Conclusions

Conclusions of the Culture

Well, Iceland as a place has exceeded expectations to say the least. It is as weird and wonderful as it claims to be – built upon super-heated volcanic rocks on the edge of an arctic wilderness. Reykjavik seems to be the only real city on the whole island – the rest of the country is built up of tiny towns roughly the size of our university campus.

Crucially, everyone is very friendly. Even those living out in the wilderness seem familiar with tourism – I haven’t come across one angry Icelandic person in the entire trip, not even in the airport!

Another great thing about the people as well – they seem to be happy. Of course, everyone living in Tenerife was happy too, but that was a different style. Hot sunshine with beaches and cocktails makes everyone happy – up here in the cold and the dark, it was a different kind of happiness. I also noted a ‘oneness’ with nature – all the water was heated by nature, and all the energy used was either solar powered (like the cottages), or thermal powered (like the majority of Reykjavik). This meant that people left the lights on all the time – there was no need to conserve power, as the power was from nature anyway. It formed a guilt-free existence.

Although I was rather low-brow at seeing whale on the menu, I did some research and found that not the Minke Whale, nor the Puffin, nor the Arctic Char, were endangered. All the food on the menus – although they sounded like endangered species, were actually completely legit. One tourist t-shirt in the tourist centre actually had a picture of a whale ‘fluke flapping’, with the words ‘Kill Em All’ under it. But it was a joke – a joke Iceland can get away with. The people here seem aware that nature is their friend. It’s almost a country of hippies – but happy hippies at that. They seem to be living life the way it should be lived – no war, no politics, and hardly any financial trouble.

Yes, this may just be the way I am supposed to see it, but certainly it seemed a very relaxed place – with auroras over your head at night, and so much beautiful scenery and natural spas around you during the day, who wouldn’t be? The seemingly self-sustaining guilt-free existence is the cherry on top!

 

Conclusions of the Genre

I had a chance to study Experimental Narrative last year, but turned it down for Short Film because I didn’t think the former was marketable to a wider audience (and thus not financially beneficial in getting a job post-graduation). I have to say, after this project, I still feel exactly the same way.  Martyn’s project ‘Solveig’s Homecoming’ will clock in at around an hour, but he has a clear vision about what he wants his audience to feel. His story is ‘experimental’, but it still has a ‘narrative’.

That so many students had left their films until this point, and decided to make their artefacts up overnight, was sort of a shock to me – is it really that easy? When I visited the Tate Modern, I said that “everything in it was so reductionist and simplistic that anything could be classed as art, so long as you put the correct amount of bullsh*t in text next to it”. In visual and audio forms, audiences should never have to read what they were supposed to feel – they are simply supposed to experience it for what it is.

Thus, this genre treads a fine line between being interesting and being boring. Those are really the only two responses you can get. I asked Martyn where he planned to show his film, and the verdict is still out on that one. I thought a decent art gallery, such as ones in Nottingham, Birmingham or Manchester – I think it would fit nicely as a film that people could wonder in to, and sample the voice over and beautiful scenery (and the visuals are indeed beautiful – it was hard not to take a bad shot in Iceland!). The beauty of the piece will hold people’s attention, but the verdict is still out on whether it will hold them for an hour. I’m pretty sure there will also be experimental film festivals around the UK and abroad, where people are willing to see film more as an art form than a money-making process (which is, sadly, what I’m being trained into developing).

When I tried to suggest ideas for student’s experimental films, they just turned me down by saying my ideas ‘made too much sense’. But at least they understood my ideas. Understanding in turn makes my ideas understandable to an audience, and that makes them marketable. Marketable means money, and that means I chose correctly in my eyes. My own art (and indeed heart and passion) is in another style of film making entirely. I was curious to see if my thoughts would change during this project, but all I can think about is Broken Flowers every time a project of this style appears…

 

Conclusions of the Course (This is a brave one!)

If Iceland and the experimental narrative genre were not the only things I was sampling out there, it was the CCM students and their course as well. There is a lot of sibling rivalry between their course and my own, and I’ve never known why – CCM students have always been classed as the academic equivalent of the ‘working’ M-Pro students, which has needless to say given birth to this one-up attitude which was always going to surface during this project.

For starters, I’ll say I’ve just played in a fencing Varsity event at Warwick University – CCM students are nowhere near as academic as those lot. If there is some stigma about CCM being posh, let me tell you – they ain’t. Warwick Uni is still relatively fresh in my mind, and the students there are worlds apart from anyone at Coventry Uni. Not in a bad way, they’re  just different. They seemed friendly enough (perhaps a little tantrum-ish at times), but they got the job done, and so did we. Out in Iceland, despite the fact that there were two self-proclaimed CCM ‘divas’ in the group, I’m sorry but I don’t buy it. Time to hold the hands up and say that Coventry University is not the best university in Britain, and we’re all ‘in it’ together after graduation, regardless of course. There are no divas here, just us students.

