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10 Secrets of Casting Directors

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For every Peter Jackson, there is an Amy Hubbard. For every Martin Scorsese, there is an Ellen Lewis. You may not be as familiar with the work of Hubbard and Lewis—the casting directors who brought you Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins and Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, respectively—but you've definitely benefited from it.

Rarely interviewed and rarely recognized, a casting director is someone whose mind is an archive of faces, names, and talents—and the wrong combination can make or break a production. Mental Floss spoke to a few of these professionals about the tricks of their trade, and the ups and downs of a business unlike any other.

1. YOU DON’T NEED A COLLEGE EDUCATION TO DO IT—JUST A PASSION FOR THE CRAFT.

Film school is not a prerequisite for working in production—John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, and Stanley Kubrick are just some of the many filmmakers who never attended. A good work ethic and a commitment to professionalism will get you far. And while the job market is competitive, it's fairly easy to score an entry-level casting internship or job in the larger markets of New York, L.A., and Atlanta. (For those interested in getting their start, websites like Staff Me Up list many reality show projects, which can transition to scripted projects later, and EntertainmentCareers.net provides agency and network desk jobs that don’t involve actually working on set.)

Casting directors say the most important part of their job is being able to connect the right people to the right opportunities. Eli Cornell, who has worked in both principal and extras casting on projects such as “The Big C” and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), tells Mental Floss: "You need to be a good judge of character and talent and good at reading how talent can work together. [You need] to be able to be on the same page as the producers and creative teams and have a sense of their needs and wishes for their respective productions." Cornell himself started in film and TV as a production assistant, but says he transitioned to casting by sending emails to casting offices throughout New York City. "I explained to them my desire to enter the casting world. When I got into interviews, it was easy for me to talk and share because I was so genuinely excited for the opportunity."

And don't be afraid of starting out as an assistant, our sources say. “The Most Feared Man in Hollywood,” infamous producer Scott Rudin, got his start as an assistant in the casting world at the age of 16. He was head of production at 20th Century Fox by the age of 26.

2. REALITY CASTING IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi
Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Finding memorable characters like Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi or Carson Kressley is no small task. Often, reality shows don’t pay their talent, so it’s hard to get someone to commit to weeks of shooting with no compensation. Gillian Heller, a reality casting producer who has cast such shows as Food Network’s hit Chopped and MTV’s Made, tells Mental Floss, “Being a reality casting producer is really three jobs in one—most are expected to be researchers, story producers, and editors on a razor-tight budget. One of the biggest challenges to me was the fact that there is usually more that you can't tell applicants than things you can. Network requests and production details change rapidly, so getting people to agree to speak with you is a lot like one blind person trying to sell another blind person on a room with an amazing view.”

But, she says, the hard work is eventually worth it. “Building a trusting relationship with applicants is a huge part of the job, and there's no better feeling than getting someone to open up to you and knowing you helped them nail their interview.”

3. EXTRAS CASTING IS JUST AS DIFFICULT AS CASTING THE STARS.

Extras casting staff have to do much more than just fill up a location. They're responsible for ensuring new faces in every scene (imagine if you saw the same extras over and over), bringing people back for continuity, casting background actors that fit specific measurements for costumes and/or to match lead actors, and other nuances of appearance. And while many film crew positions wrap at a specific time, extras casting is required to inform all of the background actors of where they are supposed to be the next day and when—usually about 5 a.m. If a background actor cancels at the last minute, it’s up to the extras casting team to replace.

Furthermore, it can be hard to gauge new talent. Mel Fabi, who worked on The Dark Knight Rises(2012) as an assistant casting thousands of background actors, tells Mental Floss: “[If] you are doing principal casting you sort of immediately know who's really good and what they have done before. That's completely opposite from background casting.” With extras, the talent are usually newbies, and it's always a gamble putting someone with no on-camera training on the screen. “Vetting everyone's abilities takes time, and since shooting days can sometimes have literally hundreds needing to be booked, our flow of work is always high volume and very stressful.”

