So, by the end of 1999 most of the film had been shot and the serious editing was under way. Even by November I was being shown ‘rough cuts’ of programs 2 and 3.Over Christmas we watched more film and in early January did another day’s filming in my barn and teahouse, talking about tea, wheels and so on for the first program, directed by Ian Duncan. An unique piece of ‘heritage’ filming was also done by Simon in Faraday’s Laboratory at the Royal Institution, a piece of footage, which alone justified much of the expense of the series.
Since, as most people know, the editing is as important a stage as the original planning, and filming, I wanted to see how this was done and went down for a couple of days to watch the extraordinary process of digital editing using the sophisticated AVID suite at Windfall. At this stage, also, I was encouraged to be fully involved. My comments on the various rough-cuts were welcomed, and I was particularly asked to look at the film on glass and clocks to see what I thought. All of the stages of editing also had to be constantly checked with Charles Furneaux at C4 (who had taken over from Sara Ramsden). I began to be aware of the delicate and difficult balance between the production company and the Broadcast Company, who ultimately pay for the series and watch every move. It is something like the supervisor-supervisee relationship in the Ph.D. and it can be very difficult.
Another late task was to go to a recording studio off the Tottenham Court Road to do the ‘voice overs’ for all three producers. I did not find this easy, since sitting in a little cubicle it is difficult to project the normal cadences or animated speech and yet retain absolutely clear elocution. And as soon as one has fluffed a piece several times it gets worse and worse. But the stage was interesting because even here one was making some very basic changes. For example, the portrayal of a whole civilization such as Islam or Buddhist religion could be altered by taking out one single word and putting in another. It is extremely delicate work, balancing picture, wild sound, voice-over, and music. The music, it also became apparent, was crucial. Watching bits of edited text without music it often went dead. What appears to me a very sensitive and good musical background was provided by Peter Howell and a professional narrator, John Nettles knitted the voice-overs together. The importance of the rhythm of the films came to me when I watched the editing, which was almost always done to music, which gave the editors, and particularly the crucial Paul Shepard who edited the last three programs their pace.
The editing and the editor was another revelation in other ways. I was very surprised when I asked David what happened to the several hundred hours of film which he had taken. He said that he handed it over to Paul, the editor, who went through it and decided to concentrate on (digitize) only a third or so of it. The rest was there, but would probably not be looked at again. This seemed to be leaving in the hands of someone who had not been at all involved in the construction of the scripts or any of the filming an enormous power. But I gradually learnt how sensible this was. Like any fieldwork anthropologist or writer, one loses objectivity as one collects material. One fills in the background from the memories of the experience, values certain pieces because of the enormous effort they took to collect, feels under pressure to include bits because of the kindness (or menace) of certain people who were involved, or the enormous financial cost of setting up a shot. But none of this is relevant to the television audience. They just want the shots that work and tell the story. The experienced but dispassionate eye of the editor looks at the material unsentimentally and brutally and saves what works as television. This explained to me how it is that I have found that when I give over-long drafts of my books to Sarah she so helpfully cuts them down to size, without apparently losing anything. One recent book was reduced from 240,000 words to 160,000 words without my being able to detect any serious diminution – even though I mourned (temporarily) the loss of hard-gained results. Television is very profligate. In the Darwinian struggle for survival, something like 297 or so hours out of 300 that was taken for this series was rejected. Only three or so hours, and some additional materials from other sources, was used. Something similar, of course, happens between fieldwork and the thesis or book. It seems terribly wasteful, and I hope to use some of the materials elsewhere. But one understands why it is necessary and also the hours of filming of the same small scene in the hope that one perfect, unexpected, shot will be saved.
One very brave, and I suspect unusual, symbol of the trusting and co-operative relationship that had been built up occurred near the end when David, Ian and Carlo brought up the rough cuts of all the films and Simon, Christopher and I (with Gerry and Sarah) spent a whole day in King’s, from 9 am to 9 pm., watching them and discussing each one. Sarah filmed the discussions so that points raised could be incorporated. This could have been a big mistake, for if the academics had raised serious objections or reservations, or even been seriously under-whelmed by the nearly finished versions, it could have had serious negative effects on the final stages. It is very easy to be critical, or to feel one has been misrepresented, ignored, or that the very complex theoretical points were being distorted. Furthermore, since everything is political, it could well be that seeing the whole series through might show that those hated tendencies towards ‘western triumphalism’, ‘technological determinism’, ‘ethnocentrism’, ‘Orientalism’, ‘teleology’, or some other serious flaw was present. Both filmmakers and academics are at risk in this process. The dangers were greater for the filmmakers because they knew that the academics could not fully comprehend emotionally, even if they understood intellectually, the constraints of mass-audience television, attention spans, pressure from commissioning editors etc. Nor would they really understand how very much better the film would look after it had been through ‘post-production’ cleaning of sound and pictures. Or even that right up to the last moment, like most Ph.D’s, very substantial changes in structure would be made and significant improvements made. So they were placing a very rough draft, which looked on the surface like a final draft, before the academics.
