Take me to the rocks

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Dr Sebastian Lüning (Germany)

I am a geologist by profession. Everyday of my working life, I have worked with rocks, from nine to five, for 19 years, looking for oil and gas in the Sahara. Sometimes this is stressful, sometimes really enjoyable and sometimes simply annoying – just like any other job. However, I’ll tell you a little secret about what I do in my limited spare time to refresh my mind and recharge my batteries for another day. I am so in love with my rocks that I am also a hobby geologist.

I just cannot keep away from the rocks.

There are plenty of interesting fields open to amateur geologists and palaeontologists to indulge in. Most popular are probably collecting minerals and fossils, including visiting quarries and searching beaches for new specimens. However, my hobby is focused on regional geology. I love to understand the earth history of a particular area, by visiting its outcrops and reading the regional geological descriptions that have been published about it. That is, I like to look behind the scenes of a modern landscape to understand how it was shaped and what lies underneath. I drive and walk through my object of study to understand its dimensions, distances and height. At one moment, I can pay attention to millimetre-sized fossils and, a few minutes later, be enjoying a panorama across kilometre-scale valleys shaped by ice.

I am convinced there are many other amateur geologists, who share my passion for an integrated view of regional earth history. Their backgrounds may be extremely different – fossil collectors, who want to understand the geological context of their finds; hikers, who want to know more about the natural forms they are traversing; or mining fans, who want to understand how the coal, gold and iron ores, which are worked deep in the belly of the earth, have been formed.

However, it is also quite time-consuming. Travelling, logistical preparations, and obtaining and reading the right literature all takes time and substantially reduces one’s holiday allowance. It can also cost quite a bit of money and, on top of all this, in some regions, there is the risk of bad weather – regional geology in the pouring rain can be dreadful.

Fig. 1. Geological excursion into the heart of the Sahara in Southeast Libya.

So, why endure all these inconveniences when there are thousands of nicely written and illustrated regional geology books available, which can be read at home, in the comfort of a dry and cosy chair? Well, to be honest, for me that’s not what it is all about. While books and papers might satisfy the initial hunger for geological information, nevertheless, they can make tough reading, including having to deal with places one has never heard of and with dozens of weird formation names – all very confusing. In fact, during my university days, I hated earth history and regional geology lectures – I found them really boring.

However, as I have suggested, regional geology can actually be very interesting. All you need to do is just get a geological excursion guidebook and off you go, enjoying the trip, site by site. See and touch the rocks yourself; understand the context. Buy an ice cream in the next town and reflect on what you have just seen. There is nothing better than seeing the real thing. And yet, there is another way of enjoying regional geology, seeing the outcrops, and understanding the exciting story of how the rocks and landscape once formed, all at a price of a cinema ticket on a cold, rainy January night. This is ‘geo-movies’.

Fig. 2. The expedition falcon.

One day, my friend and colleague, Markus, suggested to me that filmmaking could be good fun. He had even researched the topic a bit and had found out which camera to buy and which software to use. However, I knew nothing about the film business, but I liked the idea and agreed to join him. Had I known at this point what filmmaking really meant, I might have thought twice about saying “yes”, but deep in my heart, I still don’t regret embarking on this multimedia journey.

Initially, we needed filming equipment. As we wanted to make documentary films for larger audiences, we couldn’t just use the cheapest kit. Top of the shopping list was a good camera. We went for the Canon XM2, a small semi-professional model that TV crews use as a backup camera. And, we needed a fast computer, lots of monitors, video-editing software, microphones, and tapes and so on.  I told my wife that these were business investments and that, soon, the costs would be recovered and profit would be waiting just around the next corner. That is, geo-movies are exactly what the world has been waiting for!

Fig. 3. The geological moviemaker at his workplace.

As a first filming project, we chose a one-week geological fieldtrip to Morocco, organised by the Manchester-based, North Africa Research Group. I filmed a lot and it was all very exciting. Most of all, I tried to show the viewers as much as possible. I moved the camera along the horizon from left to right and then back to the left. Then, I zoomed through the whole zooming range, backwards and forwards. I took the viewers with me while walking around. Of course, I hadn’t brought any tripod with me. A tripod? What’s a tripod for? And, as it was a geology film, there was no space for people, only rocks and mostly distant shots at that. I was convinced that this was exactly what the viewers were looking for.

It now seems that we had chosen the hard way of learning. Initially, we had no idea how to compose a picture, that is, which shots would work and which wouldn’t. We had no idea about how to move a camera without causing seasickness in the audience or how to tell a story in a movie format that captures people’s imaginations, by involving both their brains and hearts. It was early days. Back home, it was a good training exercise to make a film out of all those raw video shots, and it was good experience to add commentary and some music. Admittedly, the best scene was probably the ten-minute recording of the snake charmer show held one evening, at our hotel. However, I am pretty sure that only a handful of people probably have ever managed to watch this trial-and-error film from beginning to end. My eternal thanks to all of them!