Fabi admits to rolling his eyes at how often a film’s success is attributed to the main cast. “How about the vast amount of talent that was needed in the background, didn't that contribute to the success of the story? Yes, it does. But no one acknowledges it.”

4. THEY ARE TRYING TO CAST MORE DIVERSE ROLES.

Actresses Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne and Laverne Cox of 'Orange is the New Black,' at the Critics' Choice Television Awards
Cast members from "Orange is the New Black" at the Critics' Choice Television Awards
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

The lack of diversity in Hollywood is a well-known issue, but casting directors say they are making an effort to remedy it. NBC hosts showcases for actors, writers and directors with an emphasis on highlighting LGBTQ actors and performers with disabilities. Walt Disney Studios recently opened up the casting call for the live-action Aladdin adaptation to the public to ensure they get Middle Eastern actors in the lead roles. (At time of publication, Disney had cast a relatively unknown actor, Mena Massoud, in the title role.)

The boundaries are also being pushed in commercial casting, according to commercial casting director Melonie Mack. “If you think about the Cheerios commercial that showed an interracial couple [in 2013]—that was the first time we were seeing that. We’ve recently had same sex couples cast and we are trying to push those boundaries in the commercial world. It’s archaic. Then you have the studios looking at streaming services like Netflix and their casting process. With shows like Luke Cage and Orange is the New Black that truly showcase diversity—it’s no surprise to me that the rise in popularity in streaming was bigger than the studios could ever hope to be.”

5. A CASTING DIRECTOR’S JOB IS NEVER TRULY DONE.

Casting professionals log a lot of time holding auditions and attending production meetings. But the job isn’t over when they leave the office—they're always scouting for new talent. They frequently attend showcases (a kind of variety show put on by actors) and scout plays after-hours, host their own acting workshops where they coach actors in audition methods, and accept various freelance positions for casting projects like web series, student films, and local commercials.

6. THERE’S NEVER A DULL MOMENT.

Casting directors have to cast everything from crime scene re-enactments (think Law & Order SVU) to celebrity nude photo doubles. Sometimes, their job might entail making sure the background actors are comfortable being near a wild animal. Former extras casting assistant Melanie Block told Mental Floss about casting a commercial that appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and included a real lion walking through corporate offices. “We had to send an email to all of the extras and verify by telephone that each and every extra was comfortable with working around an actual lion. Sure enough, before the lion was even let out of its cage, we had complaints coming in from the union asking us if we had cleared this with the background actors. Of course we did!” Eventually everything worked out and Scorsese got the shots he wanted—the ad made the cut to final edit.

7. IT'S FEMALE-DOMINATED.

Liz Paulson and Sarah Paulson at the Emmys in 2016
Liz Paulson and Sarah Paulson at the Emmys in 2016
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Film and television are often considered male-dominated areas, but not when it comes to casting. Mack tells Mental Floss: “I’ve been in casting for over 10 years, predominately doing commercial casting, and 95 percent of the people I work with are women. I think women tend to be more in touch with their emotional psychology—[we] create a safe comfortable inspiring space when actors come in the room to audition.” Mack points to the career of her own mentor, Liz Paulson, who is now Senior Vice President of Casting at 20th Century Fox. “It’s a powerful position to be in. Casting can make or break a show. And it’s inspiring to watch a woman rise up like that.”

The dominance of women in casting isn't anything brand-new, either. Director Tom Donahue’s 2012 documentary Casting By is a profile of one of the most unsung heroes of the film world, Marion Dougherty—often credited with creating the “New York” look in films during the 1960s. Dougherty was a casting director responsible for the transition from the old Hollywood casting method of casting actors based on looks to hiring based on talent. She gave many actors their first film credits, including Al Pacino and Glenn Close, and had the unwavering support of directors such as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen until her death in 2011.

