Archdox is going to be on hiatus for a month as I’ll be out putting my money where my mouth typing is by filming a 4-week archaeological excavation in Greece. Stay tuned though, because if all goes to plan, I’ll be writing about the experience for months to come as one of my PhD case studies. Expect much reflecting on dumb mistakes the getting of archaeological wisdom. There might even be a real, broadcast-able documentary in it. Might be.
These wise words by The Clash frontman Joe Strummer pretty much sums up my weekend, during which I put the books down and headed to London to meet friends for birthdays and farewells, and to sneak in a few cultural activities to feed the thesis inspiration dragon.
The British Museum Virtual Reality Weekend
I must admit, after being completely spoiled at Sheffield Doc/Fest I was surprised by the modesty of the British Museum’s Sumsung Digital Discovery Centre’s VR set up, even though it was in fact accurately described in the Guardian article which had drawn me to it in the first place (here’s the official spiel). The display was composed of an “fulldome” tent between the main staircases, and off to the side a couple of lengths of tables blocked off by portable walls, with one table for VR headsets and one for tablet displays – all set out within the hot, stuffy and noisy flurry of the BM’s foyer. It really was not the best location for what’s supposed to be a personal and immersive experience (there’s a reason cinemas are dark and soundproofed), but as with all forays into VR looks can be deceiving, and with patience and a little digging I found there was a lot more here than meets the eye.
The BM’s VR showcase began with physical entry into the fulldome, a tent which could hold about 6 people at a time (say a family and a technician), which planetarium-style guided visitors through a reconstructed 3D Bronze Age village and round house for about 5 minutes. The next step was to then ‘walk’ through the same virtual space via the VR headsets. Using a touchpad built into the side of the headset you could direct your speed and pace as you navigated the virtual hut, and also select up to three objects to digitally explore (through rotation and audio description) from the BM’s collection. These artefacts have been accurately 3D scanned for open source replication by the Micropasts team, and including the Beaune dirk (a ceremonial sword), the Woolaston bracelets and the Sussex Loops. The final part of the virtual experience was a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet app with which you could further manipulate the 3D objects and read up about them in greater detail.
The negatives: the reconstructed village and roundhouse aesthetically seemed satisfactory to this VR novice, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some VR buffs found it disappointingly still too video-game like, given the current high standard of competition in VR. Movement was frustrating, especially with the strict 5 minute schedule that was imposed on the day, as it took a little time to learn how to control ones speed and stopping (causing a disorientation described as “the opposite of seasickness” by one visitor beside me). When combined with the buffering delay when you selected objects – watching the “loading” wheel spin is a sure way to kill any sense of being in another reality – the chance of feeling a genuine immersion was undermined. Also the audio descriptions given within the VR space were very slim, kind of like someone had just read a museum label to you, so that felt like a missed opportunity to be creative. The tablet app, too seemed pretty basic, with a page of written description for each object which you could also manipulate in 3D digital form.
At one point I found myself distracted by asking myself why the objects in presented were in their current 21st century aged state, when the roundhouse itself was as-new. Linking the old and new forms of the objects through some interactive transition could have been an interesting exercise. I now understand the overall aim of the project was to reveal the current version of objects within their past context, but I doubt that precious funerary swords and jewellery would have been left lying around on the floor of a mostly bare looking hut. I also understand the whole thing was a trial, a test screening if you will, tailored to children as an educational tool. But this seems a bit odd as most of the audience I saw present were adults, and also seems a bit contradictory as under 13 year olds were not allowed to use the headset (health and safety? seriously?) – but the over 13 year olds (and adults) who could, would probably find the experience a bit too limited, more of a novelty than a challenge. Which is another great pity – why do museums so often assume sensory experiences are best for kids, and not equally powerful ways of learning and knowing for the rest of us?
