Home > Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, The New Media > Filmmaking and Archaeology: Some Summary Thoughts

Filmmaking and Archaeology: Some Summary Thoughts

I’ve been lucky enough over the past 5 years to work with two fantastic young documentary filmmakers, Joe Patrow and Ian Ragsdale, in shooting documentary films based on our fieldwork at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in Cyprus. Recently Ian has been pressing me (in a good way) to think about what we want to get out of his documentary work and to offer some general insights into how I understand what we have done. This has caused me to begin the process of marshaling 5 years of on and off discussions with Ian and Joe regarding issues related to making an archaeological documentary. Over this time, we’ve talked vaguely about co-writing an article that provides some practical tips for producing a “research film” designed to explore, communicate, and promote a research project. I’d like to think that this informal and spontaneous list will be the first step to writing up something more formal.

As someone with very little technical knowledge of the filmmaking process, I’ve relied on the project’s independent filmmakers to tell our project’s story. Being a part of these activities, however, has convinced me that these films are not only valuable communication (and teaching) tools, but also useful reflective activities in their own right. My comments below are based on three seasons of working with a documentary filmmaker. Joe Patrow worked with us in 2005 and 2007 and produced two films: Survey on Cyprus and Emerging Cypriot. Ian Ragsdale worked with us in 2009 and is editing his film: Voices from Cyprus. Both Ian and Joe provided short interviews here and here.

As a final note, these comments are not meant to be proscriptive, but rather descriptive of my thinking as we discussed the making a film that communicated our project to a wider audience.

1. Consider various audiences. We’ve used our films for such a wide variety of events that we have reaped the benefits of pitching our films to as broad an audience as possible.

2. Modular Movies. When Joe Patrow returned to Cyprus to shoot another video in 2007, he quickly realized that to do something creative with similar material, he had to change the way that he would approach editing his work. As a result, he produced a series of shorts titled Emerging Cypriot. These shorts were mostly under 5 minutes in length and captured various aspect of our work. To be fair, this approach clearly emerged from his first film, Survey on Cyprus, which told our story in a linear way, but also divided the story into a series of well-defined chapters. The benefit of a modular film is that it allows us to use the film for multiple purposes including embedding it in Powerpoint presentations, disseminating it over the web, and using in a classroom setting in a flexible way. With the advent of YouTube, Ian was able to take this concept even further by uploading a series of interviews edited in the field to a PKAP YouTube channel.

3. Process over product. One thing that we emphasized on our discussions with both Joe and Ian was the importance to show process rather than just product. In part, our emphasis on process was a necessity for an archaeological project that focused on the gradual accumulation of data rather than the search for a spectacular single find. The emphasis on process, however, ensured that whatever happened over the course of the season, we could tell the story of the project as an event in-and-of itself and not be dependent on a spectacular find or even the elusive answer to a research question during the time when the camera was rolling.

4. Personalities. One thing that both Joe and Ian have managed to do is capture the unique mix of personalities present on our project each season. From the passionate to the silly, the personalities drive the story of the project forward and captures the human aspect of field research. In other words, Ian and Joe balanced the technical aspects of archaeological research against the individuals involved in the project. The result of this balancing act was a more engaging film which captured the human dimension of decision making in the field.

5. Embed the filmmaker. Both Ian and Joe were effectively embedded in our project. This was perhaps largely a consequence of there only being just single person rather than a film crew, but it also speaks to the good match between the filmmaker and our team. Ian was trained as an archaeologist and Joe had an M.A. in history; so, both understood our project’s goals and methods and offered independent, critical interpretation of our work.

6. Trust. Closely related to our ability to embed the filmmaker was our willingness to trust both Ian and Joe to tell the story of our project in a responsible and accurate way. In other words, we knew that these two guys would not go out of their way to make us look bad or to distort our methods and goals. What we have discovered is that the best results come from letting our filmmakes tell our story in their own voice.

7. Time. One thing that we perhaps underestimated when we first started these projects in the time that they would take. Almost every member of the project had to be willing to take time out of their day to engage the camera and talk about what they were doing. When everyone is harried, tired, and busy, this was a significant commitment. And this says nothing of the commitment that both Joe and Ian have made to take our harried and tired comments and cobble them together into a cohesive story. Filmmaking takes time.

8. Landscapes and Place. Video captures a different view of landscape than still photography or maps and plans. Both Joe and Ian were very effective in placing the project in its physical and natural environment. In particular video provides a sense of time to travel through the landscape that still photography often struggles to capture.

9. Humor. Both Ian and Joe captured the humorous moments that are inevitable in any collaborative research project. Not only has this made their work more watchable (and less preachy), but also more human and more authentic.

10. Technology. One of the great things that we’ve witnessed over the past 5 years is how much easier it is to distribute the results of our filmmakers labors. With the advent of YouTube, more robust broadband connections, and more larger and faster online storage it is now possible to distribute high-quality video over the internet with almost no specialized technological infra-structure.

While it remains popular to complain about how academics and particularly archaeologists are portrayed in the media, it is also increasingly easy to push back by producing professional quality films to depict archaeological work on a way that is both entertaining and academically responsible. Technology makes it simple to distribute the film around the world, high-quality HD video cameras are relatively inexpensive, and it is now possible to edit and add special effects on a desktop computer. So, if you want to shoot a film, team up with a filmmaker and do it.

  1. April 12, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I used Survey of Cyprus for teaching, to explain what pedestrian survey is all about to an undergraduate audience.

  2. April 13, 2010 at 4:01 am

    Why can’t more archaeologists see that film-making is an essential part of getting the word out today? We’ve made some videos on the archaeology of London – take a look!

  3. April 14, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    These insights are going to play a huge part in how I structure my upcoming seminar on digital filmmaking at Rice University. A big theme that I am taking away from recent reading, discussions, and contemplation is that videos for projects like PKAP can accomplish many tasks at once. The process of making a movie informs the research process. An instructional video goes live on the Internet and becomes a promotional tool in addition to a teaching tool. Brandon Olson used his featured vlog as a “thank you” to those who funded his participation in PKAP, in the hopes that that would not be forgotten during the next application season. It is gratifying to hear the breadth of benefit of PKAP’s use of video.

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