News from an Unknown Universe

blog post photo

by Stefan Schneider

Endless snowfall – can’t see my hands in front of my eyes. It’s three days that I’m here in Spitsbergen, and I still don’t have any idea what the landscape looks like. Today, I have to visit a coal mine. A couple of months ago, the imprints of a huge subtropical mammal from the Paleocene epoch was discovered in the mine: a pantodont — a sensation, since these are the first traces of any major animal from this period in Spitsbergen.

Tomorrow, when my team arrives, we’ll meet Jørn H. Hurum, the world-famous Norwegian paleontologist, who digs for huge Jurassic marine reptiles here in Spitsbergen during the short ice and snow-free summer. The miners alerted him when they discovered the imprints.

Shooting with a scientific luminary in a coal mine in Spitsbergen is an exiting project. But as I’ll learn today, it’s very, very uncomfortable. We drive down into the mountain in a standard Toyota mini-bus. Compared to the minus twenty degrees Celsius [–4 °F] outside, minus one [+30 °F] down here feels almost warm. But it takes only minutes to be covered with thick black dust. You breathe coal, you smell coal, and you swallow coal.

After a ten-minute drive, we have to change vehicles. The tunnel is getting lower, and the “Ohlemann”, a special construction of a topless, 70 cm [27.5″] high car with an blast-proof Volkswagen flat engine carries us deeper into the mine. After a funny ride, lying in the car, the rocky ceiling flying by only a few centimeters [inches] above your face, we have to continue by foot. Welcome to Floor 7½! Like in Being John Malkovich, we walk bent over at a 90-degree angle. It’s difficult to find your way in this position with a helmet on your head!

The miners are used to this discipline, and soon they are out of sight. The paper mask makes breathing difficult. Every third step, the helmet crashes against a rock that sticks out of the ceiling. Only the beam of the headlight allows me to find my way in the dusty dark. Then I realize that I can’t see the lights of the guides anymore. I’m all alone here in this labyrinth. I start to hear my heart beat. Panic wants to grab me. I have to control my breathing and shout after the miners. Of course, they were making fun of me. They switch on their lights, and back they are. Very funny indeed! When we finally arrive at the traces, I’m back on track. But here comes the real shock: in this part of the tunnel, they don’t have blast-proof power lines — no electricity. We had been preparing for this shoot for months. Every single item of our equipment had to be accepted by the security officers. And now they tell me that our light equipment wouldn’t work down here. First thought: this must be another joke. But then I realize that we have a major problem. Our team is on the way here, and I know that they only have two batteries — and here in Spitsbergen, there is no rental shop for light and gear.

Canceling the shoot is not an option. We have to implement Plan B very quickly.

Two days later, the sun puts the incredibly white landscape into the perfect light. Too bad for us — we can’t change the schedule and must film in the mine today. Together with our two battery lights, we bring every headlight and flashlight we can find. For the long shots, we use the headlights of the Ohlemann car. Unfortunately, the loud engine has to run, which makes communication really hard and doesn’t improve air quality, either. The lens has to be cleaned every other minute, and we are more than nervous that the fine dust may break the camera.

Eight hours later, we get our shots and come back up. The ever-changing weather report tells us that tomorrow it will snow again. Thanks to the polar lights, we have another 10 hours for shooting. After cleaning the equipment, we start our second shooting day — that same day.

Don’t miss the premiere of Dawn of the Ocean this Sunday, August 22nd at 9P et/pt.