When the opportunity arose to be part of a film making task force in Iceland, I dived straight in! For a start, I have always wanted to visit Iceland, a mystical country of spectacular scenery and amazing adventures. Also, the chance of having “I made films in a different country” would look like gold dust on my CV so I thought it would be both a fantastic experience and incredibly beneficial to me. But finally, the most significant factor was the fact I would be working with lecturers who have both experience and knowledge that I could learn from.
At first, we had to apply for roles. I had just finished producing a documentary and quite fancied doing it again on a bigger scale. However, my history as an Air Cadet and my passion to always push myself made lead me to asking if I could overall manage the productions. I was used to managing people and junior ranks to me in the cadets as I progressed to the highest levels of the senior roles and I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to implement my abilities. I felt that my leadership, level-headedness, initiative and people skills would be a great aid in a producer role and I knew I could be relied upon to co-ordinate the other crew members. Initiative is something I have always had a knack for but I am constantly rethinking my ideologies and trying to make myself even more initiate. I feel this is a very valuable and sought-after skill and therefore I constantly push myself to get better at it. Composure is also something I am gratefully gifted with; even in the thickest of disputes or chaos I still manage to think straight and instead of complaining about a problem, I set about fixing up a strategy to overcome it.
I was generously given the role of Executive Producer. My charismatic approach to my peers quickly let them approve of me being given this prestigious role which put a lot of responsibility on me to inspire confidence in them that I was competent and could bring together the projects. The first job I had was sitting in on the interviews for other top roles (Director, DoP etc). This felt strange and very imposing on me as in all fairness I felt I had no right to be the one to decide whether people got the roles they applied for. However, I had to be confident in my decisions whilst at the same time hold valid reasons for my choices. I tried to be as unbiased and fair as possible – this showed people that I did not favour friends etc. If it was my choice that somebody did not get the role they wanted then I would have to state a reasonable argument as to why. Joining me on the board were Bex and Ross, my instructors and lecturers with a lot more seniority and experience than myself, so I thought that despite my opinions, their word was final. However, Bex and Ross were extremely democratic and took into account everything I said during the interviews and the feedback I gave them afterwards. When we allocated roles to the group, this gave me a power of authority; I wouldn’t be challenged by people thinking I was incompetent. Although this statement comes across as big headed, I don’t mean it too. It was more the fact that people didn’t feel the need to undermine me before the project kicked off and therefore I could apply myself with the best of my abilities. It also gave me a huge confidence boost that people trusted my opinion and also accepted me as a leader.
Now was the challenge…to prove I met their expectations.
Before roles were given out, we had to research as much as we could about Iceland; it’s culture, food, people, lifestyle, stories, previous filming work that had occurred there, trade, politics etc. My research stemmed from films that had been made there to their national cuisines (I wanted to try whale and rotten shark!) to their historical stories. I also looked into the weather conditions, terrain and what the chances were of seeing the Northern Lights.
When everyone pulled their research together, people went off to write pitches. These were then narrowed down and developed into treatments. The favourite four ended up being “Cats”, “Outdated”, “Snowblind” and “Together”. It was decided that these scripts be written by the people who came up with the ideas.
I put fuel into people’s drive for the films by creating another group who would document our trip to Iceland as well as all the pre-work we did before hand. They were coined “The Making Of” crew and ‘borrowed’ camera operators and sound techs from the other crews. I wanted this documentary to have its own director, who would conduct interviews with the cast and crew, and producer, who could manage where the crew needed to be and when. This would also support our IEMS funding as we would give them back something for assisting in our paying of the trip.
To brand ourselves and have some sort of uniformity, we discussed names for a production company which we could operate under. It also gives our project a sense of professionalism as well as a title to which we could assign our work under. “Gryla Productions” was put onto the table. The name Gryla came about from our research into Icelandic mythology and legacy. Gryla was a witch who lived in the mountains and terrorised children’s dreams. The story itself of Gryla was not that important to our company name. Instead, it was a name that would grab attention; Icelanders would identify the name Gryla and therefore be interesting in what we produced; Non-Icelanders would look at the name and be curious as to what it was and therefore pursue looking into it. Also, since we were making the films in Iceland, we decided that we wanted an Icelandic feel to our company and Gryla suited perfectly.
The film “Cats” was set to have animation in it. The story (in a nutshell) is about a boy escaping his life filled with sadness by imagining he is a cat and prowls around with other cats. These dreams are envisioned on screen by animation. We enrolled on board an animator, Sasha, of incredible skill and talent. To give her opportunity to be part of the pre-production stage early on, I asked her to construct a logo for our film company. It would make us even more professional and hopefully get us recognised as a brand. After a view edits and reviews back to the main group, we decided on one of her designs. We all now felt part of something that was really happening.
