LAND OF FIRE AND ICE:
When an Extreme Adventure TV shoot didn’t go to plan
My world had turned white ... and I’d lost any sense of which way was up, down left or right. I could vaguely make out some shapes ahead of me but beyond that nothing but an endless white blizzard.
I was caught in a whiteout, on a documentary TV shoot, on top of a vast Icelandic glacier. Visibility had dropped to around 12 feet as a weather front of snow, sleet and fog had swept in cloaking the sun and turning a vast open location into a claustrophobic white world.
Days before I’d been standing in the same spot looking out across a breathtaking landscape of blue skies, snow and mountains that stretched for miles down to the North Atlantic Ocean. The world looked very different today.
On day one of our filming, we learnt the hard way that glaciers often have their own microclimates. You can go from clear blue skies to a complete white out in minutes. The weather front that hit us was of epic proportions, worthy of any episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ (scenes from which, by the way, were shot nearby).
From a director’s point of view, such extreme weather makes for great drama but the downside is, you get a very flat picture. Surrounded by white cloud you immediately lose all depth of field so your footage suffers. All the details and colours we’d painstakingly put into the set just vanished. You might as well have been filming in a studio filled with dry ice. Our drones were also grounded, unable to fly in the wet and low visibility, killing off any chance of the planned cinematic aerials.
The cast genuinely struggled to survive on the location, but the crew had it just as bad. White cloud is really wet, so the cameras took a hammering as fine rain found its way past the waterproof housing and into the lenses. Combine moisture with cold and you’ve got an environment where kit goes down regularly and needs constant maintenance. Viewfinders would fog up leaving the camera person to guess if the vital footage they were trying to capture was even in focus or not.
Operating also requires agile, nimble fingers, but with wet, numb hands, turning a focus ring is no easy task. In sleet, moisture eventually seeped into all of our fancy, synthetic gloves. In the end it was a low-fi solution that saved the shoot. Generations of Icelanders have used old-fashioned wool gloves that despite taking in water, have an almost magical ability to keep the heat in and your hands functioning. We combined the wool with a bunch of hand warmers, stuffed into every available part of our clothing and the cameras kept on rolling.
As the shoot played out, as is often the case, the difficult conditions made for a raw and exciting episode and with just days to go the Icelandic gods took favour on us and finally the storm front began to clear. Gradually the curtain of cloud lifted revealing in all its dramatic, glory the majesty of the surrounding landscape.
While the visuals suffered in the first couple of days, we got the dramatic finale to the show we needed and we were pleased to discover that despite ending up with a bunch of destroyed viewfinders, most of the footage was in focus and the cast of engineers managed to escape the glacier!
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