“The institution of the Druids is thought to have originated in Britain. […]
They are said to learn thoroughly a great number of verses. On that account, some continue
their education for twenty years. […] They would not have those who learn them, by trusting
to letters, neglect the exercise of memory. […] They also dispute largely concerning
the stars and their motion.”
– Julius Caesar, circa. 43 BC, as cited by John Matthews, ‘THE DRUID SOURCE BOOK’ (1997)
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The ANCIENT SKIES project was actually born out of the effort to produce REMNANTS, which began life as a proposed 7-10 min. IMAX format timelapse short, circa. 1987. I pitched REMNANTS at many IMAX film conferences from the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s. I had noticed that the features generally ran about 30-40 minutes, and that perhaps a short accompanying film might make for a good hour slot programme.
To back my proposal up I undertook several trips around the UK, shooting stills with the beautiful and sadly long now defunct AGFA black + white reversal film. I had in mind an Ansel Adams style, with red filtration and ultra deep focus. At the time it would have been the first exclusive use of black + white photography in the format.
Seeing a wealth of material on these trips, I also developed a 35 min. stand-alone film proposal. Sadly both ideas came to naught.
For a while I pursued REMNANTS as a 35mm short, and was briefly represented by London based TATTOOIST PRODUCTIONS, with Maxim Ford as proposed DoP.
We could find no traction, and I began exploring the film as a self-funded 16mm anamorphic / Cinemascope production. Then, for ten years the project sat mostly dormant, though whenever and wherever I could I would photograph new sites, often whilst working as a freelance cameraman on other projects.
Around 2005 the digital sensor revolution began. As the technology advanced, replacement of film as a recording medium appeared inevitable. Having always wanted to produce REMNANTS in as high a resolution as possible, in 2007 I collated all my stills material into a video storyboard & DVD package and made one last attempt. To my knowledge only 3 IMAX films have ever been made in the UK, and so I sent the package to all the IMAX and large format theatres in the country. I asked if they would be interested to co-produce and co-fund what would very likely be the last ever UK film to be originated on actual 15 perf. 70mm film.
I received just three replies, two saying no, but one, from John Rorke at the Birmingham ThinkTank Science Mususem, asked me whether I had seen the new FullDome planetarium format? I had not. Rorke and planetarium manager Mario DiMaggio kindly invited me to take a look.
Essentially the digital equivalent of the OMNIMAX format, FullDome completely surrounds the viewer, 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. I saw that footage acquired at a fraction of the cost of film could produce an immersive and experiential image. On their advice I joined the FullDome Yahoo discussion group on-line and put out an open call – I would like to produce REMNANTS in this new format and is there anyone out there who would like to help me?
Within 48 hours Glenn Smith, Managing Director of FullDome planetarium designers and manufacturers SKY-SKAN Europe GmbH responded.
As a fellow afficiando of Megalithic sites, Smith had been developing an in-house project on the subject, but as mine was further advanced, and I had already begun shooting digital timelapse, we immediately began collaborating.
The first speculative shoots, however, revealed myriad problems. FullDome is principally a CGI medium, where complete control over the image can be manipulated in the computer. To capture location footage requires a fisheye lens, and, to maintain the natural horizon when viewed in FullDome theatres, the lens needs to be tilted approx. 30 degrees down from the vertical. With the contrast ratio between sky and foreground as much as 12 f-stops, projection of real-world imagery suffers from ‘cross-reflectance’ issues, whereby bright skies at the back of the theatre (top of frame) reflect forwards on to the front of the theatre (bottom of frame) washing out the resolution and colour.
Compounded by the vagaries of British weather, only shots acquired at night, or in near-perfect daylight conditions, stood a chance of resolving correctly.
Most problematic of all was composition. With a 180 degree field of view there was rarely any way to hide any modern artefacts in the frame. It had always been my intention to capture the timeless and archaic nature of Megalithic sites – to show them as they would have been seen at the time of their construction. In addition to all the encroachments of roads, pylons, buildings and so forth, there were tourists, and it also proved impossible to hide planes and contrails.
Early in 2008 it was thus decided to split the project in two, and ANCIENT SKIES was born. ANCIENT SKIES would be a traditional interviewee and narration led documentary in the FullDome format. Wherever principal fisheye / dome shots could be acquired in good conditions, they would. Wherever they couldn’t, flat lens imagery would be shot instead, and used both for inserts in SKIES and for REMNANTS as a separate production.
Fortunately, by utilising multiple cameras on location, the production of flat screen material for REMNANTS suffered very little during the shooting of ANCIENT SKIES. In RAW format I was able to capture very high resolution shots at almost all sites.
On-line video postings of some of this material led to a very surprising outcome. Duncan McGregor, chief projectionist of the UK’s best equipped cinema – the Pictureville Theatre in Bradford – invited me to submit footage for the ‘Widescreen Weekend’ event as part of their annual film festival.
EMPIRE OF STONE, a 10 min. compilation reel in 2.38:1 aspect ratio was constructed as a 2k DCP by Alex Hibbitt of London based Arts Alliance Media and screened in 2009. The results were excellent – matching, sometimes even exceeding – the quality of 5 perf. 70mm.
Following more shoots in The Orkneys, Ireland and Stonehenge, a mammoth post-production effort ensued, including the commissioning of an original 5.1 score by Tangerine Dream member Thorsten Quaeschning, and a digital image clean-up spearheaded by Amanda Davis.
Once the edit was complete, Hibbitt built the master 2k digital print which premiered at Bradford in 2013.
After more than 20 years REMNANTS finally made it to the big screen, as an experiential film in the manner I had always intended.