But for whatever reason, it turned into a very helpful exercise. The films were universally good and interesting, the academics made only constructive suggestions, which helped resolve some of the problems of the filmmakers, and the trust was deepened. The film, which Sarah took, was used by them as a record of the meeting and will be useful in future archival studies of how the film developed.
Even as the first few programs were broadcast and re-actions came in, there was the usual desperate last minute effort. The last program, which would knit it all together and either leave patient viewers perplexed, disappointed, enraged, frustrated, or illuminated was only in a very rough form just three weeks before it was to be transmitted. We had several further discussions about this, for it was extremely difficult to see how one could keep a balance. How to fit ten thousand years of human history without trivializing, how to show what happened after the event without making it seem inevitable. How to avoid triumphalism. How to bring it up to the present. Gradually it took shape and I went to see a nearly completed version and also to witness two extraordinary final stages.
David had early told me about the enormous difference that ‘post-production’ made nowadays. In the old days one took the film, edited the film, perhaps put on a sound track, and that was it. Nowadays, with digital film and very sophisticated digital editing suite, after the film is finished it is taken to studios in Soho where some very important things are done. Firstly the final film needed to be assembled. The editor, Paul, had been working ‘off line’. He had basically assembled a computer program or set of in and out points. This program was taken to a very much more powerful edit suite where the program was run against all of the necessary original tapes, so that the pieces were copied and knit together from the masters. Then I spent one day watching someone who is credited on the film as a ‘colourist’ at work. In a dark room, in front of a bank of keypads, he went through the last program changing almost all the textures and colours. For example, in the final scene of the last film, David felt that the sky behind the Himalayas was not blue enough, so it was washed with brighter blue. From tiny changes to one bit of light, to enriching golds and reds, it was as if a Rembrandt was at work, turning boring backgrounds or presenters into animated and suntanned wonders, making reconstructions more like dreams, taking out nasty bits. We were told that Aidan was the best colourist in London – an extraordinary genius. Certainly the film was at least one quarter more exciting by the time he had spent six hours (at a couple of thousand pounds an hour for equipment and personnel), working on it.
Then, the last stage was to take it to the sound laboratory. Again a very sophisticated set of machinery and a fascinating process (which I partially filmed) where with a large bank of controls and computers a young man followed the instructions and put the sound together. Basically he had to knit together five things. The visual films; the synchronised speech which went with the interviews and knights meeting; the voice over of either the academics or the narrator, other wild sound, and the music. The other wild sound, for example crickets or the lowing of cattle, or sound of traffic or trains, was all tinkered with. There were too many loud crickets in the Himalayas, so they were quietened. The cows did not moo enough in Australia, so from a large bank of sounds, which he had in the computer, he added some appropriate moos. The train approaching as Joel Mokyr talked in Chicago gave an engaging hoot – which had not been there at the time. We could even have changed the signals from red to green, but desisted. The exact levels were very finely tuned, and appropriate music added. Everyone was there – the composer, the lady from C4 to make sure that everything was done right, director and assistant director. It was lucky I was there too, because they discovered the last syllable of ‘Protestantism’, the ‘ism’ had been drowned out by another participant in the seminar. So we spent about 40 minutes re-recording that single word and the editor then taking the ‘ism’ from the new recording and adding it on to the ‘Protestant’ said at the time. The whole process again emphasized the counter-intuitive fact that sound is more important than picture on television. We can stand bad pictures, but if the sound goes, or even, as we found as we watched the last, brilliantly edited, seven minutes on genetic engineering and the discovery of a new species of human being, if the music is missing, the whole thing goes dead. A magical art indeed, largely intuitive, impressionistic. It has little to do with ‘reality’ in the normal sense, but nor is it entirely false. Just like photographs in Susan Sontag’s famous phrase, it all trades on the tension between genres – ‘clouds of fantasy and pellets of information’.
The series was originally scheduled to start on April 9th 2000, when Sarah and I would be in Australia, but fortunately was put back to May 14th. C4 claimed that the reason for doing this was to give it more publicity since, increasingly, they had confidence that it would not be a disaster, and might even bring them kudos. They even talked of ‘Bill boarding’ the series, though this never happened.