At a certain point in your event filmmaking career, usually after watching a fellow filmmaker's online clip, you start dreaming of your own destination shoot. Although we have filmed a few destination weddings before, our "dream client" turned out to be a young couple from Singapore. They contacted us in September 2010. The couple was planning an engagement holiday through Europe and wanted an engagement film to show on their wedding day. It got better from there: We were asked to suggest the best city location in Europe for this December shoot. Although Paris gets more attention, if you're after a romantic European destination in December, there is really just one choice: Vienna, Austria.
An engagement shoot of this caliber requires something a bit more elaborate than taking a couple into a park to shoot some eye candy. After several emails and a few phone calls, it soon became clear that our customers had an artistic eye and would demand nothing less than a masterpiece. In our 9-year existence as an event film company based in the U.K., we had never come across a client who knew all about the EventDV 25, could casually name-drop some WEVA CEA-winning companies, and could discuss style, shot choices, scripts, and color grading without blinking.
Their movie preferences and limited dialogue requirement soon inspired a dreamlike sequence for which we knew Vienna would be perfect. The abundance of quaint Christmas markets, the gorgeous city architecture, and Schönbrunn Palace would be the perfect backdrop!
We wrote quite an elaborate script, including opportunities to showcase bride Elizabeth's wonderful singing voice, and gave the couple a few options depending on the budget. A few weeks later everything was agreed on, and we started planning the shoot. My wife, Sylvia Broeckx, and I know Vienna quite well and could easily visualize our shots with the help of some photographs we took there before. We contacted all the places where we would likely need shooting permission (luckily, I speak enough German to easily sort this out) and decided we would need a bag carrier (or, to use EventDV 25 All-Star Meghan Simone's terminology, a gear Sherpa) as some shots would require quite a bit of kit. We also knew that shots in public places could do with someone keeping the public out of our shot. We hired a friend whose wife is also a great photographer and figured we could get some free "behind-the-scenes" pictures and maybe even some video footage.
In December 2010, 10 days before the shoot, we couldn't have been more excited. We'd selected and packed our gear, we'd double-checked airline luggage rules (which seem to change every few months), and we'd found a local makeup artist who seemed to speak some English. We even heard that there was a bit of snow in Vienna, making the city a more idyllic setting. This was destined to our best shoot yet.
A few days later (just before we set off), that "bit of snow" turned into a snow blanket that enveloped the whole of Europe, the likes of which had not been seen for decades! All across Europe, airports were closed, roads were blocked, and travelers were stranded. We kept a close eye on the weather and airport reports and thought we would be fine. At 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 18-a mere 14 hours before our flight-just as we are about to leave our Sheffield studio and head for our overnight stay at a London Heathrow airport hotel, one email from British Airways changed everything: All flights were canceled; London airport would be closing and would not reopen for at least several days.
Our profession is a strange one in that we all seem to care more about our customers than we do about ourselves. At no point did it cross our minds that we would just apologize and use our insurance to reimburse the client due to the freak weather. Seconds after seeing the message from British Airlines we began researching alternative ways to get there. It soon became clear that flying out of England was a no-go: Everyone was trying to reroute their flights and all the airports were closing, one after the other. Trains were out, as the German railroads (which we'd need to pass) were closed due to the weather there, and driving wasn't an option either, as most of the French and German roads were blocked.
A look at the weather maps revealed that the closest not-yet-affected area was Belgium. A trip to our birth country without flying requires a 4-hour drive, followed by a 2-hour ferry to France, and then another 2-hour drive to get into Belgium. Sylvia managed to book us two tickets on a Vienna-bound flight leaving Brussels 24 hours later. We called our gear Sherpa (who was leaving on a different flight that had not yet been canceled) and set off.
The snowstorms became worse; instead of boarding the midnight ferry, we got stuck in the snow and traffic (there were few cars, but they were not going anywhere). We boarded our ferry at 4:00 a.m. and arrived at Sylvia's parents' house just before 10:00 a.m. Exhausted and sleep deprived, we crashed for an hour. At 1:00 p.m. Sylvia's sister dropped us off at the airport. No sooner did we exit the vehicle than it started snowing again! Belgium is not a country that deals well with snow-in fact, during most winters the largest part of the country sees no snow at all. We checked in, stared at the noticeboard, and saw flight after flight being canceled. It didn't take long for our flight to be there as well. I rushed to a desk and managed to get a later flight. Delay after delay followed, but eventually, at 9:00 p.m., our flight was called for boarding. All this time, I had to stay in touch with our prebooked taxi and accommodation. The latter was an apartment that we rented rather than a hotel room. Getting the keys was going to be challenging, as there was no 24-hour reception. Luckily, there was a late-hour bar around the corner that the owner frequented, so he promised to leave the key there.
We boarded our plane. All the key camera gear was in our carry-on luggage, and I was too tired to even think about our checked bags. Worst-case scenario: We would buy some clothes and a tripod in Vienna. No sooner had the airplane doors closed than there came a captain's announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, before we can take off the plane needs to be de-iced. This airport has only one de-icer. We are currently 10th in the queue and hope to take off in about 2 hours." Great, we thought, that's 2 hours in which either the Brussels or the Vienna airport can close due to new snowfall. But luck was on our side: The flight took off around 11:00 p.m., and by 1:00 a.m. the next morning-the day before the shoot-we collapsed in our apartment. Meanwhile, our gear Sherpas were stranded in England. We were on our own, exhausted, and we had 1 day to scout all our locations in a snowed-under Vienna.
