XpoNorth: Filmmaking in the North of Scotland

Two filmmakers with successful careers outside the UK's traditional filmmaking hubs explain their approach and tell us how festivals like XpoNorth keep them connected

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 02 Jun 2016

Where are films made? The romantics out there might say, “In the imaginations of artists.” The more practical answer, however, is, “within massive film productions,” which rely on a conveyor belt of cinematographers, sound technicians, focus pullers, grips, and a truck-load of other teamsters. Even indie filmmaking looks like a shoe-string version of this unwieldy machine. At least, it did until recently. The situation has altered radically since the dawn of the 21st century. The internet, filmmaking software and the affordability of HD cameras have brought down many of these barriers, making filmmaking much more achievable on a smaller scale so that it seems closer than ever to that first, more romantic ideal.

Beatrix Wood is one of many filmmakers who’s taken advantage of this digital revolution. She began her career three decades ago as a runner at Granada television, on shows like Coronation Street and World in Action, before earning her stripes with an apprenticeship in feature filmmaking in London, working on everything from continuity to script editing. When she began making and producing her own films, however, she wanted a different approach. “I’m not a city person,” says the 51-year-old filmmaker down the phone from her home on a working croft in South Uist. “I have lived outside of a city for over 20 years, so I’ve had to design my work to fit in with that way of life.”

The old model meant production would be centered around a hub with a facilities base – say, London, Salford or Glasgow – around which would-be indie producers could set up their companies. Wood, and many others in the Highlands and Islands, have inverted this model. “You have individuals like myself who, for various reasons, end up being based in a place outside a filmmaking hub, so you have to become your own hub and build your network around you," she says. "There aren’t many filmmakers here, but there are enough people that you can find complimentary skills to collaborate with you when you need it.”

Another filmmaker bringing the mountain to Mohammed is 33-year-old Tom Duncan. Initially believing it unrealistic to seek a film career in the north-east, the Elgin-based director flirted with making indie features with tiny budgets in Edinburgh and London, but it wasn’t long before he realised the advantages of setting up his own production house back in his hometown. He’s carved out a niche filming locally, making promos for some of the Northeast’s most recognisable businesses. “I’m perfectly placed to access the best of Scotland’s landscape,” says Duncan. “Moray has everything you want for a classic Scottish outdoor shoot and if you need an iconic mountain shot, we’re just over an hour from Cairngorm or Torridon.”

For the local market, having a professional production company in the area has been a breath of fresh air. “Moray is home to some incredibly well-established and progressive businesses who want great film content,” says Duncan, whose clients include luxury knitwear brand Johnstons of Elgin and malt whisky specialists Gordon & MacPhail. “They will seek out homegrown talent if it’s available.” On top of all that, he notes, the overheads are great: “We’re able to maintain a 2000-square-foot studio here for a fraction of the cost of the city.”

Wood's films, too, are deeply connected to her surroundings: “Uist is both the subject matter and an inspirational place to live.” Shooting locally also makes her a more rigorous filmmaker, she reckons: “You are answerable to your subjects because they are your neighbours. You can’t pull a lot of the cheap tricks that you might do if you go somewhere else and point your camera.”

How would Duncan and Wood describe the film scene in the North of Scotland? “I suppose we’re few in number but committed and passionate,” says Duncan. Wood’s sentiments are similar: “We are quite thinly spread.” Suffice to say, meeting future collaborators isn’t easy. “When you’re in an area with a huge geographical spread, you don’t tend to bump into each other,” notes Wood.

That’s where a gathering like XpoNorth comes in. “It’s really great to know that once a year there's an event where you’ll be able to catch up with certain people,” says Wood. “And it's just inspiring to be reminded of the talent that's in the North, to see them all in one place.”

The fact that the festival is cross-discipline also has its advantages. “Last year I needed a graphic designer," recalls Wood, "and then suddenly through XpoNorth’s network I spoke to five people from five different companies in the Highlands and Islands who would understand the aesthetic I was talking about. It’s a place where I can meet people to work and collaborate with.”

Duncan is similarly enthusiastic about the festival. “XpoNorth is a magnet for talent and the best thing you can do is let yourself get completely drawn in,” he says. “It’s standard to finish both nights at the back of 5am and you’ll make genuine connections with great people doing great work.”

By being adaptable, Duncan and Wood are clearly thriving in their chosen field, but do they ever miss the buzz of the big city? Do they ever feel isolated from the wider film community? When we put this to Wood, she doesn't miss a beat: "I think it’s a perception that normal is urban, but actually it’s only normal for those who live in a city. I'm very often working with people in other places that are perceived as remote, but if you live there it doesn’t feel at all remote.”

Read more about XpoNorth 2016:

• Art and design: XPoNorth's design programme
• Books: LG Thomson on Northern Noir
• Fashion: Jewellery designer Heather McDermott
• Film: Filmmaking in the North of Scotland
• Music: Lional on swapping Inverness for LA
• Tech: How a solo developer won the 2015 Moray Game Jam

XpoNorth runs 8-9 Jun, Inverness: xponorth.co.uk

Tom Duncan: tomduncanfilm.squarespace.com

Beatrix A Wood: vimeo.com/user9802221