How do you take the classic Lands End to John o'Groats challenge to the ultimate extreme of ruthless simplicity? That's the subject of filmmaker Ian Burton's latest film, As The Crow flies, which has won the People's Choice Prize at Kendal Mountain Festival this year. Ian took time out from bathing in champagne to tell us about the life of a modern adventure filmmaker.
In May this year, a team of four set out to rewrite the rules of the classic Lands End to John o'Groats. Their aim: racing the length of Great Britain using manpower alone - and in a completely straight line.
The 1,100km journey takes them on a beautiful and strange journey through some of the UK’s most rural and most urban environments, harnessing the power of bikes, boats and walking boots.
The team of four comprised a retired RAF helicopter crewman, a retired army Captain and Team GB Paralympian, a professional kayak coach and the first Welsh woman to climb Mount Everest.
Adventure cameraman Ian Burton captured the journey on camera and transformed it into a poetic documentary with beautiful imagery and a clever classical music structure to reflect the form of their journey.
Sarah Stirling talks to about the challenges of the project and the life of an adventure filmmaker:
Ian: I bought my first still camera when I was five at a church jumble sale. I was sent out with 50p to buy sweets, but the urge overtook me to buy a camera. I played around with stills but really found my niche when I discovered filmmaking. I much prefer the dynamics and movement of, well, movies.
I've been involved with filmmaking professionally since I left school. I worked as a runner then a camera assistant on drama shoots, and volunteered at wildlife film companies all over the country.
It was definitely wildlife that I was passionate about, and the dream was to shoot Attenborough documentaries. That never happened though - I fell in love with adventure filmmaking before I got the chance.
I've been fortunate to live through an extremely dynamic time within the history of filmmaking. I started shooting on 16 and 35mm movie film, and the idea of 'every day people' making professional films was out of the question then. I now dream of having £100k to shoot a documentary, but that was what it took to even get out of the door 20 years ago.
We are so lucky now to have the kit to shoot amazing films with just passion to support it. You can't tell the difference between high budget and low budget films now, and that's impressive. Well, you can, but unless you have a cineflex strapped to the nose of a full-size chopper, you'll struggle.
Wildlife and adventure filmmaking are the last bastions of passion in TV I think. Filmmaking is very niche, and these genres are ridiculously so. You HAVE to love this industry to put up with the time away from home, the pressures, the break ups, the break downs, the remoteness and so on. I do love making films but it is extremely hard to maintain this career and a personal life.
The harder a project sounds, though, the more I want to do it. The first wildlife cameraperson I ever met, when I was 16 or so, told me not to get into it for all the reasons above but I still went home so enthusiastic to be part of that amazing lifestyle.
Lands End to John O'Groats is such a cliché now that I wasn't interested when I was first approached to shoot the Beeline Britain story. Then I heard about the route, met the characters and fell in love with the story.
When I realised how massive the trip was, I wanted the film to reflect that seriousness. That's when I decided to hire a £50k high speed camera and an £80k starlight camera.
The straight line from Land's End to John O'Groats has a beautiful asymmetry. Looking at the route, I realised it has a similar structure to pieces of classical music. You have an introduction, a repeat of the introduction, a development, then a recap to show the listener how far the composer has developed the musical themes: a sort of, 'Look, aren't I clever how far I pushed it'!
The Beeline Britain route has a similar structure. The first kayak leg, then repeat with the second kayak leg, then the development through Isle of Man and Scotland into the mountains, then the recap with the Moray Firth kayak leg, taking us back to the start.
There is a lot of metaphor, a lot of distorted time and, importantly for the construction of the film, a strict repeated pattern. This idea also stays true to my attempt to create a film which reflects (to me) what expedition life is all about: it is not just a film about the trip itself.
I wanted to take all the 'fluff' out of this film; make it purely content-driven. The only CGI in As The Crow Flies are the route lines drawn on the satellite imagery from NASA. For me personally, I find there is not enough solid content in a lot of films. I wanted the people and the amazing journey to speak for themselves.
To film the kayak legs, I used a power boat to keep ahead of the team. Then for the mountain section I had to be quick on my feet, sometimes very quick - not easy with 60kg of cameras on your back!
In Scotland, on the cycling legs, a competition started between me and the team: if they cycled passed me while I was still getting cameras ready, I would hear them laughing at me and they won, and vice versa!
It's all part of the banter of expeditions, and all good fun but made me realise that there first agenda was the finish line, not the film: I had to raise my game. Because I had spent so much time on the training missions the 18 months before, my expectations of their ability were already quite high, sometimes though, they caught me out with their speed over the ground.
Congratulations on winning the People's Choice Award, Kendal Mountain Festival 2014.
WATCH: the inspiring trailer for As The Crow Flies on BMC TV:
Find out more about Ian Burton on his website: ianburton.co.uk
More about the Beeline Britain Challenge: beelinebritain.com
View more trailers and films in our Kendal Mountain Festival Channel
HOW TO WATCH THE FILM
Get tickets here to see the film and hear from the Beeline Britain team at the Royal Geographical Society screening on 28 November in London.