Our Clients' Story
During all this mayhem, I was texting and emailing our clients. I decided it would be unwise to worry them and didn't tell them about our troubles trying to get there; I just rescheduled our preshoot meeting. Little did I know what they were enduring. Our couple was stressing out too and wondering if they were going to make it. The whole of Europe was dealing with the snow, and it obviously affected their travel plans too. They got robbed in Paris; Elizabeth's wedding dress (which she had brought along for the photo shoot) got lost in transit; and she fell ill on her birthday (the day before our shoot) due to all the stress.
But all's well that ends well: We all got there (minus the gear Sherpas). Surely things would look up from here.
The Day Before the Shoot
On Monday we went on a scouting mission through Vienna. We'd visited a few years before and knew the city pretty well, but as we were relying on public transport we needed to make sure of the most efficient route. That day was absolutely beautiful: clear blue skies and glistening snow all around Vienna (somehow, they can manage snow in Austria).
We met with our clients in the evening. We realized that they both were feeling under the weather and that their engagement holiday had so far consisted of two photo shoots in cities they didn't get to see properly and waiting in airports. So we decided to change the schedule and script to make sure they had a great time first and a good film afterward.
The Day of the Shoot
On Tuesday we woke up, opened the curtains, and saw ... nothing. Vienna was covered in fog, mist, and more fog. This was going to be fun! We picked up our couple and went to our first location: the Imperial Palace of Schönbrunn. As we entered the park, Sylvia said, "You'll soon see this amazing palace." Well, they didn't-not until they got really close to it-which made it a nice surprise. But we had to revise our schedule as we had planned to do shoots at certain locations in the park that required a view of the palace.
Another location was now out of reach (a walk up a hill that was closed off due to safety reasons). And without anyone else to help carry our gear, our time schedule was slipping: Everything was taking a lot longer than we expected. We also found that we could seldom shoot with two cameras at once (as planned), as one of us needed to fill the role of our absent help. The carefully planned script was now just a piece of paper. We were thinking on our feet and changing the storyline as we tried to find new shots. The highlight was no doubt the snowball fight. Our couple had almost never seen snow before they came on this trip and knew only that it made travel a nightmare. We explained the concept of a snowball fight: "Make a ball of snow and throw it at each other. Why? It's fun; trust me." They did trust us and were soon playing in the snow like little kids, which meant one thing to us: great shots!
Filming in Snow
Filming in snow—a lot of snow—is tricky. I have the utmost respect for anyone who deals with this on a regular basis. It soon became clear to me that I lack
the skills to make this a nonissue. I decided to film the snowball fight on a Glidecam to accentuate the energy. Check out the engagement film below to see this shot. I'd love to say the strong camera movement is deliberate and fits the sequence perfectly. I still think it works well, but the reality is that I was desperately trying to not fall over and hurt myself. What you don't see in the clip is how I planted my body in the snow while falling over at the end of that shot. Luckily, snow makes for a soft landing.
Things I did worry about turned out fine: Although it was extremely cold, the batteries in our Panasonic GH2 cameras lasted longer than feared in that weather. Likewise, the temperature difference between inside and outside shots did not fog up the camera or lenses. Using our DP Slider was interesting: I put it down to get a shot and saw it disappear into 12" of snow.
It soon became clear there would be no way to fit everything we needed into 1 day of shooting. So we had to take the couple out the next morning too. It was a very tiring day. We took them to all the most important sites in Vienna. In the meantime, we also served as their tour guides for the day. Sylvia has been obsessed with Austrian history since she was a little girl and studied art history. And with me being a musicologist who's able to talk about all things Mozart, we could babble on about Vienna for ages.
Luckily, this turned out to be something our couple really appreciated. Even though they'd traveled to Paris and Prague earlier in the trip, they didn't manage to see much of the cities. Our shoot was designed to help them make the most out of their short stay in Vienna. When we heard Elizabeth say, "I like Vienna better than Paris," we knew we'd accomplished our mission.
The Engagement Film
We had a few extra days in Vienna, which we enjoyed and used for some b-roll. The less I'm reminded about our journey back, the better. Rather than being home for Christmas Eve as planned, suffice it to say we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning stuck in airports without food or drink. We finally had our Christmas Eve dinner on Dec. 27.
Meanwhile, we created a save-the-date trailer for our clients, and it was a success. Likewise they enjoyed their full engagement film, which premiered at their wedding. To quote our groom (who hired a more local company, EventDV 25 studio Mayad, for their wedding in Bali), "We even showed it to Mayad before the shooting, so they're challenged to deliver the final product even better." To me, that's one happy client.
Would we do it all again? Of course! This shoot was challenging beyond our imagination (which, if you know us, is quite a statement). The process was interesting, the little film we created is something we're proud of, and our clients love their engagement film and think back on their Vienna time as the highlight of their trip.
For us there was an unexpected bonus as well. A few days before I wrote this article, Sylvia noticed that the Vienna Tourist Board Facebook page had announced a competition: Tell us a romantic story of something you did in Vienna and you can win a three-course gourmet meal in the Swarovski cabin of the Riesenrad (this is the 19th-century Ferris wheel that you can see in the clip embedded above).
It was 10:00 p.m. the day before the competition closed when she saw the announcement. I sent them an email with our story and a link to our little engagement film. The next day I received an email informing me that we won. We'll have to find our own way to Vienna, but after filming that Ferris wheel from the outside in the freezing cold, while Sylvia was trying to get her shots inside, I can't wait to be the couple that gets to enjoy this magical experience.
Niels Puttemans (niels at everafter videos.co.uk) runs Ever After Video Productions of Sheffield, U.K., with his wife, Sylvia Broeckx. 2009 EventDV 25 Finalists and winners of IOV Ltd. (Institute of Videography) and WEVA CEA awards for their wedding-day films, Niels and Sylvia were presenters at WEVA Expo 2010.