Director Fred Scott used an iPhone to shoot an eight-minute documentary for Boat Magazine
Commissioned to make a film about the Faroe Islands, director Fred Scott travelled to the windswept Jurassic peninsula of Stóra Dímun to shadow four of its seven inhabitants for independent travel publication Boat Magazine. The catch: Fred had just one day to film, and instead of his using go-to kit, the entire documentary was to be shot on an iPhone. Swapping a heavy camera for a pocket-sized counterpart meant Fred could be nimble on his feet, something essential when keeping pace with his interviewees as they scrambled down cliff sides. Aesthetically beautiful and touching, the result is an eight-minute film that captures the grit, resourcefulness and unexpected gregariousness of this remote community.
Nomadic biannual publication Boat Magazine focuses on a different location each issue and physically moves its studio – formed primarily of editor Erin Spens and creative director Davey Spens – to that place, to reveal deeper stories and best collaborate with local creatives. This particular issue visits the Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago of craggy islands under Danish rule, perched between Scandinavia and Scotland in the middle the Atlantic.
Boat’s Erin and Davey commissioned director Fred Scott to develop a short documentary, made in collaboration with Apple and shot on an iPhone. The subject was one of Faroe’s most desolate outreaches, an 700-acre island called Stóra Dímun with only seven inhabitants. Fred had previously worked on a documentary for which Davey had developed the creative, and as Boat knew his work well, he was asked to suggest a few ideas rather than formally pitch. The brief was a skeleton description of Stóra Dímun, its seven inhabitants, how they made their living from sheep farming, and the helicopter taxis necessary to get to the largest crop of islands. “It was all I needed in terms of an enticing me onto the project,” says Fred.
“Apple wanted to show how you can maximise the iPhone as a creative tool. It has nailed photography – documentary was the next step.”
Tech giant Apple had been long-time fans of the magazine, previously showcasing Boat for the launch of a new version of the iPad. In tune with its ‘Shot on an iPhone’ campaign, Apple was keen to show the filmmaking capability of the iPhone following high profile successes like feature film Tangerine and Olivia Wilde’s music video for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Apple was involved in the film in a support capacity, both supplying the technology and promoting the film once completed. “Apple wanted to show how you can maximise the iPhone as a creative tool,” explains Fred. “It has nailed photography – documentary was the next step.”
Fred started the project by reading the little written about the island, following crumbs across the internet and hunting down relevant books. “The island has its own website that is useful, but it’s just the bare bones of what goes on there, says Fred. In many ways the scant information worked in Fred’s favour. “Sometimes you don’t want to know everything; going to a place with the brain’s discovery mode on is better than having a very strict agenda.” Instead, a lot of Fred’s research and preparation was based around the emotions of living on an island. Visually, the work of photographer Linda Brownlee, who has shot extensively in Ireland, was a key reference. “I’m generally more interested in context of life and the figures on this prehistoric landscape. Why people chose to live there and how they executed that way of living was really compelling to me,” says Fred. “On the face of it it's a story about about remote living and disconnection. I expected to find this very hermetic lifestyle in the middle of nowhere, but I was open for my expectations to be challenged.”
“Sometimes you don’t want to know everything; going to a place with the brain’s discovery mode on is better than having a very strict agenda.”
Fred and production designer Anna Rhodes (who on this film worked as an extra pair of hands during the shoot) knew they would only have one day to capture the footage, so instead of an extensive location scouting, they would have to think on their feet. To keep the film conversational, Fred didn’t do too much research into the individuals he was due to meet or write interview questions ahead of time. “I left enough space to be alert and dextrous when I was filming,” says Fred. “I didn’t want to go there to answer a set of questions. I find sometimes that the less I know the more eager I am to investigate.”
Getting used to the equipment was a fast learning curve, not least because Fred only had two days back in London to play with the kit before heading to the Faroes. The equipment (a Beastgrip Pro mount and a RØDE microphone and a lens adaptor) had all been made specifically to work with iPhone and were suggested by Apple. Fred filmed Of Land and Sea using Filmic Pro, an app that allowed him to put stabilisers on and change the focus, and experimented in the very static environment of his London studio. “I didn’t have the time to properly test it in a more useful environment, so I had to learn super-quick when I was out there.”
Development and Production
Taking a helicopter taxi from Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, Fred filmed the approach to Stóra Dímun. “It was bad weather at the time, so all you could see was sea and fog, and then the island appeared out of nowhere,” he says. Even at this early stage, Fred’s expectations of an isolated existence were disrupted as all twelve of his fellow passengers were friends and family of Stóra Dímun’s seven inhabitants there for a social visit. “It was quite surprising that people in the Faroe Islands actually see more of their family and friends than I do sometimes in London.”
