The invasion began at 5am. Thirty crew, a 50-strong choir, four cranes, two tractors, five quad bikes, plus pick-up trucks crammed with 10 camera kits congregated in the car park of Trinity church in Lincoln, Iowa. We hadn't pitched up for morning service. 'That truck is going to pull that church across the prairies?' asked a bewildered cameraman 'Yes,' I replied. 'And our mission is to chase it.' Welcome to the bizarre world of moving buildings.
The church, topped with a 100ft steeple, was set to embark on an epic 12-mile journey. Over the years, the church's congregation had dwindled from 250 to just 13. So the parishioners had raised the funds to move it to a town with more worshippers. With a truck on the front and 60 wheels underneath, 'house mover' Ron Holland boasted that the church could reach a top speed of 10mph. Filming its journey would be one almighty steeplechase.
Trinity was one of eight unwieldy structures ranging from houses to whole towns, whose relocation we were charting for Monster Moves. This four-part engineering series was commissioned by Justine Kershaw at Five and co-produced with National Geographic US & National Geographic Channels International.
A chance meeting with a seasoned 'shack dragger' in the US a few years ago led to the series idea. Over beer, he showed me startling pictures of mansions, hotels and lighthouses on wheels. He also told me how he'd lost the hair from the back of his head when the roof of a house he was 'riding' careered into live power lines. And how one of his workers had been crushed under a three-storey house that fell off a truck. The prospects of hanging out with these guys filled me with fascination and fear.
Each film inter-cuts the daredevil exploits of two teams hauling two huge structures. Real-time footage of them in action provides the drama, CGI illustrates the engineering problems they must solve, while timelapse photo-graphy of the buildings in motion offers eye-catching imagery.
We lived alongside the teams as they spent months preparing each structure for the road, capturing the daily dramas on Sony Z1 cameras. The most frightening incident involved a runaway crane. A Canadian team had called in the 40-ton machine to pull apart a house they had cut into four pieces to move. As we filmed the crane arrive, its brakes failed. It careered through the town, crashing through telegraph posts and only coming to a halt after hurtling into a railway bridge. Luckily no one was killed, but it was a chilling reminder of the hazards we faced.
The most challenging shoots were the moving days themselves. Ron warned us that Trinity church would rarely stop and could not go backwards. So there would be no respite or second takes.
We needed enough material from Trinity's trek to sustain 20 minutes of the film.
I researched the route more than 20 times with my assistant producer Bettina Truemper. Each time we'd spot more problems. How could the actuality crews shoot and walk non-stop for 12 miles in the summer heat? To convey the scale of the church, the timelapse crews needed to shoot above and away from the road in high cranes. But the surrounding fields were boggy. And with the church blocking the road, how would our cranes leapfrog from one spot to the next?
The shoot took four weeks to plan. Some quick maths told us we'd need a minimum of six HD timelapse crews and four Z1 actuality units to track our moving target.
With flags marking shooting spots in fields, runners on quad bikes to shuttle batteries and water, and tractors on standby to rescue any stricken cranes, the race began.
The church moved down off its perch at a snail's pace. Everyone feared that the steeple would topple. But once on the road, it hit 8mph. 'They're moving too fast, we're screwed,' radioed fellow producer Jamie Lochhead, struggling to keep up with the action at the rear of the church. The crane crews would never make it to all their spots in time.
Fortunately, the building ground to a halt at the foot of a steep hill. Ron's team went to find a tractor for extra pulling power. We caught our breath and the cranes lumbered across the fields. The operation resembled Desert Storm.
Negotiating the church around tight corners and over bridges took the rest of the day and provided us with strong material.
Our final challenge stood waiting near the finishing line. To mark the church's arrival into Manning, the local choir had collaborated with our musician, Dan Pemberton, to compose a special song. With a music stand gaffer-taped into the back of a pick- up truck, the fearless conductor roused the choir to drown out the clatter of machinery. Marching in front of the church, they chanted 'here it comes' as Trinity rolled into town providing a surreal end to the day, and a fitting finale for the film.
Monster Moves is a Windfall Films production and airs from Monday, 29 January at 8pm on Five.