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Raucous crowd cheers Ice Palace movie

Mark Burns, left, interviews Dean Baker, head of the Ice Palace builders for the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, inside a Palace that had just been battered but not broken by wind, rain and temperatures in the 50s in early February 2016. Burns’ finished documentary film, “Ice Palace: a Love Letter,” made its world premiere Sunday night at the Lake Placid Film Festival. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

LAKE PLACID — Hundreds of happy Saranac Lakers packed the Palace Theatre’s big room Sunday night for the world premiere of “Ice Palace: a Love Letter,” a documentary made during the 2016 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.

They applauded thunderously, hooted and hollered and gave standing ovations to this movie that is, as its name suggests, a show of the filmmaker’s love and appreciation of their community. It was the closing act of this year’s Lake Placid Film Festival.

“The movie really cuts a clear picture, a great picture of what Winter Carnival is and, more importantly, what Saranac Lake is,” Winter Carnival Committee Chairman Jeff Branch said during a question-and-answer session afterward, which almost the entire audience stayed for.

Although Mark Burns has worked on many other people’s video projects as a “journeyman” and “mercenary” (his words), this was the first film he made on his own. He did everything, from shooting to editing to making it happen in the first place.

The New York City resident had visited relatives in Bloomingdale many times in his youth, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he started coming up for Winter Carnival, an annual tradition that began in 1897. After a couple of Carnivals, his wife Yvette suggested he make a film about it. The kookiness and sense of community drew them to it, he said.

Mark Burns, left, interviews a corrections officer overseeing inmates from Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility as they help build the Ice Palace for the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival in January 2016. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

They hadn’t even scratched the surface yet.

Starting in January 2016, Burns embedded himself with the volunteers who build the Ice Palace, Winter Carnival’s centerpiece attraction. He was there for every step: Dean Baker checking the ice thickness in Lake Flower’s Pontiac Bay, clearing snow, making initial cuts with an ancient circular saw, using old tools to cut and wedge the ice blocks apart, using heavy machinery to move the blocks, and then the building. An underwater camera puts the viewer beneath the blocks as an excavator hoists them out, and a drone gives a bird’s-eye view of the whole project. Burns said afterward the underwater and drone cameras were donated by Robin Johnson, a Carnival volunteer known for ice carvings at the Palace.

The film proceeds to cover the Carnival as a whole, from Coronation to fireworks to parade, but it has three main focus areas: the Ice Palace volunteers, the prisoners from Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility who help build it, and the HomEnergy heating company crew that spends weeks constructing a parade float topped by a 20-foot Mighty Mouse, in keeping with that year’s Carnival theme, “Superheroes and Villains.”

It happened that Burns captured some of the wildest weather in Carnival history. Palace builders said they had never seen it so bad. When it turned to rain, wind and temperatures in the 50s, they covered the partly completed Palace with tarps to save some of it and not have to start from scratch. Then on parade day temperatures dropped to roughly 20 below zero with wind chill around minus 35. Two days later, it was back in the 50s; the shock of the 70-plus-degree rise cracked the Palace’s front arch, prompting the structure to be closed and demolished shortly afterward.

All that work for a few days of fun — just like every year.

The making of this Mighty Mouse parade float is one of the focus areas of the documentary film, “Ice Palace: a Love Letter.” (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Saranac Lakers’ sense of humor comes through strong as Palace and float builders wisecrack throughout their arduous, creative processes. Palace builders wrap up each day with a “safety meeting” at a bar, and HomEnergy owner Dan Reilly quips that the worst injury they had in float-building was from carbon monoxide poisoning, and that it was his daughter, and that she’s fine.

Even the deepest Winter Carnival insider might learn something new from the prison scenes at Moriah Shock, which the film explains is one of the nation’s last boot-camp-style prisons — a chance for a nonviolent offender to get a reduced sentence and some stiff discipline to sustain him through life on the outside. The warden and the governor’s office gave Burns open access, and he’s there at 5:30 a.m. when the inmates are woken up and led out for formation field drills and runs — in all weather. He’s there for their meals and busing over to Saranac Lake, where they are surprised by the unusual work. There are plenty of interviews with them and corrections officers, as well as a substance abuse counselor who advocates for this kind of disappearing but effective facility that has a better record of correction than standard prisons and is less costly for taxpayers.

Burns is also there to capture the inmates’ graduation ceremony a couple of days after their last Palace-building session, and the hugs of their family members who’ve come to pick them up.

Burns said he hadn’t planned on the prisoners being such a big part of the movie.

“In understanding what that Moriah Shock program is, it seemed to me to be worth investigating and advocating for that kind of rehabilitation of these guys,” he said in the Q&A session. “If a kid messes up and does something stupid and ends up in jail for three, four years, he learns to be a criminal. But if he goes into a shock jail, he learns respect, he learns how to work with other people in a group, and they save some money in the meantime.”

The Ice Palace is closed to visitors at the end of the 2016 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival after a sudden 70-plus-degree rise in temperature, from minus-20 to over 50 in 24 hours, cracked the archway over the Palace's front entrance. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

It’s been more than three-and-a-half years of work since Burns filmed all that, and now “Ice Palace: a Love Letter” is ready to be “loosed into the wild,” in his words.

“Honestly, right now, sitting here talking to all of you fine people, it makes it perfect,” he said.

Burns said the film will be screened at the Key West Film Festival in Florida, and he’s applied for it to be in other festivals as well. It will also be shown during Winter Carnival this February, and he hopes for a screening at Moriah Shock as well. He plans to have it on Apple and Vimeo streaming services, as well as a DVD with bonus scenes that had to be cut.

“In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll know where it’s going to go beyond here,” he said. “But I think it has universal appeal. As Mark (Kurtz, the Winter Carnival photographer quoted in the film) said … it’s Americana. You don’t see this in a lot of communities. And so I think this is gonna have a life of its own and travel around. And Saranac Lake, I think you’re going to have people coming to help you build the Ice Palace.”

“I hope so,” Branch said. “We have positions open.”