We’re just a regular, ordinary family of 4 children and 2 parents doing something extraordinary. I guess that makes us somewhat of a curiosity to other people. Add in one of the most glorious forces of nature, and the fact that so many people out there only dream of seeing it for themselves and you could describe us as ‘living the dream’.
We are living the dream.
We know it.
We are very lucky we are able to do what we do and maintain our family life at the same time.
Since we started our journey in 2013 we have been contacted by various newspapers and radio stations. Most of them just want to know either what makes us so obsessed with the lights or how we are getting on.
In October 2014 we were contacted by two TV production companies.
The first TV company was producing Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild for Channel 4. They were really keen to spend a few days with us filming about living ‘off-grid’ in an extreme location. If they’d have caught up with us last year we would’ve been perfect for them but now we were now a little more static, living in a house with the children attending Norwegian school so we didn’t really fit their criteria.
The second TV company to contact us was the BBC who were filming a science documentary and wanted to view the Aurora through the eyes of children. Now this criteria was something we had an abundance of…
Four of them,who were all happy to sit and watch the Northern Lights and would enthuse about them as much as required. The BBC had originally found us via The Guardian article and from there they visited our blog. Once the children’s stop motion time-lapse about the science of the Northern Lights did it’s ‘viral’ rounds through the BBC production office they got in touch. It was narrated by Lyrica (age 3) and was very sweet…
Over Skype, we got to meet the director Nat Sharman. Nat has directed some of the best award-winning BBC science programmes in recent years: Human Universe, Michael Mosley’s Inside the Human Body and countless others. So, a week of filming was set for February 2015 and prior to that time lots and lots of planning emails went back and forth, mostly discussing different locations for filming.
One email did catch my eye as I scanned through the information we were being given from our contact as she casually popped in that “Professor Brian Cox will be presenting the programme”, “Would you be able to facilitate some shots of your children playing in the snow and blah, blah, blah” …
WHO is hosting the show?
I need to explain something here. Chris and I are not particularly into current tv shows but we do love a good science documentary and let’s cut to the chase here, you don’t get more science-nerd than Brian Cox. In fact he is one of those incredibly intelligent people who probably ought to be incredibly boring to match. I mean, dark matter and quantum physics are rubbish right?
Ain’t nobody got time for that!
You know, when I think of science and my days in school – yes – it was pretty uninspiring but any science explained by Coxy is many things but uninspiring is definitely not one of them. Throw in some explanations as to why our planet is so undeniably beautiful and package it in a way that even non-sciency folk can understand and that might explain why we think he is a bit of a hero. Chris loves being Chris but if he had to be anyone else on the planet he has always maintained that he would definitely choose to be “The Prof” instead. If only he had the neccessary I.Q. to fit the bill…!
Anyway, I digress. So now the BBC really had us excited! Before it was just ‘a bit of TV’ but now….. it was going to be something great. Something huge and something really worthwhile! A few more emails and we discovered that we were going to feature in the final episode titled ‘The Pale Blue Dot‘ of Forces of Nature with Brian Cox, a joint production with PBS in the United States and France Télévisions.
Below is a full trailer of BBC Forces of Nature with Brian Cox (including a few out-takes)
Time flew and before we knew it the producer Suzy and director/producer Nat had landed at our small local airport in Evenes and were swinging by our little house for a first meeting. Chris could hardly contain himself as they had brought along two Sony A7s cameras especially for the program, along with an impressive collection of drool-worthy lenses and film cameras. The newly released high-sensitivity sensors on the Sony A7S meant that it was one of the first cameras capable of filming auroral displays in real time.
No sped up, revolting cartoon style footage.
Just pure, simple and unadulterated graceful aurora being captured and replayed in realtime!
The BBC team had done their homework too and had also arranged for an octocopter drone to fly these cameras under the lights as well as to film us from the air. It was going to be a long, exciting, exhausting and hopefully green week….
On the first evening of their arrival The Tricky Lady was just as excited to say ‘Hello’ to the crew as we were. The activity was starting to pick up which had us all reaching for our snowsuits and scrambling up the mountain behind the house. The lights were already out and really dancing by the time we had our friends who were staying with us and the BBC team laid in the snow looking upwards. There was quite a bit of commotion with children chattering and Chris and I in a sort of over-excited hyperdrive explaining the different types of auroras you could see. It was bedlam really! This was just great! Getting such a great display the night the BBC arrived!
