Filming wildlife is rarely easy.
Once again it would be nice to leave it at that but it would make a very boring blog post. So with that in mind, here we go, let us delve into the utter frustrations, grumblings, mumblings, reflections, magical moments, wins and losses of a fairly typical wildlife shoot.
Where to start….
I may or may not be alone in saying I have a love – hate relationship with filming wildlife. It is one of the best jobs in the world if you like travel, photography and the natural world. However in my humble opinion it is often offset by frustration and the feeling that somehow everything from the wildlife, the elements and even the viewfinder is secretly conspiring against you. There is a lot to live up to if you are a wildlife cameraman/woman there are some legends in the game! Between them they have filmed the worlds most iconic and beautiful films, sequences and stand alone shots. Big shoes to fill and a lot to live up to. Although this does not directly impact on a shoot, there is a certain expectation to maintain the level of craftsmanship and skill these guys have spent years perfecting. I only started filming a few years back, so I still have a lot to learn and I have a lot of respect for what wildlife camera folks and film makers have done before I showed up and snuck in the back door. I suppose it is an added pressure or perhaps just one that only I feel. Who knows.
I’ve recently spent a month filming Arctic foxes at Hornstrandir nature reserve in the Westfjords of Iceland. Arctic foxes have a fascinating history in Iceland and are an incredible animal one which I have really come to admire far more than I expected. We have been lucky enough to be working under the guidance of Ester Rut Unesteinsdottir from the arctic fox center in Sudavik arcticfoxcenter.com (their website is full of interesting facts and historical information on the Icelandic fox). Ester is more like an arctic fox than she would like to admit, fit as a fiddle, feisty, determined and highly intelligent. Esters knowledge of the valleys, foxes, secret spots and the trolls of this beautiful nature reserve is second to none.
A month may seem a long time to film a sequence but if you have been to Iceland and know what the weather can be like, and if you have filmed Icelandic foxes before then you will know (unless you have been very lucky) that both can be rather difficult!
I should mention at this point that Neil and Andy had gone to film Salmon and I need to introduce a new character to the equasion for this blog post! Ben (The Viking) York. Ben is from Films@59, a very well respected post production and camera kit hire company from Bristol (www.filmsat59.com) The boys and girls who run the hire department are a fantastic bunch of people and really know their stuff when it come to banter, cameras and glass and making cups of tea. I digress, poor old Ben is constantly sending out kit 24-7 to wildlife and drama film crews, all happily filming in some far flung corner of this wonderful earth while he and his colleagues work their nuts off in the office in Bristol, so we thought it only fair to get the old boy out of the technical warehouse and into the Icelandic wilds for a baptism of fire and also so he could see what it is like on the other side of the televisual fence.
So he hopped on a plane, met me in Isafjordur, and we made our way to Hornstrandir nature reserve.
After a smooth boat journey of about three hours we arrived safe and sound with no signs of sea sickness.
All Ben and I had to do now was start filming! Ohhh no wait… I need the toilet. See you in half an hour? The “Toblerone” as it is affectionately known is the only toilet in Hornstrandir and is a stiff 30 minute walk from the scientists camp site, if you leave the door open you get a wonderful view, so it is worth the walk. Now all we had to do was set the camp up, put up 5 tents carry the fuel, generator, tripods, lenses, cameras, food and stuff, stuff and more stuff. Why is there always so much stuff, how is it possible to have so much stuff? I blame Ben. Luckily we had some help from the team researching the foxes under the guidance of Ester and also another film crew from Iceland attempting to film the foxes.
After an extensive recce of the Hornstrandir valleys which takes a good day to hike Ester found a few dens in the research area around Hornvik but only one sighting of a cub and a few glimpses of a very skittish adult male in the far off distance. Not the start I’d hoped for.
Over the coming days, with support from Ester, we made the decision to film at a den which, thanks to Esters confidence it could work, we had a good feeling about….sometimes you have to go with your instincts and trust those in the know. A surprising but rapidly encroaching problem was the vegetation that was growing at an alarming rate. Because the foxes had denned slightly later it meant that if new fox cubs popped out to see the world the chances are you would not even see them let alone get juicy shots for the telly box. Just that one thing is enough to make your shoot really difficult. You can’t go in and chop down the vegetation or disturb the den. In reality there is not much you can do, foxes do not like any type of interference around the den and it is very easy to disturb them, forcing the adults to move the cubs, which is not how we like to roll.
