A guide to filming in freezing temperatures

  • Film & Techniques

If you plan on filming in a cold environment there are several precautions you must take - the health and safety of your crew being the most paramount. But what other safety measures should you observe? Here are our top ten tips. 

1. Appropriate clothing (part 1)

It goes without saying you'll need to be warm. But the art of dressing for extreme cold conditions is slightly more subtle than that. For a start, the choice of clothes depends on whether you are going to be very physically active or standing around a lot. It also depends on whether temperatures are likely to vary considerably. As a general rule, it's best to have lots of layers. This way you can take them on and off depending on what you are doing and what happens with temperatures.

Sweating can be a problem because you can get very cold when damp. So wearing layers means you can change more easily. Terry Woolf, a filmmaker based in Yellowknife, Canada, says choice of material is important. "When dressing for the cold, wool is the best thing you can use. It retains much of its thermal efficiency even if wet. Down is good but when wet is useless. Fleece is good stuff. Cotton is the worst thing to wear. Loose clothing is better than tight because trapped dead air is your insulator. Wear long underwear. Fleece or wool pants, a good windproof over layer like nylon wind pants etc. (although nylon and gortex stuff gets pretty stiff and makes noise which is bad for sound)."

2. Appropriate clothing (part 2)

Having the right body armour is only part of the process. You also need a hat that covers your ears and something for your neck. Terry Woolf uses a wool neck gaiter rather than a scarf, because scarves can get in the way. Boots with good grip and warm lining are crucial. Rubber bottoms are better than plastic. It's good advice to wear a couple of pairs of socks to keep the heat in (one of them wool). But make sure your boots don't feel too tight because the cold will transfer from outside to your feet more easily if they are.

Gloves are also critical - but most experts struggle to find gloves that can a) keep their hands warm and b) allow them to operate equipment. Options include Flashpoint Finger Shooting Gloves (which allow you to uncover your fingertips without removing the entire glove) and Isotoner Smartouch Gloves (the kind of gloves that allow you to use touchscreen devices without taking them off). A more standard approach is to wear fingerless gloves and then have a pair of thick mittens to put over them when not filming. One other tip from Woolf is to put chemical hand warmers in your mittens or pockets but "watch them around the gear, they contain salts and if opened could damage things," he warns.

3. Food, time, and frostbite

Don't underestimate the debilitating nature of cold weather. Always stay in shelter when possible, eat well to store up energy and consume warm drinks. Rest is also important. Team leaders need to make sure they aren't pushing people too hard and are monitoring when people are starting to suffer. Factor in extra time because people work slower in extreme cold conditions. Also be on the look-out for serious conditions like frostbite. If your skin starts to feel numb and hard, don't panic. But you do need to get out of the cold and warm it up.

filming in the cold

4. Equipment errors

Filmmakers tend to cite two issues most frequently. The first is battery preservation. Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg, who have been taking photos for National Geographic magazine for more than three decades, say: “When shooting in below-freezing weather, it is critical to have a fully charged set of batteries, since the cold temperatures can quickly drain them. Should your battery discharge too early, you can extend its life by placing it in a warm pocket, close to your body, to warm it up. Remember to always bring along two batteries: one for the camera and another to keep charging in your cabin or room.”

The other problem that producers encounter in cold conditions is condensation. Director of photography Alister Chapman says: “When you take a very cold camera inside you will get condensation. If the camera is very cold this can freeze on the camera including the glass of the lens. If there is condensation on the outside of the camera, there will also be condensation inside and this can kill your camera. To prevent or reduce condensation, place the camera in a large ziplock bag before taking it inside. Then allow the camera to warm up to the ambient temperature before removing it from the bag.” [Some other film-makers use see-through plastic garbage sacks].

Chapman also says you can leave your camera outside to avoid condensation but not if it gets below minus 25 degrees Celsius because “you risk the LCD panel freezing and cracking. Very often in cold regions houses will have an unheated reception room or porch. This is a good place to store you camera rather than taking it inside into the warm. Repeatedly taking a camera from cold to warm without taking precautions against condensation will shorten the life of your camera.”

“If you can, leave the camera on between shots. The camera generates some heat internally and this will prevent many issues.” Some experts says film-makers should use “ lithium, nicad, or nickel metal hydride batteries, which function well in the cold”. But Chapman’s view is that Nicads or NiMh batteries are "all but useless" below freezing.

5. Tripods and lenses

The other kit issue that can cause headaches is how to protect lenses. Most filmmakers advise taking a paintbrush to wipe off slush or snow if it gets on the lens (or any other equipment for that matter). Don’t blow snow off the lens because this can cause moisture to freeze on it. Better to use a paintbrush or cloth to do this.

You also need to be thinking about protective devices such as a rubber lens hood and a rain/falling snow cover. In general, the best advice is not to change lenses outside unless absolutely essential. Even carrying or changing lenses beneath your coat can create a condensation problem.

As for tripods, some filmmakers advise that lightweight versions aren’t very good in extreme cold conditions. If you have to use them, keep the legs as short as possible.

6. Spare kit

This seems to contradict the tripod advice above. But as far as possible don’t take too much stuff. It’s probably going to increase costs, because you’ll need more vehicles and/or porters. And you’ll increase the risk of damage. Worst of all, messing around with kit might mean you miss the big shot. If you do have to take a lot of kit, don’t skimp on vehicles, drivers and porters because you need to make sure your crew members aren’t burdened by non-essential jobs [though ultimately these are judgment calls based on budgets].

NOTE: taking spares of any essential equipment is very important. If you don’t have back ups an entire shoot could be ruined.

7. Equipment freeze

Some kit can get brittle in cold weather, either losing its flexibility or snapping. Woolf says: “Watch your cables. Most of them are plastic and will become very brittle. There is a cold-weather mic cable out there from Canare.”
Referring to the previous section, also note that snow/rain covers can get brittle. Look for specially-designed products. Tripods can also experience issues. If outside in very low temperatures for extended periods, the grease in the tripod may freeze. Companies like Vinten can winterise the tripod by replacing normal grease with arctic grease.


8. Surprises

Terry Woolf says: “If you are working in mine buildings or truck stops remember a lot of them have nylon carpets and this is a very arid environment. Walking down the hall can build a hefty static charge. Watch your gear. If it’s very static-y I find holding a key or some kind of metal in my hand and discharging it against something neutral before touching the gear helps.”


9. Planning for emergencies

Any extreme adventure requires good emergency planning. It’s important to undertake a thorough risk assessment when planning your shoot. This will be needed in order to adequately insure your crew and equipment. Your location scout or manager should have a solid knowledge of the risks involved in filming in their chosen area. This includes access and evacuation routes, where medical facilities are located and how to access them.

Larger productions should have their own medic with them on location and it would also be useful to ensure other members of crew are trained in basic first aid. All crew should be briefed on how to keep themselves safe and healthy during filming. The key message is to be prepared for every possible eventuality because conditions change quickly. Keep in mind also that equipment like generators, mobile or satellite phones and radios may also be adversely affected by the weather. Think in advance about how to resolve this.


10. Local advice

You don’t want anything to stop your shoot. And you don’t want to show any signs of ignorance. But don’t be so stubborn that you ignore advice. Local knowledge can be invaluable in helping to plan a safe and efficient shooting schedule. Heed warnings from guides, their advice could be crucial to maintaining your crew’s safety. Be prepared to use local specialists if confronted by complex or treacherous conditions.


Additional reading

If you want to find out a bit more about filming in freezing conditions then we suggest the following links: