Peter Wunstorf, ASC just arrived back in his native Alberta, Canada for a break after two very unusual projects. One was a feature film directed by Roger Spottiswoode and shot in the Canadian Arctic, titled Midnight Sun. The other was a quick short film with SCTV alum Joe Flaherty that will also serve as a music video for the band The Wet Secrets.
Midnight Sun is the story of a boy and a baby polar bear. “Roger’s worked with everyone from Roger Deakins to John Alcott to Robert Elswit,” says Peter. “So it was great to get that call, and to be able to do a feature with him. A lot of what I’ve shot has been pretty dark, visually and psychologically, so it was nice to do a film without a villain — aside from the weather. Let’s face it, if you have kids now, aside from animated films, what can you take the whole family to?”
Much of the shoot took place on the ice near Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay. Peter says it was the first time he worked with polar bear spotters and experts monitoring the ice for dangerous developments.
As the year wore on, the crew had to move further north, to Rankin Inlet. “It was pretty stunning up there, and working on the floe edge was quite an experience. We were in Rankin Inlet for the longest day of the year, where it never really got dark. There was usually an hour-long Ski-doo ride with all the gear in wooden sleds. By the time we were shooting, we were a good two hours into the day. Our lead actor was a minor, and with our little bear, when it was time to quit, we had to quit. So we were working six-day weeks, but not long days.”
With a cast of essentially two actors plus the bear, days could be flipped at the last minute, allowing Peter to match to stormy or sunny weather with more flexibility. Some scenes take place in tent interiors, the boy’s home, and for those the crew relocated for ten days to a country house and a hockey arena in Sault Sainte Marie in North Ontario. There was a tax credit involved in this decision.
Peter shot most of the time with two Alexas, and second unit director of photography Brian Murphy shot with a third. Spottiswoode’s Nikon D800 often grabbed longer lens shots of the bear. A mother polar bear was shot against blue screen in Vancouver after the Arctic shoot wrapped.
“The baby bear was very well trained and a pleasure to shoot,” says Peter. “The boy and the bear really bonded — he could get the bear to do things that even surprised the trainer. That shows up in the film.”
The beauty of the Arctic offered Peter great backdrops. “There were all these incredible shades of blue, whether it was the sky or the water,” he says. “As the snow starts to melt, you get these beautiful pools of turquoise water. It was just there to capture – aside from using an occasional grad filter to shape the top or bottom of the frame. Roger is very good about shooting backlit and shooting at the right time of day.
“By the time we finished shooting, there was no snow left anywhere, but there was still ice on the Hudson Bay, and that’s what you really see in the film,” says Peter. ”It’s three feet thick, and it’s quite fascinating. It changes every day. A half-a-mile-long piece can just break off and float away, and that starts to happen in the spring. If you were to go off the edge into the bay, and the current was going the wrong way, you’re gone forever.”
The music video/short film project was shot 2.35 and black and white on a Red camera. The wide frame was extracted from the center of the Red’s sensor. Flaherty revived Count Floyd, a character from his SCTV days. The short takes a good-natured poke at the Twilight phenomenon and the ubiquity of vampires in today’s youth culture.
It was shot over four short days with a crew of just 20. The director was Trevor Anderson, whose shorts have screened at Berlin and AFI, and Anderson is also in the band. The track in the music video version is appropriately titled “Night Life.” Anderson also plans to create a separate soundtrack and submit the piece to festivals as a short film.
For now, Peter is enjoying some down time in Canada. “Right now, it’s just life,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of friends up here. I was born here and raised here. So I divide my time between here and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I never work there!”