Category Archives: Natural History

Iceland – Land of Ice and Fire has a release date!

first off, apologies for the lack of activity on here for so long, many reasons, main one being that its been very time consuming going through the post production process! its not the most dynamic thing to watch either, a computer screen, but I will do a post on all the tech workflow in due course.

Anyway, the good news is that we have our transmission date set!!!!

…..fanfare/drumroll……

It will be broadcast in the UK on May 1st, BBC2 at 9pm

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There will of course be a US release in due course on Animal Planet, as soon as I get it I’ll pass it on. in the meantime, here is a link through to The Natural World BBC website

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnnh

and the BBC Earth website is always a good place to visit

http://www.bbc.com/earth/uk/sections/on-location

The Natural World is one of the gems in the BBC’s Natural History Unit, its the longest running series from them in fact, making a dozen or so films every year on a huge range of subjects To them variety is the key, its not restricted to looking at one habitat, species or animal. Anything goes really, as long as it makes a decent film! Hopefully our film will live up to the high expectations, only the viewers can decide that, so tell all your friends and make a date for friday night BBC2 9pm!

You’ll meet the fox family, some very cute ducklings being trained by Thor and his family, the iconic and special Icelandic Horses with Halldor and Snorri, and of course the spectacular Bardarbunga eruption in all its nightime glory.

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more details about extra clips coming soon!

For Fox Sake!

Filming wildlife is rarely easy.

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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.

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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.983A8073
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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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!

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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.

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next time, we catch up with the horse at their annual roundup…quite a spectacle I can assure you!

Gunnhuver’s new Geysir – the waking witch?

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Well we’ve just about recovered from the awesome experience that was filming the eruption! We’ve got some fantastic footage from the ground, the night footage is unbelievable…but…you’ll have to wait until it airs (BBC2 and Animal Planet, next spring) to see it, sorry to those of you who have asked! So again a hearty thankyou to Thor and True North for getting us there and the SAR teams who are doing such a great job in keeping everyone safe out there.

We’ve had a great time over the past 10 days or so, all a bit varied and involving lots of dashing around the island, north, south, east and west we’ve done a whistlestop tour.

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We started off doing some work in Reykjavik, and as usual we stayed at our favourite spot in town, the 1912 Guesthouse (http://www.1912guesthouse.is) It’s a lovely place, right next to the Parliament building. Clean, comfortable and reasonably priced The owner is quite a character too, full of good stories and extremely helpful, it’s a definite top recommendation from us!

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We were after filming some nightlife, clubs and urban material, largely to cut into a sequence on how Icelanders use the power that they generate (in a very green fashion) from the rich Geothermal sources under the ground.

(ED note – It also gave a us a great excuse to sample some of the nightlife for which Reykjavik is gathering a worldwide reputation).

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Many timelapses later, we got some great shots around the town so should make a dynamic little sequence! And of course it gave Ian a chance to express his monochrome skills as only he can, it never ceases to amaze me the talents of this man.

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We returned to the Big Laxa river as a guest again of Orri Vigfusson. As Ian was in Hornstrandir with the foxes when we came here last time (he hasn’t forgotten the fox blog btw, it is coming soon!) and he had the high speed camera with him, we needed to do some pick up shots of casting.

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Orri had arranged for David L. Goodman to be our casting star, and what a star he was! Not only was he a superb fisherman he was also a supremely elegant double handed caster. He is a devotee of the underhand cast (ed note this is a revolutionary method of fly casting, pioneered by the great Swedish angler Goran Andersson http://www.salmonfishing-norway.com/goran%20andersson%20biographie.htm)

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To see David put this cast into practice was a wonderful experience, its such an elegant and precise way to fish and he was quite simply brilliant at it. As an added bonus, we caught and returned a lovely 20lb cock salmon and laughed….a lot. I have to say that David is one of the funniest and most entertaining contributors I have had the pleasure of working with. I wont repeat the stories told for lots of different reasons but I think its safe to say that we all learnt a few things! Of course you’ll have to wait and see the film to see him and Goran Andersson’ technique in action, but here is a shot of Ian giving it his best. A good job he did of it too, his usual dogged persistence paid dividend

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After a few more days back in town, some more interviews beckoned. Ester, Our fox scientist was kind enough to invite her to our lab and show us some of the new research she has been doing into the Arctic fox. Ester has been brilliant for the whole of this project, we couldn’t have done the filming in Hornstarndir without her.

