Three police officers in official snowsuits dismount snowmobiles and approach a hillside cabin about 20 meters away with handguns drawn. They stop near the door, seemingly shocked at the sight of a blood-soaked life-size doll that’s apparently been laying there a while.
None of which is all in a normal day’s work for a local cop. But the really odd eye-catcher is the guy on a small nearby ridge rapidly swinging a bucket on a rope in front of him continuously.
“That’s is how we make snow,” explained Teo Viksjo, a special effects technician from Oslo, showing a cluster of cylinder-shaped sticks inside the bucket. “It’s not a lot of snow – we can only use one at time because they’re expensive.”
But on the latest of several straight nearly cloudless days amidst a scattering of cabins a few miles outside Longyearbyen, it’s way to get some scattered flurries into a scene involving the discovery of three dead bodies for the British psychological thriller TV series “Fortitude.” The storyline following surreal happenings – sometimes too much so – in Svalbard’s largest town (which, in this fictional instance, is the show’s namesake) was filmed in Iceland for its first two 10-episode seasons, but the final abbreviated four-episode season is being filmed this month in Longyearbyen.
Swinging the bucket and other technical work is an exhausting job that lasts 11 or more hours a day – and nearly all bone chilling days of minus 15 Celsius or so, at that – but Viksjo said there are three other technical assistants sharing the duties.
Just creating snow involves a multitude of tasks. Viksjo said one of the toughest tasks he faces is scene on a rooftop in town where a large machine simulating the heavy snowfall and wind of a blizzard will be used. Even then, those editing the show say lots of and lots of snow and other dramatic weather will be added via computer-generated imagery (CGI).
The various hardships in an already harsh environment – including a star actor going ungloved for lengthy periods while shooting a scene that will occupy mere seconds on screen – are a testimony to both the challenge of filming a TV drama series in Svalbard during one of the coldest months of the year and the enthusiasm of most of those involved to be a part of it.
“We’ve always wanted to come here, but we couldn’t afford it,” said Patrick Spence, the show’s lead writer. “I think the big difference is this place feels more open, the settings are so vast and spectacular. It’s utterly majestic.”
Unfavorable currency exchange rates were a primary reason costs were prohibitive the first two seasons, but there was also the concern about being in such a remote location if equipment or other problems occurred. That worry came true during this spring when four vehicles meant to be used during filming suffered water damage aboard the cargo ship that brought them up, rendering them inoperable.
“That was an unexpected knockback that had huge consequences across the crew until now,” Spence said, nearly a week after the ship arrived.
Then there’s the challenges involving the equipment that did arrive.
“It never gets below minus five degrees in Iceland, other than a few cold spells,” said Rudy Buckle, a sound engineer who has worked all three seasons of the show. That means an extra challenge keeping equipment and batteries function, but mostly “you just have to protect it better.”
Protecting people for hours on end is also a priority, with assistants passing out hot drinks and hand warmers along with an not-so-Hollywood assortment of “catering” such as energy bars and vegetarian soup (although, in an interest bit of adoption, many on the set have taken to carrying traditionally carved wooden ladles/cups around their waist so they can use those instead of environmentally wasteful paper cups). When the dummy “corpses” are replaced by live actors there are heating pads beneath them. And while the budget isn’t lavish, they are adding to the coffers of local businesses.
“I think we’ve invested quite a bit in the local clothing,” Buckle said.
The more than 130 cast, crew and other show members are also spending about 2,700 nights in local hotels – a tight squeeze for one of Longyearbyen’s busiest overnight tourist months of the year. Plus, of course, the many people who want to explore the real Svalbard during the occasional rare day off (although Buckle is among those who said they prefer the relaxation of being warm and indoors).
Once the series airs a frame-by-frame fanatic might notice some differences in natural landscapes (hey, weren’t there trees during the first two seasons?) or various aspects of the town compared to the first two seasons. But those involved with production said that’s been of minimal concern so far – the fact the vast majority of inside scenes will be filmed in a studio in the U.K. doesn’t hurt. Furthermore, efforts during previous seasons to make outdoor scenes in Iceland resemble Svalbard – including elements such as license plates and police uniforms.
And, to his credit, Spence said he was aware of and bothered by those trees that found their ways into scenes, but practically speaking there wasn’t much that could be done.”
“Taking trees out with CGI is a (expletive) of a lot more expensive than you anticipate,” he said.