Glasgow-based producer Aimara Reques talks to KFTV about the trials and tribulations of filming award-winning documentary, Aquarela, in some of the most perilous locations in the world, including Russia, Greenland and above Angel Falls.
Five years ago, producer Aimara Reques, who heads up the Glasgow-based Aconite Productions, had an idea to make the most “magnificent film about water ever made”. Her aim was twofold: firstly to leave both a legacy to where we are in the planet today, as we struggle with climate disruption, and secondly, as a valued contribution to world cinema. To achieve her ambition Reques reached out to one of the most celebrated documentary makers working today, Victor Kossakovsky,
Reques had little idea of the adventure she was in for. A Venezuelan by birth, Reques managed to get Kossakovsky on board, and then agreed to help him fulfill his vision of two self-imposed rules to drive the shoot: water would be featured in every frame of the film, and not a drop would appear on the lens. “We knew we were setting up for something ambitious. And we knew that we wanted to do a film that would feel global and that would have a representation of the planet that we live in,” Reques says.
These conditions, and the decision to film using extraordinary equipment in extreme conditions in numerous countries on a limited budget, would lead to many production headaches.
The plan for the shoot was jaw droppingly ambitious: to film thinning ice in Russia, melting icebergs in Greenland, Atlantic storms, hurricanes, and above Angel Falls in Venezuela. Insuring the production proved the first daunting challenge. “Everyone in the industry was saying, it was impossible to insure such a project - some people we consulted even mentioned having to shoot in crazy conditions without insurance and risk having to pay for any incident themselves via the production funds!” Reques recalls. “However, we had in Glasgow the most amazing insurance company ever. I seriously mean this. David Johnstone of WK Film Insurance said to us 'there is nothing that is not insurable, as long as it is clear what we need to insure and it is clear what steps you need to take to protect the shoot and mitigate risks.’” In the end each location shoot had a very lengthy risk assessment and entailed much back and forth discussions with Johnstone.
The next challenge was to find reliable waterproof casing for the camera equipment - something one of the crew insisted could only be flown in urgently from China. At the last minute, Reques did an internet search, landing on Bath-based “Waterproof Media”, and the services of Richard Stevenson, who was fresh off working on Blue Planet 2. Reques admits she was so obsessed with finding waterproof equipment that the team started calling her “Waterproof”.
Flying in and out of each country proved tricky. Because of their self-imposed filming rules - and the decision to film at a rate of 96 frames-per-second - the crew were carrying nearly 1000 kg of equipment everywhere they went. “The airlines don’t let you pack the equipment beforehand,” says Reques. “And you are there in front of the desks with all of the equipment and the staff don’t know what to do with you.”
Throughout, Reques and the crew found it a challenge to protect equipment from the hostile filming conditions - humidity, salt water, waterfall spray, extreme temperatures. They also found that backing up the massive amounts of data from the unusual shooting rate proved an additional headache.
After filming on Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest fresh water lake, where the ice was thinning three weeks early, the production headed for Greenland. “The big narrative we wanted to follow was the melting of the ice into the ocean, and the big journey we wanted to follow was the journey from the arctic to the Atlantic,” says Reques.
Lake Baikal, Siberia
A company called World of Greenland helped them locate an iceberg in a seasonal community named, appropriately, Port Victor. The images of the shifting icebergs are some of the most beautiful - and horrifying - in the film. Whilst filming in Greenland, they had 24 hours daylight - and the crew had to contend with children playing outside their hotel at 2am. “Not something you’d think to worry about,” Reques laughs.
Reques and Kossakovsky knew that they wanted a boat which would help them follow the ice across the arctic - but the prices were prohibitively expensive. Again, luck seemed on their side, when the World of Greenland introduced them to a couple who had just arrived in a yacht at the harbour and loved the sound of the project. Soon the crew had joined them on a harrowing voyage via turbulent seas. The crew spent three weeks on the open sea. “Crossing the Atlantic was the most horrifying experience for me,” confesses Reques. “Everyone was so sick. I don’t know how we survived. We had to stop in the Azores to avoid a huge approaching storm and every minute of it was so difficult. But Victor knew what he wanted and he was determined to get it.”
Wanting to film from the perspective of the sea, Kossakovsky employed a camera stabilisation system called Perfect Horizon, to get an absolutely smooth motion, rather than the pitch and roll of a camera on a rocking boat.
The Venezuela sequence in Angel Falls, which provides the film’s spectacular rainbow-tinted ending, almost never happened. The production was endangered by safety concerns and a fluctuating currency. Carrying out their vision of shooting the falls proved very difficult.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
“Bringing drones into Venezuela was one of the most challenging situations. We could not get them anywhere,” says Reques. “We finally got permission to fly in the middle of the jungle in the waterfall. When we were about to do it, the opposition in Venezuela attempted a coup.” The crew found themselves subject to a no-fly ban throughout the country.
“Nobody could fly. It was so ridiculous,” Reques laughs. “They send a military guy in a helicopter all the way to visit us so we could talk to him, and he comes to inspect the situation. I had this amazing conversation with this guy. He’s there, speaking, calling the minister of defence to say ‘this is a safe team, these people are good, how amazing they are’. And eventually they allowed us to fly. Only in my country!”
The drone shot had come about after a helicopter wasn’t able to hold the shot long enough for Kossakovsky. “We experimented with the helicopter, where he tries three times to do a free fall, all the way down to the waterfall, and he says to Victor, ‘how long do you need this shot? I can only hold free in the air for eight seconds, and then up again’” recalls Reques. “This helicopter man, we called him McGiver, he has been flying in the jungle for forty years, and there was nothing he didn’t know. There were angels everywhere.”
Looking back, Reques feels that the challenging production was guided by “angels”. The finished film, Aquarela, has played globally at film festivals, been nominated for many awards, and is being released by Sony Pictures Classics.