Going Deeper: 6 Tips for Filming at Archaeology Excavations

Well, I’ve just arrived back from a month’s field work and filming in Greece and while the field directors gets on with the data processing and report writing, I’m chasing a couple of final permits and getting ready to crack into the edit. I haven’t even sat through most of the footage yet so I don’t want to discuss the production too closely and prematurely (that is, afterall, what the thesis is for). But I was very pleased to get some feedback on my blog from readers the other day – apparently there are a few of you who regularly visit this blog for tips and discussion on archaeology documentary filmmaking! Thus validating my procrastination – I mean, public outreach – so bless you (and supervisors please take note). So whilst this last project is fresh on my mind, here are a 6 quick technical tips that I’ve picked up along the way and plan to apply to my filming practice next time, which might also be useful to others. A lot of this is basic stuff you’ll find in any documentary textbook or masterclass on youtube, but here I’ve tailored it to shooting on terrestrial archaeological excavations:

1. White balance! Do not trust automatic white balancing – everything will be blue. Archaeology sites change colour completely over the course of a day as the sun hits the soil and the weather turns, and depending on where and how hard the shade is. So if you want to capture things like soil contexts you have to be constantly checking that your white balance matches as close as possible to what your eye is actually seeing, especially if you plan to shoot the same context over different days.

2. Check your lens. Every 5 minutes. Not kidding. There is so much dirt and grass flying around. Aim at the sky and see if there’s specks showing up. Keep your lens cap, tissues and fluid on you. When not filming, but needing the camera available and ready to go, I also took to sitting my camera on a nifty stool and throwing a towel over it to try and minimise the dirt and dust getting on/into it.

3. Check your switches and settings regularly. Handheld shooting means cameras get knocked about a lot, and I know there was at least one morning where I must have accidentally knocked my sound input channel switch so I had the weaker mic running to both channels and didn’t notice in time, despite wearing cans religiously. You can use camera tape to fix switches make sure this doesn’t happen.

4. Shoot entire takes with a beginning, middle and end – nicely paced – don’t shoot to cut. This was a really hard lesson for me as I shoot to cut by instinct (based on my training), and had to keep pulling myself up on it. You see, there’s so much intrusive noise at archaeology sites (multiple conversations, music, farming machinery, road traffic, air traffic, animals, wind) that takes of full “scenes” might be the only way to actually capture narrative-friendly footage – I dread to think how I’m going to go about cutting some of the material I have. You can ask people nearby to lower their voices when shooting, and turn off music, you can use radio-mics – but that’s approaching “set dressing” in some ways, it’s a step away from “actualité”, so that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself, depending on your mode, how strict you are about it, and where you want to take the final film. Ideally of course, have a skilled sound recordist on the boom.

5. Pick your moments. Deciding when it was appropriate to ask questions or to initiate discussions was very difficult, sometimes it worked nicely, sometimes it was forced for both myself and the participants and that left a bad taste in people’s mouths (although my participants were extraordinarily good humored and patient with me). Obviously the archaeological work must have priority, but there’s no point being there at all and putting people through the demands of a shoot if you don’t do your job properly as well. You cannot go back for pick ups – you literally have one shot. At the same time, you can’t film everything, especially if you have limited battery or storage space. So you have to be strategic and get a feel for and play to the dynamics on site, and strike the right balance between going with the flow and pushing enough to get beyond superficial observation. You can arrange for a formal time to discuss what’s happening on site, eg. 5 minutes at the beginning and end of each day – which I didn’t do (I did this in a more ad-hoc fashion), and I regret not doing it as a back up, but again, that can force a performance or even worse, send people into lecture mode and waste everyone’s time and energy. So it depends on your style and your participants. It’s something to be negotiated and trialed.

6. I didn’t use a tripod or body rig at all – a deliberate decision, following verité conventions after filmmakers like Dineen and Churchill – and I’m still not sure if it was worth it. My wrist was quite damaged by the end of the dig, affecting my ability to maneuver the camera, and even a week later typing this blog entry hurts. Also, it’s hard to pull focus and remain steady on distance shots and close ups on artefacts when filming hand held. On the other hand (heh), I could follow the action much more easily than if I was locked into a tripod or rig, I could move across sensitive areas of the site quickly, and I’d rather all the shots match in terms of feel and movement. So… I’m still considering what’s best here.

These notes are just scratching the surface of course, and what I haven’t discussed here is the relationship between filmmakers and participants which is the real key to a successful shoot. Now, I’m prepping to enter the logging, transcribing and edit of the film, along with more thesis writing and consultations with my participants which I hope will continue through the rest of post-production and the larger research project. So, stay tuned for more details as the edit progresses, as well as more film reviews, news and debate about archaeology documentary filmmaking.

Photo: St Clair-Smith 2015.

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