But let me take that acronym ‘CCM’ – Communications, Culture and Media. The word I was drawn to here was ‘culture’ – I was thinking they’d be a lot more engaged than I was about the new and wonderful things around us. Actually, I was quite surprised – margarita pizza and spaghetti bolognese were the order of the day a lot of the time, as were Chinese dishes and any variants of Italian restaurants. Comfort and happiness are key on trips like this, that’s a given. I was just expecting… I don’t know, some greater level of engagement. Everyone was enthusiastic about the Blue Lagoon spa, but that was a spa. Anyone can be enthusiastic about a spa! Sometimes you have to take a bullet for sampling new culture, because that’s what’s part of the fun. I would recommend for future experiences for the students to push themselves out their comfort zones more – start with different foods, but then go to unusual places. Don’t say that you ‘don’t ‘do’ mountains’ – just walk up, experience, see, and feel. If it is the chosen profession to study culture, it is almost imperative that this happens.

Spotlight on the director, and I owe him a big debt of gratitude. Not only has he delivered to me the first university-fronted professional experience that will further my showreel and portfolio, but he has also added one CD to my collection, and got me out of financial trouble when it arose on the last day. Never mind the whisky in the lagoon, or the epic amount of driving he did to get us where we needed to go – I think we should all be very thankful to have had a lecturer as solid as him fronting this project. Given the isolation involved in the second half of the trip, we really needed one!

Although our number was small – which made this project a lot more intimate than a lot of others – I got the feeling that he had our backs, and although he gave us room to do ‘what students do’ (i.e. get drunk, get lost, fall out, make up etc.) he was always around if we needed his help. I am always a ‘lone ranger’ on this sort of expedition, but it was nice to know the support was there (as I did indeed need to fall back on it eventually!) It’s also funny that although two of our group were only briefly with the M-Pro group, they claimed to have been effectively abandoned after only spending ten minutes with them (Cringe!)

And to bring Media Production into this – yes, everyone had their fall-outs on this trip (my blog naturally shows me getting more and more agitated in the later days!), but this would have happened with my own course mates anyway ( / has happened in the past). We were in the cottages, and we were trapped. No room to maneuver. We’ve all gone into the arctic, and we’ve all made it back alive without killing each other. For that we should be proud – we all did very well!

The most wound up I got though was when others thought they could do my job without me. It is a common misconception that anybody can pick up a camera and make a film. There is truth in the statement – anyone can pick up a camera and make a film. A sh*t one. I have been making films for over three years now. It is my profession – it is what I am depending on to pay my debt off when I leave. I am experienced at directing, producing, and film making. Thus, if I say you can’t make a steady shot with my camera over undulating marshes, it is insulting to me when people claim they can do it better, and try and do it themselves. Twice the pride, double the fall, certainly. But if that had anything to do with this sibling rivalry of ‘CCM can do M-Pro work’, again let me tell you – you can’t.

Media Production is about producing media. CCM is about studying it. Without us making the films, in this aspect of the industry all CMM students are out of a job. I have no doubt that CCM is the more academic course, but this does not mean they can operate cameras and direct films as well as we can.

Small rant over though, I think we are not so different. Without CCM students, us M-Pros would be producing out of date stuff, as we wouldn’t know what the media of tomorrow would be (thus we’d be out of a job too!). All they need to do is ‘RTFM’ on some cameras, and all we need to do is just ‘read’ – but neither of us will, because at the end of the day, out there in the world we’re going to need each other’s skills to get into our professions. This makes the underlying rivalry a little dumb and professionally pointless if you ask me – see, Warwick University have hardly any media courses, probably because there’s ‘no room for media in proper academia’. THAT’S RIVALRY!

Hopefully though I have represented my course in a good light – I’m not always the most sociable, but always reliable, dependable and (evidently) honest. I hope I’ve done Martyn’s project well and done it to the degree he wanted – I always do my best at everything I do, but this project had some very strange and testing film work going on, not least trying to steady-cam in a car on a gravel road! This project has given me a good run-through of the Canon 5D, and using DSLR cameras to make feature films – namely, a pivotal technological step forward in my career and my professional practice portfolio! For that, I am grateful – it has been a wonderful project, in a wonderful country, with some awesome people!

 

…But What About The Poem?

The poem never got made (semantics). But I still hope to make this poem before the PPP deadline, although that will be some time after my FMP ‘Peter Has An Angel’ has been filmed!

