Filming Fire in Iceland - A Lesson in Gear Simplicity
Ever since I first picked up my dad’s old Panasonic VHS-C camcorder, I’ve dreamed of filming in exotic locations. I think every DP does. The cascading green mountains of Hawaii, the rolling hills of the deserts in Africa, and of course, climbing on the glaciers in Iceland.
So, you can imagine that it was pretty impossible to hide my enthusiasm when I was asked to join Team Iceland for Muse Film School. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face that day.
A few months prior, I, along with 29 other filmmakers from around the world, had signed up to be apart of an online, immersive experience. At Muse Film School we would come to grasp storytelling beyond how any of us had before. And, we would find, develop, and then go in-the-field to create a film for The Remarkable Ones.
Finding the Story
As Team Iceland, our job was to find an incredibly remarkable person in Iceland whose story we would develop through Facetime interviews and phone calls then fly over to film.
We spent hours online, researching news articles, social media posts, and sending lots of emails. Finally, one late afternoon, I received a call from our nearly ecstatic director. “I think we have our character! She’s a glacier guide, and, she breathes fire,” he yelled into my ear.
I thought to myself, Can this be real?! This was the dream, right? This is exactly the kind of story I want!
It’s Never That Easy!
Except, we had a few problems. Our production dates were December 1st and 2nd. When I first learned this, I scrambled across my room to snatch my iPhone from my desk and launched Sunseeker, typed in Reykjavik and shifted the date. Sunrise is 11:17 a.m. and sunset is 3:40 p.m. That’s just over 4 hours of total sunlight, and we’re filming with a glacier guide whose life is based around adventure.
I quickly swiped over to the Weather app. Average temperatures were -7 degrees Celcius, with winds of 30 to 50 kilometers per hour.
My heart sunk.
I knew how high the visual bar was for creating an episode for The Remarkable Ones. How the heck was I going to work with a team of filmmakers I had never met - some who had never seen half of the gear Muse Storytelling was bringing - to create the film that I had been dreaming of for years?
This wasn’t going to be easy, but who signed up for something easy? So, our team began to problem solve, figuring out exactly what needed to be filmed outdoors so we could strategically plan each day.
Weeks later our plane flew into Keflavík airport, and I wish I could say that it was everything I had imagined...it wasn't. Everything was pitch black. A thick fog covered the tarmac. It was so dense I thought for sure it was raining.
At the rental counter, the local company gave us their ‘big SUV’, the Renault Duster (it’s not big, by any stretch of the imagination). We pack all 8 gear bags into every inch of space we could find, and we set off, with our poor producer Maddy stuffed between camera cases and the tripod bag in the back seat.
This was the dream, right?
Day 1 - Pack it All!
I woke up determined to make this shoot work. We had lugged all of this gear to Iceland, so damn it, we were going to use! And use it we did. Thanks to our unique schedule due to the sun, we had to film Sigga’s interview at 9 pm that night, but we needed the room the look bright like it was the middle of the day in order to reflect how her story is bright and full of adventure.
So, we pulled out every piece of gear we had. If it made light or bounced light, we were using it. We had at least seven lights, eight stands, plus all the camera gear in an apartment that might have been 300 square feet, if I’m being generous.
Thankfully, the interview went really well, and more importantly (being the DP) it looked great! We got back to our room at about 1:15 a.m. and I wanted to make sure everything was ready for the next day. I looked through the shotlist and realized that not only had our story changed some after the interview, but we needed to now film at two additional locations, outside.
We only had a day and a half left and only 8 hours of usable sunlight available. Plus, we were going to climb a glacier on the last day. When would the hurdles let up!?
Day 2 - Packing Again?
The next morning, I woke up before anyone else. It was pitch black, but then again, there are only like 4 hours that aren’t. I sat in the middle of all the gear. How were we going to film in 5 locations while hauling all our team and gear everywhere? I reluctantly pared down our kits to five cases and a few c-stands, hoping this would cover all the locations I hadn’t seen yet.
That day, we packed and hauled and unpacked and repacked. We drove back to Sigga’s apartment, and hauled the five cases, plus c-stands up four flights of stairs. We got some amazing shots, but by the end of the day, I started to realize that we were only using a few pieces of gear, and those pieces were relevant to how we wanted the audience to feel. We didn’t need everything!
At that moment, I realized that I was suffering from the one thing I always tell other people to do. Simplify. Now I knew how’d we pull this final shoot day off.
Day 3 - A Lesson in Gear Simplicity
On the last day, the BIG day, we all woke up at 5am to make the drive to Sólheimajökull, which was our glacier climb scene and the pocket bike adventure shot with Sigga. Instead of packing all of the cases in the car, to my crew’s dismay, I only threw one backpack in the car. I had thought through exactly what we needed.
Our kit that day?
The RED, two Canon Cinema Primes (24mm and 35mm- both are wider focal lengths to give the audience more of a feel of freedom and adventure), the Zacuto Shoulder Rig (human movement but still stable to give the feel of adventure), a Manfrotto Monopod, and a Phantom 4.
That was it. No lights, no stands, nothing complicated that would slow us down. But all the gear we needed to tell this story.
On the glacier, it was freeing to be so fast. As we trekked up the ice walls, we used only what we had readily available. The limited amount of gear made the experience incredible, and I mean come on, it’s not every day that your backdrop is a glacier that’s thousands of years old sitting on an active volcano!
A Remarkable Journey
For me, my dream shoot was everything that I had imagined plus more. I went into this production thinking I needed to use all the toys available to me. It’s not every day I get access to the level of gear we had on set or access to a story like a fire-breathing glacier guide.
But in the end, our best footage was actually where we simplified, and specifically picked the gear that would help us tell the better story. We used our storytelling skills instead of relying on the toys in our kit. And for me, that was the biggest takeaway from this whole production.