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The emergence of modern humans, south of Cape Town, South Africa

How Did Our Ancestors Look?

This series has science at its heart, because we all want to know as much as there is to know about our origins.  It’s our own story, after all, and we have every right to be desperately curious.  But the evidence is, well, vanishingly scarce.  It comes out of the ground in little shards of bone and rock.  All the Stone Age human remains ever discovered in Africa could fit in a broom closet, with room to hang a coat or two.

So, the use of dramatic re-enactments of prehistoric human life is a very important part of how we telling this story.   As difficult as it is to do well, particularly for documentary specialists working in small film crews, successfully evoking a vision of the deep past can bring the science to life.

Niobe on location

The problem is, you almost never see dramatic re-enactments that don’t drag a documentary down.  From frantic camera movements, to blurring and over-exposing footage, to bad costumes and hopeless make-up, re-enactments of Neanderthals and Stone Age humans have a terrible reputation.  Without the proper costume, prosthetics, make-up and hair designers, and with poor acting and inexperienced, bare-bones documentary crews, re-enactments are almost always doomed to fail.

Rules for Drama Re-enactments

I am personally a big skeptic of dramatic re-enactments.  In the same breath, I also believe they can be one of the most powerful ways to bring the past to life.  To pull it off, you just have to follow the rules:

  1. Never shoot a narrative: our characters evoke a presence on the landscape, and their inner story is beyond our reach.  Do not give the actors a story, but instead, put them into situations natural to their daily lives and encourage them to be themselves.  Which leads to the next point, namely…
  2. Work with traditional indigenous people, instead of actors: our ancestors hunted, gathered, walked, and paddled through their lives, and our re-enactment characters must in their own lives be as close to this reality as possible.  Travel to the ends of the planet to find these people, and film their easy comfort with the wild world as a window on the past.
  3. Never treat re-enactments as a sideshow: they are the most difficult shots in the film.  The sacrifice, imagination, and money that goes into shooting re-enactments is on an order of magnitude greater than the effort that goes into shooting documentary sequences.  On the other hand, the shooting ratio (the hours of footage shot in relation to the seconds that appear in the film) is huge; hardly anything we shoot makes the cut.
  4. Do your research, and build everything from scratch: our ancestors were masters of technology and art, and they surrounded themselves with exquisitely beautiful and cleverly built objects.  There is a rich body of artefacts to guide art directors toward an authentic visual world; creating it takes months of work.
  5. Involve your “actors” in the story they are telling: when we work with sea-mammal hunters in Arctic Russia, or San Bushmen in the Kalahari, or the descendants of indigenous coastal people in South Africa, they always fall in love with the idea of acting out their past.  Our ancestors were, without exception, impressive people, masters of their world; if they weren’t, they died.
On set on the northern coast of Russia.

For the series, our crew filmed in four places, each one a “landscape before time” chosen to evoke the world before we changed it. 

In June 2013, we lived for four weeks on the Russian coast of the Bering Strait and filmed with the world’s most westerly Inuit population.  The actors were sea-mammal hunters and their wives and children, and we lived in a real hunting camp, in tents and tarpaper shacks.  We travelled up the coast and through the spring ice in out-board motor boats, and pitched an authentic Chukchi yaranga, a yurt covered in reindeer hides.  I directed the entire shoot in Russian, but our art director grew up in a Ukrainian family in Edmonton and she also found a common language.  To get to location, we chartered a small plane from Nome Alaska and travelled by Soviet Army truck overland, and then, on location, we walked.

Filming in Grande Cache, Alberta

In September, we had our only “civilized” re-enactment shoot, in the gorgeous mountains around the Alberta mountain town of Grande Cache.  Having shot an ultramarathon sequence for The Perfect Runner  in this region in 2011, we knew the setting would be dramatic and a perfect stand-in for Europe 40,000-30,000 years ago. 

With a big crew of 20, we filmed in lakes and roaring mountain streams, forests of dwarf aspen and deeply shaded fir, and on rocky cliffs.  Having worked all summer sculpting and moulding, a pair of prosthetics specialists created the hair and faces of Neanderthals.  A team of animal trainers gave us a pack of wolves and a Great Horned Owl (which flew away to have its own adventure for half a day of filming).  Our helicopter drone flew through forests, chasing sprinting Neanderthals, who themselves were chasing wolves, who were themselves chasing a roe deer.  (On this shoot, my six and eight-year old daughters finally got to see their dad at work, and they gave presentations on Neanderthals and the Ice Age when they returned to class.)

Our film crew left Canada in early October, not to return until the spring of 2014.  In November, we shot two re-enactment sequences in southern Africa.

Onwards to Africa

To evoke the world of our ancestors at the very dawn of our time, when Homo sapiens had just emerged in Africa, we drew together a group of San Bushmen living in a remote corner of South Africa’s Northern Cape.  But while the Kalahari that is their home is actually a semi-arid desert, we needed to evoke the radical drying out of human environments at the onset of the Ice Age (roughly 160,000 years ago).  So, we drove 800km west into Namibia, to the formidable Namib, one of the driest places on Earth.  There, in air so clean that the perception of distance simply falls apart, we found one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen.  We drove for hours across a desert strewn with wheel-breaker rocks to reach the Khoichab Dunes, a world of blood-red sand that rises 500m overhead.  The full moon lit the night world with colour.  Our wonderful actors drank gallons of Coke and luxuriated for one short week in a world without apparent racism, where they were the center of attention.

Is this what modern humans looked like?

In early December, we shot our last re-enactments on the Cape Coast peninsula south of Cape Town.  Here, we were evoking the emergence of modern humans – the birth of the human mind – echoing the discovery of the first symbolic objects, the earliest use of ochre and jewelry, and the arrival of language.  Although new discoveries could be made, we now think the mind “arrived” in a kind of Stone Age Garden of Eden on South Africa’s southern coast. 

We worked with the renowned Foster brothers, Craig and Damon, who are among Africa’s best-regarded filmmakers and who fortunately fell in love with our series.  Craig Foster worked from June to December casting actors from local Coloured fishing communities, while building an incredible set of costumes.  Craig dove for shellfish to make authentic jewelry, and mined ochre from local sources only he knows from a lifetime living on the Cape.  He taught his actors to dive down through the frigid waters of the Cape to gather shellfish in the kelp forests, and even saved an over-enthusiastic Navy Seal actor from hypothermia while filming underwater sequences.

Behind all of these re-enactment shoots has stood a resourceful crew, making some very delicate and challenging camera systems work in extraordinary circumstances.  Flying a Red Epic on a drone from an ice floe in the Bering Strait.  Hiking to the top of a tundra mountain, to film above the clouds.  Swimming with an underwater camera through a glacial Rocky Mountain lake.  Crossing a whitewater river by raft with two Neanderthals.  Driving through the night in the Namib after filming the sun set and the moon rise on the Khoichab Dunes.  And swimming with the sharks through South Africa’s kelp forests, as a Navy Seal dives for giant sea snails.

Let’s hope it works!

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Overhaul Media Bell Fund Clearwater Documentary Alberta Media Fund University of Alberta
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