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Emperors of Antarctica

Television (Full Length) – 1992

Behind the scenes of Emperors of Antarctica

Veteran NHNZ cameraman Max Quinn left New Zealand in 1991 to make Emperors of Antarctica and The Longest Night, as part of a series on Antarctica. With only one other crew member (soundman Donald Anderson), Quinn filmed, directed and produced both films. The men were required to winter over at Scott Base for a continuous period of 11 months.

Emperors focussed on the lives of emperor penguins living in Antarctica. Most of the footage of penguins was shot at Cape Crozier, approximately 85 kilometres (or a treacherous seven hours) northeast of Scott base.

Wintering in Antarctica to film the birds was fraught with challenge and danger including extreme cold, darkness, blizzards and crevasses. Despite having all the necessary cold weather gear, the men endured long periods filming on the ice where they experienced temperatures of -25 to -55 degrees celsius.

The Antarctic is an incredibly dangerous place to film. In addition to the challenge of isolation, the determined duo also had to struggle with constant darkness from the end of April through to August.

At the end of March 1991, Don and Max were filming on sea ice on McMurdo Sound where a group of 40 penguins had gathered by a smallish hole in the ice. With temperatures dropping, Max knew the group had a small window of opportunity to feed before the sea was completely frozen.

"I started to film when I saw one of the penguins moving towards the thinner ice covering their ice hole. This penguin stepped off the thick ice on to the thinner ice then walked a few steps before falling face first into an ice pool. Immediately a number of other penguins followed into the ice pool helping to break up the thin ice and thus keeping their feeding hole open for longer. I kept the camera rolling and immediately knew I was on to something special".

He was right. Max had captured a key behavioural moment in the life of these penguins. The clip immortalises a deliberate behaviour that had never been previously filmed, with this unique footage showing the fattening process the penguins go through before their food source is completely shut off for winter.

The result is also a comical clip that has delighted viewers around the globe for over a decade. It has since been added to by would-be CGI artists who now have the penguin being tripped and even slapped over the head before it falls.

The clip has also been the source of legal action after a company plagiarised the footage and onsold it without NHNZ's permission and, more recently, has become one of YouTube's most popular clips. More than being in the right place at the right time, the world-renowned 'Penguin Falling Through Ice' clip is testimony to the skills, knowledge and expertise of the people involved in bringing it to the world's attention.

Republished with permission from NHNZ's Moving Images News blog.

For more extraordinary penguin footage check out the penguins showreel on NHNZ Moving Images. Contact NHNZ Moving Images at [email protected] for stock footage requests.

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