8. EVEN BIG-NAME ACTORS HAVE TO AUDITION FOR THE JOB.

Did you know that before Rainn Wilson became Dwight Schrute, Seth Rogen read for The Office role, while Adam Scott auditioned to be Jim Halpert? There are thousands of actors in Hollywood and only so many parts available, so even stars face rejection—and it happens more often than you would think. Sometimes it may even come down to the chemistry a celebrity may or may not have with those who have already been cast, and other times, an actor just may not impress the director. (Peter Jackson famously slammed Oscar-nominee Jake Gyllenhaal for not using a British accent while auditioning for the part of Frodo in Lord of the Rings.)

Vincent Veloso, a director whose web series Changelings has screened at Cannes Marché du Film and who has auditioned top-tier talent for his projects, says: "Attaching a well-known established actor may help with potential financing, [and] raise exposure in producing and marketing. However, [big names don't] necessarily [have] a given automatic lock-in or upper hand in auditioning every time, anytime, if at all.”

9. THEATER CASTING JOBS DO NOT PROVIDE HEALTH CARE AND PENSIONS.

It may surprise you to know that the casting directors responsible for finding the stars in many of your Broadway favorites are not guaranteed benefits for their work as independent contractors. Broadway heavy hitters like Bernie Telsey (Hamilton) and Tara Rubin (Dear Evan Hanson) are just some of the casting directors encouraging the Broadway League, the trade organization for the Broadway industry, to negotiate a deal with Teamsters Local 817, which Broadway casting directors joined in 2016. In a statement released at the time of this year’s Tony Awards, the Broadway League stated: “We have had a respectful dialogue in the past year with Teamsters Local 817 but do not believe it would be appropriate for the Broadway League or its producing members to recognize a union as the bargaining representative of professionals who are not employees of our productions.”

10. THEY HATE THAT CASTING STILL ISN'T OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED AT THE OSCARS.

Lynn Stalmaster accepting his Governors Award in 2016
Lynn Stalmaster
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

For years, casting directors have hoped to be included in the Oscars. In Casting By, notable casting directors such as Ellen Lewis (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013) and Laura Rosenthal (Carol, 2015), alongside Hollywood stars Glenn Close and Al Pacino, argued that casting directors are just as important to a film as a director. However, then-Directors Guild of America (DGA) president Taylor Hackford insisted in the film that casting directors are undeserving of Oscar recognition because they “don’t direct anything.”

In a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lewis said, “It's funny, in a way, because what [Hackford] is saying is this: Nobody knows what goes on behind a closed door. And that's true. Casting is very private. It's between the casting director and the actor. Of course what [Hackford] doesn't address is why he's meeting the actors that he's meeting. And that's because his casting director has done her job! He's also leaving out that the reason it's behind the closed doors is to protect the actor who's doing something vulnerable. Nine times out of 10 [an audition] ends in rejection.”

There may be some hope, however. In 2016, screen actor-turned-casting-director Lynn Stalmaster was recognized by the Academy for his achievements in casting over 200 films and TV shows, including "Gunsmoke," Tootsie (1982), and The Graduate (1967). Stalmaster was presented with the Academy's Governors Award for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” For now, though, the Casting Society of America celebrates the achievements of casting professionals throughout the country each year with their own Artios Awards, which commemorate the achievements of principal casting directors in film, television, and theatre.

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17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors
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Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.

“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.

Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 

In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.

Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.

In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.

Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.

In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.

Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.

Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.

Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.

“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.

According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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9 Secrets of Antarctic Scientists
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A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and sometimes the darkest place on Earth. And yet hundreds of people go there each year to conduct scientific research and work as support staff at dozens of stations scattered across the continent. In summer, the high season for polar activity, the sun never sets, offering scientists and support teams an opportunity to play soccer on the ice or sunbathe in blinding, cloud-free rays. Winter envelops the land in frigid darkness—and inspires the few "winter-overs" to indulge in naked footraces around the station. Mental Floss spoke to a few Antarctic scientists about what it's really like to carry out research there, including the hacks that help them survive the elements.

