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The making of Living In The Past
This film won a Gold Standard award and a prize for Most Effective Commentary.

In travel documentaries (which seem to be my current speciality) a well written and delivered commentary is essential.

With luck the sunshine will provide the colours, the locations will provide the background, the people will provide the action and the music will provide the mood. But the commentary is necessary to provide the information. How many times have we sat in an audience and wondered where was the location for the video, who were the participants and what was the historical background to the event?

Michael Gough in Rome.
It is a delicate part of the research to decide exactly how much information is essential, which information is confusing and at what point in the film do we share that information. It is just as bad to give audiences too much information at the wrong time as to leave their minds wandering asking questions for which you provide no answers.
Picture of the Colosseum. Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'.

Our visit to Rome was for one week. It was first and foremost a holiday during which I would shoot some video and hope to turn it into something attractive on the editing bench. I had done enough pre-holiday research to ensure that I did not miss anything. I bought a good guidebook and map before we went and had checked out the location of the obvious places that no self-respecting tourist would want to miss. Rome is a very easy city to walk around so a good map is useful.

Even the best guide books sometimes disguise the actual sensation of arrival. I was not prepared for the fact that in Rome you have great difficulty in avoiding tripping over historical antiquities. They are everywhere ... as the commentary says … "around every corner". At the same time you have problems avoiding being run over by speeding cars. It was this juxtaposition of history and modern pace that gave me my title "Living in the Past". That idea came to me very early on in the holiday and some shots were deliberately taken to illustrate both.

Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'.

While I was there I was already mentally structuring the different historical elements of this "Eternal City". In the final edit I retained sequences of ancient Rome, religious Rome and some famous Piazzas and fountains. However I cut out possible sequences about the different town planning designs of Michelangelo and Mussolini. I dropped the visit to the Sistine Chapel which could only be described in still photos and any reference to the legend of Romulus and Remus even though I had filmed the statue. In other words editing the story is as vital as editing the pictures.

Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'.

The moment comes to write the commentary. I have always believed that it is essential to do it in your own words. You can easily recognise when a chunk of turgid guidebook prose is being read aloud. That's not how we tell our workmates how much we enjoyed our holiday. We are enthusiastic, we create images in words and we concentrate on the essential elements of our story. We seldom tell our friends a boring list of dates and statistics so why should we repeat them in a commentary? Instead we tell that fascinating little detail about Michelangelo creeping in at night to carve his name on his first statue, because no-one knew him. Those are the stories that amuse audiences. So I eventually put aside the guide books and start writing in my own words about the stories that I had absorbed.

The difficulty is getting that first sentence onto paper. If you have got it right the rest should flow. You should always re-read your commentary many times, and change words if necessary but in this case my first sentence remained unedited into the final script. "All cities are built on the foundations of their past but nowhere is this more obvious than in Rome". It perfectly set the scene and the eventual structure of the video.

Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'.

Commentaries eventually have to be read aloud. During the writing process I find lots of opportunities to actually say the words. They may not work as well when spoken as they appear on paper. I take time to tweak the words, changing emphasis and pauses so that they flow more naturally. I always write and record the commentary before I actually edit the pictures. The recording takes places in one go, with any errors being deleted on the timeline. I record it in as comfortable situation as possible, in a style that is almost conversational. (For more details see my web article on filming in Hawaii.)

The introductory passage to Rome is quite wordy in a very generalised way. It sets the scene and introduces the phrase "Eternal City" which will be alluded to in the final sentence to round off the structure. It gives the excuse for a random montage of old and new images. Some are chosen to illustrate particular sentences, a tourist sweeping the landscape with her arm illustrates that "you don't need a guidebook to search out Rome's past history".

The background music changes from modern Italian to a throbbing historical beat (both from the AKM music catalogue) as the voice takes us back in time. The emphasis on the word "Roman" is deliberate. The voice used should have colour and tone throughout. I am trying to entice my audience's interest not send them to sleep. When I speak of "the noise and the smell" of death in the Colosseum my nose almost wrinkles with the imagined sensation. Someone recently kindly commented on how I "act" my commentaries. I had never thought of it in that sense but it is true. As I record the commentary I gesture, grimace, claw at words with my hands, and use my whole body. Probably the most essential element is to smile. You can't speak entertainingly with a sulky face.

There are a lot of words in this video, hopefully not too many. However all audiences deserve a break. Videos need changes of pace and moments to reflect. The pauses in a commentary need to be as well-scripted as the words. In this film there are a variety of musical moments, Roman Triumphal Arches cut to the beat, a choir in the Pantheon, local café musicians and a gentle interlude of fountains.

Still from 'Living in the Past'. Still from 'Living in the Past'.

Finally I like to use commentary to structure my films with some kind of themed loop. Here the key concept was time. The title uses the word "past", modern traffic illustrates "the present", and superstitions at the Trevi Fountain are to ensure a return in "the future". The final sentence describes "A city where the romance of the past is "Eternal".

Hopeful the time passes easily for my audience. I think the final 12 minutes is just about right to give a taste of the city. Hopefully some members of the audience will be tempted to visit Rome themselves. It is well worth it.

- Michael Gough    March 2006

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