Except… was it so great? It was definitely a day premature because the cameraman and sound man weren’t due to arrive until the next day. Still, it was good to show Nat and Suzy exactly what we were hoping for so for the time being we took it as a sign of things to come.
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I ignored that niggling feeling in my stomach that we had just been too lucky, too quick.
The following day we took to the road to show Nat and Suzy the places we thought would suit their plans for filming. The great thing about Vesterålen is there is an endless (and I really do mean endless) supply of fantastic locations in forests, looking at mountains, from within mountains, views across the fjord, or towns, single trees, deserted permafrost roads, lone houses, barns, rivers, lakes, icy beaches. It is the most photogenic place I have ever had the fortune of calling home.
Two more had joined the team from the UK now; Phil Bax the sound man and Julius Brighton the cameraman. Phil-Microphone- Gadget-Man-Bax was the shyer more quiet half of this dynamic duo (ironic really as he had all the microphone gizmos for recording the loud stuff) and Julius-Camera-Demi-God-Brighton was the one who was happy to talk to anyone about his impressive collection of kit. It was like Chris had died and gone to heaven.
The amount of time it took the four of them to transform the side of the road into a camera studio was incredible – five hours after they started setting things up we arrived with the four children and CLONA (our 7m motorhome that had been our home for the best part of a 15 months) to start filming one small shot.
This scene used a motorised dolly on a 2 metre tall track and the motorised movement was meticulously programmed into a PocketPC. It looked amazing watching them test the scene as the camera elegantly swept across the front of CLONA. Nat called “Action!” and the six of us tumbled out of CLONA into the snow. Then we heard the shout of ‘Cut! Cut!”. The PocketPC controlling the dolly had FROZEN! We’re not talking ‘blue screen of death’ frozen here where a reboot would normally solve the problem, we’re talking ‘this computer is not designed to function at -10ºC’!
Despite attempts to revive the computer, including several phone calls across to the BBC technical support team back in London, the team were unable to get the system back up and running, so the evening came to an end. We would have to re-set everything up again the following evening! The only good thing about this was that we were parked under cloud tonight so there was very little chance of any aurora action during the filming. Maybe tomorrow night would be better?
Chris had his moment of glory. He had to run down the mountain side as fast as he could whilst the octocopter flew only feet from his head. To him it sounded like an angry swarm of bees heading straight for him! He tripped. He fell. He didn’t mean to but still fall he did and then he rolled like some kind of snowman’s head gathering snow as he went. He somehow landed back on his feet and carried on running with this dazed look on his face. It was such fun.
Only time will tell whether the final cut presents him as a ‘James Bond‘ character or a ‘Johnny English‘ character, it really could go either way! There wasn’t a stunt double in sight. He did all his own tricks! In fact it was so much fun for all of us to witness that Nat wanted to be sure he had all the footage he needed.
So, we took the same shot of Chris careering down the mountainside again from a different angle. He had to repeat his fall in exactly the same way as before! The rest of us and the film crew were all snug and warm in the house staying as quiet as possible because the filming was happening through our lounge window.
There was some stifled sniggering as Chris took face planting the snow very seriously. This was followed by more sniggering when Nat said ”We’ll never use this shot, it’s just funny!”.
On our first night Nat discussed with us a list of shots he was planning on taking but it felt like just a jumbled up list of random events that had no connection to each other. We couldn’t visualise how it would all fit together especially as it wasn’t filmed chronologically. Nat on the other hand knew exactly what was going on. One morning we were filming a snowball fight by the side of a road overlooking the fjord and then the next we were filming CLONA driving over Sortland Bridge using a drone. I don’t want to talk too much amore bout the content because it will ruin the surprise. It’s entertaining in a comical way. That’s all you get from us, you’ll just have to wait until it’s released in July 2016!
If we ever thought TV was ‘glamorous’ we certainly don’t any more. It’s really hard work and we had a full on schedule. Each day started at noon and we would turn in between 2-4am each night. That’s a long day for anyone to be filming and supposedly looking your best.
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Not to mention it being in the 7m x 2m confines of CLONA with a Soundman, Director, Assistant Producer, Cameraman, 4 children, Chris and I and some awesome but hefty lights, cameras, monitors and other brackets/frameworks.