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We also met a nice lady called Inga-Lisa and her daughter Asta, who were kind enough to talk to us about trolls and elves, and what they represent to everyday Icelanders.

We filmed them down to the sea stacks (or trolls petrified in the light of dawn) at Reykjanes, which we had recced back in May, a lovely spot down by the sea on this dramatic coastline.

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Very close by are the hot srings of Gunnhuver that we wrote about back in May (https://footstepsofgiantsblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/an-icelandic-ghost-story/) where according to local legend, the witch Gunn met her end by being tricked into a boiling mud pool, leaving her ghost to haunt this area to this day.

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In geological terms, these boiling, spitting mud pools are down to water coming into contact with hot rocks deep below, boiling and liquefying mud, then forcing its way to the surface as mud springs. (ed note, there is actually one such example, a cool one, at Wooton Bassett in Wiltshire). Here at Gunnhuver they have been active for many years and the whole area is dotted with vents, drifting steam covers the area and creates quite an atmosphere. In the past few weeks there has been a marked increase in activity here, (perhaps related to the 20,000 earthquakes that have happened in Iceland in the last month!) with old mud springs becoming more vigourous and others dying down.

Im not sure anyone expected a new Geyser to form though!

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Now a geyser is a peculiar phenomenon that need very specific conditions to occur. Its basically a funnel going down through the ground to an area where water (and/or mud) meets the magma. When this water reaches boiling point (its held there under pressure from the water above, becoming superheated) a bubble of steam surges up through the funnel forcing the water and mud ahead of it to be shot up into the air (in the case of Icelands famous Geysir, about 30m up in the air, and 80m for Old Faithful in Yellowstone US) the cooler liquid then falls back into the chamber to be boiled and the process repeats on a regular, timeable basis. It’s a bit like boiling a kettle really.

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Though Iceland has a handful of active geysers, (including the most famous one at Geysir, its where the name came from funnily enough) most are very small, and they are pretty rare worldwide (roughgly 1000)

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The biggest ever recorded was in New Zealand, the Waimangu Geyser, which got to heights of an incredible 460m , but that died out in 1904 http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/6497/waimangu-geyser-the-worlds-largest

Old faithful gets to 70m, and Strokkur (the active one next to Geysir) gets up to about 20 m. So any new geyser forming is a welcome addition to the list, particularly if it gets to any height.

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News broke on Tuesday 16th Sept that a geyser had been spotted out amongst the vents at Gunnhuver. We got staright in the trusty bus and got back out there on the Wednesday morning. Despite the rain it was pretty spectacular, a freshly formed mud hole some 6m across and 2m deep, surrounded by copious quantities of mud spatter, was bubbling away merrily. After a few minutes, the bubbling increased and with a roaring and hissing, great gouts of mud, steam and water shot up 8-10m into the air. The eruption only lasted about 20-30 seconds before dying away again, leaving the water pouring back down the hole to start the kettle boiling again. Now obviously a kettle needs time to boil, and as the saying goes “a watched pot never boils” but sure enough 10 mins later, off she went again! It seems that the witch Gunn has woken up, whether shes been dallying with her friends at Bardabunga we’ll have to leave to the spirits to decide, but its certainly a spectacle worth watching. One point to bear in mind here of course is that you must take great care when walking in this area. There are countless vents and mud holes all with scalding hot mud and water to trap the unwary, so if you don’t know where you should go, get a guide!

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With that, we set off east and north.