Sunday 4th – Return

I awoke at 5:45am and had a breakfast of hard-boiled egg, Skyr yoghurt (the Icelandic equivalent) and cereal. The taxi to the airport was pre-paid by the hotel (told you they were good!), and we crashed into the lobby to pick up some pre-paid tickets. Our luggage had problems with numbers on the ticket, but seemed to go through fine all the same. I then went through customs and forgot to take my belt off, resulting in a full-body search. I was too tired to care or feel embarrassed.

I sat in the departure lounge alone with a bottle of 7Up – the last item I could only just afford with what little coins I had left. I then headed back through the ‘museum’ of a skywalk, looking at all the little exhibits in more detail this time, before heading onto the plane. I managed to watch The Dark Knight in full during the flight, whilst listening to my ‘shuffled’ iPod.

Frozen Runway – The most icy takeoff I’ve ever been on, and also one of the most turbulent. I’m surprised people didn’t clap when we landed without being incinerated!

Then we all crashed off the plane, and headed for food. Well, I headed for food, everyone else seemed sated with coffee and muffins. It was unusual that in a place as high-regarded as Heathrow, there were no food outlets at all anywhere – no McDonalds, no Burger King, no Subway, no Upper Crust. All they had were little ‘tea house’ places like Cafe Nero. If you’ve just been on a seven hour flight from Chicago, you’ve just touched down and you’re about to get on a bus that will take you on a three hour drive to Nottingham (or further), you’re going to want more than a coffee and a muffin. I had to walk all the way to Terminal Three just to find a place that sold a decent-sized sandwich. It struck me as odd and also poorly-thought out, that’s all.

Luckily, with a hot panini and a sandwich inside me, the final two hour drive to Coventry was better endured. We all crashed off the bus at our destination, and bid each other farewell. I crashed into my house, crashed up the stairs, crashed into bed, and crashed into tomorrow morning. One hour late for returning equipment to the Media Loan Shop – three day ban. Typical!

Saturday 3rd – Reunion Tour

We awoke early Saturday morning to begin the return journey back to the airport where our final-night hotels were. The journey would take us slowly backwards past everywhere we had already been, although one detour was on the agenda – Thingvellir National Park, where a giant waterfall was supposed to be located at the end of a giant lake.

We piled into the car and set off, with me playing the Sigur Ros music all the way as we sped away from the cottages. We headed back through the arctic regions of snow and ice, and through the extensive mountain passes, until we eventually hit the same service station we’d visited on the way in.

At this point, it was revealed to me that I was required to pay a substantial amount of money for the trip – not for petrol, but simply for food. It was not 2,000 krona as I had initially thought, but over double that amount. This was decided between certain people on Wednesday night, and they had waited until now to tell me the details – thus, my budgeted 5,000 krona note was rendered pretty much useless in seeing me over the last few hours on the island. Needless to say, this sparked up an argument as we drove into the national park, eventually ending with me calling a unanimous vote as to how much I was paying and to who. Not that I understood it all that well, but it seems the money I paid was not just towards the map and the four meals we had initially agreed – I was paying for eggs and milk for pancakes that I hardly ate or somethingANYWAY.

Thingvellir – Technically, we were only on the outskirts of the National Park, but it was beautiful all the same. I wanted to scuba dive in these lakes today, but remembered that I can’t, as I’m flying home tomorrow (the sudden change in pressure would give me DCS on the return flight!)

The argument made the atmosphere in the van rather awkward. The scenery was beautiful all the same around the lake, though when we reached the end of it, we found no waterfall. There were plenty of waterfalls, but none of them were the one we were seeking. Thus, we headed over a rickety old wooden bridge, and carried on towards Reykjavik through the mountains and lakes. As we approached the capital, one CCM student suddenly added a detour to the agenda of dropping by our old hotel The Capital Inn, claiming she’d left keys there. Due to time constraints, her appeal was denied.

We got past Reykjavik and dropped by the Blue Lagoon for the final shoot of the project – a few shots of the outside area where the water was blue with sulphur, and steam clouds could be seen on the horizon. Then, we hit the next town along – the airport town of Keflavik.

Martyn needed to refuel the van before he gave it back, and so stopped by a service station. Inside this station, he accidentally traded paint with another car, and then had two of his cards fail on him at the automated petrol pumps. In what we all claim was ‘the most dramatic service station ever’, we shot off and dumped the car at the airport in earnest. Sadly, we were not going anywhere fast – the airport was not dissimilar from Glasgow in ‘Tenerife Redux’ – 6:00pm on a Saturday, and whole airport was a ghost town. No reception desks, no shops. Definitely no taxies.

