How we made: The Shetlanders

The Shetlanders project was released from late 2018 to early 2019. The profiles can be seen here, with the Facebook entries on the project here. Photography by River Thompson

The Shetlanders project — 19 interesting Shetlanders, on why they love life on the islands — was my first major client project as an independent agent, ie as me. Done for Promote Shetland, it is also the first client project I’ve done that’s been led by video rather than print.

My father and stepmother live in Shetland, and I’ve always wanted to do work about a place I’ve come to be genuinely fond of, and which I’ve never felt has quite been represented as I see it. A few years back, local digital marketing company NB Communications won the Promote Shetland contract, with a brief to encourage people to come to Shetland to live, work and study.

Over a series of meetings in 2017 and early 2018, I pitched the idea of The Shetlanders – series of videos, with stills and written profiles, of interesting people and families who call Shetland home, both original locals and incomers. The main part of the brief from NB’s David Nicol, who is now in charge of the Promote Shetland contract, was to present the islands and Shetlanders in a fresh way. Less about Shetland ponies, crofters and Fair Isle knitwear; more about the quality of the schools and infrastructure, the sports clubs, the culture, the thriving economy, the fact that life in Shetland can be so rich and varied. The primary target was young professionals, particularly with families, who lived in the UK but might have never thought of Shetland as a viable place to move.   

But we didn’t want The Shetlanders to feel like a hard sell — in fact, David was keen that people explain the cons as well as the pros of life in Shetland. I was also keen that the stories should be human stories, first and foremost, rather than feeling like marketing. Part of the deal was also that Promote Shetland would get a nice bank of usable videos and stills.

Visually, we wanted it to have a nice honest feeling: simple, natural light, low-key but intimate. For the stills, I decided to use River Thompson, a photographer I’ve worked with a lot, whose work has that naturalistic style; for the video, he recommended his friend Connor Macleod, another outdoorsy type who has done a lot of fashion film and adverts, and whose aesthetic seemed right for the project. It was also about having a team that would (hopefully) get on over an intense two-week project, staying with my dad and stepmum and working every day. Crucially, I thought they’d like Shetland. I was essentially the producer/writer; the one asking the questions, and with Promote Shetland’s objectives in my head. I wanted River and Connor to feel free to be creative, and to simply shoot the best work they could. 

Visually, we wanted it to have a nice honest feeling: simple, natural light, low-key but intimate.

We filmed and photographed 16 sets of Shetlanders over two weeks in May 2018, which in hindsight was absurdly ambitious. But we were lucky in a few ways. First of all, the weather was fantastic, and Shetland looked gorgeous. But more important was the people, who were uniformly welcoming and gracious – and who did our jobs for us by selling Shetland life in a way that felt real, honest and genuinely compelling.

Choosing people for that first batch was a tricky process, and of course there were people that couldn’t do it. But a remarkable number were happy to stand in front of a camera, even if it was outside their comfort zone. We wanted to hit certain themes, from education to family life and industry, but we also wanted people whose stories might resonate on a simpler level. In the end, I think we got a nice mix: people like Mull-born music producer Tim and his Shetland-born wife Floortje, a very cool couple who are a long way from any insular stereotypes; Sophie Whitehead, a marathon-running jeweller with a piercing laugh and eagerness to help; and the Perring-Thomson family, who live an almost entirely self-sustainable existence on a beautiful bay in southern Shetland, where Ewen Thomson hand-makes violins. We had a mussel farmer, a family of naturalists, an Indian locavore chef, a rugby-playing female welder, an oilman/bassist/football coach… a really rich and interesting variety of people, but giving a remarkably consistent message about life in Shetland.

Those two weeks of shooting were great fun: driving across the islands in a van we christened The Beast, meeting interesting people, getting great footage and often putting on wetsuits and jumping in the sea. Everywhere we went, people welcomed us with tea and ‘fancies’, whether biscuits or cake. We refined the process as we went, but shot most people over two slots of just a few hours, broadly divided into ‘work’ and ‘play’. It was logistically quite intense, with lots of mad dashes for ferries, and we had to quickly put people at ease (I was very aware that I despise being in front of a camera). We’d usually have a can of Innis & Gunn on the ferry each evening back to the North Isle of Yell, usually late but still lit by low sun.   

The trickier bit was getting back to London and realising just how much footage we had, and how painstaking the process of editing the videos would be. Initially, we’d said it would take six weeks, which we soon realised was a fantasy, especially as we all had other projects going on. I learned a lot about how tricksy even a short video can be, from colour-grading to sound. Luckily, the Promote Shetland team were understanding and supportive, as it took us well into the autumn to get enough videos ready to launch.        

I went up again that November to do a second batch, with a focus on medical workers pegged to the new Island Medics series – this time with local photographer Liam Henderson and videographer Stephen Mercer, who does a lot of the filming for Promote Shetland. While we struggled far more with peoples’ availability (doctors in Shetland tend to be busy, it turns out), Stephen and Liam were brilliant – patient, good fun, and quickly getting the tone of the project that Connor and River had established. We did three fantastic profiles: of Vicky, a nurse who moved her whole family from Chester; of Emma and Kaylee, sharp, funny sisters-in-law who work for the ambulance service and coastguard respectively; and Bjorn and Tore, a gay couple from Norway who came over to breed award-winning Shetland ponies and work as a hairdresser and care worker.

It’s tricky to gauge the success of a project like this, and there’s always an element of intangibility to any content made for clients. But at the time of writing, the videos on Facebook had drawn 369,000 views, and real engagement. The video of Bjorn and Tore the pony breeders, for example, has 104 comments, and many of the comments across the videos have been the right sort: roughly along the lines of, ‘Shall we move?’/’I’d like to live there’/heart-eye emoji. The project has had more than 36,000 YouTube views, and the Instagram videos have been viewed more than 40,000 times. 

At the time of writing, the videos on Facebook had drawn 369,000 views.

The ultimate aim, of course, is that people are inspired to move to the islands for good, and more than a thousand people are now members of Promote Shetland’s Living and Working in Shetland group on Facebook – people who are actively considering moving to the isles. It won’t just be a video that inspires someone to uproot their life, but hopefully it can plant a seed. I hope, too, that Promote Shetland can prove that investing in quality content pays off. Compared to the way that other parts of the UK are marketing themselves, what they are doing is really impressive.  

From a personal view, I’m proud of the project. It was a huge amount of work, but it felt honest and true to what I’d imagined it might be. It helped that there was a strong and compelling message behind it. I hope we presented people as human beings rather than just talking heads; and that we captured some of the beauty and magic of Shetland, while not reducing the place or the people to cutesy stereotypes. For the chance, I’d like to thank David, Lauren Doughton and the Promote Shetland team for being brilliant and understanding managers; and River, Connor, Stephen and Liam for their patience and brilliant work, as well as Tim Matthew for supplying bespoke music. I just hope it does the place some justice. 

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