Production: Iceland Part 1

Iceland is a challenging environment. Wet and windy conditions have had a big impact on the production phase of the project. Það er bara þannig/ That’s just how it is – is what the Icelanders would say.

The first week of the first month at the Nes Artist Residency was really about getting to know the place. One of the biggest challenges of my two months here is the lack of mobility to get to places that are ideal to record the type of footage and sound I need. I’ve identified a couple of spots within walking distance, but again I’m limited in how much I can realistically carry to these locations. Fully loaded, my camera backpack weighs about 8kg (not including the drone). I’ve got to be a bit more strategic about it than I was when I was working from the boot of my car in Australia.

Dead raven Skagastrond
Photo courtesy of Paula McLean

One of the ‘hot spots’ is an area known by the locals as the Höfði (the cape with its sea cliffs) looking out over ​​Skagaströnd, with walking paths and interpretative signage pointing out flora and fauna (birds) of interest. I’d been told an old raven pair had made the area home, which boded well. However, one of the other Nes artists found a dead raven wrapped in red string on a walk there earlier in the first week. I went up the following day to see if I could find it and document it but found nothing. It hasn’t been seen again. I have seen a couple of ravens flying across town as I’ve been walking around, but not in great numbers. I have been assured by the locals that more will come closer to town as the winter months approach.

One of the highest viewpoints over the peninsula on which Skagaströnd sits is Spákonufell mountain. There’s a place near it I’m keen to get to before I leave, called Hrafndalur (Raven Valley). A couple of mountain walks start from there, as well as one that starts behind the golf course at Skagaströnd, making its way to a point where it looks out over the valley. Working from there will require a day of much better conditions than we’ve recently had. It’s one thing to start out with a clear day only to be caught up the mountain in suddenly changing conditions.

Raven Valley near Skagastrond

I’ve also spent time on getting a grip on the post-production workflow of working with the VR footage I’ve captured. That was something I’d been running out of time to do at home. It’s not that difficult once you get the initial settings right, so I’m confident that using the Oculus Quest headset I’ve purchased, and the ones the gallery have for the exhibition, we’ll be able to provide a great immersive VR experience.

One of the difficulties using the 360 camera here is it’s hard to get out of the shot and still stay within range of the camera to trigger record on my phone. There’s nowhere to hide in a treeless environment.

Between the Garmin Virb 360, Olympus Tough Tracker, Panasonic Lumix GH4 with a couple of lenses, and the Mavic Pro drone (which I’ve managed to fly twice in three weeks), I’ve got plenty to play with when the conditions are right. Along with the Zoom H2n 360 sound recorder and a variety of other mics for the Zoom H6, I’ve got more than enough tech to get the job done…if only it would stop raining! The wind is the other big issue here – anything below 3m/s I can work with, but days here are more often 4m/s and higher. I was driving in 13m/s winds over the past week, which wasn’t fun at all.

Another wet day trapped in the studio

I’ve tried to get the drone up a couple of times when there’s been a short break in the weather, but sometimes things just work against you – like software updates, Wi-Fi and foreign sim card interference (demanding I provide a Chinese phone number to my DJI account), and batteries that drain over the days I’m not able to fly and then run down too quickly in the cold. A couple of test flights have given me a better idea of what I need to do when I get a solid session in. I just have to keep watching my weather apps and be ready to go.

So under those conditions, production has been sketchy, with field trips limited to what I can carry on a walk on to the Höfði for a two or three-hour session. I’ve had more success getting sound than video on most occasions – having rigged up some clumsy but effective wind protection. The Höfði is a contained example of the northern Icelandic landscape, rich with visual material — rock pools with water shimmering in the winds, narrow pathways leading through long, thick grasses and along the sea cliffs, land and sea birds hovering above, and the most incredible range of delicate, colourful lichens, mosses and sub-arctic vegetation. The local raven pair used to nest in the sea cliffs, where some still think they reside. However, I was told recently that they haven’t actually nested there for some years and they don’t know where the nests are now.


Shooting on the Höfði

I’ve also found another site south of town in a large, open paddock of grassy tussocks, a fast-flowing stream that runs out of Hrafndalur from the mountain range behind the town to the bay, a black volcanic sand beach with banks of kelp, sheep and a large herd of horses. The local ravens coast on the wind currents above the paddock on a regular basis, as part of a flight path from the Höfði, to somewhere further south of town (maybe this is where they’re nesting?). I can get to this site quickly from the studio when conditions permit. It also meets just about all my shooting requirements for a location too – urban, periurban, natural environment, domestic animals and local birdlife.

Recording in the stream on the southern side of Skagaströnd

Ravens aren’t as plentiful here as Australia, and I’ve observed their flight patterns are quite different from their Aussie cousins. They’re also bigger, seem more playful and their vocal range is significantly greater. I’ve really only seen one pair here in the past three weeks, with the occasional individual or pair spotted on trips over the past week. Not having a car has made getting further afield difficult. The nearest public bus route is 20 minutes down the road via a pre-booked shuttle bus in town. My wings have been well and truly clipped. And like the Icelandic environment, the production conditions are challenging.

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