For four years now, our distinctive Hebridean Dark Skies Festival trailers have been directed by Lewis film-maker John Macdonald. We caught up with John to discuss the creative process behind them.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to watch a special extended version of our 2022 festival trailer!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a film-maker?
I’ve arrived at film-making after taking the long way round – which is pretty typical for me! I have a background in architecture and product design, but decided to move into graphic arts and media after graduating. After finding a job with a lovely bunch of people in a local multi-media unit, I’ve gradually moved into film-making and animation over the last five years.
I’ve always wanted to make films though. I remember being astonished by 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was too young to understand what was going on (still not entirely sure), and I’ve absolutely loved watching all sorts of movies and learning about what goes into making them since.
What was the most challenging thing about making these trailers?
It’s given me a total respect for anyone who regularly does landscape/wildlife photography or videography up here in the Hebrides. The weather will absolutely not do what you want it to, and a lot of the shots I ended up with were snatched in moments between hail showers, gusts of wind or dark cloud cover. There’s a lot of waiting around involved!
Particularly difficult moments include falling into a (thankfully shallow) river at Aline Forest and generally just slipping around a lot while holding expensive equipment (fortunately without too much damage).
There’s a fair amount of post-production with the visuals in these trailers, so I used a lot of VFX and 3D modelling techniques to get the scenes looking close to how I wanted. The big challenge was usually to try to dial it down enough so it was balanced and on message without turning into a confusing mess.
These challenges are what makes a project worthwhile though – feeling tested on a job usually leads to good things!
And what was the most rewarding?
I really enjoy the research stage of any project, because you have an excuse to completely immerse yourself into a subject. I believe that the right solution comes from a whole load of research and understanding, so I tend to put a lot of time into this.
So, reading books by people like Carl Sagan, watching documentaries on the Cosmos or seeking out footage from various NASA missions really started to make me understand the amazing scale, wonder and power of what’s above our heads right now.
It was also great to see the trailers up on the big screen at An Lanntair. The cinema is my favourite place in the world!
Which is your favourite Dark Skies trailer and why?
I’m a firm believer that if your most recent work isn’t your favourite, then you’re doing something wrong! Having said that, the first trailer (from 2019, see above) has a place in my heart, because it’s the first time I’ve been asked to do anything quite like that.
It also means a lot to be commissioned by an organisation like An Lanntair, as I really respect the work you guys do to channel and showcase the talent and creativity of the Western Isles.
What else are you working on at the moment?
My day job is with a media group making national Gaelic educational materials, and we work on a large variety of projects from print and digital design, web and apps, to videography, 3D modelling, animation and motion graphics. I absolutely love working on a diverse range of jobs like this because you have to keep learning and a lot of the skills and techniques will spill over into and feed other projects.
In my spare time I’m currently exploring how to create virtual 3D scenes and film-make within these environments using a software called Unreal Engine. Along with that, I’m continuing to work on my 2D animation skills while also trying to keep my sketching skills from going stale (which also keeps me away from the computer screen for a while).
It also looks like I’ll be doing a short workshop on film-making in the new year hosted by An Lanntair, so I’ll be starting prep on that shortly.
The 2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Festival runs from 11 to 25 February. Event listings here.
A note from our festival director
John originally submitted a one minute trailer for our 2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. As an advertisement for the programme we felt it didn’t quite get to the message quickly enough but this longer, more contemplative version of the trailer is a beautiful demonstration of John’s artistic vision and we were keen for people to see it, so here it is. Enjoy!