Martyn managed to order one to take us the Hotel Berg just a few minutes away from the airport. Only myself, Martyn, Becky and Ruth went to this place – everyone else went elsewhere. The plan was to go for a meal that evening to celebrate, but I knew I was out of money thanks to the events in the van. Thus, after we stopped by a cafe and I’d had a cheap-and-cheerful chicken pasta dish, I vowed to pay by card – true to form, the card was denied. Martyn was well-prepared enough to cover half my bill thankfully – it is amazing how few cards work here in Iceland. It is entirely luck of the draw whether an ATM accepts it or denies it, and this is true with every restaurant, every cafe, every petrol pump and every bank machine (even the ones in the airport). For an island dependent on tourism, you’d have thought they’d have sorted this issue.

Thankfully, Martyn’s choice of the Hotel Berg was a good one – it was big, well-kept, and the staff were very friendly. He uploaded the last of the videos to his hard drive, and I started blogging, whilst Ruth and Becky indulged in some ‘r and r’ in a hot tub outside. I then got a knock on the door about thirty minutes later – the auroras were happening again, this time over Keflavik. This time I was much more relaxed about it – I set up my stop-motion camera quickly, and took several other photos using the Canon 5D, creating higher quality shots than before. If there was any doubt or argument about seeing them before, there sure wasn’t now – these lights were visibly green as they snaked over the town and out towards Reykjavik and the ocean. It was much-needed morale boost for me – it gave me the little push I needed to finish blogging and get to bed.

Boom – This second round of auroras sealed the deal. I have seen the Northern Lights, and with them, a piece of my life is now over. I am well and truly into my own existence on this planet now. I even got a little video of them!

Friday 2nd – Aurora Borealis

Every placement has a ‘nothing’ day, and today the Iceland trip finally drew the card. We woke up around 10:00am, and nothing really needed doing. Everyone agreed to be having weird dreams at this point – more due to the fact that the magnetism of the Earth is ‘weirder’ here than it was in Reykjavik, and may have started taking it’s toll. Me and Martyn went out in the car to get more shots within the vehicle using the tripod, but the gravel roads were mostly too unstable to get anything decent. The wind picked up greatly also, making all variants of camerawork difficult. I did find that it was easier to create the ‘steady-cam’ effect if I just let my hand rest on the straps of the Canon, rather than holding the camera in place. This way, the shaking was no so definite on the lens.

I’d finally caught a cold out here, and although today I was going to rest, it was only a matter of minutes before all students descended upon me wanting to use the Canon 5D for their Experimental Narrative projects – projects that had more or less been written overnight. I had my fears about CCM students crossing the line into M-Pro territory, and my fears were confirmed. They did not know how to describe shots (for example, tracking or panning shots), which made my job quite difficult. At one point I was trying to do a steady-cam shot in the severely-undulating marshes (using a 5D don’t forget). The student director thought he could do it better himself, so I let him have a go – he failed. Because they can’t talk to me in camera terms, I’m getting shots wrong. Martyn was quick to stand by his CCM students though and encourage the film making – a little bit cheeky I thought, since this meant his students were able to take turns in putting their feet up on the last night, whereas I was having my work cut out with people who weren’t 100% sure what they were doing!

I managed to take some more stop-motions, and also take a walk up a nearby hill just to get some breathing room. I think people are ready to go back to Coventry now – we have only one more day and then we can see our friends again and tell them our stories (though in my case, they’ve probably read my stories here already!)

I ended up shooting a stop-motion as the night rolled in for one project that wasn’t even being marked as university work, but the wind got so strong it blew my tripod over with my Nikon camera on it. Luckily, nothing was damaged, and I was able to upload the images successfully. For me though, that was the final straw – with the exception of dinner, I was now actively keeping myself to myself in the male cottage, and only venturing out to ‘babysit’ the wannabe film makers to make sure they didn’t break the camera trying to find the focus ring or whatnot (and it sounds like I’m making a dry sarcastic remark here, but:

  1. They literally couldn’t find the manual focus ring on the lens, and:
  2. If they broke it, I would be the one with the fine)

It was not worth my while letting them play about with such an expensive camera just because we’d finished Martyn’s project early. But then, to add to the sorrows, my computer’s import settings started to play up with the final stop-motion – something that had happened before when I stop-motioned the sunrise in Tenerife. I was called away for dinner, and also to help film a small campfire that the receptionist / cottage owner had been kind enough to light for one director.

At this point, all the big talk of the final night together and the ‘wrap party’ had me ready for some proper relaxation with the CMM crew for the final time, but believe it or not, there was hardly any alcohol in sight. Instead, I was called to another shoot near the hot pool after dinner, and then (perhaps sensing I was not in the best of moods) Martyn asked to borrow the camera to do a few shots inside the female cottage for his own film.

I was sat at my laptop playing chess when I heard my name getting called from outside. Martyn wanted to borrow the paglight as well, but also wanted to tell me that a small aurora similar to the one we’d seen before had been sighted in the sky. Eduard, Ruth and Becky were in the hot pool, and our photographer Anastasya was setting up her camera right next to them. Unfortunately, I was aware Martyn currently had my tripod, meaning my photos would not turn out so well if the auroras actually happened.

