Rolf Steinmann is a wildlife cameraman from Munich, Germany who specialises in long-lens work and time-lapse techniques. In the beginning of 2015, Steinmann finished his short film ‘In Between’, and we’ve been transfixed since.
The film takes us to a remote corner of the world to witness the incredible lives of wild musk oxen.
Funded completely by Steinmann himself, ‘In Between’ allowed him to film without compromise, and it shows.
Tell us how you first got into filmmaking. Were you inspired by other filmmakers?
“First of all: I don’t see myself as a filmmaker. I’m a cameraman who made his first short film. I think I’m a long way away of calling myself a filmmaker.
“The reason why I pursued a career in wildlife filmmaking was simple: I was looking for a job to combine my two passions, nature and wildlife films!
“The filmmakers who I was mainly inspired by are all from a different generation. They combined very personal storytelling with the kind of photography that you can only offer if you spent a lot of time in the field. Wildlife filmmakers like Owen Newman, Hugh Miles, Ernst Arendt and Hans Schweiger, and Dietmar Keil. As far as I know they are all retired now.”
‘In Between’ is an incredible short — insightful and breathtaking, but also very sad. Where did you get the idea to make this film?
“I don’t think that there is a real idea behind the film. It was more of an emotion and mood that I wanted to express with filmic tools. I have never been to a film school or anything else, so I was only able to follow my intuition. That’s why I produced it completely independent with my own money. I would have never been able to write a script or treatment to pitch it somewhere.
“It took me almost a decade from the first instinct to make a film about musk oxen until I eventually made it. I had to be patient because I knew I could only shoot this kind of film if I had access to the best camera gear available. It took me many years of work to be able to afford it, and to have the feeling I had enough experience to operate it properly in serious winter conditions.”
Tell us more about the plight of musk oxen. Did you learn a lot about the animals while filming?
“In my opinion you are always learning a lot about another species if you spend weeks with it. It’s like with a human. After a six-week camping trip you know much more about your colleague or friend (and that he might not be your friend anymore).
“But I didn’t learn the kind of things that would be interesting for a biologist. I learnt how to approach musk oxen without alarming them. I learnt about after how much time I needed to leave them alone again. I learnt how tough they are to survive in those winter conditions and that they prefer to have it cold than warm. In the most serious storms, they continued to do their daily business. I reached my physical limits in those winter storms with an iced-up camera and frozen goggles, while those oxen were still play-fighting and feeding.
“I really learnt that the coldest part of the winter is not the problem for musk oxen. Problems seem to be hot summers (they start to overheat easily), parasites and diseases (which can spread way easier if wildlife has already been weakened) or rain in the winter that can lead to frozen ground, which makes feeding impossible.
“Musk oxen have evolved for a cold and dry climate. They don’t have oil glands to ‘impregnate’ their fur. Hence they can suffer a lot from wet weather (which seems to be more common in Arctic regions today).
“But I’m not a biologist nor a climatologist and I don’t want to teach people about those things because I don’t have the authority. As mentioned before, I would much rather express a feeling than spread facts. And I’m convinced that if somebody learns to empathise with the destiny of another species, he or she is more willing to change his or her opinions and actions.”
How much planning was involved in making the film? Where did the filming take place?
“A ton of planning was involved to make the film. Normally, assistant producers and production coordinators are in charge of the logistics. But on this project I had to do everything myself. It was so complicated that I repeatedly was close to giving up. It was also very expensive because I paid everything myself.
“I had to organise things like the custom documents and transport to and from the location, everything had to be protected properly in waterproof cases, I needed pulkas for transporting the gear in the field, ski equipment, an expedition base camp with tents, plenty of sleeping mats, sleeping bags and all the “kitchen” gear that you need for a bit of comfort at minus 20°C.
“I had to organise expedition food, winter clothing, a generator and fuel, the filming equipment, first aid kit, etc. It really drove me crazy but I didn’t forget anything. Even in 120 km/h winds I had everything to operate and the base camp wasn’t blown away either.
“With a bit of research it’s easy to find out where I was filming. But I don’t like to write it down here because I’m not interested in supporting tourism. I don’t make films for the sake of people finding their next holiday destination. I work on films because I want to make people think and feel.”
What are you working on right now that we can expect to see soon?
“At the moment I’m doing what I always do as a cameraman: I shoot sequences for TV and cinema productions. On BBC One there has recently been a series called The Hunt for which I was working on polar bears in the High Arctic. Moreover, in April 2016 Disney Nature will release a movie that I was filming for on the Tibetan plateau.
“Concerning another independent short film, I have to admit that I haven’t started to shoot one yet. I certainly have a strong longing to spend weeks again with another species out there in the wild, and to collect footage without any pressure. But at this stage I don’t know exactly when it will happen again.”