One of the location shoots we required for ‘Last Footsteps of Home’ is a point-of-view scene where our lead character is on a ship heading for the New World. The ship in historical terms would have sailed up the far north east coast to Orkney picking up any last passengers, but most importantly fresh water for the hazardous trip across the Atlantic (to the Red River settlement in Canada).
The scene was to be filmed from the Hamnavoe Ferry, which sails between Scrabster and Stromness daily, and included various open-sea shots, a passing shot of the ‘Old Man of Hoy’ (the iconic red sandstone stack) and a long distant shot entering Stromness harbour (remembering this is meant to be 1813 - so no signs of modernity allowed).
A late spring day in May was timetabled, hoping to avoid the tourist hoards of summer but sufficient light for filming. The position of the sun was worked out (using a smartphone app) so not to cause harsh glare direct down the camera lens. An early morning sailing seemed to give us the best window of opportunity. The necessary kit was cleaned and packed in readiness for the drive to Scrabster the next day.
It was a magical morning and the drive from Brora (our Highland base) was heavenly and the slumbering Highland landscape slowly awoke. As the glowing sun began to rise in the North Sea of the cliffs of Caithness, it didn’t take much to imagine an ancient timber ship taking the Selkirk Settlers on their fateful voyage of discovery. Coming through Thurso we saw the mighty Hamnavoe Ferry rounding the quay on her entrance to Scrabster. No sooner it seemed we left than we were then heading out over the Pentland Firth in the wake of creamy foam behind us.
After a quick breakfast on board it was down to business. Camera, lenses, filters, sun hood and tripod assembled, we headed to the viewing deck and took our position. Initials shots were good and the swell actually helped give us that feel of an old ship rolling from side to side. Our problems soon began however as we approached the island of Hoy.
Sea-water from the darting bow of the ferry was causing an issue with a very fine spray being cast up on the camera lens. As the ‘Old Man of Hoy’ was passing rapidly on our starboard (right to all land lubbers), it became clear we were not going to get an ideal shot. And there was another issue. Although the sun glare was much reduced by its early morning position, the stack just seemed to blend in to the cliffs behind - thus reducing its impact on camera. Although we did get got other useful sea clips, our shots of Hoy were unusable. I felt quite deflated after days of planning and traveling.
It was suggested trying again on the return Journey. Only snag is the ferry would be going in the wrong direction of travel. We could have the old trick of reversing the clip in post-production, but it only takes a seagull to be caught in the frame to look a little foolish. All sorts of birds smother the Hoy cliffs and you rarely see them fly backwards!
Back at base we did take some positives and leant some good lessons:
1. If we angled our camera just slightly right facing starboard in the direction of travel this should keep most of the spray away from the camera lens.
2. We could also have used a diffuser umbrella to keep any unwanted water particles at bay whilst still letting the light through.
3. The flat light we experienced on the ‘Old Man of Hoy’ should also be solved with the sun higher in the sky. Our initial shot with the position of the sun was fine but the angle was not. We calculated an afternoon sailing of the ferry should yield a just as suitable higher position but much better angle.
4. We briefly considered using our sea-splattered clips as was and making the entire scene a ships voyage through a rain-storm. It would have meant quite a bit of work in post- production and maybe not look so good in the finished film.
This just goes to show that even with good preparation and planning you never know what you’ll encounter on location filming. It cost us time, money and left us pretty frustrated, but we went away and looked at the problem calmly and rationally. The ‘Old Man of Hoy’ may have beaten us once but we’ll be back better informed and better film-makers for it. © 2017 Robert Aitken