There’s an urban legend about Iceland that explains how the island nation — composed of dramatic landscapes that are fiery, icy, and green — received its name as a sort of marketing ploy to discourage early immigration. Why move to Iceland when there’s another island more comfortably called “Greenland” (composed of 85 percent ice, no less) just a short jaunt away?
It’s an amusing story (and widely disputed), but in stark contrast to the country’s modern welcoming policies. More than 1,140 years after Swedish Viking explorer Garðar Svavarsson first circumnavigated the island, Iceland is marketing itself as a country open for business on a wide variety of fronts; a revitalization both social and economic no better represented than its relationship with the international film industry.
In late September, I flew into Iceland as part of a small crew of journalists invited to witness first-hand the businesses, people and natural wonders that are attracting filmmakers from all around the world.
“‘Flags of our Fathers’ was a watershed moment for us,” Icelandic film commissioner Einar Tomasson told me as we overlooked a rugged, black sand beach where director Clint Eastwood shot much of his WWII drama. In what is Tomasson’s favorite quote, Eastwood said he chose the setting for its “rugged and unusual look,” but came away equally impressed by the country’s other charms.
“I soon learned that Iceland also has friendly, hardworking people with a refreshing can-do spirit,” the director said. “The open roads and undisturbed countryside remind me of the way America was fifty years ago.”
Eastwood’s ringing endorsement, coupled with a move by Iceland to increase its filming reimbursement package from 12 percent to 20 percent, has sparked a Hollywood production boom. “Interstellar,” “Oblivion,” “Noah,” “Batman Begins” and “Prometheus” are just a handful of more than a dozen big budget films that have taken advantage. Like the "Lord of the Rings" franchise did for New Zealand, all of this advertising in film is sparking a secondary boom in tourism — with 10 percent of visitors to Iceland now citing a movie or television series as the inspiration behind their visit.
Iceland's stunning scenery provided the perfect backdrop for scenes 'North of the Wall' in HBO's 'Game of Thrones.' (Photo: Vilhelm Gunnarsson/Iceland Magazine)
Christopher Newman, a producer on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (which has used the island to shoot scenes "North of the Wall”), told me that while Iceland has always been popular destination for filmmakers, its local industry has benefited from a drive to do things independently.
“The Icelanders have always made their own films so their expertise has never relied on learning from foreign productions,” he said. “That has meant the low budget production is fully understood.” Newman added that such prudent economics has lent itself well to local crews fitting into the bigger machine.
“Accepting the challenge is very much part of their work ethic,” he said.
Beyond its dramatic landscapes, Iceland is also home to a number of visual effects, animation and gaming studios. RVX, based in the capital city of Reykjavik, has provided post-production for movies like “Contraband,” “Two Guns,” “Gravity” and the upcoming 2015 drama “Everest.”
On a blustery morning in Reykjavik’s harbor district, Dadi Einarsson, co-founder and creative director for RVX, explained further the competitive advantages of filming in Iceland.
“We compete on price point. We have a tax break here,” he said. “We’re not in one of the expensive cores of the world. We can offer a good price on top of the tax breaks. The layers of bureaucracy are very, very thin. We have zero hierarchy, conventions of society, we don’t really have classes. Everyone is a friend, neighbor or relative.”
In addition, Einarsson said that Iceland’s position as a leader in sustainable energy (less than 0.1 percent of energy production in the country comes from from fossil fuels) makes it an attractive place for studios looking to reduce their environmental footprint.
“Iceland is developing an image of a clean energy, forward-thinking, creative place,” he said. “There’s a creative energy here that’s disproportionate to the amount of people we have. I think the green energy is definitely a stamp of approval on what we do. It adds a kind of guilt-free thing to the energy that our industry uses. It wraps together. People are conscious about these things.”
One of the most striking things about RVX’s headquarters, especially for a company crafting some of Hollywood’s most impressive visual effects (the film “Everest” alone has more than 700), is the relative lack of on-site computer power. In 2012, the company decided to partner with Verne Global, which owns a 44-acre data center just outside of Reykjavik. Via a direct fiber-optic line, artists at RVX are able to work in real-time on projects stored miles away. Such a facility not only offers studios 100% renewable, long-term, low-cost power (Thanks to reliable geothermal energy, prices are fixed for an incredible 20 years), but also quickly scale their systems to meet rising expectations.
“The film and digital media industry, like other compute intensive sectors, relies heavily on the power and infrastructure a data center provides. For the film industry, in particular, data centers are critical to delivering the complex data sets created by the studio and production teams,” said Jeff Monroe, CEO of Verne Global.
This critical need is backed by Einarsson, who added that every new movie tackled by RVX requires 50 percent more of everything, including storage.
“It’s getting more and more — with every new challenge, we’re pushing the limits, the industry is pushing the limits — there’s nothing really off-limits anymore,” he said. “There used to be a lot of producers aware of what’s possible and not possible — but now, time and budget are the only limitations. And part of that is having access to a big render farm. And ideally one that you can expand and contract.”
For filmmakers, having local and experienced companies like Verne and RVX only a few hours from the site of a shoot adds tremendous value to Iceland’s already impressive natural wonders.
“What is most important is that we care,” added Einarsson. “We care about making good work. That’s an important thing. We care about the business.”