Shooting in a Frozen Wasteland

January 14, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Johnnie Frankel's trip to North America’s iciest city.

As President of Rattling Stick and producer to A-list commercial director Daniel Kleinman, Johnnie Frankel knows as much about complex, high-profile productions as just about anyone. Working at this level means he gets to go on some of the most high-profile, challenging commercial shoots in the world. And this can lead to some pretty remarkable experiences.

One of Johnnie’s recent shooting odysseys was for an American GMC commercial, with Daniel directing. Shooting in four different locations across the USA, each to demonstrate a different feature of the advertised truck, they spent one day at the Hoover Dam, two days in the Mojave Desert, two days in a mine near Tucson, Arizona and three days in the USA’s northernmost city – Barrow, Alaska. That’s quite a trip.

Not many people have any reason to venture to the frozen wastes of the tundra as part of their professional life, so we thought it’d be worth asking him what it’s like. He’s kindly shared some of the photographs he and his colleagues took of the extraordinary location and we’ve interspersed them here with what he had to say about the shoot.

Barrow, Alaska: Never going to be a central hub for international transport.

Johnnie Frankel: “They wanted to shoot in snow and because it was so late in the year (we shot in May) we ended up going to Barrow, Alaska. It’s the northernmost city in America, on the Arctic ocean, which is frozen [at that time of the year].


“It was quite a trip. You can get to Barrow by car in the winter, when obviously everything’s frozen and you know what you’re doing. But you can’t get there in spring when the ice starts to thaw. It becomes surrounded by water so you have to fly everything in.”

Looking out for polar bears. A bit like Where’s Wally, but with the added danger of a bloody death to make things interesting.

“There’s abandoned machinery everywhere because the only way to get anything in or out is to fly. So when a car breaks down and you can’t fix it there’s nothing you can do with it. Basically, they just get dumped.

“It’s an amazingly extreme place – totally like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Nice to see the Arctic’s two iconic modes of transportation getting along so well.

“The problem for us was just getting everything in and out. We couldn’t drive the car there, so we had to fly it in. We flew all the camera crew and equipment in too.

“We couldn’t get any kind of film vehicle out there like a Russian Arm or any proper film camera truck, so they just built one using a flat bed truck and then a crane-arm and some counterweights.

“The other problem was once the snow was thawed, what lies beneath it is sort of sand and gravel. They take the wheels off these SUVs and replace them with four individual caterpillars, so they can get these things grip.”

Mount a minigun on the back and you’ve got a truck fit for Arnie himself.

“We actually drove the car on the Arctic Ocean, which was about three or four feet deep in ice. We got the local guides to go out and drill the ice to make sure it was safe.

“We had two guys who were polar bear security guards. I didn’t see any polar bears, which is probably for the best because they’re supremely dangerous. We had to protect ourselves in case they’d be in the area. But it was quite late in the year for them.”

“What do you mean there’s no gluten-free vegan option!?”

“We had local people who knew all about the area. You couldn’t do it without them. They were an integral part of the setup. You wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without knowing what you were doing. It was essential.

“It was a big challenge, logistically, because flying everything in and out – if you don’t make the right preparations you are going to really shoot yourself in the foot. You have to make sure you have everything you need otherwise you’re screwed because it’s just so inaccessible.

“And when you look at a job like that on paper, you’ve got four scripts, all to be shot in really quite specific, very different locations, car stuff. It’s not going to be a small, simple project.

“It’s just a big operation – time, travel, scouting. We scouted four locations all over the world. I think we did 26 flights in a month. Virtually one a day, sometimes two in one day. Unfortunately I don’t know an easier way to do it.

“The food there is mental. They’ve got three restaurants. There’s a Mexican restaurant that does breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves burgers, a couple of Chinese places and a bit of sushi and that’s it.”

[Sadly, since we spoke to Johnnie, the Mexican restaurant, Pepe’s North of the Border, has burnt down.]

Arctic fashion is eternally cool (much like the weather). The people here invented the Parka.

“I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve been in production for 25 years and I’ve never shot anywhere like Barrow, ever. I can’t imagine a time in my life when I’ll ever go back to Barrow and I can’t imagine there’ll be much chance of any production going to Barrow. It was a unique experience.

“I’m not sure it’s a place I’d have visited if it weren’t for this job, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world because it’s an amazing experience that a tiny percentage of the world population ever get to visit a place like that. I feel very privileged to have done it.”

It should have been the profile picture of the century, but Johnnie didn’t account for how well camouflaged polar bears really are.

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