Making Who Were The Greeks
MAKING 'WHO WERE THE GREEKS?'
Dr Michael Scott, Classics and Ancient History
Euripides, Socrates, Sappho, Homer, Hippocrates, Agnodice and Pericles: they are among the many ancient Greek names that have come down to us through the centuries but who were the people behind them? During the next two weeks, Dr Michael Scott will present ‘Who were the Greeks?’ on BBC 2, looking at the history and people of the ancient Mediterranean power.
Making a TV documentary is a difficult process to explain. It begins with a commission from a broadcaster (although even getting to this stage can be a treacherous and lengthy path!). This commission will be based on a central idea and present the challenge of creating, in the case of Who Were the Greeks?, two hours of primetime television. The problem is never a lack of things to talk about. The key dilemma of a TV programme about a vast historical subject is how to prioritise what you will focus on. More importantly, how do you combine those different elements to tell a story in both words and pictures, which has its own natural rhythm, interest, sense of coverage and argument?
The answer to that question is what unfolds over months of diligent preparation by the production team for the filming. In the best examples, a production team brings a series of different talents, interests and knowledge together to help forge the final product. This includes everything from the presenter, with their knowledge of the subject; to the director and cameramen, with their understanding of how to tell a story visually; to those who are experts at navigating the tricky world of filming permissions and the even more sensitive art of timetabling. It is – and will always be – a massive team effort to ensure everything is in place for a short filming window, in which there is never any time for delays.
Who Were The Greeks? was filmed in Greece, Turkey, Sicily and the UK during the Easter vacation of 2013 over approximately 20 days and a team, based in the UK, works through the logistics.
Working in Greece at the moment is not an easy business; every public department, including those responsible for processing filming permissions, is suffering due to the financial cut backs. On top of that, the Greek process is demanding: they insist of seeing a script of what you plan to say in each location at the time of the permission request (which in Greece has to be approximately 50 days before filming commences).
Before I had filmed a documentary, whenever I saw a film crew, I always had the impression they turned up late, sat around talking for a long time and only spent a small time actually filming
Every filming day lasts between 10-13 hours (we filmed on my birthday for 13.5 hours!) including travel to locations, set-up and filming. You work seven days a week, with occasional days off to recover. Before I had filmed a documentary, whenever I saw a film crew, I always had the impression they turned up late, sat around talking for a long time and only spent a small time actually filming! Now that I have been part of several, I realise how much of a miracle it is that we get through the amount we have to cover each day. Set-up discussions can and do take a long time as they decide on camera angles, lighting, fragmentation of a scene, especially since documentary filming is done often with a single camera. That means if you are filming an interview, you have to do the interview focusing on one person and then again on the other person.
Even with the best will in the world, things never go according to schedule. While filming Who Were The Greeks?, we were slated to head to the island of Delos, a tiny speck in the Aegean, but a huge significant island in ancient Greece’s story. In the 24 hours before we were supposed to travel (while we were filming near Vergina in northern Greece), the weather reports indicated that high winds might prevent us from reaching the island. While we filmed, the decision had to be made: do we risk it, risk being delayed and rescheduling the rest of the filming (which took us to Turkey and then Sicily in the space of three days), or do we scrap Delos and come up with a new plan to film those segments somewhere else. That’s what we did and it proved the right thing to do. On the day we were supposed to head to Delos, not a single boat made the trip.
What strikes me more than anything about the filming process is the extraordinary camaraderie that develops amongst the filming team. It is often not the case that you can meet all the team members before you arrive on day one of filming but you are then with them 24/7 for the next 20 days, working on grueling schedules to accomplish a final product. The result of this is a ‘band of brothers’ feeling – whether it be on location filming, following seven hours traveling in a van, after flying between three countries in a single day, or even, dare one say it, when the director calls the wrap party.
And that is not the end of the story. On return from filming, the edit begins. Roughly 20+ hours of shot footage will be delivered to the edit suite where it will be cut together over the next five to seven weeks. During that time, its shape and rhythm is formulated and its argument refined with once again the contributions of a wide-ranging team including the presenter, the director, editor and BBC commissioners. Finally, almost unbelievably, the programme is really wrapped, and ready to broadcast.
It was a privilege to work with the Who Were The Greeks? Team and all of us hope you enjoyed the programme.
Before coming to the University of Warwick, Dr Michael Scott completed his training at Cambridge, where he was also the Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow in ancient history at Darwin College, as well as an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Classics. He has taught widely in the UK and Greece, and his research is focussed on using inter-disciplinary approaches to the literary, epigraphic and material evidence to investigate ancient Greek and Roman society.
Michael also believes passionately in making the ancient world as accessible as possible to a wider audience. Details of his television work, public lectures and research are available at www.michaelscottweb.com and you can leave your thoughts and feedback at www.msfeedback.net.
Image: Dr Michael Scott
Published 25 June 2013
Space and Society in the Greek and Roman World by Dr Michael Scott. Cambridge (2012).