Waiting – At two seconds to take each photo, it takes an exceptionally steady hand to take a photo that isn’t blurry!

About fifteen minutes passed with not a lot happening, and the wind picked up. But then we realised our view was being blocked by a load of interspersing clouds. When the wind started to blow them away, they revealed bright clouds behind them – much brighter than the ones we’d seen before. I took a photo of the white clouds anyway (why not), but was shocked and amazed when I saw the photo I’d taken – the cloud was actively bright green, the colours were just not visible to the naked eye. I sat tight, getting excited with fellow photographer Anastasya, and one by one the bright clouds started to appear more frequently. They were at first in long lines across the entire sky, but then huge flashing clouds appeared, looking like giant glitter balls of shooting stars across the sky. I put my shutter speed down to ‘two seconds’ and implemented every steady-hand trick I knew. Some photos turned out okay:

The Lights Appear – Becky points to the Northern Lights from the hot pool. Local tradition states that if you do this, the lights capture part of your soul. I did warn them!

I then at one point lay on back on the ground looking directly up at the bright clouds above, and whispered ‘thank you’ to them. Anastasya had her own way of encouraging good luck – she turned the classic cheesy track ‘Macarena’ into an aurora equivalent of the rain dance. Surprisingly this seemed to work!

Eventually, I cut my losses and ran inside the female cottage to find Martyn and Cristina, who were still shooting for the film and were missing everything outside. Even with the alert, they continued filming for another five minutes, and then it was Anastasya who got my tripod to me. I had to go back in for the release plate still attached to the video camera, and found Martyn and Cristina were still in the cottage even though they had finished filming. I shot back out and set up the camera quickly, just in time to get the best shot of the night:

Photoshop? – YOU WISH!

Tinges of purple started to appear on the edges of the lights, and me and Anastasya were jumping around with joy – it is quite something to have successfully photographed what we had just witnessed. Becky kept pointing out the lights, and we kept shooting them. Cristina finally joined them in the hot pool, but true to form, the lights began to pack away as a giant storm cloud rolled in. Martyn was now in the male cottage importing files and editing – not in any great rush either. It was something I did not query, but am still unsure about even now.

Anastasya and myself sat out with our tripods until the giant cloud was on top of us, and the green faded into the grey clouds and retreated back into space. I would have happily sat out all night with her, but it was not to be.

Everyone went to bed, I assume very happy to have finally seen them. We had seen Aurora Borealis, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Come to think about it, had I taken photos on the first night, that cloud we saw would have probably been green also. It’s not something anybody ever tells you – you can only see ‘white lights’ in the sky (visibly bright in the dark night sky). I thought you’d be able to see greens and purples and reds, but unless you’re at the north pole, I wouldn’t bet on it. The colours are a trick of shutter speed and light manipulation – something our own eyes cannot do. But with this in mind, I guess I can also say that I sat in a hot pool smoking a Cuban cigar under the Northern Lights as well – nice! 🙂

Thursday 1st – Beach

The first day of spring… did not feel like it all the way up here. We awoke to a proper arctic blizzard. This was the day we were to film at a nearby beach, but no such luck if the weather persisted. Luckily, there was a break in the storm just after breakfast, so we headed off on the thirty minute drive in earnest.

Regardless of bad blood last night, there had also been tensions between the girls in the cottage this morning as well. Everyone was becoming tired and stressed with the company of the other members of the group – we’d hit ‘the wall’ (and typical of me, I retreated into my hermit cottage and blogged / played chess in the peace and quiet!) Nobody was feeling too enthusiastic this morning, despite being on a frozen volcanic black beach surrounded by more ice-covered mountains!

‘M-Pro!’ – One does not simply carve ‘CCM!’ into the beach sand without a Media Production student carving his own course’s acronym further down the bay!

We were lucky enough to see a wild arctic sea lion or two in the bay, but the air was even colder than it had been on the seafront at Reykjavik – the tripod joints started to freeze, and although the camera was relatively unaffected, my fingers and hands started to become stiff, restricting my ability to operate the camera. I have felt these effects once before – on the summit of Teide. Luckily, we managed to get everything just before the problems became serious. I am careful to always use my gloves when transporting my tripod in such conditions – not because the metal can shatter, but because the metal conducts what little heat you have in your fingers and hands away, freezing them even more!

We made some markings in the sand, and some picked up a few shells. Then we headed to a nearby city beginning with the letter ‘S’ (darn these weird names!). It was a small city, with a residential area made up bungalows. The population here is so low that they have no need to build upwards – perhaps they are also trying to make out that their population is denser than it actually is.