Arriving late on Friday night, Fred and Anna filmed a few things, but the majority of the shoot happened on the Saturday. The idea of the film was to follow the family through their daily routine (from tending animals to working in the sheepskin tannery to eating around the table with 15 friends), interfering as little as possible. “Bar eating and that communal time, they don’t really ever rest. There’s always a sense of endeavour, which is the amazing thing about the place. I couldn’t prepare my shot list or make a plan, it was very about capturing their life.”
At that point Fred still didn’t know how good the iPhone was going to be for shooting a documentary, especially with no internet or tech support. “It took a bit of time getting used to using an unfamiliar camera, plus there’s quite a lot of things to think about when you’re taking in sound as well as picture,” says Fred. Most of the roaming shots were filmed using the a Beastgrip Pro mount and Fred used a tripod for some static shots, to ensure there was some stillness to the film as well. “I didn’t want it to look basic – I didn’t want to just accept that, I wanted it to look as good as it could, and I wanted it to sound good too. It’s not an excuse to say it was shot on an iPhone.”
One of the biggest challenges was the Faroe’s changeable weather, which forced him to improvise. “It rained for an hour at one point. I’d taken an umbrella with me, which was obviously ridiculous. I knew it was going to rain at some point but I was probably in denial!” Thinking on his feet, Fred fashioned a rain cover from a bin liner, folding it over a couple of times and taping it to the top of the iPhone. “Remarkably that was less embarrassing,” he adds. The strong winds also caused sound problems as times, but only a fraction of the key footage was unusable. “Tech-wise it worked really well; it turned out to be a really unobtrusive mode of filming a documentary.”
“When I was interviewing them I constantly asked about the importance of connection, and knew I wanted to start with that.”
Back in London Fred spent a weekend viewing and logging all the raw footage, and created a thorough paper edit for editor Jack Abbot to assemble to film. “My usual process is to create a master and to sketch out how to structure the story,” says Fred. At this point Fred had a strong idea for a beginning and an end (“that’s often how it works”), and so the process was about fleshing out the middle. “When I was interviewing them I constantly asked them about the importance of connection and knew I wanted to start with that,” explains Fred. “They raised a really good point on the film, you could feel more lonely on a London bus than they did because it’s about how you interact with those around you.”
The quiet of the island was a key influence on the pace of the edit, and meant that the documentary was a little longer than planned. “I was only expecting the film to be four or five minutes long – I still can’t work out whether it was over-indulgent but the stillness of the film was really important.” As both Jack and Fred worked on the film alongside other projects, ten days of editing stretched over months. Fred sent some clips to Boat throughout the process, but there was no pressure from Erin and Davey to do so. At the end of the edit they had a few tweaks, as did Apple, but the input from both was minimal. “It was a very supportive process.”
Alongside the eight-minute film, Fred wrote and article about his experience for the magazine and delivered a series of stills. “I often do stills as well as documentary work because I enjoy the duality of process,” he says. Aside from the weather, mastering the technology was one of the project’s biggest challenges. “I didn’t want it to gimmicky or be shot on an iPhone just for the sake of being shot on an iPhone. I wanted it to add value,” says Fred. One of the most obvious exhibitions of the iPhone’s ergonomics is where Fred scrambles down a cliff face to see bird eggs during the film, leading to an impromptu discussion on diminishing bird populations. “If I’d had a bigger camera that just wouldn’t have been possible.”
With such a short time to film, another challenge was developing an accurate portrayal of the people he met. “Any documentary is about trust, that’s about what you go there to earn, and trust is so visible on the screen.” The fact that the iPhone was so small made for more natural and agile interactions with people, creating a more intimate film, says Fred.
“Any documentary is about trust, that’s about what you go there to earn, and trust is so visible on the screen.”
Fred measured the film’s success based on whether he and his peers felt it was a credible piece of documentary-making rather than the number of views. “This film was never going to do justice to my experience out there – I’d probably want to go and live with people for months,” he says. “First and foremost they look out for each other and make sure they do the right thing for their community. There’s a focus and embracing of the life choices they have made, rather than being distracted by the ‘noise’ and pressure of urban existence. They make choices as a team - and make changes in accordance to the singular pursuit of building and protecting the most enriching life possible.”
Interview by Laura Snoad
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