1. THEY LEARN ON THE FLY.

Scientists participating in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), which runs all of the American research and operations on the continent, go through an introductory briefing about living and working at the three American stations: McMurdo, the largest, which is located on Ross Island; Palmer, on Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

But with so many complex protocols needed for daily life, new arrivals often find themselves on a steep learning curve. "There's no manual for a lot of things," Michelle LaRue, an ecologist who studies Adélie and emperor penguins and seals in the Southern Ocean and is often based at McMurdo, tells Mental Floss. "There are appointments for everything—food, field supplies, et cetera—and you need a certain amount of lead time before you get into the field. I quickly learned that even though you think you're ready, there's something else you're missing. Thankfully the support crew there is amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them."

2. THEY HAVE TO PACK CAREFULLY.

Gathering everything for an extended mission can be tricky if you can't depend on regular resupply shipments. "Packing for 18 months away is a total nightmare. Ever tried to work out how many tampons you might need for that long? Or conditioner?" ecologist Jess Walkup tells Mental Floss. Walkup began her career with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying albatrosses on South Georgia and is now the base commander at the BAS's Rothera station leading the 2018 wintering team.

"I ran out of anti-perspirant on one trip, and that was awful," she says. "Thankfully I was on an island with just three men and thousands of stinky seals, so no one seemed to notice."

3. THEY HACK THEIR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS.

Scientists and support staff who serve in the Antarctic summer, from October through March, often contend with round-the-clock daylight. Many bring eye masks and blackout curtains so they can retain their regular sleep-wake schedule—but it's tempting to want to stay up. "After working all day, all I want to do is catch up with friends or go hiking. Time gets away from you pretty quickly, and before you know it, you're going to bed way later than you should," LaRue says.

The Antarctic winter, however, is another matter. The sun doesn't rise for several months, leaving the entire continent in extreme darkness (except for the twinkling of stars and the aurora australis). "I found that I was shattered all day and then slept badly at night," Walkup says. "In the early afternoon I would have a massive slump and feel like it was 3 a.m. and I had been awake for a week." She adjusted by using a SAD lamp on her desk and getting into a routine of winding down and going to bed at the same time each night. On the base, she says, "Your bed is one of the only places you can get some time alone."

4. THEY HAVE STRANGE TASTES IN MOVIES.

The Milky Way and aurora australis over the South Pole
The Milky Way and aurora australis illuminate the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter.
Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

It's not all work and no play for Antarctic scientists and staff. The isolation and rough conditions create a sense of camaraderie that is celebrated at certain times of the year. To mark Midwinter's Day in the middle of June (the point when the sun begins its return back south), the BAS bases, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and many others watch The Thing ("the original, obviously!" Walkup says). In John Carpenter's 1982 horror film, a parasitic alien invades an Antarctic base and steadily takes over the minds of the researchers stationed there, with much gore, violence, and paranoia. Winter-overs also watch the 1980 classic The Shining, a similarly chilly flick featuring an unhealthy dose of insanity.

In August, many of the Antarctic stations compete in the 48-Hour Winter Film Festival, in which teams submit short films that contain five key elements and are made in less than 48 hours. "We then watch all the submissions and vote on the winners under various categories, like at the Oscars. It’s a great way to learn about the international Antarctic community and see the inside of other stations," Walkup says. (Watch a selection from the 2016 festival on Vimeo).

5. THEY MAKE TIME TO PARTY.

Sure, scientists spend many hours tracking neutrinos, conducting wildlife surveys, collecting ice cores, and fulfilling other objectives. But when they're off the clock, they like to kick back. "Depending on the time of year, there's all kinds of iconic parties and events to attend: Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, the marathon, talent shows, the film festival, IceStock—that's an outdoor concert on New Year's Eve. If you're in McMurdo over New Year's Eve, you have to go to IceStock," LaRue says.

However, some of the games and competitions might seem fatalistic to those with a greater array of entertainment options. For example, when the temperature drops to -50°C (-58°F), scientists and staff strip naked and run around their stations' perimeters, Walkup reports.

