a visual meditation, but as it has been filmed over a decade, it’s a clear reflection on how these regions are visually changing through the effects of global warming. The subject of climate change and humanity’s enormous responsibility is dominant throughout the film’s structure, accompanied by themes of light, life, and wonder. If everything’s worked, the absence of text and narration should not matter, and the film should really speak for itself.

 Do you have any memorable moments from filming The Polar Realm?

I’ve certainly used up some of my nine lives on this film, with incidents ranging from near misses with falling rocks to narrowly avoiding a brown bear attack, but the most memorable moments are those special encounters with wildlife. Whether it’s locking eyes with a polar bear for a few seconds or watching two enormous bull elephant seals viciously fighting over a harem of females, every natural encounter is a treasured one in my memory.

 In The Polar Realm, there’s a scene where a large glacier in Svalbard calves off an enormous pinnacle, which begins to rise higher and higher, towering over all else, before  finally disintegrating in an almighty explosion of ice. It was such a moving, powerful event to witness that it forms a single, two-minute continuous shot in the film and is the essence of The Polar Realm.

 How long did it take you to film?

The first shots were taken in 2003, when I was a 21-year-old on my very first polar expedition, working on a Russian icebreaker as a wine steward (bluffing my way through the position). However, most of the film has been recorded in the past six years, after SLRs started recording HD video. It’s been a real labor of love, and over the past year I have been piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle of footage recorded from my polar career. I can’t wait to finally achieve the original goal and share the experiences and emotions of these far flung kingdoms.

What are your plans for the project when it’s finished?

I hope to have the film played in film festivals worldwide, particularly ones with an environmental theme, and to meet other filmmakers there. Film festivals are great like that, as filmmaking can be such a quiet and intensive period where we all go away on assignment before locking ourselves away in an edit suite until we all come together again at these events to share our work. Of course it’d be great to find a distributor along the way! And afterward an online release is the cleanest and easiest way to share it. Perhaps it can affect the thinking of how we all can alter our lives a bit to help out the planet. I also hope to combine the film with a beautifully printed hardcover book of my still photographs from the locations featured in the film.

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The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the Web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s mission of inspiring people to care about the planet. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of the National Geographic Society.

To submit films for consideration, please email SFS@ngs.org.