Tag Archives: filming

TAG 2016, Sightations, and a very different CFP!

Are you an archaeologist? Are you an artist? Are you a bit of both? TAG 2016 Needs You! I am absolutely delighted to share a very special call for contributors to this December’s UK Theoretical Archaeology Group conference. Instead of papers we want your paintings. And your pastels. Your pencils and papers and printed works. Your pottery. Your pixels especially. Perhaps even your performance art.

I’m very excited and honored to be collaborating with fellow PhD students and archaeologists Joana Valdez-Tullett, Helen Chittock, Grant Cox and Eleonora Gandolfi to bring to the UK archaeology community the inaugural Sightations gallery – an art/digital/film showcase running as part of this year’s TAG. In keeping with this year’s overall conference theme of ‘visualisation’, this gallery seeks to unpack what it means to represent archaeology visually in 2016. By juxtaposing traditional art forms (such as drawings, photography, painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramic, and more) with digital approaches to representation (digital media, CGI, film, video, gaming, virtual reality, cross- or multi-platform works), Sightations takes aim at archaeological visual conventions and strives to reveal new links between different disciplines, industries and sectors of archaeology, drawing connections between ideas with an eye towards future directions for archaeological visualizations.

You can find out more about Sightations, including how to contribute your work, by visiting the TAG 2016 conference website; and by following us on Facebook and twitter @SightationsTAG. You can also drop us an email at info@artasmedia.com.

We’re also planning to run a more traditional conference session or two tied in with the exhibition, so if you’re interested in presenting your ideas formally, as well as exhibiting your work, please stay tuned!


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.

Beneath the Surface of Digging For Britain

So this past weekend I had the privilege of crashing a talk about archaeology documentariesAlice Roberts in Conversation with John Farren – at Salisbury Museum’s open weekend as part of the UK’s Festival of Archaeology. For those unfamiliar, Professor Alice Roberts is a archaeological scientist (her specialty is osteology) who has presented on several British factual series including Time Team, The Incredible Human Journey, The Origins of Us, Ice Age Giants, Coast and Digging for Britain. John Farren is the producer of Digging For Britain (though his company 360 Productions), as well as other factual archaeology documentaries such as Rome: The Worlds First Super Power and What The Ancients Did For Us, and he also edited Timewatch. Digging For Britain is a magazine-style factual series on BBC 4 which reports annually on current UK excavations, taking a novel approach to filmmaking by combining archaeologists’ own DIY footage of the digs with post-excavation interviews in a pop-up studio in local museums.

I love these kind of events, where two familiar experts can candidly talk shop, taking the dialogue to unexpected places, before opening it up to a regular audience Q & A. It was like Sheffield DocFest meets TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group conference), so despite the audience being somewhat silver-topped, I happily got my geek on.

Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).
Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).

Here are a few essential takeaways:

– “Talent” is key to successful factual formats: when Farren first pitched Digging For Britain it was not until he dropped Alice Roberts’ name that the BBC commissioner began to take the idea for the series seriously. They wanted her so badly that they actually delayed production by 5 weeks to allow her an extended stint of maternity leave (she had initially agreed to start shooting 3 weeks after giving birth). Roberts was at pains to make the point that women can continue working soon after child birth if they wish, and the benefits of bringing her young children with her on shoots and digs. I’m really digging Roberts attitude right now.

Necessity is the mother of invention (or innovation): It was fascinating hearing about the struggles to get Digging For Britain on air and to keep it there. It was particularly revealing to hear how the program was dropped (despite high ratings), but through the changing of the BBC’s commissioner the filmmakers scored a second chance, although with a smaller budget which forced the format to adapt (hence the shift to DIY filming by archaeologists, rather than sending Roberts out as a presenter to sites with a film crew as in earlier series). These innovations changed the scope and tone of the stories, unexpectedly allowing greater intimacy and analysis. I suddenly have a lot more respect for a program that, to be honest, I was not especially sold on when I first saw it (perhaps because I’m not British, so I’m not the target audience). I’ll have to revisit Digging For Britain for another look.

– My own observation: everyone plays the blame game when sensationalism, “dumbing down” and misrepresentation appear rife. Archaeologists blame the filmmakers, the filmmakers blame the commissioners, the commissioners blame the audience. The audience however, seem to be the least bothered by these problems.

– Speaking of, the sheer joy and enthusiasm among some of the audience members during the Q & A was infectious. It was inspiring to hear the positive and very real impact of archaeology documentaries on people’s lives – particularly Time Team – again, I suddenly find I have a lot more respect for Time Team and factual formats in general. It’s nice to sit amongst a public audience and have their warmth wear away at that cynical edge you can develop in academia.

TV is no longer the dominant paradigm: according to Farren, who is shifting his efforts to online distribution, such as his new Youtube series Dig Diaries (which I discovered features my mate maritime archaeologist Dan Pascoe – it’s a small world!). This gels with both my training back at film school a couple of years ago and the general vibe at documentary conferences (eg. Sheffield DocFest, AIDC). The obvious benefit of digital distribution is that it provides an alternative to relying on broadcasters, who tend to be “risk adverse” to the speculative nature of both archaeology and traditional documentary. The short of it: the freedom of digital means we can go back to shooting stories that we don’t yet know the ending of, something broadcasters kind of stopped doing a while ago. The challenge however, is to still pull comparative ratings and to be able to measure success.

– Roberts asked the audience if they felt there was too much emphasis on ‘treasure’ on television – surprisingly, only about 20% agreed. And I suspect by the speed of their hands flying up that they were archaeologists or heritage professionals. I think it’s time for a few new audience surveys.