The positives: Although initially feeling less than blown away, I didn’t want my visit to the BM to be a waste, so I cornered staff member Jennifer Wexler to talk shop. And suddenly my whole experience turned 180˚! Jennifer showed me the actual 3D replicas of the objects from the VR world, in what I would consider the forth component of the exhibit. Now, through touch, I felt I could really know these objects: the subtle colours and surprising size of the beautiful 3D printed dirk, the weightiness and shifting golden sheen of the hand crafted replica loops. Now the VR experience succeeded, now I could indeed mentally situate the objects in my hands in the world that they came from (more or less), having just “been” there. Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the objects and their VR context was infectious – I now found myself hooked and wanted to know more. She invited me to join the curator Dr Neil Wilkin for a short tour of the Bronze Age gallery, the final component of the day. Into the labyrinth of the BM we went and Neil introduced our small group (again, adults and teens) to see two particular objects that represented life and death in Bronze Age Britain, taking his time to weave an accurate and sophisticated vision of the past world in our minds through a friendly, open ended and intimate discussion. Joining us was replica artisan Roland Williamson who had made the replica Sussex Loops, and archaeologist Dr Tessa Machling, who together further explained the fine craftsmanship of the objects and their relevance today. If only this level of testimony and expertise had been included in the VR world through a sort of layering of information from the beginning, we could have taken the conversation even further!
I think VR has the potential to be a powerful form of archaeological storytelling in future if done right, and ultimately I think the BM’s VR exhibit is a nice example of how this can work in practice, through the combination of cross-platform discovery and in-person expert guidance. Despite the technical quibbles (which are more to do with logistics and technology), and the limited information due to the narrow audience scope (which is part of a broader problematic museum trend of catering chiefly to families and children rather than to mixed audiences), there’s still a lot to be admired and learned from here. I really liked the dedicated attention of the entire VR team who personalised the experience and made it an genuine dialogue, and I also liked the cross-platform nature of the VR world (across the fulldome, VR headset, tablet, and even via Micropasts out of the museum to twitter and the online 3D printing community). Most of all I loved the real-world linking of VR with the tangible replicas and originals back in the gallery. It’s almost like a three act story structure, wherein you set up your world (through VR), you introduce your objects/characters (through replicas), then you develop and explore the complexity of those objects/characters (via the originals/experts). I understand the VR headsets and displays will be used by the BM in school outreach activities and may be set up in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre under the BM’s foyer, so I look forward to seeing the next stage of this project.
Before there was VR there was film, and sometimes you have to remember where you came from in order to know where you’re going. This July the BFI re-released a digitally restored version of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera(Chelovek’s kinoapparatom) (1929), and I was fortunate enough to catch it on the big screen (at BFI Southbank) before it inevitably gets shelved again. With a frenetic new soundtrack composed by the Alloy Orchestra (following the original instructions by Vertov), you could be forgiven for mistaking this film as a recent creation – Vertov was certainly a man ahead of his time. Tragically so in fact – he was widely dismissed and ridiculed during his life by film figureheads Grierson and Eisenstein, the latter even labelled his work “cinehooliganism”. It was not until the 1970s through the efforts of historian Georges Sadoul and the acknowledgement of verité master Rouch, that Vertov was recognised for his contribution to film and to documentary.
Working in a “Council of Three” with editor Yelizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife) and cameraman Mikhail Kaufman (his brother), Vertov uses film to its maximum cinematic potential in this city symphonic portrait of Soviet Russia. Through observational filming he captures and remixes Russia’s real poverty, leisure, work, marriage, divorce, death, even a live birth (!) against the backdrop of the technological, social and political machinery of post-revolution Russia. He and Mikhail wade out into the ocean with tripod in hand, scale nimbly up bridges, chase ambulances, firetrucks and fellow motorists from the back of a convertible and dive beneath trains as they rumble literally a foot overhead, winding the bulky camera all the while. Vertov uses special effects as political, social and artistic metaphor, including split screens, dissolves, superimposition, freeze frames, fast and slow-motion, extreme close ups, stop-motion animation, reversals, jump-cuts and hand-held footage. He even captures the film crew themselves, editing, filming, in reflections, in the lens itself – as if in a fit of hyper-reflexivity – always reminding the audience that what they are seeing is at once both reality and a deliberately constructed reality.