Luckily we had foreseen the vegetation problem in the highly technical (that’s going to F *** us up radar) and had chosen an area which was slightly behind in growth terms giving us a fighting chance. The foxes at Hornstrandir appeared to be denning slightly later than previous years possibly due to the very heavy snow fall during the winter so in the typical fashion of most things conspiring against you, the first obstacle to overcome was the fact that no cubs are showing at the dens.
Getting to the den site is a good hike, Ben loved it! for the first day. The hike is fairly easy without kit, but with everything you need for a day and evening filming is a different matter, luckily Ben turned Viking pretty quickly and was a great help lugging the kit and working as an assistant, he also made a mean hot chocolate and chicken tikka packet meal….
I may or may not be alone in saying you enter into a strange time vortex on a shoot like this, days and weeks roll into one, and a single hour takes six to pass, the five days you have left to finish the shoot seems to take a year or two. You give up shaving or caring what you look like, you eat like a caveman, drink from the glacial rivers and all in all become a slightly odd creature (maybe thats just me). The drive or determination to nail the sequence is something all wildlife cameramen/women understand very well and it is a highly important characteristic needed for this type of filming. Wildlife camera folks have been doggedly chasing these sequences for years and only by this determination do you get to see all the beautiful footage on wildlife television series and films. Hats off to all those men and women working so hard to showcase the natural world.
Ben and I got to know our foxes pretty well over the coming weeks and started to gain some trust mainly with the female but not so much with the wily old male who always kept distance and a beedy eye on our movements. Observing how the foxes behave to see if any patterns emerge always helps with planning a days filming but just like the weather in Iceland, soon as you think it is sunny it clouds up and starts raining, snowing and blowing a gale, then the northern lights pop out and a volcano erupts! It is a crazy place. The foxes are the same as the weather, they change behaviour like the wind, I suppose that is what makes them so unique but also so difficult to film, they are very unpredictable just as you think you have a pattern it changes. That is wildlife for you.
We had good days and bad days in terms of filming. It was not unusual to sit in the rain for 13 hours with only one sighting of a fox. That is just the way it goes, some days we saw very little, but stuck it out till then evening when you would be rewarded with a fleeting glimpse. Wildlife cameramen/woman have a ridiculous amount of patience, or like our mate Charlie Hamilton-James said “we are just very good at being bored”
We filmed some lovely stuff at the den over the coming weeks but its was really hard work to get footage. We filmed some very tender moments of life at the den, and watched as the male and female struggled at times to keep it all going. I must say at this point that I do admire the Icelandic arctic fox so very much, it is hard to put into words just how tough, adaptable and durable these fascinating little animals really are. A remarkable animal which is able to survive and prosper in the wildest of places in Iceland. Hornstrandir is one of those wild places, wild in spirit, but what I really mean is wild in the sense of it’s unpredictability, unable to be tamed, the elements are in control and not people.
After a “groundhog day” lifestyle two and a half weeks went past and it was time for another change. Andy and Neil had finished filming with the Atlantic salmon, Andy returned to the U.K to edit a film on Asiatic lions and Neil arrived with much needed refreshments and support for the tired and weary fox crew. A few days later Ben looking more like a Viking than a Viking did left on the boat to head back to the U.K after a real adventure in the wilds of Iceland. The sea had started to pick up and white horses had arrived pounding the huge stone beaches, we waved Ben off as he sailed into the distance and Neil and I carried on filming the fox family.
The weather had been continuing to build and became steadily worse towards the last week of the shoot, huge sea fogs began rolling in and high winds started to pick up making filming the fox more difficult and more dangerous. The sea cliffs around Hornstrandir are huge well over 300m and the landscape is not to be taken lightly, it is a beautiful place, but also volatile and the weather can snap in an instant. The Fog can be so thick it is not possible to see the ground or the small pathways to navigate back to the campsite. Many travellers head to Hornstrandir to enjoy the landscape and hike the mountains and most of the time they are rewarded with clear skies and spectacular views of this remote nature reserve. Most of the adventurous tourists are prepared and experienced hikers and usually led by highly knowledgable Icelandic guides, some tourists arrive woefully underprepared wearing jeans and t-shirts which is not advisable.
We had carried on filming the foxes until the wind, rain and fog prevented us from hiking to the den site, we heard news from a small house on the reserve and from the park ranger that some very bad weather was heading towards Hornstrandir. There is no phone signal or internet at the nature reserve and most information comes from radio or from the park ranger so we sat out the first few day of the worsening wether huddled in tents mopping up the drips and battening down the hatches.
