2 x 60 mins - National Geographic
Producer / Director / Writer
I made three films for the new series of Ancient X-Files. The first on the legend of King Arthur's Sword in the Stone investigating a 'real' sword in the stone discovered in a chapel in Italy. The second recreating the incredible navigation techniques of the Vikings using the mysterious sunstone. And the third seeking to uncover what our Neolithic ancestors were really up to in Maltese caves. All three films posed some challenges but the ones we faced in Malta's underground tomb – the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni were certainly unique.
The Hypogeum is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. Hewn out of the rock around 4,500 years ago it appears to be part tomb, part temple. Exactly what it was used for is still debated but it certainly opens an extraordinary window into the past. The problem is that in the years since its discovery in 1902 the artificial lights needed to illuminate the interior have encouraged the growth of algae and lichen, which damage the structure. And the carbon dioxide breathed out by visitors combines with water leaking in from above to form a weak acid, which eats away at the delicate markings that decorate the walls.
In an effort to ensure its conservation Heritage Malta have introduced strict controls on visitor numbers and have kept the lighting to an absolute minimum. The Hypogeum itself is sealed off from the outside world by airtight doors all in an effort to control the microclimate within.
Our problem was that in order to film outside normal visitor hours we were restricted to only two 30-minute sessions in the chamber and only one person would be allowed down with the guide on each day.
Since we wanted to film our presenter Ronald Hutton interpreting the tomb that was clearly going to be a problem. But Heritage Malta were adamant about the restrictions - the Hypogeum was after all a World Heritage Site.
So I came up with an alternative plan. On the first visit Ronald went down with the guide. Miked up for sound with a small recorder in his trouser pocket. He also carried a special LED light panel, which produces almost no heat, to illuminate the walls and himself. And the camera? Well there was nothing for it but to give the guide a small domestic HD camcorder with strict instructions to keep it pointed at Ronald at all times. That sorted Ronald’s sound and picture out.
Once he was back up from the tomb Ronald briefed us on what he had been looking at and for the second visit Orlando, the DoP, returned with the big camera to capture the Hypogeum’s remarkable interior in beautiful detail.
Not the ideal way to shoot one of the central stories of the film but back in the edit everything fitted back together and at least we knew that we hadn’t encouraged any more lichen to grow!