One pilot brings the world to Iceland

Jon Kjartan Bjornsson has been a helicopter pilot for 35 years taking camera crews, directors and actors to some of the most stunning spots in Iceland.

Posted: Aug 6, 2020 8:01 AM
Updated: Aug 6, 2020 8:01 AM

Ancient tales of trolls and magic live on in Iceland, an island nation of volcanoes, lava fields, glaciers and ice caves.

To fully explore every corner of the dynamic landscape, unravel local folklore and battle the natural elements, one must take to the skies.

Enter Jón Kjartan Björnsson, the pilot with a mission to show the real Iceland.

Björnsson, a helicopter pilot for 35 years, has taken camera crews, directors and actors to some of the most stunning spots in the country.

The thundering waterfalls and deep valley gorges seen in TV's "Game of Thrones" and the movies "Oblivion" and "Flags of Our Fathers" are thanks to Björnsson's expert navigation skills.

Björnssons' explains that since you cannot use a zoom on the wide-angle camera, the trick to getting that intimate feel is moving the actual helicopter close to the shot: "If it feels like you're close, you are close," he says.

Iceland, the alien planet

Although Björnsson loves to showcase his strikingly dramatic country, many of the shots he enables filmmakers to create are not presented as Iceland at all.

In fact, Björnsson says, "Whenever directors want to show somewhere on another planet, they shoot in Iceland!"

The aerial filming world is small, explains Björnsson, who describes it as a big family.

The desolate volcanic deserts, glaciers and lush mossy valleys seen on the planets of Eadu and Hoth in "Star Wars," in "Game of Throne's" Land Beyond the Wall, and in Thor's home of Asgard were all filmed in Iceland.

Iceland also stands in for an alien planet in the movie "Interstellar," where astronauts travel through a wormhole to find another home after Earth becomes uninhabitable.

And in the post-apocalyptic film "Oblivion," Iceland features as both a war-torn and ravaged Earth as well as its potential replacement, the planet of Titan.

Iceland immersion

In addition to work on feature films and television series, Björnsson is also responsible for getting the director and filming crew in the right spot for the FlyOver Iceland video used in the exhilarating experience based in Reykjavík.

The FlyOver exhibit, currently in Vancouver and Iceland and soon in Las Vegas and Toronto, takes visitors on a sensory ride suspended over a 20-meter (65.6-foot) screen. The experience blends some of those amazing sights depicted on film with the physical sensation of flying, including an actual mist falling on your face from a waterfall.

You might even get a whiff of fresh mountain flowers as you glide over a meadow.

In one stunning sequence in the Iceland film, Björnsson flies right through an impossibly narrow arch that has the whole audience gasping and holding their breath as they feel themselves trying to make it through the arch.

In fact, he tells CNN Travel the width was very comfortable at about 50 meters, but it sure looks and feels narrow as you embody the role of the silent passenger, sitting beside Björnsson, trusting Björnsson.

The finished footage from FlyOver and Björnsson's other projects -- full films and shows -- creates the impression that the audience is right there with him. It's as close as most people can hope to get to many of Iceland's otherwise inaccessible territory.

Remoter still

Remarkably for a man who has been flying professionally for over three decades, Björnsson says he is actually scared of heights and prefers low-level flying.

One scene in the eight-and-a-half-minute minimovie takes place at Iceland's highest peak, at 7,000 plus feet (2,134 meters) above sea level. "I almost had to close my eyes sometimes!" Björnsson quips.

Björnsson routinely has the opportunity to fly over places most Icelanders will never visit.

"Most of those sites in FlyOver are pretty difficult to get to unless you have a helicopter. The little lighthouse just south of Iceland is probably the most difficult one. But when you have the helicopter, you can go wherever you like to go!"

That remote and lonely little lighthouse is known as The Þrídrangaviti lighthouse and is located on the Westman Islands, about five miles off the coast of mainland Iceland.

The making of the movie

Some parts of the island do not feature in the final cut of director Dave Mossop's 2019 FlyOver Iceland video because weather conditions posed insurmountable obstacles.

Filming took place over a year and a half in all seasons. Mossop says that they were stranded for days in the northern part of the island when bad weather, including sideways snowstorms and zero light, made it impossible to film or to leave.

This part of the country seldom sees tourists and locals had warned Mossop that flying and filming would be difficult.

The challenging shoots, nonetheless, reaped great rewards: The helicopter's positioning gives viewers a grasp of the sheer scale of Iceland's glaciers, not visible in this way by land -- or even accessible.

Black sands, lava fields and deep green valleys look like a series of dramatic canvas landscapes stitched together into one true masterpiece.

"One of the most remote places that we got to visit and one that you would never be able to experience in its full effect from the ground is called the Tungnaa river, and I think it's one of the seven wonders of the world. It's just the most beautiful, wild, unbelievable river flowing from a glacier and spreading out over this silt sand," Mossop says.

When viewed from above in Björnsson's helicopter, Mossop says it looks like a three-dimensional Georgia O'Keeffe abstract painting, created by nature.

Directing danger

One of the most dramatic moments Mossop filmed in Iceland for FlyOver was a scene where kayakers come careening down the Goðafoss waterfall.

Mossop describes this as a "genuinely dangerous stunt." Although it wasn't the highest drop these adventure sports experts had navigated, it certainly was high stakes because of the sheer volume of water.

"The whole river channels into this notch and just piles off of this beautiful basalt column amphitheater and creates incredible impact at the bottom of the waterfall ... if it goes wrong, you're going to be buried under this mountain of water for minutes. And you could definitely, possibly, die," Mossop says.

Like much of the action filmed for this mini-movie, timing was everything.

"We were really fortunate we got a take that worked. And it's in the film and I think it's one of the most extreme and impressive shots I've ever worked on. It's such a beautiful location and such an impressive athletic stunt by both the pilot and the kayakers," Mossop says.

Mossop and Björnsson have captured something far more thrilling and dramatic than an alien planet or a fictional and magical world -- they have served up Iceland in all its rugged, other worldly beauty.

Thankfully for those of us who want to see it for ourselves, despite appearances, Iceland is actually located on our planet.

If you go

Small group tour companies such as Hidden Iceland organize trips to many of the amazing filming locations across the country including glacial hikes over Vatnajökull where you can visit the startling blue ice caves.

To see the country from Björnsson's point of view, however, you need to book a chopper. You can arrange a tour with the man himself through Nordurflug Helicopter Tours.

For the true Icelandic experience, choose a glacial landing, which costs around $725 USD per person.

Or visit FlyOver Iceland in Reykjavik. The ride costs about $33 USD.

Click here for up-to-date information about restrictions and requirements to travel to Iceland during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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