Fig. 4. Trace fossil Spirophyton, Devonian, Jebel Eghei, western margin of the Kufra Basin, Southeast Libya.

After all of this, I it was clear to me that filmmaking was not that straightforward. There was still a lot to learn on the artistic side, but I also discovered that the technological side was full of traps. Software that refused to talk to the camera and unintentionally deleted audio tracks discovered just before completing the movie, were all par for the course, not to mention strange, interlaced, stripy patterns on the final master DVD and numerous error messages, to name but a few. It takes a while to get the flow of work for filmmaking fully under control. Problems usually surface when you least expect them or just before important presentations and the only thing that went smoothly during this phase was – the geology. The love for the rocks kept us going.

Fig. 5. Silurian Cruziana, trilobite traces, Akakus Formation, northern Jebel Asba, eastern margin of the Kufra Basin, Southeast Libya.

According to a certain filmmaking beginner’s book, it takes about ten films before the first really good and economically successful movie comes out of the production line. This encouraged me to start straightaway on movie No. 2, even though there was no light to be seen at the end of the tunnel of No. 1. I shot the scenes for movie No. 2 during a five-day trip to the southern Libyan Desert, where some colleagues and I carried out geological fieldwork. By this time, I had learned my lesson and took a lightweight tripod with me. The quality of the scenes improved dramatically. I avoided wild panning and zooming, and mixed panorama scenes with lots of close-ups.

And I had learned another thing – even in geology movies, there has to be more than just rocks. Rock footage needs to be mixed with shots of interesting people, funny animals, fast-racing four-wheel-drive cars, sunsets and lots of other non-geological items. We were quite lucky because the research done on the Libyan trip was extremely fruitful and we discovered signs of an important, Silurian petroleum source rock at outcrop, which had never been described before. Therefore, we had an excellent story at our fingertips and, despite all the technicalities, an exciting story is, of course, the most important basis of a good movie. In addition, we received unexpected help from our desert guide who, on day 3, lost his way and guided us straight into an ocean of sand dunes. We struggled for three hours to get back out, fearing for our lives, but it gave us great action footage that no film writer could have ever have better imagined.

Back home, editing the film was good fun, but took ages. Partly, this was because everything had to be done during numerous, short, evening sessions in our spare time and, partly, because we had to illustrate some complex geology using some extra graphics. We had to show simplified drawings of our geological field sections, facies maps and animated clips of the depositional history of the areas explored. In the end, Markus created some wonderful flash animation, which turned the film into an easily digestible scientific ‘paper’ in multimedia format and the viewers seem to like the film, judged from the favourable feedback we received.

In fact, the only question we received, again and again, was about the purpose of a certain sleeping mattress that featured strongly in the gamma ray measurement scenes. While this was only there to protect the gamma-ray spectrometer from overheating, it did show us that our key geological messages were understood. Therefore, mission was accomplished. Admittedly, the target audience of such a multimedia ‘paper’ is rather small – oil explorers interested in Saharan geology and people who like organic-rich sediments – and there are precious few of those around. To make matters worse, most of these people have no idea the film exists. Nevertheless, even years after its publication, the film is still being sold, at a rate of one copy every three months. Content-wise, we thought it was a good start, even though the project only repaid about 10% of the cost it took to make.

Fig. 6. Paleocene-Eocene carbonates in the Murzuq Basin, southwest Libya.

It was clear to us that the next geology movie should address a larger audience – tourists and ‘friends of nature’, who want to know more about the origin of the landscapes they visit. Once again, Morocco seemed suitable, firstly, because millions of tourists come to Morocco from all over Europe every year and, secondly, Morocco’s geology is diverse and exciting. Additionally, at the time, we had a research project to carry out in Morocco, so we had to go there anyway.

From the previous project, we had learned that one needs a lot of video footage, so that later, during the editing process, one has a large supply of video from which to choose only the best scenes. Without such an oversupply, one can easily run out of useable coverage on certain subjects. Therefore, we planned for two weeks of non-stop filming. We consulted travel guidebooks, books on the natural wonders of the world and scientific papers. We talked to lots of people and searched the Internet to identify geological sites that are attractive to tourists. By the end, we seemed to have covered the entire earth science history of the country.

Fig. 7. Lava flow on Cumbre Vieja, La Palma.