Can you believe we spent the whole week filming for just a 7 minute slot?
It was really incredible how long everything seemed to take.
The drone team from Varde Solutions were great. Anders & Oystein had driven all the way up from Oslo, some 1500 kilometres, in their van with all their drone gear which included a top-of-the-range octocopter. No Chris you won’t be getting one for Christmas.
Here’s a clip of some of the early test footage they filmed over Sortland Bridge.
One operated the drone, the other camera, and they were able to film very low level shots along the side of the fjord as we drove, over the bridge and above us climbing out of the van when we arrived at our location to watch the lights.
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Now for a short tutorial on the art of wearing a concealed mic for the best part of a week…
- Be sure to not argue with your family at any time
- Don’t bad mouth the crew when you think they are in a different car / room
- If you go to the toilet, turn your microphone off
Phil Bax, the sound man fitted all of us with these funky little radio mikes. You wore them under your clothing and tucked the wires out of sight so once they were on you forgot you were wearing them.
He was able to hear everything everyone was saying. That must’ve been like some kind of horror film for him! Imagine hearing 4 children and 2 parents talking in different places to various people around the set? He must feel like Charles Xavier from X-Men at times. Phil had a control panel unit and headphones that meant he could tune in to some or all of us to set the levels. This was fine when filming as you were aware of what you were saying. However, there is nothing quite like nipping into the toilet and halfway through realising you haven’t muted your microphone or telling Caspian to stop thwacking his sister over the head with his snowboots in hushed irritated tones so no-one can hear your rant… to realise actually the mike was picking it all up.
He didn’t seem too bothered by our volume or shenanigans though and he assured us that he only had us on when he needed to. I don’t blame him actually! I should think we’d give anyone a headache!
Lyrica got quite attached to his fluffy boom mike which we decided was more of a ferret on a stick. Yes, he had one of those too in his box of tricks. You know the sort you see the news reporters with?
Director, Nat Sharman was great with the children – it was obvious he had worked with them before and had a few of his own. Our children are pretty spirited and they’re all so different to each other. Aurora, 11, needs coaxing out of her shell but once out she is very dry-humoured and witty. Oceanna, aged 9, is a bit of a diva and not shy at all. All her clothes have to be colour co-ordinated. Lyrica is a 4 year old bubbly, bouncy, animated brainbox who will talk to anyone about anything. Caspian wants to know if it can do tricks and if not can he eat it? Saying that he is very much in awe of the Northern Lights even at the age of 3. Nat also scored a lot of brownie points with Lyrica when he presented her with a toy dragon which he planned to use with her in some of the filming.
They are loud and excitable, even more so when they’re doing something so unusual with new faces about. Nat managed to convince them to do what he needed to when he wanted it. We watched open mouthed as the children were bouncing off CLONA’s walls as we bimbled down the road in one shot and then they were filming a driving scene and the children were hopefully gong to be nodding off to sleep. Ha ha ha! Then miraculously they nodded off one by one. How someone who is pretty much a stranger to them could effectively have all 4 of them snoring their heads off I have no idea. It was genuine sleep too! They weren’t pretending.
As for a Director? Try Director-Writer-Producer. You could almost see the ideas oozing out of him. We would be working on something and then there would be this pause while he did his considering face – a small furrowed brow accompanied with a wavering hand in mid air indicating something more was about to be added in. Everyone would wait to see what direction this “thought” was going to send us in… A sharp inhale of breath and he was off….. “how about we do this but with Becki scrambling through the snow while Chris checks the data the camera can zoom in on…..” It was exhillerating but totally exhausting too!
Julius has filmed in some amazing locations and he had his work cut out with all of us armed with head torches and him needing total darkness except for his light board when filming. There was a lot of accidentally wandering in and then moonwalking back out again of the filming zone. For those of you who don’t know, the light board is a panel containing lots of bulbs that could be set to be soft ambient candle light or full-on-burn-out-your-retinas illumination. It was an impressive bit of kit and was totally invaluable when working in such dim light as it allowed to light some of the foreground.
