Not Strictly Archaeology…But A Little Weekend Inspiration!

I love VFX breakdowns from movies, not just because I like to play software bingo and shout out what I think they’ve used for each element (Zbrush! After Effects!….no, no… Nuke! Matte Painting! Aaaah!) but because I use these programs too, and seeing what teams of incredibly talented artists can do with these tools really inspires me.

I saw the Hobbit when it came out back in December and was really blown away by the visual effects. I left the cinema feeling an odd mixture of mind-blowing inspiration and soul-crushing despair that I would probably never be able to reach that aesthetic level with my own work. But before I could throw my pc out the window, abandon my work and run off to join the circus instead (always fancied my hand at lion taming) I realised a few things.

1. I’ve only been doing this stuff for 2 years and never solidly – big gaps in between projects for writing up/fieldwork etc – in fact using the software and wearing my creative thinking cap on a constant weekly basis has only really happened in the past 6 months since the summer.

2. Movie studios employ teams of modellers, texturers (teams for skin, teams for matte painting scenery, teams for clothing), riggers, digital painters, hair modellers, digital lighting specialists, animators in all manner of elements, not to mention the folks who deal with the live action green screen stuff…you get the idea. Just scroll down to the “Visual Effects” section of the movie credits and you’ll see what I mean!

3. I’m an archaeologist and should behave myself and stop being so distracted by the bright lights of Hollywood.

I want to defend myself on that last one though. The reason I get so excited about the latest blockbuster VFX is not because of the technicalities of the methods being used by the studios (that being said, the technical ability of the artists who work in this field in itself is certainly something to be in awe of) but it’s the way these tools allow entire living, breathing fictional ecosystems and believable characters and situations to be created to draw the audience in. It’s how the tools help to tell the story.

The Goblin caves from the Hobbit were beautifully done, the cascading cold natural light from the ceiling contrasted with the glowing fires.

The Goblin caves from the Hobbit were beautifully done, the cascading cold natural light from the ceiling contrasted with the glowing fires, the attention to detail is unreal.

I’m an archaeologist, there’s a science to what I do. But I’m also an artist and a visual storyteller which means I need to harness creativity in my work. When I gave my seminar in York a few weeks ago I was asked a technical question about how I lit the interior of House 7 at Skara Brae and my answer wasn’t as straightforward as you might think. I had to create a balance between archaeological and architectural accuracy, visual clarity (i.e. it couldn’t be too dark or smoky) and using the lighting (as Kieran would say) as a narrative mechanism to reflect the story I was trying to tell.

So lets think about this…archaeologically we know there was a central fire inside House 7, so hey presto we’ve got our main source of light right? However, evidence from excavation tells us that they were most likely burning a combination of dried animal dung and seaweed, unfortunately these fuels don’t burn very bright at all, great. Well, we know the houses at Skara Brae had roofs, but there’s a lot of academic debate over what those roofs were probably built from. One thing is for sure, if you’re burning seaweed and dung there’s going to be a lot of smoke and that’s going to need to filter out somehow. The St Kilda blackhouse roofs were constructed from peat and thatch which allowed the smoke to filter through gaps in the peat and dissipate without a chimney – but there was no peat on Orkney when Skara Brae was inhabited and given that they’re choosing to burn poo rather than twigs and bracken we can assume wood was finite. There’s enough leeway here to allow for a gap in the top of the roof for smoke to escape and to let in a little natural light I reckon. There was never any excavated evidence for lamps, but that is not to say they didn’t have them. If they did they would most likely be burning whale oil.

Next we have  to consider the viewer and whether they can see the scene clearly enough. In this case it was questionable at best – with the accurate dim lighting and smoky atmosphere in the scene it was hard to make out detail. We’re telling a story, but we’re also representing material culture in context and it’s not much use if it’s too dark to see artefacts and so forth in any informative detail. So the light sources had to be exaggerated a little. Call it artistic licence!

Finally, with this scene I was telling a story, I wanted the audience to feel apprehensive of the seated character as they approached. Given that House 7 seems to have been treated differently to the other houses at Skara Brae, academic interpretations have suggested the inhabitants may have been revered to some extent and I tried to reflect this in the way I lit the scene. In order to make this character stand out from the dresser I adopted a 3 point lighting system – one blue tinged light coming from the opening in the roof, one warm glowing light pointing up from the fireplace, and two blue tinged back lights behind the character.

The desire to capture an authentic sense of place and atmosphere in my work is what encourages me to seek inspiration from the Hollywood pros, after all they’re the unquestionable kings of modern storytelling! Balancing that with an objective approach to data representation and archaeological accuracy is a challenge, but it’s worth persevering. Acting as a conduit between the archaeological record, material culture and current interpretation; and putting it all into context in the form of an archaeological visualisation is no easy task, and the results will never be without flaw. But it’s worth it to excite people about heritage and spark their imagination.

The issue of course is that once an engaging visualisation has been created and displayed, to what extent does this “fix” interpretation of the site and embed that particular artist/archaeologists’ view into the audiences mind?….but that’s an issue for another post!

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