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We are heading up there to film a horse roundup in the next week, but its always worth picking off a few shots on the way. As chance would have it, we bumped into our good chum and all round great mate wildlife cameraman Warwick Sloss who is over here pursuing his great love of stills photography (ed note – his stuff is well worth a look, sublime portraiture all done on analogue film, developed and hand printed by his good self, check out his website here http://www.slossphoto.co.uk)

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Weather was pretty grim but we  caught up with the spectacular waterfall Dettifoss….

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and an off chance wildlife highlight was a lagoon on the southeast where many hundreds, perhaps thousands of whooper swans were gathering before their migration south.

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A sure sign that autumn, and the harsh winter, are on their way.

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Til next time…

The Highlands

 

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Landmannalaugar lava fields and mountains flushed with colours.

Neil and Ian recently finished a filming trip to the highlands of Iceland, with particular focus on the area known as Landmannalaugar but also taking in  many sights and sounds along the way.

Above is one of Neil’s (aka “MILKY” as he was affectionately named by one of our friends Maggi on the island of Grimsey) very nice photographs of the lava fields and mountains.

We started our highland trip from a beautiful waterfall called Aldeyjarfoss not too far from another famous waterfall Godafoss in the North of Iceland driving our trusty 4×4 along the rather bumpy dirt roads and tracks. If you are reading this and planning a trip through the central roads of Iceland it is well worth doing a lot of research. The roads are great fun to drive but you will need a decent wagon and it needs to be a solid 4×4, the bigger the better! it is easy to get stuck out there and if no one passes for a few hours and the weather turns which it will! it can be a long wait for passing help. Take plenty of supplies and be prepared. And remember to stay on the tracks and roads it is strictly forbidden to drive off road, the terrain and vegetation is extremely sensitive and does not recover for hundreds of years.

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Aldeyjarfoss waterfall. Skirted by basalt columns, blue skies and fluffy clouds. Beautiful.

Above is milky’s photograph of Aldeyjarfoss as we arrived. It is a real beauty and a great place to stop and film and take in that dramatic landscape.

Iceland is a great place for landscape photography full stop, but it is also worth putting the camera down and soaking it all up! Whilst filming scenics we usually spend a good day or much longer at one location waiting for better light and moving about to get the best out of the situation. Sadly we are not as mobile as DSLR photographers, our filming kit is heavy and big and it takes time to get the best out of a situation. Spending all this time in one spot we are able to do a fair bit of tourist spotting! It is interesting to see how little time people actually spend having a sit down and taking it all in! Usually it is a quick pit stop, 150 photographs from one or two spots, a plethora of selfies all taken in record time then off like a rocket to the next recommendation in the guidebook! Perhaps it is due to time constraints or being on a tour of sorts, but it does seem a shame to not have a moment to contemplate, relax, and be in the nature, and we did spot a lot of people in hired 4x4s just turn up, take a look over the edge and leave. Neil and Ian could happily spend a week just here waiting for the best light to make her look even more beautiful. Good light is rare, and when it happens it is just magic. Most landscape photographers are always chasing the light, early light, late light, moody light, dramatic light. Sometimes it is best to just wait a little while longer it will pay off in the end and you will have a much better photograph for it and spent some time with your eyes and mind open and relaxed.

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Large areas of the highlands are like a lunar landscape, something you would expect on a newly found keplar planet in a distant galaxy. As you leave the martian plains of the highlands things start to change, colours emerge from the black, and white landscape, reds and greens emerge, rivers are riddled with coloured veins of vegetation, moss, cotton grass and flowers start to show.

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colours and shapes crafted by the elements start to appear.

Along the journey to Landmannalaugar we helped a fair few people who had got stuck or had broken down. The Icelanders are a nation of people willing to help tourists and hikers, on countless occasions we have been helped by the really cool people of Iceland so we have a lot of respect for the Icelanders and the rescue teams.

