Meet John Duncan

Hot off his second Vimeo Staff Pick, John talks about his adventures traipsing the wilds and highlands of Scotland, following steam trains, and dragging a dead stag down a mountain.

Beautiful Scotland took you 8 months, and lots of adventures, to shoot. Tell us about that.

I travelled around Scotland usually getting up at offensively early times to get good light. I wanted to make a film that shows what a beautiful country Scotland is. Filming this was a series of mini-adventures, from camping on top of Sgurr a’Mhaim as the sun set, driving overnight to the Old Man of Storr on Skye to catch the sun rise, and stomping through fields chasing the Jacobite Steam Train.

What was your goal with Wild Scotland?

When I started filming Wild Scotland, I knew it would be tough to get a response similar to Beautiful Scotland. I really struggled to find a sequence with the same kind of wow factor as that steam train. It was by pure chance that I came across various wildlife whilst shooting at other locations — this became a theme throughout the film.

I’ve been blown away by the response to the film. It took such a long time to make, and after watching it numerous times in the edit, it’s difficult to gauge if it’s any good!

How did you get into drone filming?

I’ve been filming with drones for around 1.5 years. A few years ago, I saw a drone video shot along the Amalfi Coast in Italy and knew instantly I had to buy one and travel around Scotland.

The variation of the landscape in such a small country has always inspired me. I love the contrast between the mountainous west coast and the east. I work full-time in the film industry, but my original motivation for getting into drone filming was purely to make a beautiful film. I get a real buzz going on trips up north simply to get one shot. It takes time, but when it’s all put together, the effort pays off.

The first job I got after getting my license was an epic shoot up a Munro (mountain) in Scotland. I was with a team filming a stag (deer) being shot as part of a sequence for a documentary. It ended up being a full day’s hike, including climbing down the mountain in the pitch dark — with the stag in tow!

What’s the biggest challenge of filming with a drone?

I found it very straightforward to pick up. I use a DJI Inspire 1 and Phantom 3. They allow me to get into spots conventional aerial filming with helicopters couldn’t access. The biggest challenge, however, is gauging where in space the quadcopter is in relation to the land. It’s so important to be positioned in the right place to give you a good line of sight and perspective as to where it is. But the drone sends feedback to the controller, which allows me to compose the shots.

Tell us about your most memorable shoot.

Going up Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill to film the spectacular serrated ridge of An Teallach. I had been filming another mountain called Suilven the previous evening and the weather forecast changed, so I made a last-minute decision. I left Suilven at 2:00 a.m. and started hiking at 3:30 a.m. in the pitch dark. On the way up, I could hear a stag roaring — I felt like I was a million miles from civilization. Upon reaching the top, the sun started to break through and I realized it was going to be an epic shot!

However, once I was up there, the wind started gusting. It was by far the windiest conditions I had flown in. I worried the drone might not handle it. I got a few warnings of voltage problems as the motors were having to work so hard, but fortunately I got it back.

What are your shoot must-haves?

Spare batteries, spare memory cards (change after every few shots, especially if flying over water), tea, and Oreos.

See all John’s footage, visit his website, or follow him on Vimeo, Twitter, and Facebook.