Written by Morten Skallerud 1991, updated 2012
Making "A Year along the Abandoned Road" had been a dream for many years, ever since January 1980 when I first came to this deserted, isolated, weather-beaten small village in Finnmark, located in northernmost Norway. Then the dream slowly turned into reality after we found a reliable method of doing extended tracking shots over rugged terrain, frame by frame.
The story of the making of "A Year along the Abandoned Road" contains a lot of technical innovation. It also contains a different film language, and five Norwegians who fought sub-Arctic nature in order to turn a "crazy" idea into a 12-minute, 70mm film. The end of the story seems quite happy, with more than 300 festivals, twelve major prizes and a very good audience response. Since I am writing this story myself, I will concentrate upon the basic ideas and the techniques we developed for it.
"A Year Along the Abandoned Road" is a nature animation film - a kind of time-lapse film in one single shot. We see the Arctic year passing by at 50,000 times normal speed, and at the same time we "fly" along the remains of a 2.5 kilometers long internal village road. "A Year along the Abandoned Road" is intended for large cinema screens. It was shot in 70mm, thanks to a sponsoring deal with Panavision in Los Angeles.
A magical, deserted place
The story of the film starts with the place it portrays: Børfjord,
an abandoned village, the personality of which contained its own filmatic language.
I came there for the first time on a location scout for another film in January
1980, and immediately loved the place. It had all this "Arctic magic"
-- the midnight sun during summer, two months without any sun at all during
winter, and the Northern lights. It had steep mountains close to the sea, and
such a variety of vegetation. The whole natural setting was magnificent, telling
man how small he is in nature's own context. Also, the houses and the overgrown
road said a lot about people living in the middle of harsh nature. Some 60-70
people used to live here. Most of their houses lay on the east side of the fjord,
down near the sea, and close to the internal village road. The people supported
themselves mainly by fishing, and some had small farms.
Now nobody lives there. In winter, several months may pass without a single person coming near the place. The houses stay cold and alone with virgin snow between them. Only during summer do people come back to stay for their holidays, and Børfjord comes to life again for a short period.
In October 1980, I walked alone on skis through this long-deserted village. It was a powerful experience. Passing all the vacant houses and barns, boat houses and piers -- and being the first person to make tracks across the snow -- gave me such an overwhelming feeling of abandonment. The virgin snow more or less became the symbol of a village left alone. I discussed this with Aslak Mienna, a local reindeer owner who later became a central member of our shooting team. He said, "Can't you recreate this in your film?" - And this is more or less what we did ....
The place decides the language
Having worked quite a bit with "strange" ways of making film, I soon started playing with the idea of using animation techniques to bring out some of Børfjord's latent magic on film. But I also wanted it to be a true film -- at least as true as an ordinary documentary film would have been. Then suddenly came the main idea: To combine a one-year time-lapse with a continuous tracking shot through the whole village. By shooting one frame at a time, and moving the camera forward between each frame, the result would be some kind of a "magic journey" through both time and space. It could make a true portrait of Børfjord: We would see the whole village, and at the same time experience the place's contrasts and annual cycles of nature and population. In the winter part, our audience would feel much like I had done moving across virgin snow between cold and abandoned houses.
Lifting the time perspective
We would lift the time perspective far above our normal human vision. Seasonal changes (snow melting and snowfall, vegetation changes and so forth) should be seen in a tempo that we could follow. The "smaller movements" -- like weather changes, flood and ebb and, for that matter, people and "other animals" -- would become less important. Doing it this way would mean that the grand nature itself got to play the main role. But this is also a true perspective -- especially in a place like this. Lifting the time perspective would reveal a lot about the relationship between man and nature.
People in timelapse
What about filming people in a time-lapse film? In this large time perspective, people inevitably will seem small, rapid, inconstant and incalculable, like insects as seen with "normal" human eyes. Generally, this should be avoided. However, in our context this "insect effect" worked fine. All the sections with people in them were staged carefully, partly involving a pixillation technique as well. We wanted the people to seem rapid and incalculable, but at the same time, we wanted them to come close enough for our audience to care about them. They are men and women of all ages. Genuine and proud people, many of them are marked by a life of toil in a tough climate. Instead of saying "Look how small people really are," the images should say "Look how large nature is compared to man!". Since we do care about the people, the changes in nature become even more mighty to us.
A day and a year
Another basic choice we made was to "tie together" the one-year cycle and the day-and-night cycle (spring = morning, summer = day, autumn = evening, winter = night). This is actually not far from the truth about Arctic seasons, with the sun up 24 hours a day during summer, and no sun at all during the winter. Ideally, we should have been shooting in Børfjord only when the seasonal changes actually happened (snow melting, ground turning green, autumn colors coming, snow falling), while in the more "static" periods, we could wait. However, in Finnmark, these changes are unpredictable. For instance, the snow-melting period may vary with two to three months from one year to the next. We had to guess. Thanks to our local partners, we often guessed right.
Moving in timelapse
Outdoor time-lapse scenes often seem flickering and unpleasant to look at because of all the weather changes. We had a theory that a smooth camera movement would "outweigh" all these small disturbances. So we shot a primitive test film back in 1982 to see if this theory was right. It was! - Even large changes that would otherwise seem ugly turned out nice and smooth with the camera moving. Another great thing about moving this way was the added involvement of the cinema audience -- a bit like fun-fair cinemas where people stand up watching film scenes from helicopters and roller coasters on a half-dome. The audience of our film is also brought to feel that they are moving themselves -- sometimes nice and slow, other times a little too fast around the curves. (This effect is completely lost when the film is being watched on a small TV screen.)