We met a German couple travelling by motorbike who had flagged us down requesting help. The motorbike was stuck in the mud. Now when we say stuck, we mean seriously stuck, buried past the engine in thick black volcanic mud. It had been raining on and off all day so the ground was saturated and the rain was getting heavier, the couple had been in the rain for a good few hours desperately trying everything to get the bike free from the sinking mud, but the more efforts they had made the bike had sunk deeper. They were exhausted and cold wet and in need of a good old cuppa tea! We have pretty much everything in the Van to survive for weeks even months. We fired up the boilers and made tea and chocolate, a doctor once told me have a culpa tea and a bit of chocolate, you will feel much better! Sadly or van had no chance of pulling the bike from the mud, our van would just become stuck trying, so we waited and kept the guys warm till a super truck approached. Luckily it was a beast of a truck with very large tyres, even so it took 3 men and a super truck to pull that big old BMW out of that mud it just didn’t want to let it go! Some more tea and biscuits and we were on our way only to find a cyclist with a snapped bike and a glum face at not being able to finish his journey into the highlands, we chucked the bike in the back and took him to the campsite at Landmannalaugar.

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Landmannlaugar is an incredible landscape. The sheeps seem to like it too!

Arguably one of the best locations to visit in Iceland, Landmannalaugar is a breathtaking landscape. Summer is a busy time in the area, a lot of people come to hike, camp and enjoy the landscape. So much to do and see, there are excellent trails, hikes and locations to visit. It is a national park and is simply beautiful. The lava fields are incredible, covered in moss hundreds of years old, ptarmigan hide out in the lava fields, wagtails, redwing and pink foot geese are to be found in the area.

The Landmannalagar area is not too far from the Bardarbunga volcano which  has been all over the news for the last week. The volcano is situated in the northern part of mighty Vatnajokul the largest glacier in Europe. For more info on the seismic activities in Iceland you can check this link http://en.vedur.is/

We are aiming to head back to Iceland in a week or so to cover the horse round up and other spectacles so stay tuned for updates, and still to come a blog about the foxes at Hornstrandir and the ups and downs of filming wildlife.

Eider, the duck that made a golden nest.

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Well, we’ve just spent the most enthralling couple of weeks filming Eider duck, their chicks and the age old tradition of collecting their down for your duvets, pillows and the very best of down jackets. These minute feathers are worth a small fortune, but their story and the people involved are where the riches are for us.

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 This down is without doubt the finest natural insulator you can find. Its the soft under layer of feathers from the breast of the female which she removes herself to line the nest. Microscopic barbs lock the feathers together, trapping millions of pockets of air, making it incredibly good for us humans. It was even used as insulation on early space missions, so you can see how it benefits the Eider during their long stays out on the Arctic ocean.

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Thor and his brother Bubbi, have been our hosts for the trip,  They are co owners of a small island near Flatey, just south of the Westfjords.

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It’s the most beautiful place, a sparkling archipelago of dozens of little  rocky outcrops and islets set in the cold clear Icelandic waters.

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Legend has it that it is impossible to count the islands here, the tides reveal more  and more rocks that could pass as islands at differing states, but one way used to define an island is whether birds nest on it, and here there are birds nesting galore.

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A quick list includes Red Phalarope, Black Guillemot, Redshank (sound recordists note – the noise from these guys is not popular when trying to record an interview!!), Arctic Tern, Ring necked Plover, Shelduck and of course the Eider, it was these guys we came to film as they built their nests and hatched their young.

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Eider and the traditional method of down collecting were one of the reasons we proposed making this film (it took nearly four years to get it off the ground!) it’s a very animal friendly way of using a natural resource and typical of Icelanders to find a way of working with nature not destroying it.

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The method is very simple really, you walk around your island, find a nesting eider (there are about 3000 on this island), gently lift out the eggs, remove the eider down lining the nest, replace with fresh hay and replace eggs, job done…

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(ed note, it also gave Andy the chance to try out a new hairdo, its been a long time since he had a full head of hair)

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But that’s where the hard work begins, theres a lot of ground to cover for a start, hopping on and off an inflatable dinghy to get to the smaller islets, carrying a sacks of hay and down around with you as you scramble over the rocks, is tiring work. Fortunately theres plentiful supplies of cocoa milk (a favourite with the families here) and a fantastic meal to look forward to at the end of the day (pepared by a very talented cook, how she manages to look after so many people is a mystery but she’s a star!)

