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.
MAKING THE MOST OF FILM AND VIDEO IN ARCHAEOLOGY
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. 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.
It’s #DayOfArch and my social media feeds have exploded with blog entries, twitter updates and lots of archaeology-porn (my term for photos of sexy artefacts posted without context – a topic for another day). So today seems like a nice opportunity to update this blog with an entry of what my typical ‘archaeology day’ looks like on the road towards achieving a PhD in archaeology.
My typical archaeology day begins with my alarm going off around 7:30am and as much as I’d like to ignore it I can’t – this alarm serve’s not only to wake me up but to remind me to take insulin. Before I can eat I have to test my blood to check my sugar level, count the carbohydrates in my meal, calculate the insulin dosage based on this, and then inject myself into my tummy with insulin.
To get to the archaeology department at university I have to do the same: test my blood, and depending on the results and eat a biscuit or sip an OJ before/during/after cycling, then test my blood again when I arrive. Then up to my desk to get the days work underway – usually starting with a twitter foray and email clearance (there’s lots of GP and administrative appointments to sort out given my recently time absence due to illness and as a Tier 4 student my options for sick leave are limited).
2 hours after my first insulin injection, about 10 – 10:30, I test my blood again, and then finally comes coffee (which I’ve read can impair insulin so I wait until the insulin has peaked to have it). This is my productive time: for writing and data analysis. I’m also blessed to have an awesome group of PhD archaeology students at Southampton – we have coffee mornings for banter, and Cake Fridays during term time. There’s always someone in the office to chat with or drag off for a caffeine refill.
Lunch is the same protocol: alarm goes off, test, count, calculate and inject. I’ve taken to requesting lunch meetings in order to save time – but this means injecting in public, which means having to expose my tummy – which means no more dresses. Or shopping for cut out dresses – I think they call that turning a problem into an opportunity?
Blood testing again 2 hours later. My sugar seems to drop in the afternoon, and knowing I have only 2-3 hours until I have to leave for work is annoying, so this is ‘mundane tasks’ time: logging film footage, admin, emails, etc.
Blood testing again before cycling to my usual evening shift at the university library, then testing again when I arrive. And snack time! – so long as it’s under 20g of carbs.
I eat dinner (alarm, test, count, calculate, inject) at my desk during work. The library team has been extremely supportive and sourced sharps buckets for me, and luckily food and drink is allowed in the library. On quiet nights I also work on my PhD research here: readings, writing, admin.
Back home by 10pm, test, snack, housework or maybe some more study depending on deadlines.
And then a final alarm and a final injection of a insulin for the night.
And that’s it really. Rinse and repeat every day. My typical #dayofarch. No sexy artefacts (not every day anyway). No exotic travel (although that does happen too). No amazing and sudden break through in theory. Instead: routine, persistence and endurance. But is that enough?
You’ve probably gathered that I have insulin-dependent diabetes – AKA Type 1. As I write this blog I’m actually recovering from a hypoglycemic attack (aka ‘hypo’), which is when your blood sugar levels drop suddenly causing symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, blurred vision, dizziness, shakiness, and changes in behavior. At its worst it can lead to loss of consciousness and even coma. That’s the textbook description anyway. In reality it’s not as dramatic as it sounds: I’m currently just sitting at my desk in the post-graduate study room, surrounded by my fellow archaeologists who are typing away. I’ve just snacked on an OJ and some digestives, checked my blood glucose levels are rising again, and I’m looking forward to a coffee and cracking on with some data analysis. I’m nursing a head cold as well, which has given me a sexy, gritty voice to rival ScarJo. But I can’t be bothered waiting for the trembling hands and slightly-off vision to fade – I have things I want to do: film footage to log, ethnographic journal entries to write, software to learn, data to analyse, a conference session to plan, papers to write – a PhD thesis to draft. And my deadlines get closer every day.
But I do have to slow down. I can’t afford to push my body like I used to as a typical PhD student. The reason I’m experiencing a hypo is because I’ve only recently been diagnosed with type-1 diabetes (T1D) and am yet to get my blood sugar levels stable and safe – a process that might take months I’m told. T1D is uncommon at my age. Only 10% of diabetes sufferers have T1D, and of those, less that 15% are diagnosed after adulthood. At 30 years old my GP tells me I’m quite the anomaly – but while it’s always nice to be told your ‘special’ this is one type of special I would have been happy to bypass. It’s possible that the disease has been bubbling away below the surface for a year or two, with no diagnostic clues it was happening – scientifically we still don’t know what causes T1D after all. Nor how to cure it.
My T1D annoyingly hit me while I was filming on an archaeology excavation as one of my PhD case studies in late June/early July, a couple of weeks ago now. I became unusually weak and fatigued, had extreme thirst and an annoying ‘dry mouth’, and over the 2 weeks of excavation I lost 7kgs weight (I usually weigh roughly 55kgs so this took me unhealthily underweight). At the time I mostly managed to work through it, filming everyday and making my research notes about the filming process – which is also one of my PhD case studies. I put my feeling unwell down to the usual wear and tear of being on an archaeology excavation and assumed I had some minor illness. A couple of days after returning home and finding that rest did not lead me to recovery, I visited the GP, which quickly led to an overnight stay in hospital, IV bags and blood tests galore, and immediate training to start using an insulin pen and test my blood glucose levels ever couple of hours – now routine. In a matter of weeks I’ve bounced from being a healthy ordinary young woman, to a borderline comatose zombie with acid for blood, to now: a fairly healthy T1D woman, considering I’m less than a month into what is ironically called my ‘diabetic career’.
