SAN FRANCISCO - In the very early days of making the wildlife saga “Arctic Tale,” cinematographer-director Adam Ravetch and his wife, Sarah Robertson, were aboard an ice floe and filming a herd of 2,000-pound walruses headed toward them on another chunk of ice.
When high waves began slapping against the ice, the couple’s Inuit guide left to take their small boat to safety. Suddenly, a hungry polar bear appeared, eyeing the walrus herd. The horrified couple stood between the hunter and the hunted, with no place to run.
Sarah Robertson, Adam Ravetch
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 25 Jul 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
“I had never worked with polar bears before, and I thought, `Oh my God, we’re going to get eaten,’” recalls Ravetch. “Of course, the biggest thing we forgot was a gun.”
His wife screamed at the bear, and they both waved their arms wildly. The bear retreated, and the walruses slid into the water.
“We sat there and thought, `What did we just do?’ We completely disturbed the situation,” Ravetch says. “We saw the two - a polar bear and the walruses - come together, and science at the time was telling us they don’t. They said that only if a bear was really desperate or a walrus really injured would a bear do that. And so that’s what you live for, those moments of great behaviors and encounters, where animals come together when they’re not supposed to.”
It was then, after the scary encounter, that Ravetch and Robertson (who co-directed “Arctic Tale”) made the commitment to live for long months each year in Inuit villages and remote outpost camps in the Canadian Arctic. They would wait day after day, season after season, for remarkable moments to unfold before them.
They were there off and on for 12 years.
The result is a wildlife film with a twist. “Arctic Tale” is as much a feature film as a documentary.
It is, in part, a wake-up call about global warming, but instead of bombarding audiences with alarming statistics, a la former Vice President Al Gore’s Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” the couple fashioned a coming-of-age story around a polar bear cub they called Nanu and a walrus pup named Seela.
They follow Nanu and Seela from birth to young adulthood, as the animals’ mothers teach them to survive and adapt in a place that is melting away. Nanu and Seela are “played” by many different bears and walruses. Queen Latifah narrates the movie, which was funded in large part by National Geographic.
“I think this film is a great celebration of the animals’ remarkable qualities, their boldness, their courage,” says Ravetch, 45, who has a degree in marine biology from San Diego State University.
He grew up in Los Angeles, lived for a while at Venice Beach and body-surfed for fun. His lifestyle hardly prepared him for living in the Arctic, shooting footage in freezing water and coexisting with wild animals.
He learned to scuba dive as a young man and eventually became an instructor, traveling around the world to teach. Then he became a production assistant on a series of shark documentaries and was trained as an underwater cinematographer. He and Robertson, who have three children and live on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, made a few small wildlife documentaries before they witnessed a walrus hug that launched “Arctic Tale.”
They knew little about the Arctic in the beginning, so they got to know Inuit families and went along on hunting trips. During one such walrus hunt, they watched a female fiercely protecting her pup.
“The intensity and the devotion was amazing,” Ravetch says. “She was holding on and grabbing it to get it away from the hunters. We thought, `Wow, if we could capture that in a natural way, we would have something.’ It was so inherently humanlike, the hugs and the kisses.
“The walrus hug,” he says, “started this whole thing, because the walrus was introduced to me as a monster. I was told not to swim with a walrus because it could hold me, knock off my head and suck the very flesh off my bones. That was the story from the Inuit people.”
Ravetch thought it was a myth until he learned that when a walrus can’t locate a clam bed (a walruses eats as many as 4,000 clams at a feeding), it will hunt down a seal.
“They actually hold the seal, knock its head off and suck the flesh off their bodies. I thought, `Oh my gosh, I could get grabbed.’ And then I understood there was this animal that we didn’t know much about.”
When he first set out to film the mysterious tusked walrus, he either went into the water in a homemade cage or hung off the ice’s edge and held his camera underwater. Four years into the project, he was brave enough to immerse himself and get closer.
The highlight of all the years of patient persistence came when he watched a male polar bear climb onto walrus-inhabited Rock Island. It is a pivotal scene in “Arctic Tale.”
“That was unbelievable,” Ravetch says, grinning. “When Sarah and I saw walruses and polar bears coming together that first time (on the ice floe), we went to these remote islands and started to stake them out, just like a police stakeout. We would just sit there for six to eight weeks every year before the ice would come back, because some years, no bear would show up. And then that moment came.”
As the 800 hours of footage was being edited into the stories of Nanu and Seela, Ravetch said, he and his wife insisted that climate change - which they witnessed firsthand as the animals strived to adapt to warmer temperatures and melting ice - be a part of the movie.
“It was something that was happening, and we felt a real obligation to not ignore it. Some people were worried about the criticism we might get from doing that, but we felt we should step up. That’s what National Geographic is all about.
“Generally in North America now,” he says, “I don’t think you have naysayers anymore about whether it’s happening or not. Maybe there’s a question in some people’s minds about whether it’s human-induced or the natural course of the Earth.”
As a result of “Arctic Tale,” the distributor, Paramount Classics, established the Arctic Fund and pledged 5 percent of the film’s lifetime box office to be divided equally between the National Geographic Polar Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund.
Paramount Classics did something similar with box-office revenues from “An Inconvenient Truth.” According to studio spokeswoman Megan Colligan, more than $1 million has been given to Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. “The general idea is that you’re watching a movie and learning about the issue of global warming, and it’s nice to say that just by attending a movie, you’re taking a step to fight something you’ve just learned about,” says Colligan.
In another effort at awareness, Starbucks is supporting “Arctic Tale” with in-store promotions through Aug. 27.