I am not sure any of us expected the weather to be quite so bad, but with warnings from the Icelanders not to venture into the mountains we stayed put and trusted their judgement, they know best, it is their home and they know it better than anyone. Gradually the wind and rain increased and started to batter the coast and our campsite, one by one, the tents started to blow away! The now one-man Icelandic film crew which had also been filming foxes were having a bad run of luck and struggled to film any material at another den site on the nature reserve. Then things got worse, Buppy the Icelandic cameraman’s tent blew down, when I say blew down, it literally snapped the carbon fibre poles all the way down the tent. It was lashing with rain and the wind was gusting at gale force speeds. It was chaos, Neil and I rushed out of our own battered tents to help him secure his film kit and possessions. The tent was a right off.
Buppy trekked to one of two houses at the nature reserve to ask for help whilst Neil and I made do sheltering in our leaking and damaged tents and securing our tents with what ever we could find. Every time the wind picked up from the sea and forced a gust into the valley the tents shook with a thundering crack and bent sideways under the strain, water was now pouring in and everything was getting soaked including our dry clothes. Sleeping was impossible. Buppy returned late, to inform us he could stay with a family at the house for the night. Neil and I sat it out in some mildly faint hope it would die down and and we would wake up to a beautiful summers day….
That did not happen, one by one, our tents blew away and broke down until we had nothing left. The generator was soaked and stopped working and we could not charge any equipment.
The weather was getting worse and we had no choice but to ask for help from the family staying the their holiday home on the reserve. We arrived completely wet, cold and very tired. We met up with Buppy who introduced us to Stigur one of the owners from the house. Stigur is a top man, very kind, welcoming and genuinle decent guy and more than happy to help out. His house was full, eleven adults and children all of which had come to holiday as they do every year, however they had arrived the day before the storm hit and had been stuck inside ever since. Stigur only had one place we could sleep – an old but sturdy boat shed down on the beach. He made us a fire and allowed us to get our clothes dry and let us use the shower, first shower in almost four weeks for Ian.
Over the course of the day and night we took down what was remaining of the camp and moved all our kit to the boat shed under gale force conditions.
Film crews never travel light! and moving a whole camp with filming kit, kitchen, expedition kit was no easy feet. Finally we were holed up in a boat shed in the most remote part of Iceland in a storm Neil, Buppy and Ian. Just enough room for three sleeping bags and a mountain of kit. Looking back now it was quite funny, apart from Buppy snoring! I am not sure we had more than a few hours sleep that week, the wind was shaking and battering the boat shed to the point where we all though it was going to take the roof off. But Icelanders know how to build a boat shed! Super shed took all the wind and rain and shrugged it off. We spent four days and nights all going slightly mad and sheltering in the boat shed waiting for the storm to drop. Search and rescue helicopters had been flying looking for stranded tourists in terrible conditions, again we tip our hats to the men and women out doing this work it is truly incredible and very brave.
Neil and I took a bottle of whisky to the house to say thank you to Stigur and his family for helping us out. At first he said “no you don’t need to give me anything, this is what we do, Icelanders always help people, it is just what we do” Then he gave a wry smile and said ok come in. We met all the family and sat in a warm house surrounded by lovely people and drank whisky and ate some very tasty dried fisk with butter. The guitar came out, songs were sung, voices were raised and whilst the weather raged outside Neil and I felt very happy and safe. Until the morning when we woke up with a massive headaches.
We heard news the next day from the captain of the boat they were going to attempt to sail out to pick up the family depending on how bad the sea was looking. We waited all day and into the evening without word. Around midnight we heard from Stigur the boat was coming. We lugged all our kit to beach in the pouring rain and wind and waited with the family to be picked up. The guys who sail the boat are amazing, trying to get people and kit into a zodiac in crashing waves is very difficult, Neil did a great job helping the boat guys standing in crashing waves pushing the zodiac out from the shore full of kit and people. We did maybe ten runs in the zodiac before all were safely on board.
The journey back was rough to say the least. Nearly everyone on board was sea sick apart from the old hardened Icelanders and Neil and Ian! we must have the old celtic sea fairing genes!
Well, thats all I have to say about that right now, apart from a big thank you again to all the Icelanders for looking after us, Stigur, Ester, Thor, all the guys and girls in the office back at H.Q
Left to right: Ian, Ester, Ben and Neil.
next time, we catch up with the horse at their annual roundup…quite a spectacle I can assure you!