The first day on Skye was a complete right off with horizontal rain, serious wind and dark clouds shading the whole island. We know that you can't always rely on the UK weather forecast but Skye seems to have its own ecosystem. Luckily there was one still and sunny day in the forecast, so Danny got straight on the phone asking all his friends on the island if anyone knew of a boat to “Loch Coruisk” for as early as possible the coming morning.
Check out our behind the scenes film below
Director of The Slabs
When was the first time you heard of these slabs and Danny’s idea to ride it?
I actually heard about these slabs way back in May 2020 when Danny and I were exploring some possible ideas for some new projects. He’d sent over a shot of the slabs he had saved on Instagram and on first sight it was obvious this had to happen. We both excitedly tracked some potential routes but then got side tracked chatting about how good e-bikes were and going on local adventures whilst being stuck at home and the project was put on the back burner.
How long did it take to go from concept to begin production?
Like I say, we first talked about the slabs in May but as we a larger shoot with Danny already planned for 2020 so we loosely booked in dates for “the end of summer”. The next few months were spent planning for a completely different Danny project until Covid restrictions meant that international travel to the UK was put on hold and some of our riders were unable to make it. Getting time to shoot with Danny isn’t easy so with just a week to go before the other project was due to commence, we decided to focus on some smaller films for his YouTube channel. A week later we were in Skye and heading up to film the slabs.
So it wasn’t really planned then?
I guess not like a normal Danny project, typically they’re planned months or a year in advance. At the start this was just going to be a quick little day trip to make a 100% shot on GoPro film in a day and get some clips for Instagram on other cameras. Once we started filming though it soon became obvious this was going to be so much better than what we had hoped.
What was it like seeing it for the first time in person?
Pretty nerve racking, in places its just so steep, it quickly dawned on me that I’d have to watch Danny ride down it all and it definitely didn’t look as “chill” as he’d said it would be... standard!
How was the scramble up then? There must have been a lot of kit to get up there?
The actual route up was fairly straight forward, we took it slow and steady, a cautious approach is definitely best somewhere like that, you really need to respect the environment. I really enjoy climbing and have done since I was a child, so knowing its actually often a lot easier to climb up than it is to get back down made me a little more nervous as I felt responsible for those that had less climbing experience. Kit wise we limited it to a few bags of essentials as well as Rory’s behind the scenes bag and Andy’s bag containing a full fleet of FPV drones. We took our time and passed the bags up the steeper parts and worked our way to the start and it wasn't so bad.
What was the most challenging bit?
I think the hardest part was probably trying not to let your emotions try and talk Danny out of riding the hard parts. The reality is ability wise we know Danny is one of the world’s best riders, but it’s still scary to watch a lot of the riding as in places the dangers are very real. In terms of shooting, using GoPro made things a little trickier, not having the luxury so switch out lenses to get a bit closer to the action meant we found ourselves in some interesting shooting positions on the rocks. This was all part of the challenge though and something myself and Danny have enjoyed in the past on a previous GoPro film called Cascadia.
What was it like to watch Danny ride then?
It was definitely up there with some of the wildest things I’ve seen. A lot of the hardest lines were shot from FPV so we when were hiding out of shot and couldn’t see him it weirdly added a more tension! Towards the end of the first day shooting, we had got to the final line, Danny had just the last slab to get down but it had started drizzling. We decided the final shot of the film would be Danny cruising past me stood with the Gopro on the lower half of slab. As Danny dropped in he immediately started picking up too much speed, his back brake locked up and all you could hear was the sound of his wheel skidding faster and faster, he managed to get the bike sideways and use his foot dragging to help slow him down and luckily he stopped before sliding down the final 30 meters of the steepest part! I actually closed my eyes for a second as I didn’t actually want to watch! That was definitely a stand out moment for me!
When did you go back to finish it then?
We actually thought we’d finished it in one day, we were afterall only there to make something quick between the other slower project we were working on. It quickly became clear when we started looking through the rushes during the bad weather the following day that we had to go back and do the slabs justice we needed to make something bigger. It look about 10 days until we saw a suitable weather window on Skye and we immediately packed up and headed straight back up Scotland and wasted no time to get straight back to the slabs!
Once the film is all done how do you work with Danny on the edit?
