Aikido, Creative Work, Photography & Documentary.

Anholt - The 'Real Work' - Production & Logistics


Make shift production office in Anholt schools sience lab.

The project presented many technical, logistical and physical challenges. After a recce of the Anholt island, meetings with partners, funders and project organisers, myself and the project's Director of Photography (DoP), Mark Lomas, were able to develop a shooting style which not only conveyed our story in the best visual style, but was also feasible to shoot for 3-4 months on the road with limited crew and equipment.
The story was based around two forms of action: controlled and uncontrolled. With two different types of interviews, multicam sit down, lit and controlled and in the field, handheld on the spot. A big creative decision taken early on was to not use a tripod for any scenes other than interviews. This was to try and convey that sense of adventure and travel. Hopefully it worked.
Equipment was limited due to one main factor, the space in our primary vehicle. Two of the crew travelled by car, the others were flown in as required. Crew numbers were kept small for one main reason, and that was building trust and rapport.

Mark loading kit into the main vehicle, Italy.

During meetings with the project organisers and other youth workers I spoke about how my crew should behave, and how we wanted them to approach the project. I had experience shooting youth projects before, and found a slower approach worked best. This could involve taking part in activities before filming, working with longer lenses from a distance and gradually moving closer, developing rapport before asking for interviews.
However this wouldn’t work for Anholt, because of the very limited time frame, the size of coverage we required and the split of the story into three main sections:

  1. Filming at home with the three protagonists and their families.
  2. The project on Anholt.
  3. Post reactions at home with protagonists and their families.

By the time we reached the island there would be an established a rapport with the three protagonists, because Mark and myself would have met them and filmed with them beforehand, thus making the process much easier and less stressful when they arrived on Anholt. This however raised a question.

How could we develop a rapport and trust with the remaining group members we had not met?
There was no single answer, but a key element was to embed the crew into the projects design, with clear support from the project leaders. This was done amazingly well and contributed to how well received we were. In phase one we had the opportunity to meet some of the other participants from Spain and Austria; this helped break the ice before we started shooting. Its was agreed between the crew that when filming anyone who was not one of the three protagonists, we would adopt a slower approach that involved talking to them, explaining our role, filming in limited amounts and from a distance. An advantage of having pre-established relationships with three of group meant they might tell the other participants about their experience with us, hopefully positively. And they did - the characters were more open and relaxed around the crew which transferred over to the rest of the group.

Mark Lomas shooting the sunrise over Palma De Mallorca.

As I explained to the group leaders, the choice of crew members both in terms of age and experience was a balancing act that needed to achieve the aim of producing a professional documentary and allowing the group to accept us, thus making for a better documentary.

Mark Lomas, the DoP was the first person to sign on to the project after myself. I turned thirty years of age on the 26th July, the first day of the project. Mark is about nine years older than me. Mark was selected as DoP due to his experience in both photography but equally as important, his work with young people. I had a previous working relationship with Mark and felt we could provide enough experience and skill as the two professionals who will be most involved with the production side of the project.
This said, I felt we needed some young professionals who could fill two key roles, unit sound recordist and production assistant. I wanted them to be younger to provide a different perspective from Mark and I.
I approached Josh Ward - a sound recordist based in London - due to his enthusiasm, previous work and reputation. He was also the right age, in his mid twenties.

Josh making some ambient recordings of the harbour in Grenaa, Denmark.

Alex Broadhead was the youngest member of the group, and acted as production assistant. This was Alex’s first large production after studying media. He had never travelled abroad on his own and the project was to be a challenging, new experience for him. Alex, mature for his age, was able to support the production and still identify with the participants on the course.

Alex living it rough in a shack on the very end of the Island in order wake up with the sun and shoot GVs of the lighthouse.

It was my hope that this diversity would offer a wider variety of creative ideas, and allow the crew to be seen more as equals, rather than leaders. This diversity allowed for more open and honest interaction.
Finally, I wanted the crew to adopt the same rules as the young people, for example no use of mobile phones or the internet – at least in public. The second concern was how we develop a working relationship with a protagonist and their family, who might not speak English, in their home environment before the project begins?