AN OVER SHARE?
But why make the personal a public matter by blogging about it? Is that appropriate? Or Professional? Especially in the rough and tumble of academic archaeology – a discipline where professional reputations are so fiercely protected and criticism often cutting? I have always felt that the personal aspects of research are not only worthy of, but actually demand thoughtful reflection and close critique. Perhaps this is because of my documentary training (you can’t tell a story without fully formed human beings in it). Or maybe it’s because of my background working in Aboriginal archaeology in Australia, where personal connections to country, such as the recording of oral histories, are just as crucial to fulfilling the needs of the job as the scientific aspects of archaeology and administration of heritage management. Perhaps I’m being vain. Or lazy. Procrastinating from the actual PhD.
But I have my reasons for wanting to share my daily experience as a diabetic archaeologist and PhD student:
Because since my diagnosis other T1D staff and students have quietly emerged from the woodwork to share their support – turns out there’s quite a few of us. And that’s just T1D! What about all the other illnesses and different abilities experienced by students and academics? Is there really a culture of silence about illness and disability in Higher Ed? If so, what is the impact? Of course it’s up to individuals if they want to make their illness public, but it seems a pity to me that illness and disabilities not be up for discussion or familiarization until after the fact (admittedly my knowledge of T1D previously only came from watching Steel Magnolias, so I include myself in this criticism). I have recently told some staff members and my fellow archaeology students about my condition – if something does go wrong on a late night in the office or on a dig I need them to know what to do. I simply can’t afford to be silent about this.
Because my campus has no sharps disposal bins, not only for my use, but for fellow staff, students, and visitors who may need them. We’re changing that though – the administrative staff and my own academic supervisory team have been very supportive and quick to act now that I’ve requested this. I might even score a min desk-fridge for spare insulin. (And for snacks. And Pimms).
Because I have every intention of writing about this as part of my filming-diary in my thesis – so this is a bit of a rehearsal. Looks like the question of whether to take the risk of using auto-ethnography to describe my case-study has been answered. Stay tuned for this one fellow researchers.
Because this is another tick in my Quest For Adequate and Private Sanitation on archaeology excavation sites. That also deserves its own blog post. More soon.
So I am pleased to announce that from now on this blog will have a duel purpose: I will not only be exploring the relationship of archaeology and documentary film on here – I’ll be occasionally extending my blog to consider to the human being behind the camera and behind the pen. I’ll be considering how health and illness affect ones progress in filmmaking, in the pursuit of the PhD and in academia more broadly. My current working idea is that filming archaeology is documentary praxis as much as any other documentary sub-genre. It’s about people. Past and present. On screen and off.
I’m currently sitting in the cafe beneath The Ashmolean in Oxford. It’s bustling with tourists, seniors and families taking a break from the collections above and the rain outside. I’ve taken refuge from the museum above because my mind has just been completely overloaded – and I haven’t even visited a single exhibition space yet. I’ve just come straight from seeing Elizabeth Price’s ‘A Restoration’: a video-art installation based on the archives of Sir Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who excavated Crete’s Knossos in 1900. It’s a stunning artwork. Literally. Set in a dedicated dark space, surrounded by speakers and flashing phrenetically across two screens, the viewer is bombarded with successive layers of poetic narration (of a synthetic disembodied collective voice of imaginary administartors), percussive electronic music (think Yann Tiersen’s ‘Amelie’ soundtrack crossed with Jamie XX), and cleverly edited archival images (historical and modern photographs of artefacts, drawings, maps, graphics and clever animations bring to life both Minoan iconography as well as computer archival icons). In this way, like Alice through the rabbit hole, or Theseus in the labyrinth, ‘A Restoration’ takes you ever deeper into the world of the mysterious administrators.
‘A Restoration’ is not a politically or culturally critical artwork – especially compared to some of the recent video-art installation works disentangling (post)-colonialism, museology and repatriation which I saw attached to the joint British Museum – National Museum of Australia exhibit (how I wish that exhibit had toured to the UK! I may have to write about that exhibit and its use of art and video too actually…). Instead, ‘A Restoration’ is a playful, gentle, exploratory, and softly satirical work, commenting more on the limitations of our ways of knowing and envisioning the past, and our possibly naïve attempts to reconstruct the past in some ideal form. It has a very European sensibility to it: testing but also ultimately propagating the notion of Knossos as the fount of European civilization, constructed seed by seed, brick by brick, person by person – as illustrated in the fragments composed together like a giant jigsaw puzzle of the past. It concludes somewhat ambiguously – which to me is a reminding that in the end our attempts to preserve the remains of the past can only be at best, temporary.
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.
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?