“Our eyes see very poorly and very little […] the movie camera was invented to penetrate more deeply into the visible world.” – Vertov.
But the power of the film medium for Vertov was not simply one of observation and presentation, rather it was an the entry into a much deeper conversation about the potential to use film almost like a scientific and cultural experiment, to explore and test “cinema truth” (kino-pravda, the cinema eye) as a revolutionary tool and (dangerous) critique of Leninist Russia. As Brian Winston put it nicely:
“A ‘kino-eye’ seeing below the surface realities offers a crucial lifeline as modern technology undercuts and wounds mainstream realist documentary’s essential observationalist assumptions, perhaps fatally. Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, ‘show us life’. Vertov is in fact the key to documentary’s future.” (in Sight and Sound, Sept 2014).
I hope it’s clear why I am including Vertov’s work in the same blog entry as a review of a VR exhibit in archaeology. As I’ve said before, I believe archaeologists are storytellers and I believe documentary – whether through film, TV, VR, online or in combination of these – is the ideal medium to communicate and explore archaeological stories and ideas. But we must tread carefully when experimenting with new technologies, and although VR has been around for a couple of decades now, it’s only recently taken off as a popular medium so our understanding of it is still developing. As Vertov refused to rest on convention and instead situated his filmmaking practice firmly and fiercely within his own political and artistic philosophy, we archaeologists and museum curators too must be critical of our use of VR, so we don’t trap ourselves and get stuck simply using technology as an easy audience hook in place of meaningful and deliberate storytelling and genuine human connection, whether with the present or with the past. As the use of VR in archaeology becomes more common, we must enter into a deeper conversation about how, why and for whom we go about constructing past “reality” (or even the “reality” of current archaeological practice). Fortunately documentary theory and practice have already done a lot of the groundwork for us – the works of Vertov, Rouch and Winston are a great place to start. Medium matters of course, but it matters only if the storytelling stays true.
So in preparation for filming an archaeological excavation in Greece later this month (a central component of my PhD), I recently invested in my own shiney new Canon XF300 and sound kit. It’s my first professional camera and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to upgrade from the wee consumer-level Sony HDR camcorder I’ve used previously to a machine where I really can control the image and sound at a quality that can then be professionally edited, projected or broadcast. I did consider renting a kit, but since I intend to spend a lot of time in future on archaeology sites doing long-form observational filming, purchasing my own gear outright seemed cheaper in the long run. And of course a lot more fun!
So there I was on the weekend, geeking out with my kit, testing everything out to make sure it was all compatible and working, when boom! Battery charger blinked it’s last blink, spluttered and died. No worries I thought, I’ll send it off for warranty repairs and worse comes to worse I still had time to buy a new one on Amazon. No big deal. Shortly after, as I did a final check of my settings, the LCD flip out screen on the camera flickered and disappeared, never to be seen again. Anxiety mounting. Sure, I could always work with just the viewfinder, but what if that kicked the bucket too? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH MY BABY? With 2 weeks until I was booked to fly out to the excavation I began to feel the cold sweat of the solo shooter’s pre-production panic.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons about solo shooting in the days since The Gear Check Of Doom:
1. Warranties can only be redeemed in the country of purchase. Don’t expect a global company to grant global coverage (thanks Canon) (expect more rants about regional barriers to media production in coming months). Therefore register your products and know your warranty details are so you don’t waste time chasing them through international hotline menus or waiting for the right time zone and office hours to roll around.