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Once you’ve done your days collecting, the nests need to be cleaned, dried, cleaned again, dried more, cleaned and cleaned, mostly by hand. Then when they’ve removed as much of the dried grass, seaweed and bits as possible (you can only get 50% out at this stage) it goes off to the mainland to be cleaned of the rest, then sent to the specialist duvet manufacturer around the world (lots in Japan apparently)

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Worldwide production of Eider is only about 5 tonnes, 4 of those come from Iceland. When you think that it takes roughly 65 nests to get 1kg of finished material, you begin to see the numbers of birds involved.

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Its worth pointing out that this is totally harmless to the birds, they are not plucked of their down, they’ve done that themselves whilst building the nest., and research has shown no ill effects on the down being replaced with fresh hay. Its one of the few products where the animal it comes from will still be leading a life in the wild whilst you are using its product.

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Eider Duck – canon

The islands are incredibly well managed for all nesting birds, not just Eider, there are snipe, redshank, plover, puffin and black guillemot all over the place. Much is done to improve the numbers of Eider and all the other nesting birds for obvious reasons. Some of the nesting sites here have been used for hundreds of years, with birds returning to the same spot year after year.

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Escaped Mink (a non native predator introduced for the fur) play havoc on bird colonies if they can reach them, killing hundreds on their killing sprees.

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Not anymore though, they’ve now been eradicated here and all the bird species have recovered thanks to the round the clock vigil that Thor and the farmers take in protecting against foxes, black backed gulls and other predators.

Each year whilst collecting the down, its clear that some of the chicks wont make it on their own, either they are late in hatching and mum leaves the nest with the more fully grown ones, or mum has just laid too many eggs (they normally incubate 4, but can lay 6). So Thor and the family step in to give a helping hand. They hand raise dozens of chicks, incubating eggs to hatching, or rearing already hatched chicks, of course that’s where the fun comes in!

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Its been really good fun watching the chicks grow and learn how to survive on their own.

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they’ve proved to be willing helpers with the filming too…

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The children here (the Eider harvest is very much a family affair) adore them and are always a bit sad when one doesn’t make it, the inevitable circle of life.

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Its become a tradition over the years that all the ducklings are given a proper burial by the children, who pay their respects in time honoured fashion.

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But after a proper send off they are back busy with giving the chicks swimming lessons, helping to feed them and generally enjoy the experience of working with wild animals.

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In just a few short weeks, these ducklings will all leave the islands to their lives in the wild, the females hopefully returning to nest on the island.

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Not before they’ve had some tuition in how to find their food of course, The ducklings need to be shown how to grub around under stones to find shrimps and worms, Thor and the children are perfect surrogate mothers, spending precious time in these lessons. It’s a lovely sight seeing kids and a big hulk of a man on his hands and knees in the mud cooing to the chicks and hand feeding them shrimps.

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Once again on our trip through this brilliant country, we’ve been bowled over by the hospitality of the Icelandic people, and by the love and knowledge they have of their wildlife and wild places.

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Seeing how involved the kids have been in the whole process, collecting and cleaning the down, helping with the chicks, and not a moment of telly watching or playstation to distract them, has been a stark reminder of how we should be raising children too. Their respect and knowledge of the wildlife is amazing, its lovely to see the next generation being raised with that love of the wild, and they’ve made brilliant camera assistants too..

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So its with a huge thank you to Thor, Bubbi and everyone on the island, we take many fond memories with us, if not one of the ducklings!

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Theres more details of the whole process of Eider collecting here http://icelandeider.is.w7.x.is/?page_id=2347

Ian has now gone off to film the Arctic fox family we’ve been following up in the far northwest of Iceland, and we are heading east to catch up with those wonderful bars of silver that return to the rivers of Iceland each year to spawn….the king of fish in many peoples eyes, the Salmon.