Already, this planning phase was hugely exciting and nearly as enjoyable as the trip itself. We sketched out a route starting at the coast in southern Morocco, through the High Atlas and terminating in the Middle Atlas in the north. Highly motivated, we flew out to Casablanca, ready to film fascinating waterfalls and deep canyons in the High Atlas the next day. Unfortunately, the airline managed to lose one of our bags and this was the one with the new tripod in it, which we had bought for optimum camera support.

Fig. 8. View into the Caldera de Taburiente, La Palma.

We were shocked. The next morning, we visited nearly every photography shop in Casablanca in the search for a decent replacement. Most offered toy-type tripods, which were good for stationary video scenes, but unsuitable for movement. So, we decided to wait for the delivery of the bag instead. Nevertheless, as the timetable was tight, we had to start filming straightaway. Therefore, we drove to Marrakech and then into the Jurassic limestones of the High Atlas. A hotel pillow served as a camera support. This was not ideal, but somehow it worked. After a good day’s filming, we called the airline but, by day three, the bag had still not turned up, so we purchased one of the toy tripods. This was a start and the hotel must have been happy to have their pillow back, even though it now looked a little different. Fortunately, the rest of the trip ran rather smoothly and we enjoyed the great Moroccan geology – visiting caves, volcanoes, blow holes and many more geological highlights.

Fig. 9. Dykes in Caldera de Taburiente, La Palma.

Then, we produced English and German versions of the film, and received a lot of very positive feedback. In fact, it looked as if we had succeeded in producing an entertaining documentary movie on a geological subject, for a wider, non-specialist audience. And yet, the project struggled greatly because of our inability to market the movie. We attempted to sell the DVD through our website, which largely failed due to lack of marketing skills and budget. Also, we could not interest any TV station in broadcasting it, because we did not have any connections and were too shy to hunt editors down by telephone or personal visits. And, maybe, the subject was still too specialised. How much geology can normal people cope with? Finally, it dawned on us that one should not call geology “geology” when attempting to sell a film on the subject!

Fig. 10. Lava Flow, La Palma.

However, we were far from giving up. Somehow, we always managed to find sponsors willing to give us some finance, which we could use to make business trips and to keep on using our existing equipment. And, most importantly, we were thinking hard about how to sell geology stories successfully. Checking out the TV schedules, it became clear that 90% of all earth science on TV focuses on the ‘Big Three’: volcanoes, earthquakes and dinosaurs. If you can make sure one has at least one of these guys in your movie, you’ll do fine. Or, better still, include two of them, to be extra sure.

Fig. 11. Steep flanks of La Palma.

After some heavy thinking, we found the ideal story – the exciting history of the volcanic island of La Palma – beautiful nature, excellent outcrops and one of the world experts on this island sitting in our own institute (Professor Andreas Klügel at the University of Bremen, in Germany). On top of this, we could refer to the great shocker (particularly in the light of current tragic events in Japan) of a possible tsunami threat caused by potential collapse of the volcano flank.

Fig. 12. Taburiente River, La Palma.

Shooting the movie on La Palma was very enjoyable and, yet, we kept learning the hard way. We had not paid enough attention to the seasonal weather forecast, as January and February (the months we were there) are generally the wettest on La Palma. Nevertheless, we managed to hike down the fascinating Caldera de Taburiente (which, in fact, is not a caldera but a collapse feature) and we walked along the 20km-long, Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge, full of young, volcanic cones.

Back home, we interspersed the volcano scenes with expert interviews and, to further improve the human element side of things, we featured strongly the eruptional history of the island and its effects on the local population. Another improvement was the upgrade from 2D to 3D animated clips. The result was that people told us that we had made a good film – it was the first comprehensive summary of the volcanic history of La Palma, for people who love geology and nature, but who are not geologists. And still, our lack of marketing skills may have strongly contributed to the overall financial failure of the La Palma film project.

Fig. 13. Volcanic ash and lava flows, La Palma.

So, what are the true chances of making geology movies? What has to be done to make them a success – scientifically, artistically and economically?

Fig. 14. Volcanic rocks, La Palma.

First of all, the science referred to in the film has to be checked and double-checked. The initial draft is usually based on numerous different sources and, as every journalist knows well, not all sources are reliable. Add to this the fact that, while the same piece of information can be found in other articles, websites and books, repetition may mean nothing. Authors tend to copy content from each other, including factual errors. Therefore, to be on the safe side, it is absolutely necessary to run the script past one or several experts. Filmmaking is very time-consuming and it is impossible to correct mistakes later on. Even if the film is a great work of art and fascinates the viewers, if the facts are wrong, the film has failed.

Fig. 15. Drilling for science in Libyan Sahara.