Even that's not as crazy as vying for membership in the 300 Club. When the temperature drops to -100°F at the South Pole station, daredevils first warm up in a 200°F sauna, then dash outside (naked, of course) to the spot marking the Geographic South Pole several yards away, then run shrieking back into the sauna—having experienced a 300-degree range in temperature in just a few minutes.

The activities don't just keep boredom at bay; they actually ward off the lethargic, depressive state one gets from living in extreme isolation, which the winter-overs call "toast." As Sven Lidström, a Swedish engineer who helped build the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, wrote in a 2012 blog post, "the cure for winter-over toastiness is fun and entertainment."

6. THEY START CRAVING SALAD …

McMurdo Station in Antarctica
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

According to Jason C. Anthony, author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, much of the culinary history of the southern continent consists of "isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sea life." Now, 21st-century scientists chow down on three freshly prepared meals a day at McMurdo and other stations. "Of the five seasons I spent in, or worked out of, McMurdo, I only really remember one where freshies"—local slang for any kind of fresh produce—"were in noticeably short supply," LaRue says.

But scientists and staff still have to cope with the lack of some favorite foods—and those whose fitness for eating is debatable.

"We only really get two deliveries of fresh food a year, one around December and then again around March. All our milk is powdered, and I got used to that very quickly. Some people hate it, but in a cup of tea or a bowl of cereal, I don’t really notice. I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, though," Walkup says.

Walkup devised ways to test if months-old foods were still edible. "We were eating eggs nine months after they had been laid," she says. "Some eggs that look moldy on the outside, and even on the inside, are fine to eat. The trick is to break each egg into a cup to check that it is OK—i.e., doesn’t smell—before adding it to whatever you're making. If the eggs are starting to go, then this is vital—you don’t want to ruin your mixture with a bad egg."

They also get some surprising cravings. "The thing I missed was salad, as that doesn’t travel well," Walkup adds. "I was never a huge fan of salad before I went south, but now I love it."

7. … AND BOOZE.

No planes can fly supplies into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for up to nine months of the year, because at temperatures below -50°C, the jet fuel freezes. That leaves the small group of winter-overs to their own devices. The company operating the station supplies the scientists and support teams with huge pallets of wine, beer, and spirits that give rise to a makeshift bar at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station dubbed Club 90 South. Phil Broughton, a health physicist who spent one long, dark winter there in the mid-aughts, was its de facto bartender.

He developed a protocol for distributing alcohol: serve enough to help the patrons get through the darkest weeks of winter, and then make sure that those who were completely plastered didn't go home. "The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide [the drinker] over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85°F night," Broughton wrote in a blog post.

Plenty of scientists carry in their favorite spirits, just in case their base runs out halfway through the season. Says LaRue, "Bringing scotch with you is a must."

8. SOMETIMES THEY ACTUALLY FEEL TOO WARM.

Scientists in the field have to wear layers upon layers of insulating clothing, bring more hand and foot warmers than they think they'll need, and stay active to avoid hypothermia. "I distinctly remember one snow machine trip back to town, where the wind was just whipping across our faces, my fingers were numb. It was really cold," LaRue says. "As soon as I parked the snow machine I got off and just ran as fast and as far as I could to warm up."

In the summer season, though, being bundled in Gore-Tex can make them too hot. The extremely dry climate prevents the chilly damp feeling of more temperate regions—and if the sun is shining, its rays bounce off the reflective ice and fry the researchers. "Sometimes you can get really warm and even work in shorts and a t-shirt," Walkup says. "At 79 degrees south it can be -10°C [14°F] in the height of summer, and the sun is really strong, so on a day with no wind it is warm enough to sunbathe—just don’t lay down in the snow."

9. THEY DON'T SEE POLAR BEARS.

Antarctica teems with wildlife: six species of penguins, six species of seal, countless seabirds, and majestic whales are the southern ocean's most charismatic fauna. Scientists won't see any mammals from that other pole, however. Says Walkup, "people always ask me if I have seen polar bears. I haven’t—they only live in the Arctic."

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