2. Know your repair options before you shoot. For Canon there is only one authorised store in the UK that repairs professional camcorders for non-registered Canon users (there’s another joint in London but you need to own several professional Canon cameras, lenses, etc to qualify). They’re H. Lehmann, and they’re all the way up in Stoke on Trent in the midlands. I scouted out local options online but either they don’t touch the professional grade stuff or they were dubious websites with no registered business details. I went with H. Lehmann, sent my baby up by courier, begged them to fast track the repairs, and prayed to Vertov, the patron saint of documentary filmmakers for a quick turn around.
3. Have a support network. I had a few archaeologist friends who’s response was genuinely sympathetic, but ultimately (and not unkindly) a little dismissive of my absolute freak out concerns, and who suggested I just borrow a camcorder or DSLR from the archaeology department. How to begin explain the difference between camera types and the stories they can tell? I imagine it’s a little bit like how archaeologists feel about trowel types – of course you could technically excavate with any old trowel (I’ve even seen people use spoons), but don’t expect any kind of precision or speed if you choose something a bit ad hoc.
There’s a reason many documentary cinematographers loathe DSLRs, especially for observational or vérité filmmaking (bad sound, ergonomically useless, no stability off tripod [requires a rig], and takes limited to 12-15 minutes [I know you can hack this but is it really worth it?]). And as for consumer-level camcorders, they’re fine for online video or archival footage but say goodbye to projecting a large image of any quality, and again, there’s little to no control of the image or sound. I’m all for experimenting with different mediums and prioritising storytelling (I love camera phones and go-pros), but I’m also aware of the output and limitations of different mediums and formats. In short: I know what kind of footage I want and what kit I need to be able to get it. And I’m willing to trade the beautiful shallow depth of field shots from a DSLR for the run-and-gun freedom of a pro-camcorder. The camera is more than just a recording device – it’s a contract that states your style and intent not only to your participants but also to yourself and your audience – it’s an extension of the filmmakers body and mind. I do plan on using these other cameras for b-roll and could even use them as plan Bs, but to do so would mean a whole different approach to both the documentary mode and distribution strategy.
My filmmaker friends responded to the news in a similar fashion to myself: a flurry of swear words, commiserations and suggestions of turning to alcohol. Unfortunately though, independent documentary filmmakers are a solitary species, and my filmmaker buddies all live far away (most back in Australia), and could offer little more than kind words and sympathetic emoticons.
But all is well! I heard back from H. Lehmann today and the camera and charger are both are fixed and serviced (6 month warranty, thanks guys!) and due back in my loving arms by Monday, much earlier than I expected. A tremendous relief. So in many ways this episode is a blessing in disguise: I now know what to do if I’m in the field, working to a tight schedule, and the camera (or other gear) gives up the ghost. I’ve got my emergency contacts for Canon in Greece printed out and good to go. But I’m also now aware of how very lonely it will likely be as a first-time solo shooter, navigating the pitfalls of documentary production in the midst of a busy archaeological project, with no crew to back me up. And at the end the day the last thing you want is for the technical aspects of the shoot to distract you or your participants from the events at hand (in this case the archaeology and the filming of it).
All of this and I’m still just in pre-production! Expect more updates, thoughts and tips about solo shooting archaeology documentaries in the coming months – and please share any of your own thoughts or advice in the comments below (archaeologists and filmmakers and both!). What kit do you use to film with? What’s your workflow? What would you like it to be?
“What great respect for a fallen warrior to be dug up by another warrior,” says Michael Kay, an army veteran, as he stands by his trench. It’s a different trench to those he may have known as a rifleman in Afghanistan: rather than sheltering its users from enemy fire, this archaeological trench is intended to expose its occupants for all the world to see. In this case the occupant is a 6th century Anglo-Saxon warrior buried with his spears and shield. I’m so delighted to share Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors with you – this gem of a short documentary not only ticks all the boxes of DIY awesomeness (a well made archaeological story, community engagement, online platform, good production values), but also takes us deeper, into a discussion about archaeological ethics, access and interpretation. There’s a lot more here than I think either the archaeologists or filmmakers were aware of when they arrived on site and switched on their cameras, and best of all its available free online.
Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors was shot and released back in 2012, but I came into contact with it at the Festival of Archaeology at Salisbury Museum a couple of weeks ago, where archaeologist Laura Joyner from Wessex Archaeology was giving a talk about Project Florence, a community archaeology programme engaging local volunteers to help process excavation finds. Those finds came from an excavation of the Barrow Clump site by Operation Nightingale, another outreach project by Wessex Archaeology and the Defence Archaeology Group.
Operation Nightingale is a community archaeology programme that trains service personal and veterans injured in conflict in archaeological fieldwork. It’s a natural fit: both military and archaeological surveying and excavation requires the same abilities such as being able to carefully read the landscape, to excavate with delicacy, and they use much of the same specialist technologies, from GPS to remote sensing. It’s also a reminder of the historical overlap between the two fields, with figures such as Augustus Pitt-Rivers and Mortimer Wheeler famously adapting their own former military knowledge to the create scientific archaeological excavation methods we still use today. So there’s a nice symmetry here. But there’s another layer here too. Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors was written, shot and edited by young people from the Wiltshire Young Carers and Youth Action Wiltshire (via the Salisbury Arts Centre). Who better to understand the therapeutic aims of the project than those for whom caring and enduring is part of their daily lives? The whole community project is so nicely orchestrated and balanced – you couldn’t script this stuff. And under the mentoring of a local production company, the young crew does a surprisingly slick job of filmmaking: with nice narration (by Joyner), clever soundtrack design and a strong structure. It’s not quite broadcast quality but it doesn’t need to be to work. Ultimately Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors is a really nice example of how strategically planned documentary filmmaking can be used in archaeology not simple to promote our findings “to a broad audience”, but can be an active part of grass-roots community engagement and – given some space – can even challenge our own preconceptions about how and why we do archaeology.
And this is where Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors goes meta. Fortuitously, the Time Team crew visit the dig while the kids are shooting: so you get to see not only B-footage of a typical 3-day Time Team shoot and how that actually works on the ground, but the kids interview the Time Team crew too, who share filming tips (maintain eye contact with your subject!) as well as their own reflections on archaeology and the dig. I have to share one quote from Tony Robinson discussing Operation Nightingale, because it’s pure gold:
“These are skilled people. Most of them have been technicians, have been working with unexploded ordinances all that kind of stuff. So they’ve got very, very, subtle hands and the work that they’ve been doing over there is absolutely exemplarary. And to me, I think like, ‘Yeah, good on you!’ Because when we started to do the programme people used to slag us off and say ‘Oh yeah, what’s a bunch of television people doing archaeology?’ ‘What?! We can learn! You can do this stuff! So can soldiers! So can anybody! It doesn’t have to be the preserve of academics in universities!’”
I love this film. And now I really want to interview this man. In fact I want to interview the whole gang behind Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors about their experience filming it.
There’s more here too of course: lots of cool Anglo-Saxon burials; slick osteological analysis; lovely Roman, Bronze Age and Anglo-Saxon finds (from beads to buckets); even a re-enactor bringing it all to life through live performance. But it’s the people in the present who make the past, and this short documentary, humble as it is, is one of the most thoughtfully constructed in the sub-genre of archaeology documentaries that I’ve come across thus far. The themes and questions it gently raises actually makes me want to put it in the same category as more professional works such as First Footprints, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Nostalgia for the Light. My only regret with Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors is it doesn’t seem to have been sent to festivals – I could be wrong about that – but it deserves more airtime than just being posted on a website and there are lots of youth-oriented and heritage film festivals that would happily showcase it. But overall, well done to Wessex Archaeology, Salisbury Arts Centre, the Defence Archaeology Group, Operation Nightingale and most of all to the young film crew – this is a great film. I hope there will be another.