Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic Trek: Aurora Australis -Film

Dir. by Louie Fisher.  Music by Will Chiles

The film is based on Douglas Mawson’s incredible 1912 solo trek in Antarctica. An amazing story of how, after losing his supplies and two friends to the ice, poetry and persistence kept a starving and exhausted man walking 100 miles across the harshest place on Earth.

Directed by Louie Fisher who also did sound, camera, special effects, editing, and co-wrote the script. I wrote and performed the music, produced and co-wrote the script.

(“Winter Mountain” written and performed by Inge Chiles.)

We made this film over eight months in rural Wisconsin (Pepin County) for $80.

Some Background…

It’s September. It’s hot in the kitchen of a beloved rural Wisconsin restaurant. I had thought about working in Antarctica that fall and was chopping onions on a prep table, thinking about how much I’d like to visit someplace cool.

Chop chop chop.

I yelled through the din across the kitchen to Louie, who had been making short films for about a year and had just won a Jury Prize at the Flyway Film Festival for his short film, “Les Artistes”,

“Hey Louie, have you ever heard of a guy named Douglas Mawson?”

Louie: “No!”

Will: “He’s got a great story. He gets stranded in the Antarctic with very little food and falls into crevasses and survives. But what keeps him going are these little lines of poetry that keep flitting through his head at the right moments.”

Louie: “Oh, Cool.”

Will: (jokingly) “Do you think we could make a film about him?”

Louie: *pause* “Sure!”

Over the next couple months we began researching Douglas Mawson and his epic adventure.

It turns out that Mawson was a real scientist, not just in Antarctica to set records or win fame and glory for his country.

When he died in 1958, he’d published several books on the geology and geography of Antarctica. Why is he relatively unknown in the US today? I suspect that it’s because he wasn’t so concerned about setting records and that he survived his adventures in Antarctica.

After accompanying Ernest Shackleton (of “Endurance” fame) on the his “Nimrod” expedition in 1907-1909 discovery of the location of the magnetic S. Pole and the first climb of Mt. Eurbus, Robert Scott invited Mawson to accompany him to the South Pole.

(Scott’s trip ended tragically.)

While thinking about it, Mawson talked to Shackleton, who told him, in effect: “You’ve got experience: Why don’t you lead your own expedition?”

So Mawson raised the money and launched the Australasian Antarctic expedition. (More on Mawson later)

Over the fall and early winter, Louie and I began writing the script. We were helped quite a bit by the use of the early Google Wave IM/email/collaborative document program. We also thought about how we’d shoot some of the shots. This was much bigger than anything we’d done before, so we made a storyline, storyboard, lists of props, possible shooting locations, cast members, and any other resources that we’d need.

It turns out that there are very few casting options in rural Wisconsin in winter.

In February we made some “final” changes to the script and began gathering props. Our neighbors, Gib and Judy were able to hook us up with most of the clothing and baggage. Louie’s dad, Ted, helped us build the sled out of two old Norwegian skis and some boards. Louie’s mom, Robbi, sewed a beautiful replica of Mawson’s tent and his sled harness based on pictures in a museum in Australia.

Over several weeks in February, we went out on the ice and did the outside shooting. We also got a few shots on a hill on Ted and Robbi’s farm.

It’s really cold in Wisconsin in February.

When the Sheriff closed the lake ice on March 1st, we did the interior tent shots, a few outside shots that we’d missed, and the crevasse scene.

The Crevasse scene was the most challenging technically, but the easiest to write (ha ha). Basically, Louie set up a green screen in his parent’s giant greenhouse and I jumped and dangled from the rafters. Louie then took some photos of ice, and through the magic of FinalCut Express, stitched the shot together.

After the shooting was done, we worked on the voiceovers, Louie on the editing, and I on the music. Louie did a rough edit, sent it to me, and I sent it back to him with some rough music. We’d talk about how they were interacting and do it again.

While Louie was adding backgrounds and finding new ways of doing special effects, we added more and more to the film. By the time Louie was editing the end of the film, we had to start at the beginning to incorporate what we’d learned. At some point, you gotta say, “hey, that’s enough” and we had a “final” edit.

George Lucas said that films are never finished, just abandoned.

In early spring, left for Missouri, finished the music, and sent it back to Louie in Wisconsin, where he did a “final final” edit.

About May, I left for Washington to work as a cook for the summer.

Louie showed the film to folks in Wisconsin, I showed the film to folks in Washington, and we compared notes in October: What worked? What do we change? What are we willing to change?

And then we had a “final final final” version.

The great lessons are these:

Find the story.

Revise revise revise.

Every element in the film must work for the greater purpose of the film.

In my mind, Pixar is an inspiring model for this project.  How do you contribute to the story?  What detracts from the story?

Total Budget

Money: ~$80

Time: 1 year

Kind and Patient Neighbors, Relatives, and Friends: Overflowing in Abundance

One thought on “Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic Trek: Aurora Australis -Film

  1. Valmar Kurol

    Hi: I am a collector of Antarctic-themed music and am wondering if the music for this Mawson film (or the film itself) is available for purchase or download?


Leave a Reply