Early on, as part of my Exec role, I wanted to make sure people had plenty of time to get their paperwork in order to travel to a foreign country. Iceland is not technically in the EU although it applies its policies etc. I made sure everyone either had or was getting a passport so they could travel to Iceland. From my research, I learnt that the expiration dates had to be at least 6 months after we got back to the UK so it was my responsibility to check everyone’s details. One girl had a passport from a different country and therefore needed to apply for a visa to be able to travel. I researched what she needed to do and sent her to complete this task herself. Next, we all had to have European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC) to cover medical costs outside the NHS. Again, it was my job to make sure everyone had one of these and they were all in date. I myself had to apply for a new passport and EHIC so I did this promptly as inspiration to the rest of the group. I had to check both student and lecturers – no one dodged my checklist!
Our next step was to pay for the trip. It was decided that this be paid in January and it was my job to check this was done. Steve, the trip organiser, took care of documenting people’s money but it was down to me to make sure they did it. To support us financially, we applied to IEMS to help us pay for some of the trip or give us some spending money whilst we were out there. Once again, I had to make sure this was done by everyone. We all had to write a brief to IEMS stating why they should give us money. But it paid off in the end as we were all offered a small chunk of reimbursement.
Budgeting was a big issue for the films. We had to pay for the films off our own backs as we were not employed or being given money from an institution. We estimated a budget of around £4000 and decided that fundraising was a way of going about obtaining this target figure. I decided with Steve that everyone must raise £200 each to go into the pot and pay for the films budgets. This would be split as equally as possible over the films. At this point (mid January), we decided that we could not afford or crew four films in the time we had. We decided to drop a film and we voted to lose Together. I would like to produce this film in the future however as it is a beautiful story.
Fundraising was slow to start off with and many people needed a good kick up the backside to get a move on. I asked for a day walk where people could get sponsored and delegated a predominant member of the group to organise it. We set a theme – film characters, being media production students – and proceeded to get names on our sponsor forms. Despite the cold and horrendous downpour of rain, we persevered and had fun with the walk and raised a fair bit of money. But we needed more. We started kicking other people into gear to do their own fundraising events which we helped with. Cake and bun sales went down a treat and brought in a nice chunk of money and we continued to do this for a few weeks. As we drew nearer to going on the actual trip, we needed a big event that would bring in people and therefore money. A few group members organised a night out at a local bar/club. They arranged the deal that we take the money on the door and the club takes its money behind the bar. However, it costs us £100 to use the club for our event I think which meant we either had to break even or gain a profit or risk losing money we didn’t have. The gamble paid off and through immense promotion and word-of-mouth, we managed to get a tonne of people there and raised a huge chunk of money. Just to point out, I managed myself to raise just over £300 which I am very proud of.
A third year then told us about a method of fundraising called crowd sourcing. Basically, we ask a lot of people for a little bit of money each. We used the website IndieGoGo which specialises in crowd sourcing and uses a pay-pal account to gather funds. Our target was $500 (it’s an American site) and we had two weeks to raise the money. Word of mouth, constant emails, messages and phone calls eventually helped us raise our total. It was a great achievement; we managed to hit our 4K budget in time. However, to help promote our film and to give something back to the people we were asking money off, I organised a short promotional video. I delegated people to book out the photography studio, a camera operator and a photographer. I wanted people to sell their film and make the viewers as passionate about it as we were. The key players in each crew were filmed; the director and producer of Snowblind, Outdated and the making of, the animator of Cats and finally myself as the executive producer. We filmed this promo in a matter of hours and it was edited and online the day after. The money started rolling in as people who donated also got a chance to see what our films were about and who would be working on them. We also did portrait photos of every crew member so our audience could see who was making the films happen.
An executive producer regularly meets with their crew to discuss what their next plan of action is and find out/chase where we up to in pre-production. I organised weekly meeting for people to do this. I had to resolve a lot of issues in these meetings and also plan how to get to our next stages. After Christmas, I made the crews organise and conduct test shoots. They needed to know exactly what they were doing and how they would film their shots before they went over to Iceland. One of Snowblind’s shoots was outside and involved a car. I went along to this to show my support and also to help them – I chose not to actually help film but to observe as an outside eye. I could then feedback the points I felt they needed to work on and also the things they did really good. It was looking optimistic for them. Originally, in Outdated’s script, there was an ice skating scene. This would need a careful but precise form of filming and we headed to the local ice rink to test it out. I was going to be an observer there too but ended up filling in as an actor because firstly, they needed every one of their crew and secondly, I was competent on the ice enough that I could skate around for them whilst they tested shots. I am no Robin Cousins but I can maintain momentum and not fall over. A third year in the crew, Sam, also volunteered to go on the ice and we kept spirits high when things were not going to plan. Take after take we strove to keep our performance the same so the crews could get the shots just right. For the next few shots, I was needed to purposefully fall over on the ice. This was probably harder than staying up on the ice as my brain kicks in and tells me not to do it because I could hurt myself. But it needed to be done so time after time I threw myself to the floor, fell, dove – anything that was a losing battle between me and gravity. It proved to greatly aid the crew however as they practice catching the event from different angles.