Watching some of the footage Julius captured was awesome. When you’re being filmed you can see the crew, the equipment and spectators rubbernecking at what you’re doing. When watching it on screen it looks like a completely different world. Obviously, we didn’t see and hear what the audience will because the sound goes on later and I guess there is music backing. Plus, I am sure Professor Brian Cox will be continually wowing the viewers with the science of the things we’re seeing on the screen.
Day 4 and we had nearly ticked everything off the Forces of Nature filming list. Ah yes… everything except for the most important thing of all that shall not be named!
Low geomagnetic activity and bad weather
Not a good combination!
We had night after night of total cloud cover. It wasn’t a case of solving it by drive miles and miles – the whole of the northern hemisphere was under thick cloud!
So we decided to take a night off and enjoy a traditional Norwegian meal cooked by our neighbours Knut and Lill. There was no point in sweating something that was out of our control. Our favourite – Pinneskjøtt – dried lambs ribs (just like the Vikings used to enjoy). God knows we needed some intervention from the Norse gods right now.
Still… we had another night. It would be ok. The display we saw the first night when Nat and Suzy arrived, that would have been nice. It was bound to happen again wasn’t it….? The crew weren’t willing to take the chance so return flights were rebooked to give us one extra day.
The Northern lights were simply not on the same schedule as us. It happens. Very rarely for 5 days, but it can happen. When the extended night showed no signs of the Tricky Lady they made the decision to extend by one more further day but this really was the last possibility we had for filming the lights.
The weather forecast was still not looking good, better, but certainly not ‘good’. There was much gnashing of teeth and Chris & I were really feeling the pressure of catching those lights. Either the clouds were against us or the geomagnetic activity just wasn’t playing ball.
This extra, extra day was the crew’s last shot. It really was crunch time. If Mother Nature wasn’t playing ball then they would need to use footage from elsewhere.
This was getting personal now.
Whatever happened, tonight had to be the night. It just had to.
We had a choice to make…
- head inland where the cloud was thicker but there were patches of broken cloud predicted for later on
- head along the coast where the cloud was thinner but continuous.
What to do? Chris and I work well as a team but I honestly feared for our marriage in those few hours. Looking back, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world to not have filmed the actual lights that night, but after all the hard work we had put in all week that just wasn’t an acceptable outcome.
I told him as much too. He looked as beaten as I felt and told me right back “I know”. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I needed him to have a clear winner for a direction to drive in. There wasn’t. It was a 50:50.
Both of us voiced a hunch about heading towards our favourite spot near Harstad. This simultaneous feeling was all we had to go on so we went with it.
The crew packed up from their cabins and made their way to a hotel in Harstad. We made the drive north via the ferry with the plan to meet the film crew at a specific location later on. There was a heavy feeling in the air. We were all tired. We were all feeling the pressure. We were all (dare I say it) a little fed up at the anticlimax of not ticking that final shot off the list. There was a lot of pregnant hope in the air but no one wanting to get too hopeful just in case. The good feeling of having such a successful week in so many other ways was somewhat lost on this last evening together.
When nearly at our meeting point (under thick cloud, obviously), we missed the road and ended up trying to turn around on a private driveway. A thickly iced private driveway. On a slope. A steep slope. CLONA is a heavy beast and even with studded winter tyres, driving up a slope of sheet ice is sometimes just too much for her. We actually slid for a few metres like we were on ice skates!
Chris got out and tried to push the van towards a safer spot as it slid. He slipped over and head butted the ice, giving himself a bleeding, fat lip! After the children stopped laughing and we stopped crying Chris remembered a useful fact about driving in winter conditions and the trick using reverse for more traction. We apologised profusely to the grumpy Norwegian land owner who took it upon himself to come out in his dressing gown to tell us we were on private land.
Yes, we know!
And that we need to drive the van out.
Yes, we know!
YES, WE KNOW!!
When we finally pulled up our spot, the BBC team were just arriving in their rental van. The sun was setting and the light started to fade. We had our dinner and ran through some final ideas with Nat.
We sat out in the snow. We waited. There was a small glow between the clouds but they were thick and heavy and not showing any sign of doing anything too quickly. The gaps kept trying to grow but were getting quashed again quickly.
We were bored but trying to stay focused. The waiting felt demoralizing so we distracted ourselves by playing about. There was a small display. Nothing massive but enough to pick up movement on the camera. We were playing the waiting game hoping for the clouds to clear and the stars to join us. Chris took a few shots from the rocky beach to pass the time.