At the town, we took a wander around and found an internet cafe / restaurant, where we stopped to have lunch. Inside, I had panfried arctic char with shrimps, and a ‘Gull’ beer to wash it down. The beer was a little lighter and watery than expected, and the char was a weaker (yet slightly smokier) version of salmon. The meal was lovely all the same though – not too strong, which was good for this hour of the day. The skin of the char was also really crispy and delicious – not unlike the skin on chicken when roasted in the oven correctly.

Arctic Char – As delicious as it looks. Gull is the local Icelandic beer – very subtle in taste.

After the meal, we were quick to conclude there was little else around, and so headed back. En route we stopped by a church and a set of old abandoned cottages to do a further shoot. I got some photos of the surrounding mountains in the afternoon sun, the powder snow being blown gingerly into the air by the arctic winds to create ‘snow clouds’ cascading down the rocks.

The snow underfoot was particularly bad today. About seven or eight inches deep in parts, the top layer is solid, which prevents you from making snowballs (that’s right, snow you can’t make snowballs from!) The second layer underneath though is power snow, which is not dissimilar from the consistency of baking powder. Underneath this is black ice, sheeted unevenly across the gravel. Underneath that is some sort of old frozen layer that’s probably been that way for years. So put simply – you take a step, your foot breaks through the crusty top layer, sinks eight inches down into the powder snow and engulfs your foot. You put more pressure on the foot, and then you slip. If you fall completely and hit anything not covered in snow, it’s going to hurt. A lot. Nobody has had such an incident yet – we can only hope it stays that way!

Photo Evidence – Because snow this deep simply doesn’t exist in the UK!

We did a little shop at the local supermarket before we got back to the cottages, where I stocked up on bread. Back at the camp, the footage got uploaded, and everyone went to sleep. I was awoken by Cristina an hour later who raced into our cottage in a panic because everyone had forgotten to buy milk – a crucial ingredient for tonight’s meal or something, I wasn’t sure.

Dinner tonight turned out to be roasted pork steaks with potatoes and vegetables – the one dish I had not been keen on since it was brought up in the supermarket. Apparently, a few other members were not keen on steak either, and decided to cook their own dinner, which annoyed Cristina a lot! Thankfully though, the meal was cooked to perfection – Cristina has come through in her ability to cook, as steaks are notoriously difficult to get right!

The night concluded with another session in the hot pool, but conversation had relatively dried out at this point. Cristina decided she wanted to film something for her Experimental Narrative module using everyone in the hot pool, which I was more than happy to do. This turned out to be a mistake, as I could hear as I went away that now all the students on that module were planning to get me to film their artefacts whilst we were out here as well!

Again, no sign of any lights in the sky. Tomorrow is out last night. Despite it being one of my lifetime ambitions, I am relatively blase about it – I have come to film Martyn’s film, and if we see the lights it’s a (exceptional) bonus. I would only be greatly disappointed if seeing the auroras was my soul purpose of coming all the way up here – in this instance, it is not.

Wednesday 29th – Waterfalls

The last day of winter began in a typical arctic blizzard. The wind howling on the cottage was not constantly bashing against the windows and walls – it was just constant. The noise just varied in pitch every so often, but the consistency of the noise made you realise just how low the temperature was outside for wind chill factor.

After the snow had at least vanished from the wind, we started with a trip to a nearby marshland. Here, the puddles were frozen, and also concealed under long grass. If you stepped on any ice, the slab sank and spurted icy water up your leg due to the pressure. I ebbed my way around the marshes with my Canon 5D and tripod, curious if this place was actually starting to top El Teide as ‘most dangerous natural filming environment’. Luckily I didn’t break anything, and we got some wonderful shots of the surrounding mountains. Becky went to reception to get the door fixed, and in doing so also asked the receptionist about locations regarding waterfalls and beaches. We decided to ‘do’ the beach tomorrow, as the waterfall location was nearby. Whilst we waited for the door in the girl’s cottage to be fixed, I took a stop-motion of some nearby mountains (why not).

We left for the waterfall at half past one, stopping en route to video some wild Icelandic horses and take some videos from the van. I set up the tripod on the passenger seat next to me at the front of the van, and it worked surprisingly well as a steady cam (the cushioned seating was good for counterbalance and resistance). We arrived at the canyon and parked roughly half a mile from the said waterfall – we could hear the roaring of the water from quite far away. As the sun slowly (very slowly) began to set, we arrived at the half-frozen waterfall. It was really a collection of about seven small waterfalls, forming perhaps the biggest cascade of water I’ve seen in my life thus far.

