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Home > Departments > Perspective > Flight of the imagination

PERSPECTIVE

Flight of the imagination

By Ben Uttley 16-10-2020

The founder of UK prodco Stamp Productions reveals the challenges of shooting a round-the-world flight in an iconic Second World War aircraft for feature doc The Silver Spitfire.

“The expedition has never been done before for a reason: it’s incredibly challenging and dangerous. You will be away from your family for at least four months.”

On reflection, it wasn’t really a great invitation from Matt Jones, my friend and chief pilot of The Silver Spitfire Expedition. However, context is everything.

Three years later, I would be loading my camera equipment into a single-propellor plane, hugging my loved ones close and embarking on an adventure that would not have been out of place in the golden age of aviation. My team at Stamp Productions and I have earned a reputation of telling emotive and epic stories for brands and feature documentaries. Still, this expedition would test us, and me personally, to our limits.

Due to space, weight and logistics, I would have to solo-film the entire odyssey once we left, including cinematography, sound (airfields and aeroplanes are challenging places for this) all the photography, paperwork and release forms.

Modern aviation disconnects passengers and crew from the extraordinary experience that it is. You take off in one place, land in another, with everything in between replaced by an iPad screen or a book. This odyssey would take me around the world with five other people connected at all times to the world beneath us. We soared at only a few thousand feet over polar ice caps, oceans, mountains, skyscrapers and some of the most iconic landmarks on Earth: the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids and the pagodas of Myanmar, to name but a few.

Spitfire G-IRTY covered 27,000 miles on the Silver Spitfire expedition

More people have been to the moon or free-soloed El Capitan than have achieved this in this kind of machine – a Supermarine Spitfire, the hero of the story.

Officially named G-IRTY and otherwise known as The Silver Spitfire, she is the most original flying Spitfire in the world, a mark IX built in 1943, painstakingly restored over two years and stripped of her military markings. The beauty of her engineering was laid bare for all to see. The scratches and dents and even some initials etched on to her wing (I’d love to know who was behind those!) hold secrets and stories of the pilots who flew her on 51 combat missions in WWII. Their spirit seemed to travel with us.

Those pilots had to ward off enemy bombers and fighters. It certainly put our challenges – weather, fatigue and arduous cross-border paperwork – into perspective and spurred us on when things felt impossible.

I felt massively under-prepared when taking off from a short grass runway at Goodwood Aerodrome in southern England with a plane full to the gunnels with equipment and supplies. An emotional goodbye from my wife and two daughters weighed on me. Only moments later I was opening the door to our Pilatus-PC12 aircraft and filming the departure, escorted by a Typhoon fighter jet. Exciting is one word, out of my depth and terrified might be another way of putting it. Either way, I was shaking with adrenaline.

Four months later, the sight of a modern fighter jet alongside us or hanging out of an open door at 200 knots over vast forests, oceans and cities would be my new normality.

Danger was always present and the crew and team were simply incredible. Weather, fatigue and the potential for mechanical failure were ever-present. Once you start thinking about it, you will see aviation tragedies regularly, be they celebrities like Emiliano Sala or Kobe Bryant, or families in light aircraft. All modern aircraft have high-tech safety equipment but even then you can never take your safety for granted. I am grateful we all returned in one piece having achieved something unique with an 80-year-old machine at its heart.

Technically, there were numerous challenges. With no opportunity to have an exterior-mounted gimbal system on the support plane, taking on the cinematography and stills was a major one. I had to hand-hold the stills and film cameras attached to me with a gyro stabiliser which weighed around 23kg. The physical exertion alone would leave me exhausted but the adrenaline was ever-present. Wind buffeting and the pressure of only being seconds over a landmark to capture in film and stills was the kind of stress that makes you feel alive. It’s what we get into the business for and I loved every second.

G-IRTY being restored in the workshops

Sometimes I tried and failed to capture what I wanted. Sometimes we got spectacular imagery, but this was no rehearsed and staged shoot and you needed to be willing to take risks to capture moments of brilliance in unique ways.

There were many highlights and incredible moments from the 27,000 miles we covered and 26 countries we travelled through, which will be seen in our cinematic documentary and photographic exhibition. We witnessed a snapshot of the Earth and our cultures over four months.

The world seems almost empty. Cities look small and clusters of houses next to roads that might feel claustrophobic at ground level are set within vast swathes of open land, forests and jungles from the air. Yet you can see the impact of a changing climate and politics. We saw the vast icefields of Greenland, smog in India, tensions in Hong Kong and Pakistan and floods in Venice. And, although we didn’t know it at the time of course, Covid-19 had already emerged in Asia.

As an independently produced feature documentary, our post-production work on the film has been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Our branded content filming ground to a halt and with it our short-term income. The costs of moving our systems to remote working – something I hope is here to stay – and the uncertain future landscape of cinema and broadcast are the kinds of challenges many in the industry will be facing.

On the plus side, such trials and tribulations have revealed an industry that is positive and willing to adapt. We’ve been lucky to have contacts and friends who have reached out and offered to help us out for free when we’ve needed it. Xander Ross at Percy & Warren and Nick Long at Salon Pro Sales and, of course, the entire Advertising Producers Association community led by Steve Davies are just a few examples. I believe our creativity as an industry and our shared passion for storytelling will not only see us through but make us better.

Great stories are always in demand, even if the way we view them and tell them is evolving.

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today's correspondent

Ben Uttley Founder and director Stamp Productions

Ben Uttley is a filmmaker, storyteller and entrepreneur with experience in digital media, feature films and documentaries.

Stamp Productions directs and produces short- and longform content for brands and businesses, for TV, digital/web or live events. The company also has in-house creative and design capabilities. His previous work includes a stint with sportcaster ESPN’s documentary arm.