EXPLORATIONS: filming around the world

Early filming in England

      Anyway, we started planning seriously in early January. The following couple of months I looked at some of the provisional ‘treatments’ of individual programs. Some were markedly better than others. The filming of a reconstruction of the Rocket was done about this time and went very well, becoming the icon of the series. I heard stories of the lengths they had gone to – for example hiring a crane to lift the Rocket off the lines so that the wheels could be filmed properly, darkening tunnels and so on. My own first experience of filming occurred in later March near Birmingham and was not very glamorous. I remember standing in various muddy yards and fields, the snow falling, watching beautiful old shire horses being shoed, ploughing and so on. I was amazed at the effects of the filters, which turned a lowering grey sky into a beautiful sunset of clouds and radiance. I realized, as I was so many times, how much the camera lied – and we tended to believe.

      I didn’t feel too nervous as I recall, though I was surprised that there seemed to be no set script or definite things I had to say. I was just asked rough questions and asked to improvise, or asked to talk to the craftsmen – farrier, ploughman – about anything I liked. This became the technique of the whole series. As Simon was later to put it graphically, it gave us academics ‘a chance to visit our footnotes’. I had often written and lectured about the impact of horseshoes on civilization – but never seen shoeing being done. And talking to the farrier I came to realize that I had never understood the main reason for the shoeing which transformed northern agriculture. I had thought it was to stop the horse slipping. But I discovered it was to stop the hoof from fragmenting and damaged in the wet thick soils. This was one of a thousand things I learnt from actually participating and observing craft processes which I had only previously read about and was, probably, one of the two or three things that I gained most from the project. What David wanted to film was this learning process – the actual, unscripted, moment of connecting and understanding, the flashes of illumination. This would give the film its authenticity and freshness, and it provided me with a range of experience which I could never have anticipated.

      The icy day at the heritage farm, and later in the week in the last glass works with a vaguely working ‘cone’, also near Birmingham, made it essential to cover up, so I wore a black hat. This became the first of a series of hats for all seasons and countries which became a hallmark of my own ‘persona’, and which earnt ribald and amused comment from friends. The filming in the glass works was absolutely fascinating and shows another benefit of working with a good company. They had assembled several of the leading British experts on various aspects of glass. The very articulate and charming head of the Glass-making association and director of a firm of glass manufacturers in Scotland to make a mirror; one of the legendary glass instrument makers who had helped in many of the pioneering experiments using glass in the laboratories of University College, London, from the 1940’s onwards, to make a few scientific instruments, a delightful Geordie glass-blower to illustrate the miracle of glass-blowers, and a whole cast of other characters to re-construct and enact a traditional, medieval, glass-blowing scene. To spend a day in their company, asking all the questions that had developed in my mind as I started writing a book about glass, was an enormous privilege and eye-opener. I began to realize that my previous image, which was that filmmaking was just a matter of telling to the camera what one already knew, was completely wrong. Instead, it was a co-operative exploration in which the production company spent a vast amount of time and effort in assembling the very best people, at considerable expense, to run a kind of mini-seminar around a theme. Again and again, and particularly in Japan, we had this experience. I would never have met such people, without huge efforts, and yet here they were, all excited and involved because of the magic of television. A real combined research effort.  Really fascinating and my first real taste of how very much I would learn from the series, actually watching people making things and talking to experts. It was icy cold, but Sarah enjoyed it as well. That was all the filming which I did before we went off to Australia and began to think of the ten days of filming which we would do in Japan on the way back.

