Out in the field

Filming on location – Etna, Stromboli and smelly tshirts…

It is hard sometimes to overestimate the amount of time spent faffing  around when making a documentary (or any kind of filming for that matter).

I am currently on location  in southern Italy making a documentary commissioned  by National Geographic and produced by Pioneer Productions, a UK firm run out of London and set up by an ex geologist. The series, a three parter, will ( probably) be called Birth of Europe and follows on from Birth of Britain screened in spring 2011.

The series is themed around Water, Ice and Fire. I am doing the Fire bit which, not surprisingly, focusses on volcanoes. In Europe that means two places – Iceland and The Med. The latter is our brief, with the usual suspects on show: Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius.

(Stromboli erupting: we got a little too close for comfort here!)

And therein lies the first problem – these volcanoes have pretty much been done to death. Finding something new to say about them is a real challenge. In part, the industry relies on the fact that viewers have little or no recall of previous similar shows and are drawn in by the spectacle. That bit rests with the director and film crew who do know what has been done before and feel pressure to go the extra mile (literally) to get that money shot that makes the series.

But at times even Nature herself seems to have had enough of these intrusions. An unseasonal storm has ruined best laid plans to film on Etna (although we did manage to get some good stuff), but today we’ve come to the lower slopes of Stromboli , where I’ve donned the same stinking T Shirt from Sunday to finish the shot.

Then there is the human factor, things get lost, batteries go flat, wires fail to connect, taxis are late, language problems, retakes, presenters screw up, more retakes, storm on way, camera lens lost, too dark, too light, too windy, too hot/wet/cold (delete as appropriate) – all in the knowledge that at the end of a 12 hour day we might have between 5 and 7 minutes of useable TV.

It is mostly hard physical work and we take risks that sometimes feel reckless. And here’s the best bit: I don’t even get paid, unless you count the 25 euros per dium.  So why do I do it? Probably flattery and vanity have something to do with it, but that’s not the whole story. Despite my desk-bound day job, at heart I am still a geologist, and I miss the field work, the excitement of seeing nature at work. Beyond that, I still believe in the importance of science communication in a world where  irrationalism and anti-science rhetoric appear to be on the rise.

An example of the faffing location filming seems to inevitably involve:

5 thoughts on “Filming on location – Etna, Stromboli and smelly tshirts…

  1. Fantastic, Nick! I was standing on that very spot only a week or so ago! (It was the highest I got.) When I saw Stromboli for the first time I started to weaken. The prospect of flogging up it in the evening to see the eruption at night, as one is supposed and expected to do, and then of flogging DOWN again in the dark by torchlight… No, I was ashamed of myself but I was about to wimp out. And then – miracle! – it turned out the activity was so intense they had banned all ascents! Hurrah! So – having never been called up, I never had to desert. What a relief. Watched it all from the cafe instead, with a bottle of Messina.
    😉

  2. Pingback: Etna, Stromboli and smelly tshirts: part 2 | Geological Society of London blog

  3. Pingback: Filming on location – Etna, Stromboli and smelly t-shirts…

  4. Pingback: Communicating geology in the digital age | Geological Society of London blog

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