As well as executively producing Gryla Productions, I was also the sole producer for Cats. My role was to organise and plan how we got from script to shooting the film. It was my job to organise meetings and sort out what my crew would do in the lead up to the trip. Part of this role was finding actors for the film. This proved near impossible as the lead role was a little boy! If we flew our actor to Iceland we had three problems. Firstly, we would have to pay for his flight and accommodation. Secondly, we would have to pay for a chaperone for him as well. Thirdly, we would have to look after him whilst over there. We scrapped this idea as our budget didn’t stretch far enough (we were tight as it was). I started looking for child actors in Iceland as well as someone to play his mother and father. This was also tricky as I did not have a fixer over there that could help me and getting hold of the Icelandic film companies and acting agencies was just not happening. I was stumped with a problem – however, I used my initiative and came up with a solution which I will divulge into in a different post.
I was also in charge of the script development (well, making sure it happened and fitted the director’s choices), making sure costumes and props were taken by (which I had an artistic director for). Other things under my stead were keeping the crew members on tasks that they had been set and chasing them up when they hadn’t. This happened a lot and required a lot of work. I was also required to keep an up-to-date production folder with all our plans, script revisions, storyboards and the like in. Every member of the crew needed to know it all backwards so when we were in Iceland, we could film exactly what we wanted with speed.
Just before I went to Iceland, I delivered a Health and Safety brief. Steve had to deliver his own which was signed but I had to make sure people were prepared for it. Over the weeks leading up to the trip, I had given lectures on appropriate kit needed for the Icelandic climate and terrain – my research right at the beginning of the production as well as my experience with outdoor activities in the Air Cadets greatly aided me here. I told people to buy hats, gloves, scarves, waterproof coats (not just water resistant), walking trousers (jeans chaff and get heavy when wet; trakkie bottoms/joggers offer no water or wind resistance), fleeces and most important of all, thermals! I made it very clear that if the kit was not obtained for each person, then that person would not be leaving the hotel in Iceland. Keeping warm and safe was a priority. I taught people how to layer their clothing to provide maximum warmth yet the least amount of perspiration. I taught them what type of walking boots they should buy (ankle support, thick tread etc) and what type of socks they should wear in them. I instructed them on kit they should carry on their shoots or when they were just walking around Iceland – torch, water bottle etc. I went out to an outdoor excursion shop and bought in bulk (for a cheeky discount) a large number of emergency blankets which would be distributed to people. I stressed how important all this kit was for people but I also told them why it was needed. Two weeks before we went on the trip, I held a kit check meeting (which was accompanied by a final paperwork check) where people either brought in or wore all their kit to prove physically they had it. Until I had seen the correct kit in the flesh, I would not tick them off my list and therefore they would not be allowed to leave the hotel in Iceland. This sounds pedantic as on one day most people walked round in just a jumper or t-shirt – it wasn’t always cold. But when it got cold, it got dangerously cold and they had to be prepared for this. As the exec, as the leader, I had to make an example of myself and strutted into the meeting (on a rather unpleasantly warm day) in my full kit to show people that I too had the correct gear. Once the kit was all checked and ticked off on my list, I conducted my health and safety lecture for when we were over in Iceland. I went through every detail I could think about regarding keeping each other safe, fit and well. It had to be done and I made it light-hearted and humorous so people weren’t bored and retained the information I gave them. I have always strived to have that approach to teaching (I’ve done a lot of it in the cadets) – keep it jovial yet get the exact point across. I finished my lecture with a very detailed lesson about hypothermia. We would be facing cold and exposure in Iceland – that accompanied with exhaustion and tiredness (two separate things I might add) could end up with someone in a very dire situation. Given the time and money we put into making the films happen, we couldn’t let something as preventable as that happen to ruin the whole thing however, people needed to be prepared to know how to spot it, what to do if it occurs and how to deal with it.
The preparation for Iceland was a long and arduous process but I learnt a lot from it. I made tonnes of mistakes but I learnt from them and know how not to let them happen again.
(Days: – countless meetings, two test shoots, two fundraising events, lectures and kit/documentation checks)