When I read the trailer brief for The One Memory of Flora Banks, I was thrilled by the visual potential. Emily Barr’s novel tells the story of a girl with no short-term memory and her journey from the coast of England to the Arctic region of Svalbard. To convey aspects of Flora’s unstable memory, I imagined hazy, indistinct images, and a rhythmic repetition of similarly framed shots in various icy locations.

As exciting as the concept was, there was the problem of execution. Specifically, how do I portray a journey across the Arctic when it’s springtime and I’m in Los Angeles? I was determined to shoot in real locations and real snow. As I researched the possibility, Iceland began to make more and more sense. Iceland’s varied landscape and livable climate have brought a number of popular films and TV shows to the country, including Interstellar, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Fortitude, and Game of Thrones.

By keeping the crew small, it was feasible within the budget to shoot this book trailer there. I recruited cinematographer Paul Theodoroff to share camera duties, and off we went.

Anja Eichler and Colton Davie on location outside Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo by Paul Theodoroff.

A key element of the book is Flora’s one lasting memory, for which the book is titled. The only thing that doesn’t slip through the cracks of her mind is the night on a black pebbled beach in England when she kissed Drake, her best friend’s boyfriend. It’s this one memory that spurs her on in her quest to find Drake in the Arctic.

Flora so romanticizes this thought that it seems to exist somewhere between memory and fantasy, and we needed a way to communicate that visually. The first step was the decision to shoot this scene in silhouette, creating a sense of mystery, as well as intimacy between the characters. Still, I felt another layer was required.

As a cinematographer, I am fascinated by lenses. No matter what happens in front of the lens, or what camera is behind it, everything is filtered and interpreted through this eye. Each lens interprets the world in a different way and these differences range from nearly imperceptible to quite dramatic.

Flora’s perception of the world, and specifically this moment, is unique. I wanted to see this scene in a similarly unique way. To that end, I decided to build a lens myself, specifically for this project.

Most properly manufactured lenses are designed to minimize the aberrations, or flaws, inherent in using glass to translate a 3D scene into a 2D image. However, it was those aberrations that I felt would best convey Flora’s perspective of this moment. By using scrap glass, and simplistic lens designs, I was confident I could come up with something that enhanced, rather than suppressed, the unusual characteristics of bending light through glass.

After much experimentation, this is what I ended up with:

I used step rings and gaffer tape to hold an arrangement of 3 elements that gave me an effective focal length of about 50mm. An adjustable iris on the lens allowed me not only to control exposure, but the intensity of the aberrant blooming effects as well. A focusing helicoid with a lens gear provided follow focus compatibility, and the PL-adapter meant we could mount it on the Arri Alexa just like any other lens.

Flora’s memory of the beach scene, shot on Reynisfjara Beach, was the last thing we filmed. The homemade lens gave such a different look from everything we had shot prior that I questioned myself for a moment, wondering if it was the right choice. But we embraced it and took the plunge, and I am very glad we did. Here are some of the images produced by this lens:

And check the scene out in context in the official book trailer for The One Memory of Flora Banks.

Colton Davie is a Los Angeles-based cinematographer who loves snow, optics, and sometimes directs book trailers. See his work at http://coltondavie.com and on Instagram @coltond719.