We managed to get some really beautiful shots around the locale – some prompting me to venture down onto the actual cascades ridge itself with my DSLR swinging from my neck, reminiscent of the ‘Masca Trail experience’, now almost one year ago. We also found a natural spring where the water was hot, with the steam coming out of the river in the chilly arctic air. It was of course a very strange sight to see. Everyone got their photo taken at the site, and then headed back to the van for a brew.

Cascades – This place was just… well… awesome!

Back at the cottages, we finished the day’s shooting with a shot of Cristina immersing herself underwater in the hot pool. She stayed in the pool for another two hours, meaning I was called to cook the dinner tonight with only half an hour to do it, despite Cristina very specifically telling us all she was going to cook every evening the night previously! The dish was as simple as it got – Spaghetti Bolognese. Unfortunately I was quick to find that the cutlery was not designed for mass-produced food for seven people in one cottage – even with borrowing equipment from the male cottage, nothing was ‘none-stick’, and the biggest pot in the cottage couldn’t even cook one lone bag of spaghetti without creating a mess all over the base of it. Ruth luckily did this a lot in Coventry, and knew exactly how the sort the problem out – apparently you rain salt all over it after it’s soaking in water (domestic tip right there!).

I had to argue how to separate the spaghetti that had coagulated – butter or oil. Since I was too tired to really care that much, we used butter (as apparently this tasted nicer). When Martyn went up to dish his pasta and bolognese out, he took one look, then took the bottle of oil and poured a load over the pasta, much to the dismay of one student. I found this pretty funny actually (‘Prepping pasta like a boss!’)

Overall though the meal turned out well, and everyone enjoyed what I had cooked (just being polite?). It was a shame I’d totaled the dishes (not one of my neatest moments) but then, none-stick is virtually a must-have for this kind of cooking. Considering some of the things I’ve eaten on professional placements, this meal was gourmet. You haven’t tasted ‘burnt’ until you’ve TASTED ‘burnt’! (Pardon the grammatical flaw).

After dinner, I was keen to start having some alone time, as I wanted to edit my stop-motion from earlier today, and listen to the Iceland CDs I’d bought a few days ago and had not gotten round to listening to yet. I was interrupted by the students texting me who (again) wanted to know if we were filming tonight, and (again) would much rather text me than the lecturer himself.

After we’d confirmed we were not shooting tonight, the students quickly came round our cottage to demand for my playing cards so we could have a game of ‘Ring Of Fire’. I have to admit, I was quite easily swayed – third year students have not been all that lively in this ‘area’ this academic year, not even in the Fresher’s Week! This Icelandic game of R.O.F went down well, despite the fact I had to explain the rules three times from a rather standard playing set of rules. During the game, the dirty pint was refused to be ‘seen off like a fresher’, and one student laughed so hard he ejected his drink through his nose. We had a good laugh, and then people decided to hit the hot pool.

Despite one cloud having stopped our viewing pleasure last night, tonight the sky was covered in clouds (and snowing). I decided to return to my work, and put the finishing touches to my stop-motion. Lo and behold, not ten minutes into the editing process, the students turned up again at the foot of my bed demanding my presence in the hot pool. This time, when I refused to go with them, they got really offended. One of them even stuck a finger up at me! I take it back – no, CCM students can not handle their drink!

Indeed, true to prediction the auroras did a no-show. As Martyn put it, there was little cloud in the skies, but little auroras either. I did manage to get the stop-motion finished though – it would have been a little longer, only one CCM student walked straight into the middle of the shot for about a minute, invalidating the latter part of the video:

Just before I hit the hay, Martyn gave me one of the Sigur Ros CDs he’d bought in Reykjavik – he said he already had one copy of the CD at home, and had made a second purchase just to hear the songs again out here in Internet-less Iceland. I was very grateful, as it included another of their best-known songs. After two o clock in the morning, a storm hit the cottages, waking up the majority of the group in both cottages.

Tuesday 28th – Arctic Circle

Today was always going to be one of the longest days of the entire trip – the journey from Reykjavik to Varmahlid was estimated at around 6 hours, and although there was only one main road to be concerned with, the road took us into the outskirts of the Arctic Circle, where roads are infamously sheeted with ice, concealed with snow, or outright blocked by arctic debris.

I awoke in the hotel to find a message that Martyn, our driver, was going to be two hours later than estimated. Assuming he’d sent this to others, I had a lie-in. This was not to be the case, and I went down to get breakfast at half past nine to a rather cold reception from the other half of the group who had been up bright and early, and had been sat waiting for the last hour a half whilst I’d been sleeping. I understand why they were annoyed (who wouldn’t) but I do find it odd that I seem to be the only one in contact with the CCM lecturer at any one point – I am constantly keeping him in contact with his own students from his own course. Perhaps this ‘keeping everyone connected’ role is a side-responsibility for me because I’m a third year (and thus more experienced and mature). I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t require me sending lots of texts to different people all the time and clocking up my mobile bill excessively on ‘roaming’ charges!