Second, there is the artistic side of filmmaking. This simply takes time to learn, though a little bit of talent can’t do any harm. However, there are so many things to consider: how do I best hold the camera, when to use the electronic stabiliser and when not to, and how do I shorten a lengthy scene? However, there are some good books available on how to make video shots and how to edit scenes. On the film script side, the text has to be based on a good story that is arranged in an interesting manner, including elements of suspense and humour.

Complicated geological issues have to be simplified to a degree that they become readily understandable to the general audience, without losing their original character or being overly simplistic. Independent filmmaking requires genuine, multi-artistic skills: if you can combine being a painter, photo-artist, musician and poet, filmmaking will be easy for you. For everybody else (including myself), it means learning the hard way.

Fig. 16. Ordovician trace fossils near Wau El Kebir, eastern margin of the Murzuq Basin, southern Libya.

The third condition for a successful geo-movie concerns the business side of things. This should never be neglected. The easiest way would be to finance all technical equipment, music rights, travel expenses, narrator recording and DVD reproduction oneself and treat it all as a costly hobby. Good, if you can afford to. However, if this is likely to burst your private budget, it may be wise to look for sponsors, such as companies, museums and other, similar organisations. For my latest film (unfortunately, Markus had left Bremen before this movie started and is now living in Stavanger in Norway), I managed to get five oil companies onboard, who kindly sponsored the production of a training movie on the petroleum geology of southern Libya. The companies benefited by receiving useful training material and by being able to show national officials that they care about the production of suitable training materials for local geologists. This paid for most for my expenses, although not my time spent on the project.

Fig. 17. Filming earth history in the Sahara.

Once production costs are covered by sponsoring partners, the need to generate large revenues on the sales side falls away. Therefore, prices can be kept at reasonable levels and a certain number of DVDs can be even donated free of charge to students and interested researchers. Publication and DVD distribution is best done through a publishing house because it will have the infrastructure to distribute the DVDs professionally, get them onto Amazon, and deal with payments and shipments. They also have the marketing skills and connections that help to inform the potential target audience about the existence of such videos. This means less hassle for the filmmaker, who now has more time for making new movies. Or simply to relax! Alternatively, he or she may simply wish to upload the movie onto websites such as YouTube and show it free to the world.

Fig. 18. What kind of rock could this be?

My most recent film project (and in-house training film that is not available to the public) took me once again into the Sahara. Contrasting with earlier films from this region, this latest ‘movie’ has been shot in only a very small part of this vast desert – an area of 250m by 250m. While working for one week on an onshore drilling rig, I used the opportunity to capture on videotape a whole roundtrip of the oil drillers’ workflow. The scenes filmed at the rig now form the basis of a training movie entitled Introduction to Petroleum Drilling for Non-Drillers. This time, I was clearly not taking any chances, as 99.9+% of the earth’s population are “Non-Drillers” and, therefore, the potential target audience for this movie was huge!

Fig. 19. Granite landscape in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas.

Another project I am currently working on is a comprehensive documentary on the geology of Lower Saxony in northern Germany. Starring in this movie are popular geological sites, such as famous cliffs, karst caves and granitic canyons, covering the entire the earth history of northern Germany. The journey starts in the Devonian with the atoll island limestones of the Hercynian Harz Mountains, leads on by way of the Permian salt lakes of the Southern Permian Basin to the post-glacial evolution of the North Sea coastline and the migration of the Frisian barrier islands.

Compared to our earlier movies, this film is a bit different. It is the first project completely filmed and processed in high-definition video format (HDV). However, more importantly, to film this movie, there has been no need to travel huge distances. The sites are just around the corner from where I live and work, so that filming could be broken up into individual day trips.

And, because of their proximity, these trips could be scheduled flexibly based on local weather forecasts. No longer had the whole video footage to be shot during one journey. In addition, the movie also unexpectedly showed me something else. I was surprised to see just how interesting the local geology of one’s own neighbourhood can be. Researching the story, writing the script and setting out to capture the scenes on video was great fun, as I now see the area with new eyes.

Fig. 20. Rocks alone do not make a good story.

It takes ten movies to become a successful filmmaker, the beginners’ book says. Meanwhile, I am working on my seventh movie. So, it will still take a while before I produce my first blockbuster. To achieve this goal, I may have to change the subject from ‘rocks’ to ‘rock’n’roll’ or some other more popular genre. However, I have to admit that this will be complicated, because I love geology and geology film making. Therefore, I may renounce fame and wealth, and continue to video volcanoes, dinosaur footprints and coal pits, in the hope that you will join me on these adventures. I really do hope that I can also take you to the rocks.

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