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Sayonara

Ian’s Lecture on 4K film making

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We’ve arrived on a wonderful little island near Flatey, just south of the Wesrtfjords. We’re spending a bit of time here and of course there will be a full post in the next few days, but Ian was delighted to be invited to give a lecture on the merits of 4K, lenses and cameras to an audience only too happy to listen to his ramblings (we’ve got a bit bored of it to be honest).

more to come when Ian can tear himself away from his enthralled audience

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Foal play in the North with the Icelandic Horse

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A slightly different week has just flown by. In the great tradition of Producers disappearing off on jollies leaving the crew to get on with the real work, Andy went on holiday last week with his family…

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(note from Andy – had a great time with whales in Husavik, horse riding in the mountains, did the Geysir, Hot springs, Gulfoss etc etc, but did get a bit stuck finding the only snow drift left on the roads here, had to reverse a mile downhill…in a whacking great camper van, nice)

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Meanwhile, Ian and Neil started work on one of the main characters in the film, The Icelandic Horse.

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It is that time of year when new life appears everywhere, birds are nesting, flowers budding and the rather unique Icelandic horses are giving birth.

Icelandic horses are interwoven with the landscape and history of Iceland and the people are passionate about them. They are the only breed of horse allowed in Iceland and if a horse is exported, its not allowed back, all to preserve the bloodline of this horse thats been here since Viking times.

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Some of these cute little fellas are friendly, perhaps a little too friendly at times! which can make filming them almost impossible. For some reason they love the front element of a telephoto lens. We use a canon 200-400 F4 on our F55 and most of the horses love to stick their faces into it. They also love to creep up behind you and nudge your arm for attention, which ruins your shot! this has happened so many times. The first 5 were funny,  the other 347 less so…to say the least.

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Luckily for us, there was only one trouble maker and the rest of the herd were very wild horses, which meant we had to make friends with them to get close to the new born foals, Ian thinks he has become the new horse whisperer!

The first day in the mountains with the horses was tough, soon as the horses spotted Ian and Neil carrying a massive camera and tripod they moved further and further away and quickly disappeared over the horizon. Errrrrrm plan B.

The old fashioned way….bit by bit and slowly, slowly catchy monkey (horse) over the course of a week we finally gained their trust and they allowed us to to film the very cute, clumsy and beautiful foals up close. one little fella in particular has become quite a star, more on him throughout the year.

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These horses are not riding horses or trained by man in the sense that we are familiar with horses in the UK or US. They are wild horses and when they have new born foals they are nervous and very wary of people. When the horses are getting ready to give birth they leave the main herd for a few days, find somewhere quiet and out the way to birth, then slowly head back to the herd.

We stayed on Brimnes farm with our friend, a true legend and “King of the round-up” Halador, along with his son in law Snorri (named after one of the most famous vikings of old). They told us these wild horses would be tricky to film, especially the youngsters, and tricky it was, but very rewarding. Halador and Snorri are great guys, old and new generation Icelanders, both passionate about horses, farming and snuff. They insisted we have a little try of the old stuff! a few coughs and splutters followed by watering eyes was very funny. Apparently Ian and Neil are good at sniffing snuff and Snorri and Halador were suitably impressed with our individual techniques.

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The shoot was brilliant, seeing the foals born into the wild, take their first steps, their first milk,  with no human intervention or contact was pretty cool. We will follow the guys and horses later in the year when the big horse round-up happens in September which is going to be awesome. We will cover that event in much more detail closer to the time.

Heading off to meet Thor today, he’s on a little island in the Westfjords  getting ready for Eider time, raising chicks and gathering down from the nests. Promises to be be very cool, mind you stuff with Thor generally turns out pretty cool

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Skoll!

Editors note – the use of snuff in this blog is entirely fictionalised, we are not making a snuff movie