Our solution was:

  • The use of a  ‘fixer’, one of the group leaders or another local contact to make introductions on our behalf. They could help us translate our ideas and ensure everyone understood what would happen over the next few days of shooting.
  • To start slow, day 1 was a simple location scout and meeting.  Day 2 was uncontrolled filming and day 3 was staged filming and interviews.
  • Spend as much time as we could getting to know the family and socialising with them. We wanted to get to know them, see their lives and ensure they were conformable with us capturing that.

We were able to drive through Europe and meet all the protagonists before they actually embarked on the project. We spoke to their families and got a sense of who they were as people – before the project. We then traveled further north to the island of Anholt with the entire group.

This process required me to build rapport quickly. It is the reason only myself and Mark went to meet the participants and their families. We wanted to keep filming as low key as possible- difficult when you want to keep the visual quality up. It required me to put youngsters and their family at ease quickly, and we shot our controlled and uncontrolled sequences along with our setup interviews in only 2 days, after a single day to meet and greet.

Jesús, James and Mark Lomas with Marc and his family in Mallorca.

When we arrived on Anholt cameras rolled from day one, but we approached other members of the larger group very slowly and respectfully at first.
The second difficulty with the project was the unplanned itinerary which could take place anywhere. Offers were made to the group, but everyone had free will, and no one to tell them or ask them to do anything. Our plan was to split into two camera teams, sometimes shooting together, but mostly separately to cover a wider field of action.
The process started slow, offers came in on a daily basis, one per day. The youngsters didn’t really act for themselves, and waited to be told what to do. Which of course they weren't; This led to a few lazy days where a lot of the participants sat waiting for something to happen to them rather than initiating an activity themselves.

After a few more days lots of the youngsters got the idea, they started to take up any and all offers or create things for themselves. But it was very slow, and some people never really got going until the last few days.

Tensions with Bianca caused by lack of internet access to look for music lyrics.

Tensions also developed, personalities clashed and the group attempted to create order. Rules were created to attempt to keep the peace, bearing in mind that it was done with no interference from the youth workers.
Over the two weeks more offers were made to the group, again completely optional. Bianca, Mark and Anders all reacted very differently to this process, sometimes with indifference, frustration or even excitement. But in the end all three of them managed to make an experience to call their own, learning lessons for themselves through adversity and success.

Myself and the crew lived through these new experiences with the group, and at times it was tricky to remain detached. After two weeks, with many emotional highs and lows things came to end as quickly as it began. We saw how much the three of them had changed. 

The final goodbyes were full of tears and kind words as groups retreated back to their home countries. I remember Marc from Spain saying goodbye to his unlikely pal Anders, he gave him a hug and tearfully thanked him for everything he had done. Really touching.

Here we go again.

A month later we made the same journey across Europe to interview Anders, Bianca and Marc and their family. It was amazing to see how much they had changed in a short space of time. Marc was sporting a new hair cut, Bianca now enrolled on a school work course, looking happy and confident and Anders - well - was still Anders but he realised he didn't make the most of his time on the island and that felt like it was shaping some of his future decisions.

Whist I was eager from day one to frame this as an adventure story from the youngsters perspective, there were elements of the project that needed outlining and also some scientific feedback on the informal learning process. This all gave the project the legitimacy it really deserves. This led us to interview the group leaders but also the projects researchers, with scientific input coming for Hubert Höllmüller and Karen Bjerg Petersen. 

It was amazing to see the change in each of our 3 characters, and we were able to live that change with them. This wasn't just their adventure, it was ours! I certainly grew professionally and personally from the experience. 

The final wrapped scene was an interview with Marc’s mum in a youth centre in Mallorca. I remember packing the Volvo one final time, stretching and getting into the driving seat and seeing Mark sat to my left. We spoke about the affect the adventure had on us both. 

It was a long process, countless hours on the road and at the end I wasn't sure what came next. But I was sure it was our best work, that we gave everything we could and had grown in the process.

Hopefully a bit like the youngsters.

DocumentaryJames Stier2