Tag Archives: documentary

CAA 2018 CFP: Making the Most of Film and Video in Archaeology

[UPDATE: CFP has been extended until November 5 11:59 PM CET].

I’m delighted to announce the call for papers for the Making the Most of Film and Video in Archaeology session, to be held at the Computing Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) international conference, March 19th and 23rd 2018 at the University of Tübigen, Germany. In this session we seek to bring archaeologists and computing specialists together to explore, problematize, and suggest creative but critically informed solutions to the challenges of integrating film and video into archaeological research designs.


Keywords: Film, video, actuality, recording, filmmaking, digital archiving, databases, social media, online platforms, research design.

Despite the fact that archaeologists have experimented with various forms of filmmaking for a century we are still yet to develop a pragmatic approach to how best to integrate actuality film and video recording, editing, and archiving into our research project designs. As mediums merge and digital platforms multiply, as coders begin to replace film editors, as media technologies, standards, laws, and conventions shift – now is a timely moment to take stock and consider how we can make better use of actuality film and video in archaeological contexts. Key challenges include how to address the disconnected digital archives of historical archaeological film footage increasingly available online; how to better integrate drone, underwater, and site videography into archaeological research design and dissemination strategies; and how to better foster media literacy and skills among archaeologists tasked with researching, designing, recording, editing, managing, distributing, and digitally archiving film and video material.

This session seeks to cross industry and disciplinary boundaries by inviting archaeological scholars and computing specialists to problematise and bring fresh perspectives to the above issues by suggesting future directions for how we can make the most of digital actuality film and video in archaeology.

Suggested themes and topics include but are not restricted to:

  • Film and video as archaeological data.
  • Digital archiving, database management, and accessibility for archaeological films and videos.
  • Working with video files – what archaeologists need to know.
  • Using film and video in academic publishing.
  • The pros and cons of vlogging, social media, and online video platforms for archaeology.
  • Merging the mediums: approaches to combining actuality footage with animation, VR, AR and more.
  • Coding: the future of film editing? How we can futureproof digital archaeological storytelling.

Please note: the term ‘actuality’ is borrowed from the documentary industry and used here to describe non-fiction films and videos of actual people, places, and events – as distinct from animated or fiction films and videos.

The call for papers has just opened and will run until Sunday 29nd October 2017 Sunday 5th November 23:59 CET. Applicants will need to register with the CAA conference to submit your paper to our session. Abstracts for papers should be no more 250 words excluding session title, author names, affiliations, and email addresses and 3 – 5 keywords. Please note, the official language of the conference is English and all submissions should be in English. If English is not your first language, it is strongly suggested that you have a fluent English speaker review your abstract before submission.

You can find detailed instructions for how to submit at the CAA website.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Kate Rogers, University of Southampton, kate.rogers@soton.ac.uk

Dr James Miles, Archaeovision, james@archaeovision.eu



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.

And don’t forget to press record!

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.

In the meantime you can still follow me @archdox on twitter and on facebook!

Change your lens, change your life! Or at least, change your story.

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!

I shall call him Cameron and he shall be mine. Canon XF300 Pro-Camcorder.
I shall call him Cameron and he shall be mine. Canon XF300 Pro-Camcorder.

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.

Thanks Canon.

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.

Archaeologists really dig these tough wee trowels.
Archaeologists really dig these tough bitty trowels.
Bricklaying trowels. No. Just no.
Bricklaying trowels. No. Just no.
Trowel Love. (Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, Volume 60 Number 4, July/August 2007).
Trowel Love. (Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, Volume 60 Number 4, July/August 2007).

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?

Impact Documentary Filmmaking in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors

“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 titles (2012)
Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors titles (2012)

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.

The crew at work in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
The crew at work in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).

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.

The young film crew interview Time Team producer Tim Taylor on site in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors still (2012)
The young film crew interview Time Team producer Tim Taylor on site in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012)

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.

Filming the filmmakers film Tony Robinson in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
Filming the filmmakers film Tony Robinson in Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
There's a hole in my 6th century Anglo-Saxon bucket. In Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).
There’s a hole in my 6th century Anglo-Saxon bucket. In Operation Nightingale: Time Warriors (2012).

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.

Can a documentary really save an archaeological site from destruction?

One of the wonderful things about ancient sites is how they reveal how humans fit themselves into and are in turn affected by the environment. Our choice of the most sensible trade routes, site proximity to water or access to resources can reveal not only the long term patterns of human occupation but also the depth of human connection to place over time. And even when sites are forgotten, even after thousands of years, their discovery can reignite that connection once more. The problem then, is what happens when an ancient place becomes a victim of its own geography? When war, trade, corruption, and personal conflict intersect and the fate of an ancient site is left hanging in the balance, can there even be a positive resolution? Such is the crisis face by Mes Aynak.

