Out in the cold

Richard Sidey transformed more than a decade of his day job into a 45-minute film.

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Richard Sidey

The summer job that 20-year-old Richard Sidey stumbled into wasn’t anything out of the ordinary—serving wine—but the bar the hired him happened to be located on a Russian icebreaker bound for the Ross Sea.

Sidey packed a video camera, and started filming the polar scenery in his off hours, after the bar had closed. The sun never set, and the small hours had the best light, soft and low to the horizon. Back home, Sidey cut the footage into a short film, Midnight Sun, and sent it out in lieu of a resume. The next time he stepped foot on a ship, it was as an expedition photographer rather than a wine steward. “A lot of these small-expedition vessels have a photographer on board to document what they see and what they do, and to give photography talks and lectures,” he says.

Sidey has spent the last 12 years travelling the world on contracts of this kind, but his passion remains for the poles, both north and south. He spends two months at sea at a stretch, shooting by day and editing by night, then returns home to Wanaka for a rest and a stint working on personal projects. For the last few years, those off-months have been devoted to creating a documentary film.

Speechless, which premieres at the Documentary Edge Festival in Auckland and Wellington in June, observes the polar regions’ remote landscapes and myriad inhabitants without a voiceover. At first, the lack of a narrative guide is disorienting—any nature-documentary regular is accustomed to being led by hand through a story, or at least being fed a series of facts—but you quickly settle back and enjoy the view.

Sidey hit on the idea of making a film after finding himself incapable of describing his experiences to others. He was tired of the documentary format, of making wildlife fit the confines of a narrative—he’d rather viewers experience the same process of encounter and discovery that he did.

“I get frustrated sometimes watching documentaries where you’re just being told what to think all the time and you’re not really getting a personal experience,” he says.

Instead, Sidey paid careful attention to recording and compiling natural sounds: water lapping, seals yawning, wind gusting in a snowstorm. “I used a very simple microphone, a little Sennheiser mic that would mount on top of my SLR, with a good wind muff. I was able to, over time, collect enough clean sound to build up a bit of a library.”

He built up a library, too, of mammalian and avian behaviour, all captured around the demands of his day job. “It’s a very opportunistic film. I haven’t been able to camp out for three or four hours—you’re never in one place for very long.”

Rather, Sidey honed his skills at weighing up a scene quickly. The biggest challenge, he says, was the sheer scale of some of the locations: South Georgia’s Salisbury Plain, for example. “You walk on there, you’re surrounded by more than 200,000 breeding pairs of king penguins, and you’ve got two hours. It’s almost too much, you feel like you’re under this enormous pressure to do great work, but I find it really hard to focus on what I want. In those situations I keep my camera in my bag for the first ten minutes, and look around, and focus on what’s happening, and go from there. I see it happen all the time with the people I take to these places—they leap out of the Zodiacs and start taking photos without even looking around.”

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It took Sidey a year to edit, as piecing his footage together without the ready-made structure of a story proved a difficult puzzle. “I’d work on it, then come back, then I’d rip the whole thing apart and start from scratch. It was a real challenge to make it flow without a spoken narrative.”

Realising he needed to invent some kind of alternate structure, Sidey settled on moving the film through four loosely-themed acts. “I linked scenes that seemed to flow with the same themes, or the same light or the same colours or the same noises, to try and transition them.”

A longtime collaborator of Sidey’s, Sydney-based composer Miriama Young, created soundscapes that matched each theme. Her score gives the film forward momentum, and marks breaks between chapters.

So far, Sidey’s effort has paid off. Speechless has been accepted by film festivals abroad as well as locally, and his next task will be to secure a distributor. But if that doesn’t happen, there’s always the internet: the trailer alone quickly captured 20,000 views, he says.

His goal: for as many people to see the film as possible. “So much of what we see is catastrophic, and we’re constantly surrounded by bad news,” he says. “I think it’s important to see the beauty—these parts of the world are our last great wildernesses.”

See more at richardsidey.com