Filming through Japan

     The Japan filming for ten days (see the separate diary account) was the most exciting and hectic of all that I did. Ten days from Nagasaki in the south and ending up in Kyoto. Covering so many things and taking Sarah and I to see a host of things which we would never have experienced. A fascinating and new insight into a Japan which I had already visited on three previous occasions (including 3 months teaching in Tokyo). Especially interesting for me to learn more about the great Japanese philosopher Fukuzawa, to visit a school and test my theories on myopia and so on. I also began to realize, as I had in the glass factory, that a good deal of the film we were taking was not just of entertainment and educational importance, but also of archival value. I had never realized, until we met practically the last traditional glass-blower in England, practically the last traditional paper-maker in Japan, the last, partly working, climbing pottery kiln with its living treasure potter and so on, that a whole world of traditional skills was sinking into oblivion. The five thousand years of technologies since the development of city civilizations and encompassing the first industrial revolution is rapidly vanishing – and we were filming not disappearing tribes in the jungle, but disappearing crafts and experts.

     Another feature of this trip was that with two different film crews and several different ‘fixers’ (local facilitators) and dozens of different shooting conditions and themes, it was a crash course in filmmaking. I learnt an enormous amount about sound, vision and the dynamics of creating good pictures. And above all I got to know David and Carlo very well in a mutual adventure which stood us in good stead over the months ahead. Sarah not only kept all practical matters on a steady course but also kept a detailed diary of what happened, took many photographs, and filmed the filmmaking. So, since this had never happened to David before, we were able to do a sort of mini-ethnography of the filmmaking expedition, which will again be useful for future historians of television.

       High points in the adventure for me included being shown round  (and filming) the extraordinary nineteenth century replica of a British club in the heart of Tokyo set up by Fukuzawa, by the charming Chairman of Seiko watches,  then going on to lecture (the first non-Keio University graduate ever to be allowed to do so) in the ‘Speech Hall’ set up by Fukuzawa in the 1870’s to teach the Japanese the art of public speaking. Also a marvellously thoughtful and spiritual interview with a Zen Buddhist monk in a beautiful Kyoto temple, taking tea from an elegant tea-mistress in a garden tea house, visiting a middle school to find the appalling rates of myopia among the bright little students, filming in an elegant traditional (ladies) toilet attached to the house which had acted as the main vehicle for western learning in Osaka. All this fitted very well with writing I have been engaged in for ten years on Japan. By the time this experience was over I was really hooked. I could see how filming gave one an access normally denied to academics and helped to focus attention. It was also a very collaborative, team-based, activity, which is always enormous fun, especially as an antidote to the normal rather hermit-like existence of writing and research.

Filming in England, Venice, Istanbul and Scotland

      In the following few months there was a lot more filming. For me this included a series of interviews in a rather murky London club (‘Black’s) on the values of co-operative associations; in one of the last preserved nineteenth century hand print works (in southern Scotland), in a wonderful Benedictine Abbey in northern Scotland, which included a deeply interesting talk to Father Giles about the essence of monasticism and its relation with capitalism, time etc., visits to Venice, Istanbul and so on. Each was fascinating. For instance, the visit to Istanbul forced me into a crash course on Islamic civilization, about which I had previously known little. I read Marshall Hodgson’s complete works, including the stupendous three-volume ‘Adventure of Islam’, and this, combined with a first visit to the great city and being forced to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the Ottoman Turks opened up an area completely new to me.

Filming in Nepal

     The final, and equally fascinating, expedition occurred at the start of my sabbatical leave. Sarah and I were going to engage in our annual fieldwork trip to the Himalayan village of Thak in central Nepal. So David and Carlo, now very happy to use a lightweight digital camera which produced really good pictures, came to Nepal for a week. They spent three days on the way to Thak and in the village, and three days in Kathmandu. Again this was a great delight. Partly this was because of  the new experiences in Kathmandu where we visited monasteries, an extraordinary preserved old village and many other nooks and crannies I had not seen on many previous visits (through the help of my ex Cambridge student, Tek Gurung and his wife Anita who were our local 'fixers’).  But above all it was the pleasure of seeing the involvement of David, Carlo and David’s son Christopher in village life, where they were clearly intrigued and moved by the experience, sowing the seeds for possible future filming using some of the hundred or more hours of video footage which I have shot over the last fourteen years.