The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Promotional Still (2015).
The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Still (2015).

Mes Aynak (also called Tepe Kafiriat) is an ancient settlement near Kabul in eastern Afghanistan. It’s a very impressive site: dating back to the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago, Mes Aynak peaked during the 5th and 7th centuries CE as an important Buddhist trading city along the silk road, possessing a citadel, forts, monasteries, temples, and – crucial to our story – a complex of copper mining and processing infrastructure. Overall Mes Aynak spread to a size of 40 ha (that’s about 2/3 the size of Pompeii) before its decline and abandonment in the 9th century. Although it was identified as an archaeological site in the 1970s by Afghan and Russian archaeologists, it was not until 2010 that intensive large scale salvage excavations kicked off. You see, in a tragic twist of fate, the copper that attracted the ancient settlers to the site in the first place may also be the seed of its destruction as Mes Aynak sits atop one of the worlds largest copper deposits (over 6 million tonnes of copper, worth an estimated US$100 billion) slated for open-cut mining to begin in late 2015. So which is more valuable to Afghanistan, the copper, or the heritage?

Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).
Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).

Saving Mes Aynak examines this heritage crisis by following the personal journey of Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he and his 550-strong crew race against the clock to excavate as much of the site as possible before its destruction. Commercial archaeology is not an easy game in any country, but add to it the long term impact of war and poverty and the outlook for heritage preservation very quickly turns grim. The commercial conflict – deepened by a history of government corruption – is only one battlefront Temori must face. Daily Temori’s crew face reprisals from the local Taliban: one crew-member even tells us how he had a landmine explode in his face as he was pick-axing, partially blinding him but not deterring him from returning to work. Bureaucracy too proves to be a source of tension as half the crew is employed through the Ministry of Mines and the other half through the Ministry of Culture, and international aid funding – necessary for pay and equipment – at one point is delayed for 3 months, causing further friction between the local and international members of the dig team. Even the professional credentials of the archaeologists are drawn into question as some of the team resort to excavation with heavy machinery in their haste to expose the site, to the displeasure of their peers.

Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).

Unlike most archaeology documentaries this is very openly a social-justice story. Although there are interviews with French and American archaeologists, Afghan politicians, and even the director of the mining company, director Brent Huffman chiefly follows Temori’s perspective and the impact of Mes Aynak on his life (including his young family). By taking this angle Huffman makes the explicit argument that the real value of this site is its cultural significance to the local Afghan community. It’s a really nice example of how story structure can complement and amplify a more abstract argument about ethics and heritage. In keeping with this approach, whilst the cinematography is stunning, it does tend to over privilege the treasure-like quality of the finds and the crew’s personal response to them, and the subsequent dearth of more scientific analyses may rub some archaeologists and history buffs the wrong way. I do think however that given the lack of voice that Afghani archaeologists seem to have, that Huffman deserves a bit of leeway to tell this story this way – sometimes open bias is justified. I also really like his portrait of commercial archaeology as really being the frontier of archaeology as a discipline – both in terms of new discoveries as well as ethical debates – and I’d like to see more documentaries that put commercial archaeology under scrutiny given its dominance out in the field.

Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).

I also love how strategic Huffman has been about this production. Saving Mes Aynak aims to do exactly what it says on the tin: it is the flagship of a much larger activism campaign seeking to inspire viewers to get involved in saving the site before mining begins. By building an audience through crowd-funding (quick disclosure – I signed up too), spreading the word through social media, striking out with multi-platform broadcasting (you can currently watch it on Al Jazeera), and following the trend of providing free unlimited access within its country of production, Saving Mes Aynak is all about using documentary to make a real world impact. It comes from a good lineage too: Huffman is an award winning journalist and documentarist, and the production team (via the non-profit production company Kartemquin) are the makers of Hoop Dreams (1994), one of the 20th century’s most famous social justice documentaries. If anyone can pull this off, it’s these guys.

One of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).
1 of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).

But what now? Mes Aynak was scheduled for mining to begin this month, a deadline that has been delayed until later this year, but at the time of filming only 10% of the site had been uncovered, and the archaeological team estimate another 10 years will be required to fully excavate the site. Even if that were granted (slim chance), it seems guaranteed the site itself (and the mountain it sits upon) will be destroyed. So can a documentary really inspire an audience to activism in order to divert the powers that be? Time will tell, and tell us soon.