As most of the UK and northern Europe found their inner astronauts, either shaking their fists at the thick clouds or being dazzled by the peculiar beauties of the universe this morning, Danny MacAskill was taking the chance to experience the biggest solar eclipse in 16 years in his own special way.
But what does it take to pull off a project like this? We caught up with Danny and his team as they prepared for the shoot up on the Isle Of Skye – the location for his award winning short The Ridge – to find out.
The idea seemed simple enough: “I saw a picture by a photographer in Austria,” says photographer Rutger Pauw. “He used a really long lens – a 1000m lens to shoot the moon with a guy on a bike airborne in front of it. It’s a bit like the scene in ET, if you can find a point between you and the moon that actually fits that focal length then it looks amazing.”
When he heard news of the upcoming solar eclipse, Rutger thought that might make a neat twist. So he decided to get in touch with his pal, trials bike rider MacAskill, who loved the idea from the start.
Not as easy as it looks
The apparent simplicity of the idea, however, soon began to melt away. “It turned out there are a lot of challenges you don’t get with a moon shoot…”
- 1. Firstly, there is the unavoidable fact that the best place to shoot was on the Isle of Skye, MacAskill's birthplace in the remotest north-western corner of Scotland. The weather there is often a bastard – simply getting a clear line-of-sight to the sun was going to be tricky.
- 2. The eclipse doesn’t last very long – the team had about a minute, maybe two, to get all of the pieces together and nail the shot.
- 3. Shooting with such a long lens meant that Rutger and Danny were over 300m apart, able to communicate only with radio mics.
- 4. Because of the way the whole thing had to be lit – ie: with the sun behind him – Danny would be in shadow unless Rutger used a huge flash gun. He had one, but it only had enough juice in one burst to take one shot. “In other words, I can’t just put it on rapid-fire mode like most photographers do nowadays,” explains Rutger.
- 5. The sun is very high in the sky at 9:45am, the time of the eclipse, something that caught both Danny and Rutger by surprise. The upshot of this was that the only place they could achieve the effect they were after was basically the side of a small mountain – meaning additional technical challenges for Danny to get the trick right and not tumble down a ravine.
Growing up on Skye
Danny's back in his parents’ living room when RedBull.com first catches up with him and Rutger ahead of the jump. “We got a great picture last night of Danny and his mum with the Northern Lights behind them,” says Rutger.
The pair are both wearing beanies, wrapped up in blankets in front of a log fire, exhausted from a full day of scouting the glens of Skye for a suitable spot to perform the feat. It’s the nerve-jangling climax of a process that began up on the even more remote Faroe Islands two weeks ago. That attempted shoot ended up being a bust, so they’ve relocated to Skye.
Danny grew up here, riding his bike between the post office and the general store, learning to do tricks on the handful of backstreets in the town of Dunvegan.
His dad, Peter, still runs a museum on the island devoted to the second-most famous MacAskill, Angus, the family's 7ft 9in [2m 36cm] Victorian ancestor who weighed 230kg, could lift a horse over a fencepost and toured around in PT Barnum’s famous circus. "The tallest man ever to live without giantism!" Danny tells us.
It’s Rutger’s first time here, and he says it’s everything Danny promised. “I would say it’s hands-down one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Scotland is very special when it comes to the light with photographers. You get these low fast-moving small clouds, so that you get these little pockets of light in between them – almost like spotlights that shine down on people. To me, that’s what makes Scotland, Scotland.”
Old friends, new tricks
Rutger is an ex-BMX guy who rode competitively in tricks competitions, though not a biker on the same scale as MacAskill – a man whose trick sets have amassed views on YouTube in the tens of millions, and who started his career cruising up various walls in Edinburgh in the days when he still worked in a bike shop and shot videos with a pal on his lunch breaks. One of those videos is now up to 34 million views.
Rutger and Danny always vaguely knew each other from the biking scene, but it’s been rolling around these hills all week preparing for the shoot, with Howlin' Wolf blazing on the car stereo, that they’ve deepened that friendship.
“I’m happy whatever happens,” said Danny ahead of the shoot. “I think everyone knew roughly how risky this was when they got into it, that’s part of it.”
“It’s a bit like the photographic equivalent of extreme sports,” says Rutger. “Like when an athlete says ‘I can only do this once because it’s bad for my body…’.” The pair shot for the moon – and that’s an act of boldness that brings its own rewards.
Scroll through the images below to see Rutger Pauw's behind the scenes shots.