Language decides the technique
The whole Børfjord film was shot one frame at a time, moving on rails, levelling and adjusting tilt and pan for each frame. Since this kind of single-frame camera movement had never been done before (at least not that I knew about), we had to construct a system ourselves. The only thing we had that was "standard" was the camera itself. It was an old 65mm Super Panavision rack-over camera which was just perfect together with an animation motor that Frode Wik of Wakemanfilm, Norway, had built for my 35mm Mitchell a couple of years before. We developed a system of flexible rails, and a heated "rolling house" for the camera (a "camera train"). A number of rail lengths could be laid out in front of the "camera train," adjusted to follow any horizontal or vertical curves. As we moved forward, we could take down the lengths we had passed and put them up in front again. We made four lengths of two meters each and a "short length" of 1.5 meter. Each rail length has got a round rail on one side (the steering side) and a flat rail on the other (the drive side). The flexible rails themselves are made of plastic with aluminum sleepers. In addition, we made a solid steel base for each length.
The "Camera train"
Our "camera train" rested on six wheels: four inclined wheels ran on the round rail and did the steering, while a motor and an optical encoder were connected to each of the two wheels on the "drive side." A computer steered the motor, so that after each frame we exposed, the "camera train" would move forward to the next shooting position. We divided the housing horizontally into two sections: An upper house and a lower house. Between them, we made a flexible opening, through which the column of the Crass animation stand could pass. The upper house might be turned in any direction on top of the lower house. Inside the lower house, we had the base of the animation stand with a levelling system connected to two levelling wheels on the outside. The computer was also placed inside, and so were the steering electronics as well as a light and an electric oven. The computer could be operated through a small trapdoor, which also provided an excellent opportunity to warm our hands! The upper house contained the 65mm camera mounted on a Crass animation geared head, a surveying instrument to help the panning, and the camera control and exposure unit. We made two large trap doors: A front door to film through and a side door for operation. All electrical apparatus were run on 220 volt AC, which we got partly from a generator and partly from the local electricity network. We spent a lot of time laying out cables....
Exactness and the computer
The whole film had to be shot in continuity as one single take, with almost
no chance to go back and reshoot. Safety was very important. Forward movement
along the rails had to be organic and accurate, changing speed as often as if
we had driven a car. The computer helped us with this. It would calculate acceleration
data for us each time we needed to change speed, and find shooting positions
for each individual frame. Then, for each frame we had exposed, it would steer
the "camera train" up to the next shooting position.
However, tilt and pan had to be adjusted frame by frame manually, following carefully calculated schemes. We defined an accuracy of 1/100 of a degree in tilt, pan and roll, which we knew was more than good enough. Exactness in all camera moves was of major importance, since any jerking and instability would take the audience's attention away from the film itself. The technique had to be perfect in order not to be seen!
Shooting and finishing
"A Year along the Abandoned Road" was shot entirely with single-frame
technique. Some of the time we worked with fixed time-lapse intervals, like
when we had one 24-hour and one 30-hour session in May in the light of the Arctic
summer sun, which circles 360 degrees around the horizon without setting. We
also did some fixed-interval filming at the end of the film, which was shot
at night in winter with the moon as the only light source. Each frame was shot
with a long exposure time, which is one of the great possibilities of time-lapse
filming! Most of the time, though, we just laid out the rails and exposed our
frames "as fast as possible" (which was indeed not very fast!). We
made an average of 115 frames and a tracking distance of 36 meters (117 feet)
per "moving workday" -- more in summer and good weather, much less
in winter with bad weather.
In addition to myself, the main shooting crew consisted of four people: Frode Wik from Oslo and our "local man" Aslak Mienna, plus Svein Andersen and Knut Skoglund who are both active film workers in Northern Norway. When moving, we were always three or four people at a time, while the parts with just tilt and pan could be done by one person alone. A total of 105 shooting days were spent. If we add all the "can't shoot because of bad weather" days, preparation days, traveling days, etc., we spent a total of 180 workdays (half the number of days in a year) in Finnmark during shooting. In addition there was all the administration and pre- and post-production work. Thanks to labor credits and private loans, we managed to finish the shoot in January 1989. It took another two years to raise the money we needed to finish the film.
Completing the film went a lot easier, involving some of the best people available, including Jan Garbarek, Norway's famous jazz musician and composer, who wrote a great score for the film, and Jan Lindvik, who among numerous films had done the sound track for the Oscar nominated "The Pathfinder" a couple of years before. Norsk Filmstudio in Oslo did the Dolby Stereo mix, while the six-track remix for 70mm was done at Pinewood Studios, England. Laboratory post-production was taken care of by Technicolor in London. "A Year along the Abandoned Road" was shot with a 50mm lens. The film stock was 65mm Eastman Kodak 5247, except for the night part, which was shot on 5297.
"A Year along the Abandoned Road" had its premiere at the Grimstad
short film festival in June 1991. Since then it has been to more than 300 festivals
and won 12 different prizes. It is still being screened at festivals and as
a pre-show in Norway and abroad. A 70mm print is being screened at the 70mm
film festival in Oslo each time this is being arranged (every second year, see
www.nfi.no). Digital cinemas screen the film
from a 4K DCP .
In 2002, the film was elected "Best Norwegian short film ever made" in a ballot organized by the Norwegian film magazine Rush Print. And the pop group A-ha used it as a basic for their music video "Lifelines".
New 70mm prints were made in 2003 by the Gulliver laboratory in Paris, as a restoration project by the Norwegian Film Institute. The sound track for these prints is DTS digital.
Jan Garbarek's music for "A Year along the Abandoned Road" forms the title track of his CD "Twelve Moons" (ECM records 1993).