In Focus: Mike Day on The Island and the Whales

Filmmaker Mike Day recounts the memorable moments and triumphs during his time shooting in the North Atlantic archipelago of the Faroe Islands for his documentary The Island and the Whales. This 2015 Documentary Film Fund Winner addresses the disconnection between humans and the environment and explores the challenges we must face in order to preserve the natural world.  

Learn more about The Island and the Whales at www.intrepidcinema.com
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What was the inspiration for your story?

I met a group of Faroese sailors while I was shooting my previous film, The Guga Hunters of Ness, out in the North Atlantic. We’d been at sea filming in some fairly bad weather on a rocky island forty miles north of Scotland. The Faroese boats had sailed from 270 miles even further north and we ended up drinking together in Stornoway harbour while stormbound. Two years later I arrived in the fog shrouded Faroe Islands and found this story. I wanted to make a film about how we live with the natural world in all its brutality and vulnerability, and this faraway archipelago had that in spades. 

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?

Gaining access to a sensitive subject and filming it with depth and intimacy takes a lot of time and patience. It also takes funding, and it can be tough before you have a substantial amount of the story in the can to get what you need to make the film and make a living. These productions can stretch over years, so holding your nerve and not finishing early can be a real challenge.

What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?

The tools that are available to us today have never been better, from the cameras to the edit, things are simplifying and freeing filmmakers to concentrate on the craft and the storytelling. Cameras and sound kit are getting smaller, cheaper, less intimidating to subjects, and easier to hike with up hills. The technology has improved dramatically even over the four years we’ve been making this film, that opens up a lot of possibilities and raises the bar on how we tell these stories. These new tools put us at a very exciting point of cinema history. On the distribution side there is the challenge of a changing landscape, but there are also many new opportunities with that.

What was the best part about making this film?

Exploring this story and capturing those moments that only come after a lot of patience, sometimes years, to film. Seeing moments that felt magic at the time successfully bottled and then become much more when you paint them into the edit, using the literal non-literally.

We were the first outsiders to descend the cliffs at night on the island of Mikines to film the gannet hunters. We had a thick rope tied around our waists with ten men holding onto it, we rappelled backwards off a 300ft cliff into the darkness. We were still on the narrow ledges at dawn when the light revealed the waves smashing on the rocks 200ft below. 

We were covered in bird shit and feathers, which wasn’t the best part. Then the camera malfunctioned - also not good. The monitor turned into rainbow fuzz and the viewfinder gave me a slight electric shock in my eyeball. I had to film the rest of the day without seeing much of what I was filming and not knowing if the camera was even recording. After 38 hours of filming and a lot of hiking and sailing back, we got home and found that the footage was all okay. That was definitely a high point! Then at the crack of dawn the following morning, just as the batteries had recharged and the footage transferred, we had a phone call that whales had been sighted, and we had to film our first hunt. It’s always very humbling to be trusted to film things with this sensitivity.

Did you always know where you wanted your film’s story to begin and end?

It was always an exploration for me, as I hope it is for the viewer. Things develop around you and as much as you can start with a plan, to stick rigidly to it is dangerous, it’s real life so it evolves in ways we could never have predicted and you have to follow your gut on that. Once I’d spent some time in the islands I wanted to make this film because of its conclusion, so in that sense I thought I knew the destination, but not the path. 

What do you hope viewers of your film will take away from it?

The audience will see a lot of things they have never seen before, these islands have an important story to tell, so I hope it resonates with the audience and stirs a few heads.

Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society or the Bay Area filmmaking community support has had on your film.

The San Francisco Film Society has had an enormous impact on this film at a really crucial time. For a start, Michele had the best reaction ever to our trailer back in 2013! This award has helped us to finish the film without compromise and that means a lot after spending four years getting the footage. The moral support has been a huge boost, and the SFFS has been a great hub, connecting the film with vital partners. There’s a lot on the screen that probably wouldn’t exist without that. We also have support from The Filmmaker Fund, based in San Francisco, who also supported the film at a crucial time in production. So the Bay Area has been a huge part of bringing this film to the screen. The support also allowed us to push new technology in post-production. We recorded the whole film in ambisonic sound, which allows us to remodel in post-production with not only a 360º sound field but also the vertical axis. This should be the first Dolby Atmos documentary and ambisonic sourced feature. We will be working on that at Skywalker Sound, so again, another Bay Area connection, after we spent a week there with the Sundance Lab. So, all in all, I’m very grateful to San Francisco and the film is now bound to the Bay Area and I look forward to sharing the finished film with audiences in San Francisco.