Filming in Australia and the evolution of film methods

     After Nepal, Sarah and I went on to Australia. I had suggested to David that particularly for the last program, which dealt with the problem of why the rise of literate civilizations of a certain kind had only occurred originally in Eur-Asia, it would be useful to have some film from a continent other than Eur-Asia (and North America). There was not enough time and money to go to Africa or South America, and the budget would not stretch for a film crew to go to Australia. But since we were going for three weeks to see our family, why not take the camera with us and see what happened? This, in fact, emerges from one of the other things we learnt on the way. At the start (for example in the muddy field near Birmingham) a  shoot would include the Director, Assistant Director, Camera person, Sound person, a couple of production assistants, the ‘talent’ as we were called, and whoever we were interviewing etc. Seven or eight people, a small van of very heavy equipment, lights, etc. Extremely expensive, complicated logistics, very rigid. This is what we trailed through Japan. It took an hour or so to set up a good shot, and the director was often frustrated as he tried to explain to the cameraperson what was needed. Of course the final product was often extremely beautiful, but there was often a tension between the beautiful and the useful. Sarah filmed the entire Japanese shoot on a very small digital video camera with a pullout screen. David had never seen such a camera in action and was very impressed. So when we went to Venice he just brought a slightly bigger (three chip) digital camera with radio mikes. These mikes, I discovered, were really important since good sound is almost more important on television than good pictures. One can always improve and change and manipulate pictures; but poor sound cannot be tinkered with except at the margins. This revolution had enormous effects. It meant that the filming in Istanbul, where Jim Burge acted as Director, Assistant Director, Cameraperson and Sound Recordist all in one, could take place – hiring a film crew etc. would have been too complicated and expensive.

      The Australian filming, where, because the radio mikes only arrived a day before we were leaving, we were very constrained, but managed to film about nine scenes, four of which were finally used in the last program, was the next stage on. Almost all the filming was done by Sarah, with me talking etc. And then, at the end, the final reduction (based on the memories of Benedict Allen wandering alone through the Gobi desert filming himself) took place as I sat on a log in the wooded glade below our house and talked to the camera at the other end of the log. I found it a very stress-free experience and suspect that a number of anthropologists will do this in the future. What, in fact, has happened, is a triple revolution. The cameras have become wonderfully cheap and miniature and high quality – they take better quality than anything that can yet be shown, the film is very cheap etc. Secondly, the film and other unions, which prevented anthropologists using their own film on television, have collapsed. Thirdly, the viewing public have become more sophisticated. They are no longer obsessed with the superficial, technical, quality of the film, but more interested in spontaneity, authenticity, and the content. Masses of ‘candid camera’, ‘video diary’ etc.,  half-amateur film has given them a taste for film which is much nearer to what the human eye sees – in other words wobbly, interrupted, not too much clever play with light etc. These three revolutions could lead to a vast expansion of the potential for ethnographic filmmaking and its use in television.

Types of filming

       It is worth rounding off the account with David Dugan's own comments on the types of camera work involved. He wrote to me: 'The small camera Sarah was using in Japan. I was certainly very envious of how easy it was for her to shoot! But our company had been using DV cameras for years for recces and actuality filming on series like the 'Decision', it is just that we had not dared to use them on major historical series like this one. Alan's comment about greater acceptance of Cam-corder quality on television is certainly true; but it is important to make it clear that this series would have had nothing like the visual impact, if it had been entirely shot on DV. The distinctive look of the dramatic reconstructions was made possible by using a variety of different media. We used Digi-Beta widescreen video, black and white super-8 film (shot at 6fps) and super-16mm film transferred to video in various ways to make the filming more impressionistic. These elements contributed to the distinctive feel of the series. The reason for using small DV cameras in Venice, Istanbul and Nepal was partly economic, but also because it enabled more intimate, free-range filming to explore ideas (without the time pressures that film crews sometimes exert.)'