Roberts and Farren covered a lot of ground and although I can’t do justice to their whole conversation here, thankfully it was filmed, so I assume Salisbury Museum or the Festival of Archaeology organisers will be posting the whole thing online soon – when that happens I’ll be sure to share it here.

Do you see what I see? Virtual Reality Storytelling at Sheffield Doc/Fest

So it turns out there’s more to this Virtual Reality shindig than meets the eye – and I’m not the only one to see the potential here for archaeology.

In the Virtual Reality Arcade at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.
Kiya by Nonny de la Peña (2015). Plugged into the Virtual Reality Arcade at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.

The Virtual Reality Arcade, which was co-curated with Sheffield’s Site Gallery, seems to be a new addition to the Doc/Fest (or at least, I can’t find any references to it in prior years) – and I hope they make it a permanent fixture synched with the Crossover Summit because there is so much to be inspired by here. Exhibiting a variety of immersive projects from experimental media to fully formed documentary storytelling, one can’t help but wonder if that big dark cinema will soon be replaced by these daggy goggles and headphones. It’s also refreshing to see not only game-like pixelated worlds featured, but observational filming out in the real world. Here’s a selection of my favourite works:

Oscillate (2015) by Brendan Walker. Photo: Kate Rogers.
Oscillate (2015) by Brendan Walker. Don’t look down! Photo: Kate Rogers.

Oscillate, created by UK engineer Brendan Walker, is an immersive art experience that fuses the classic playground swing with Oculus Rift technology. In short: as you swing so too does the virtual world you find yourself in – it moves with you. And it’s a funky world: M.C Escher meets minecraft in space is the best description I can give it. I kept expecting Labyrinth-style David Bowie to appear through the crumbing wall before me, if only I could swing a little bit further to peer around that distant edge. Be warned though: swinging high when blind and deaf to the real world is kind of alarming – it’s easy to forget that there are people around you and a hard floor below. Especially when that floor is replaced by swirling star-filled space. Oh, and did I mention you have no body? You look down and there’s noting there – no you, no swing – it’s like an out of body experience – in fact that was the case in all the VR projects I saw. Psychedelic much?

Clouds Over Sidra (2015) by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Promotional Still.
Clouds Over Sidra (2015) by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Promotional Still.

Clouds Over Sidra was easily my favourite VR project and I was pleased to see it win the Interactive Award at the festival. Co-created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora and a whole team of “artists, technicians, thinkers and innovators,” this project combines traditional short-form documentary filmmaking with 360’ filming and Oculus VR technology. Commissioned by the United Nations and Samsung as part of an advocacy exhibit at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2015, Clouds Over Sidra tells the story of a 12 year Syrian refugee Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, along with 84 000 other refugees. She narrates and shares her day with us in her own words, introducing us to her home, having breakfast with her family, going to school, playing with the other kids, and tells us how she wishes to return to where the clouds come from: her home in Syria. Interestingly she is dubbed into English (although you can hear her own voice beneath) – which makes me wonder how subtitles might fare in this new technology. That’s a technicality though. Ultimately, Clouds Over Sidra’s simplicity makes it a powerful piece – Sidra’s world is brought to life in a thoughtful, gentle and emotionally affecting way – demonstrating the real potential for using VR as an immersive storytelling device to drive social and political change. The VR technology here is serving the story, not the other way around. Check out Milk’s TED Talk for a taste of the film and the philosophy behind it, and the Creators Project for an interview with Arora for the more on the making-of this inspiring work.

Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015.
Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015. Promotional Still.

But what does this mean for archaeology documentaries? Well, Clouds Over Sidra certainly gave me ideas for filming archaeological stories – but damnit Bikini Atoll beat me to the punch. Directed by Phil Harper, Bikini Atoll is a short 360’ film depicting the archaeological and environmental research conducted at the WW2 shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands), which later became a US nuclear test site. Thus the film takes us to two place we might never get to visit otherwise: underwater wrecks in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and a nuclear test site (is that even safe?). There’s no scientific description of the research here – nor a clear documentary story driven by character development or change – rather its more of a poetic portrait of the site: you can all but feel the tug of the current as you twist and turn to watch the divers at work. But ultimately it feels like a promise of more to come, rather than a final finished product.

Bikini Atoll (2015) by Phil Harper. Promotional Still.
Take the plunge. Bikini Atoll (2015) by Phil Harper. Promotional Still.

“We’re on the brink of a simply enormous change in visual communication.” – Sir David Attenborough
To me it VR also seems to be a promise: even though the technology has been with us for several decades now, it seems only recently to have begun pushing into fields other than gaming. Now there are stories here that it feels like only VR can tell, and other mediums – particularly the flat-screen of the television or cinema with its distant stereo speakers – will soon be unable to compete in the documentary quest for capturing actuality. And with pocket 360’ cameras and VR headsets now entering the consumer market, perhaps VR stories soon be cheaper and easier to make as well. Will the coder replace the editor? Will that shared communal experience of the cinema become a distant memory, traded in for personal immersive experiences (if that hasn’t happened already)? What are the ethical implications for our audience if such immersive stories become difficult to discern from reality? Will documentary modes change to suit the new vision? And most importantly, how can we eat a choc-top if we can’t see our hands?

Well, that’s a wrap on Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 for this blogger. I came, I saw, I spilled some vodka. And now it’s time to get back to my dusty dell at uni and a ever-growing pile of readings, paperwork and chapter drafts. But please share your thoughts on what you’ve read here – comment is free – and stay tuned for more musings, informal reviews and news on the constantly changing but always inspiring world of archaeology docs!