I started off by cutting the rough assembly of all the riding before meeting with Danny to focus on the tiniest of details, he really is a perfectionist and will want to pull apart the slightest of cuts. The music was the hardest part in this process, we needed to find something so specific that would fit. It had to have three key parts, 1. a slow building intro for the first riding shot with the beat dropping as the riding began, then secondly a strong slow section in the middle to tie in with the precarious slow cinematic shots, and the final part of the song needed to build to a climatic finish to match Dannys final line down the route. You’d think lots of songs would have that pattern which they do... but with the length of the drone shots, 99% of them don’t fit. One morning during the second trip to Skye Danny came down to a late breakfast after spending a good few hours digging through his Slabs playlist he’d created with the song No Cars Go by Arcade Fire. We added this to the shortlist then we spent a month debating if it was right and another month or two trying to license the song. Without spending months composing a song I don’t think we could have found another song that fitted so well!
Some of Dannys other song ideas
The great thing with working on these projects is how much everyone gets involved. Everyone feels equal and it really allows the team to come up with the best ideas whilst shooting. For the slabs project there was Robbie directing, Duncan shaw producing, Andy Lawrence fpv master, dave mackison shooting photos and Rory Semple capturing the behind the scenes. Keeping a fairly small crew was crucial out there to move fast enough to capture it all in the time we had. And ensure everyones safety which is crucial.
FPV Pilot for The Slabs
How long have you been flying drones?
It’s been some time now since I first got into flying drones, I think it all began with a dji Phantom back in 2012. Over the past 8 years I’ve flown drones all around the globe. But then two years ago I built my first FPV quad, and it’s been a real learning curve since that day.
Was filming the slabs a challenge?
Definitely! Filming the slabs had some very unique challenges, usually when you fly FPV it involves chasing the subject at high speed, which sounds challenging but by flying at speed it makes it more stable and easier to manoeuvre. The Slabs on the other hand involved flying at very slow and precise speeds to carefully track and orbit Danny on these almost vertical descents. Because you're constantly descending, this means you are always flying into prop wash because of the low camera tilt needed to get the shots.
Another challenge was the position we had to be in, usually an FPV pilot situates themselves on the opposite hillside or from the valley floor. The reason for this is so the pilot has clear line of sight between himself and the drone, giving the video feed the best signal. For this shoot we operated from the slab’s themselves, making it easier to communicate with Danny but also caused some signal issues (Although you won’t spot us in the film as we have been removed in the post production).
How many drones batteries did you bring up the mountain?
For this shoot I carried four drones and 20 batteries to the location, each battery can power the drone for 4-5 minutes on average. As a back up we also had two field size batteries for recharging.
Did you break anything on the shoot?
Hahaha, well we may have had two incidents...
The first incident was when Danny came to a stop on the edge of a cliff and the drone almost hit him, to avoid this I cut the motors on the drone, but unfortunately the drone then hit the ground and bounced off the edge. So if anyone is visiting Skye this summer and finds it please send it back.
The second one relates to the issue with losing signal. Whilst practising the final shot, I lost video feed after flying behind one of the slabs. After switching the drone to gps rescue which means it should return to its take off location, however it cut the motors before I regained any video feed.
What’s it like to film with Danny?
Filming with Danny is really easy, he very professional and even in the most challenging locations he usually nails things first try. Its good fun to work on these shoots and the whole crew made it a great experience. Especially Duncans choice in lunch for everyone!
What’s it like in FPV goggles and flying off the side of a mountain?
Nauseous! is one word to describe it! Flying on the side of the mountain with fpv googles can be quite disorientating. Because everything looks so similar its quite easy to lose where you are, a bit of a sensory overload really. Although I’m concentrating on the drone and framing Danny in the shot it’s hard not to also feel some vertigo, as you watch this spectacle happen you really feel your in the drone.
Did you have fun?
Yes! The whole trip was a really fun adventure, been on the island you didn’t really see many other people for the whole duration of the shoot. And then Seing the location for the first time reminded me of Lord of the rings. Looking up to the Slabs and seeing the whole valley knowing where you are heading is quite crazy. There were times when we had to do some scrambling and bouldering, all whilst carrying the kit, so that was fun... Although getting back down was a little sketchy!
Here is a few examples of what goes into the post production on a film like The Slabs. One of our main challenges, was removing shadows from the drone and other filming equipment. Being so exposed means there's no hiding from the sun, so we had to use visual effects to ensure that the audiences attention isn't taken away by seeing us in the environment.
Example of a Shadow removal
It’s funny how these projects can come together from the simplest of ideas and escalate, from having just the crew on the shoot involved initially we soon ended up doubling this crew when we got stuck in to the edit, bringing in Keith White to work his magic on the audio, Tom Grice to take out as many of the shadows as possible from the fpv and max callan on leading the graphics team to track in the 3d title. He also coloured the whole film. Its great to have built up this team over the last couple of years to be able to have the in house capability to bring you The Slabs.
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