Kirk Watson
Kirk Watson

The Only Movie Ever Filmed Entirely in Antarctica

Kirk Watson
Kirk Watson

The key to a good skull-drilling scene, Kirk Watson says, is chopped-up bits of bacon. “You mix it with the fake blood, which is red food coloring, syrup, and flour. That’s for when we had to make brains.”

Watson is an experienced mountaineer who has spent six of the past eight years acting as a field guide for Antarctic scientists, navigating dangerous glaciers and supervising freezing base camps. If he’s looking at brain matter, something has gone horribly wrong. But in 2012, he and colleague Matt Edwards decided to use their free time to shoot a horror film, South of Sanity, while stationed at Rothera Research Station in Antarctica. Though its plot—serial killer picks off hapless researchers at a remote outpost—is mundane, its production was anything but: Sanity is the first horror film ever filmed entirely at the bottom of the world.

After another field guide pulled out of a trip, Watson went to Antarctica on two weeks’ notice, taking his camera equipment and editing software with him. A documentary filmmaker, he had designs on shooting a feature-length movie. Working with Edwards, the two figured the production would be a good way to involve the 21 inhabitants of Rothera—a mix of marine biologists, mechanics, even a chef—in a communal project.

“Come winter, no one is really embarrassed in front of one another anymore,” he says. “I thought I could get some good acting.”

Filming a few days a week over a three-month period, Watson directed 14 amateur performers. While the majority of the movie was shot indoors, he had a few key scenes to shoot in the below-zero temperatures outside of the station. One “dead body” had to be edited out because it kept shivering; another actor grew very agitated because fake blood had leaked into his boot, causing his foot to dampen and freeze up.

“He wanted to go inside,” Watson chuckles, “but I kept doing take after take. He was quite annoyed, but it made his acting a lot better. His foot was supposed to have been chewed up by a snow blower.”

Essentially a one-man crew, Watson had a mechanic build a makeshift crane that could rise 25 feet in the air for more dynamic shots. Surprisingly, the cameras rarely failed despite the climate. “There was sometimes 3mm of ice on them, but they worked brilliantly,” he says. The problem was taking them back inside, where condensation quickly built up: Watson would wrap them in a plastic bin and let the moisture evaporate before resuming filming.  

For the “murders,” arterial spray was accomplished using syringes hooked up to tubing that researchers would operate off-screen. Their make-up department consisted of a face paint kit meant for kids. “You have to make do with what you have,” he says. “I found it quite funny when IMDB.com said our budget was a million dollars.”

Watson edited the film as he went along. It was eventually screened for Rothera Research during their annual film festival. (New arrivals found it fun to watch their co-workers get butchered in creative ways.) Sanity eventually had a premiere in Watson’s hometown in Scotland and a DVD and digital release on Amazon and iTunes stateside. Though reviews were mixed, Watson may have made the best possible film he could given the excruciating circumstances of hypothermic conditions and no budget.

“It’s not a particularly good film,” he says. “But it didn’t cost us a penny.”

All images courtesy of Kirk Watson.

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Employees at Antarctica's McMurdo Station Are Throwing a Party for Pride Month
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Employees at Antarctica's McMurdo Station are gearing up to celebrate Pride month in one of the world's harshest environments. On Saturday, June 9, the station will host what Hannah Valian, who deals with the center's recycling efforts, calls "one of the larger parties ever thrown" at the station.

McMurdo Station is an Antarctic research facility owned and operated by the United States. The station is more sparsely populated during Antarctica's colder autumn and winter seasons (which run from March to September), but employees tell us there's still a decent-sized LGBTQ scene to celebrate this June.

About 10 of the 133 people currently at McMurdo identify as LGBTQ, says Rachel Bowens-Rubin, a station laboratory assistant. Valian said the idea for a Pride celebration came up in May at one of the station's regular LGBTQ socials.

"Everyone got really excited about it," she tells Mental Floss via email. "So we ran with it."

Ten individuals are wearing coats while holding a rainbow-colored Pride flag. They are standing in snow with mountains in the distance.
"I hope when people see this photo they'll be reminded that LGBTQ people aren't limited to a place, a culture, or a climate," McMurdo's Evan Townsend tells Mental Floss. "We are important and valuable members of every community, even at the bottom of the world."
Courtesy of Shawn Waldron

Despite reports that this is the continent's first Pride party, none of the event's organizers are convinced this is the first Pride celebration Antarctica has seen. Sous chef Zach Morgan tells us he's been attending LGBTQ socials at McMurdo since 2009.

"The notion is certainly not new here," he says.

To Evan Townsend, a steward at the station, this weekend's Pride event is less a milestone and more a reflection of the history of queer acceptance in Antarctica.

"If anything," Townsend says, "recognition belongs to those who came to Antarctica as open members of the LGBTQ community during much less welcoming times in the recent past."

This week, though, McMurdo's employees only had positive things to say about the station's acceptance of LGBTQ people.

"I have always felt like a valued member of the community here," Morgan tells us in an email. "Most people I've met here have been open and supportive. I've never felt the need to hide myself here, and that's one of the reasons I love working here."

Saturday's celebration will feature a dance floor, photo booth, lip sync battles, live music, and a short skit explaining the history of Pride, Valian says.

"At the very least, I hope the attention our Pride celebration has garnered has inspired someone to go out and explore the world, even if they might feel different or afraid they might not fit in," Morgan says. "'Cause even on the most inhospitable place on Earth, there's still people who will love and respect you no matter who you are."

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Scientists Have Discovered Massive Canyons Beneath Antarctica's Ice Sheets
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Scientists have been studying Antarctica for over a century, but details as basic as what it looks like beneath all that ice have largely remained a mystery. Now, Earther reports that a team of scientists from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK has published the most comprehensive data yet on the continent's subglacial topography near the South Pole.

As they report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters [PDF], central Antarctica is home to three massive canyons, one of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and nearly as wide at some points. The researchers made the discovery by flying a plane with radar over the South Pole, a spot that isn't covered by imaging satellites. They expected to find mountains beneath the ice sheet, but the expansive chasms they detected between the mountains came as a surprise.

Of the three canyons, two hadn't been documented previously. The largest, the Foundation Trough, measures 218 miles long, up to 22 miles wide, and 6260 feet deep, putting it up there with the planet's most impressive canyons.

The discoveries are significant on their own, but the real purpose behind the research is to better understand how the West and East Antarctic Ice Sheets will react to rising temperatures. Human-induced climate change has destabilized some of the continent's ice, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet especially has been slowly crumbling into the sea. If patterns continue, the coastal glaciers supporting the massive ice sheets could collapse, causing sea levels to rise a minimum of 10 feet. If this happens, the canyons could be a major factor in the speed and direction of ice flow from central Antarctica to the coast.

The event isn't likely to happen in the near future, but further study of Antarctica's topography will allow scientists to better predict when it might.

[h/t Earther]

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