We had little time to persist with the attitudes when Martyn finally arrived with the van at just before eleven. We knew it would be a tight fit, but I know from previous experience that regardless of space, all luggage and food was going to get in one way or another. We set off for the north and left Reykjavik behind us, taking a nice coastal trail that took us the north west of the island.

Here we entered in a tunnel five kilometers long. It was so deep the pressure change in the ears was equivalent to that of scuba diving to ten meters (i.e very noticeable!). When we came out the tunnel about ten minutes later, we crossed a toll. This was effectively the boundary into the Arctic Circle. Martyn paid the fee and we crossed over. The land did not change much for many miles – we even made it to a service station, where the weather was just wet, windy, and generally cold and bleak. However, in the space of about two miles just after the service station, we hit the cold. Big time.

Long tunnel.

The huge Icelandic mountains towered over us ‘Snowdonia’ style, each one looking like it had been raked down the sides, where the arctic winds had literally scraped the dry snow off the surfaces revealing the black volcanic rock underneath. Then suddenly it was as if the wind had no bearing – snow covered almost all the mountains around us. Snow covered all the fields, all the pale water in the rivers started to become frozen, and the clouds – white with snow – started to merge into the landscape. It became very difficult to know at any great distance where the land stopped and the sky began – a total white-out in every direction. Only little dots of black boulders hinted at where the ground was. The feeling of isolation was both immediate and severe – it reminded me to text my mum to let her know I was okay. Once you realise you’re so far north, you feel that if there is anything important you want to say to anybody, now would be good time to do it!

Arctic Scenes – It was as if nature was compensating for the last five Christmases in England in one day. I’ve never seen so much snow in my LIFE, and these hopefully give an idea of how isolated and treacherous the terrain really is.

True to form, the road disappeared several times under white ice and inches of snow. Either side of the highway are yellow metal sticks about one meter high that allowed us to see where the highway continued over the snow. Several trucks going in the opposite direction created rip-winds that I could feel dragged our car off course a little from time to time. Ultimately though, after crossing a vast expanse of flat, white snow fields (complete with rivers with miniature icebergs floating down them!) we arrived at our destination in another mountainous region inland – Varmahlid. We were greeted by a happy Icelandic receptionist, who took our payment, and then told us that the Northern Lights had been all over the sky just last night. Everyone was visibly excited! We separated out into two cottages – male and female.

We got some sleep, but towards the evening the girls woke us up and told us that they’d broken their front door already – a gust of wind had blown it almost off its hinges. When I told everyone I had a screwdriver on my pen knife that may be able to fix it, Martyn told me he wanted to ‘have my babies’ (?) We decided to leave it until daylight tomorrow to attempt to fix it, so as a temporary solution, the girls wedged rocks outside the door to keep it shut.

The girls used a sling made of robe ties to keep the door closed from within.

We had stir-fry with chicken wings for dinner – a delicious start to our home-cooked menus. I was supposed to be sharing catering duties, but Cristina vowed to cook all four meals on all four nights. Since she had no use for me other than to cook five-minute noodles this night, I wasn’t one to argue and just left her to it (less work for me after all!)

After dinner, us lads were the first ones to man-up and get down to our swimwear, before running out into the arctic wind and jumping into the hot pool in the middle of our cottages. I lit up my specially-purchased Cuban cigar and lay back whilst the girls screamed and shouted their way to the pool in the chill. With everyone in, we sat around in the hot water… and waited.

For an hour, we just drank whisky, took photos, and passed the cigar round. I was the first to notice a cloud directly above us that was a straight line. It was like a vapour trail, but even straighter. This cloud was suspended high in the upper hemisphere. Soon, it started to split, branching out like needles in every direction. We first assumed it to be an average cloud, caught in the jet stream that goes along the top of Iceland. However, when it started to glow brighter with a tinge of green, we knew we were witnessing the start of the aurora. We all got really excited, but gradually the excitement evaporated as the cloud dimmed and went back to it’s original state. After a while, I figured out the angle of the sun by using the crescent moon, and realised there was a huge rain cloud that has passed us earlier that must have been blocking the sunlight from hitting the upper hemisphere. Although we waited another hour, all we saw were other tantalizingly close illuminations. I eventually called it a night, going to bed rather deflated. Technically, we have only seen the Northern ‘Clouds’ at this point!

No picture of any auroras to show, so here is a fresh-baked Icelandic baguette I had at the service station en route! Naturally very nice, and surprisingly light.

A stereotypically ‘arctic’ tune from the college years that I dumped back on my iPod specifically for this journey today! Their song ‘Warrior Soul’ specifically mentions the Northern Lights, which is why I remembered this band during this trip. Ah the memories…