We rough and tumbled in the snow, told cheesy jokes (let’s just say we’re glad Phil isn’t breaking comedy as his punchlines had more holes than a wedge of Emnental :D) and talked about all the things we’d seen as a travelling family and all the things they had seen as a film crew that had travelled pretty much every part of the planet.
We were surrounded by peaks and mounds of snow covered rock and I suddenly had this vision in my mind of doing a Platoon pose. You know that film with Tom Berenger? on the cover on his knees with his arms and head thrown upwards! I wanted to reach up and touch the Northern Lights.
I jokingly said to Nat “I need to do a Platoon pose with a moving display behind me.” Indluging my inner-diva he said “go on then” he smiled grabbing a spare Sony A7s.
“Go for it…..! ACTION!”
I won’t dwell on the fact I face planted the 2 foot deep snow numerous times as I scrambled up the hill. Or that I got stuck in waist deep snow and had to roll out of it like some kind of overdressed Weeble. The problem with life in the Arctic is you have to wear layers and thick survival gear. Its not known for its lycra qualities and nimble movement is very restricted.
Now this is not the first time this has happened for us…. That we have needed to see the lights at a particular time and that the less we focus on it the better our chances have got. After what seemed like hours and hours (no wait it actually was hours and hours) of laying in the snow watching the oppressive clouds banging into each other there was a squeal. Aurora spotted it first as her and I lay on the rocks with the sea lapping around either side of us.
“There’s a clear patch, over there LOOK!” She sat bolt upright!
No-one moved as we sat and watched. Over the next 15 minutes the clouds began to break. The gaps got bigger and the stars began to twinkle. The green glow that had been there all along started to change and as that happened, us insignificant humans began to get more animated too with cameras and hats being grabbed.
There was no haze but more of a defined line udulating across the sky. Then uprights coming off from that line. Another line soon joined in and the uprights began to ripple. The lights were back and they were finally giving us exactly what we had been waiting for.
I have no idea if we were filmed in that moment or just the lights but I remember feeling such huge relief. There was a lot of jumping up and down and ‘squealing’ and I am certain Phil would have partially lost his hearing from all the shouting because we still had our mics on. There was a huge surge of emotion for me, actually a huge surge of emotion for all of us. The lights are always an emotional thing anyway but they definitely enhance whatever mood you are already experiencing.
Then the skies erupted with one of the strongest displays we had seen for weeks! They were rapid moving and incredibly bright!
“Look look look!”
“Wow just look…”
“No over here!”
I laughed at Julius swinging wildly from one direction to the other. He literally couldn’t decide where to point the camera. He just kept saying “Oh wow, wow, wow” and inhaling sharply as if he was in pain!
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Even calm, unflappable Nat actually seemed like he wanted to do a little dance. An hour later we had everything we needed including a selfie photo of the crew with some of us under the lights.
The list was finally completed and we gathered by CLONA. The children were flaked out and tucked up in bed and as the 6 of us stood in the snow in the final hour we heard those magic words from Nat….
“I think that’s what we call a wrap guys”.
Yes indeed I think it is.
What. A. Buzz.
Saying farewell was a bitter-sweet moment. It was sad that we wouldn’t see these guys again but we felt we had achieved exactly what wanted to. Even if it was right at the last moment.
Its going to be a long wait now for the rest of the series to be filmed and then go on for editing before it is released in July 2016.
Julius, Nat, Phil and Suzy thank you so much for giving us the chance to have such an awesome week and for being a part of something that I think will be utterly amazing! More than that thank you for making the week so exciting and manageable for our young family. Anyone who thinks working in TV is glamorous should give it a go. It’s hard work and at times downright unforgiving. It was an amazing experience, getting to know the crew on every level: angry, excited, tired, desperate, dealing with catastrophe, learning about their families, seeing them interact with the children, building a rapport, how they interacted with each other.
They were absolutely four sides of the same shape.
They were fun people to be around. Four children is stressful enough actually. Add in late nights, constant hanging around waiting for shots to be designed or going over the same movements again and again and their general schedule being totally swapped around and you might understand that things potentially could have got very difficult and yet it all worked and I don’t think for one minute it would have done without each of you.
What an epic adventure this has been! Roll on Summer 2016… these Aurora Addicts just can’t wait!