Film can bring the world to us. But can it take us there?
While visual media is obviously ideally suited to showing an audience what a place looks like. Could it also bring us something of what it feels like to stand at a particular place we’ve never been to? Not just now, but thousands of years ago as well?
Arts and Humanities Research Council award winning film 'The Caterthuns' set out to answer these questions. This majestic study of two prehistoric hill forts perched on the periphery of the Grampian Mountains in Angus, Scotland, combines sweeping aerial shots and state-of-art visual technology to recreate what these sites look like now and thousands of years ago, as well as locating them within an unchanging, enduring mountain landscape.
A sense of place
“I picked the sites primarily because they were incredible places in amazing locations. But also because their challenging scale leant itself to an aerial perspective,” says director Kieran Baxter, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University Of Dundee, who produced the film during his PhD research.
“I wanted somewhere close enough that I would be able to visit it easily. But also somewhere that meant something to me as a place. It wasn't just about the cold, hard data.”
Although not an archaeologist by training, the ancient sites and landscapes of Scotland had long fascinated Kieran and he had been interested in using his expertise in visual media and animation to celebrate them. The reconstruction element in The Caterthuns was provided by an archaeologist colleague, Dr Alice Watterson.
“I wanted to apply what I knew to archaeological sites and quickly realised that they offered a way to focus on conveying a sense of place and atmosphere. My Masters degree was based on fieldwork and it has always been an interest of mine to take photography and animation out into the environment.
“Scotland obviously has some amazing archaeological sites and locations. I wanted to use the available technology to communicate this archaeology better; that was where my academic interest came from.”
Creativity and technology combined
From the start Kieran wanted to take a creative approach to standard technology and use it in a new way. “The methods I use are fairly commonly used by filmmakers,” he says. “What was different was taking them and applying them to heritage recreation.”
There was also an interesting overlap with archaeological survey methods. For example, photography is used by archaeologists all the time. “Our slant was that we combined this with visual reconstruction technology,” says Kieran. “Plus, we were interested in telling a story, rather than investigating the material to find out new information.”
During the making of the film Kieran experienced an interesting shift in his perspective of how work like this is produced.
“When I began, I imagined I would go out into the field, gather material and data and then go back to the lab - and that would be where stuff happened,” he says. “But I quickly realised that the most important element in the project was what happened on site, out in the field. I needed to be out there in all seasons many times to get the effect that we wanted.
“While I was out there doing daily flights I became quite interested in the contradiction in what I was doing. I had chosen a site that leant itself to interpretation in visual media. But what I was actually trying to put across was what it is like to be there. To be in that place.
“Since we’ve been showing the film it's been very pleasing to hear people say that they really do get the emotional impact of being in that landscape from the film.”