Ok – back from the frantic whirl of Vegas to what I’d like to call the real world.
I left London in the biggest snowstorm in 18 years. The snow made the whole of the South East grind to a halt, but for me, the worst problem was the post. Two deliveries I was expecting before I left didn’t arrive – one (a wireless microphone) I could do without, but the other, spare batteries for my new camcorder were essential.
I ended up with a practical, but annoying solution. I had to buy a new camera at the airport just to use as a charger and spare battery. Hopefully I should be able to re-sell it on ebay once I get the new batteries, and not loose to much money.
George is walking
When I got back to London, after a 10 hour flight, Lisa, Sam and George were there to greet me at the airport. George walked over to greet me.
Some time in the last week, he’s made the transition from staggering two steps and then falling over to being able to walk confidently wherever he wants. He’s now fairly steady on his feet and getting steadier every day.
It’s great to see him tottering about…
He’s also getting grumpy – more specifically, he’s crying instantly if he thinks you’re not paying him enough attention. He’s going to need to get over that pretty quickly!
I’ve spent the last week in America following a group of fossil hunters round and making a documentary about their visit to the world’s biggest fossil show and their attempts to dig up a rare species of trilobite…
How did it go? Well….
We arrived in Vegas late, and the place really is larger than life. Everything’s bigger – even the queue for the check in desk at Caesar’s Palace for which we had to stand and wait for an hour and a half before being told they’d “lost” two floors of accommodation.
This seemed a bit careless to me, but still, if there’s one thing that really works in America I’ve found, it’s the ability to make up for it when things go wrong. They instantly offered Lisa and Sam accommodation in another hotel, an upgrade, and free beauty treatments…. I, of course, am working, so stayed only for one night before jetting off on my desert adventure.
There was really just time for dinner and bed as I had to fly out at 6 the following morning.
Met up with Enrico and Luc, two of my fossil hunting companions and documentary stars at Vegas airport for the hour long trip to Pheonix where we immediately got in a car and headed for the fossil show in nearby Tucson (I say nearby – nearby in American terms, so a 3 hour drive. Nearby like Birmingham is Nearby to London).
The Tucson Fossil show is a strange event. All the rooms in several of the town’s hotels have been taken over by fossil sellers – each with their own stall or shop marketing everything from pieces of meteorite to shark’s teeth to dinosaur fossils smuggled illegally out of China or Brazil.
There’s an ambiguity about fossil collecting – in that lots of academics and museums don’t like private collectors and accuse them of removing and damaging important finds. Also, most countries have strange and complex rules about what can and can’t be collected.
However, at the same time, academics and museums don’t have the time or resources to collect much, and a fossil left in the ground once exposed by the weather will quickly erode and be destroyed. In addition, if you took away all the finds made by private collectors from museums, there would be very little left at all…
For this reason, filming is a little dicey. Some stallholders (in fact most) are delighted to be interviewed and to show off their wares. Some are secretive and suspicious. Looking pretty amateur with a small camcorder and mic, and promising not to use anything I didn’t get a release form signed for seemed to placate most of them, but some of the most beautiful collections were pretty much off limits for me and my camera.
The group, Carlo (the collector) Jason and Jake (the diggers), Dave (the fossil preparer) and Enrico and Luc (the scientists) make a good team, and everyone there is enthusiastic. But there’s often confusion about what’s going to happen next, so it’s very difficult for me to plan my shooting. We change our minds two or three times about which day we’re leaving the show.
I’ve taken the decision that this is a rollercoaster. And you ride a rollercoaster, you don’t try to steer it. Instead of coming up with a set of things I plan to shoot to make the story I want to make, I decide to film everything I can, and hope it fits together into something that makes sense.
It’s a documentary and I’m documenting. It means I have to think on my feet and make sure I get the covering shots that will make any potential story I end up wanting to tell work. It’s quite scary in one way, but freeing in another. I have to work for the moment – thinking of ways to combine shots into sequences over which narration can be played before I know what the narration is going to be. I have to constantly ask myself what is happening right now and how can I make it into a sequence of shots without pre-judging what’s going to happen next.
Carlo is rushing from stall to stall, and constantly calling for me to catch up – but I have to get outside shots, and wide shots, and have people sign release forms….
I discover the microphone is making a strange ticking sound, but it’s too late to do anything about it. I’ll have to rely on being able to remove the noise in editing. I also find I’ve lost the screw which attaches my tiny hand held camera to the flycam – a weighted device for steadying my shots. I have to gaffer tape it in place and tear it off each time I need to change the battery or memory card.
Eventually we leave Tucson (coincidentally just when we’d originally planned to) and head back to Vegas. I’ve got a plane ticket, but I go by car instead – taking the opportunity to film as we travel.
After 5 hours on the road, we arrive at Stacy and Jake’s home in Vegas, and Lisa and Sam come over for dinner. This trip is filled with late nights and early mornings, and Carlo asks me to meet them at Caeser’s Palace (where Lisa, Sam and I are staying for tonight) at 6 am. They turn up at 7:30, giving me a chance to take a look around the Strip.
Time here doesn’t seem to make the slightest difference - whether it’s 6am or 6pm on the Las Vegas Strip, the lights still flash, the music still plays everywhere, and the streets and casinos are still full. It’s as though the whole city is dedicated to stopping you from thinking or acting for yourself. “do this now!” screams everything.
I can’t escape the feeling that Vegas is taking up valuable space which could more productively used as desert.
California – the marble mountains
We’ve received information that our original dig site – a town famous for polygamy just outside Vegas is under snow, and so we can’t dig there, so we set off early for California where a more sparsely populated fossil bed allows us the opportunity to search for one of the world’s rarest trilobites.
We reach there around lunch time, and it’s not snowing. But it is raining… something it continues to do on and off for the next two days.
During that time, we find very little, but eat a lot of cold beefburgers and get very wet.
We stay in a couple of really expensive hotels (expensive mainly because we turn up late to book in and have to take whatever’s going) and eventually get rained off the mountain.
That said, I think we’ve done well. We do find one of the rarest trilobites in the world, and there’s a lot of material shot for the documentary. I think I’m beginning to see a story forming in all this….
Back to Vegas again, in time for dinner at New York New York – which Carlo is paying for because he didn’t find the “big find” of the day. Several of the team accidentally order the wrong meal in the chaos and end up with a huge steak and a massive lobster each….
It’s Sam and Lisa’s last night so they’re off doing touristy things and don’t join us. Plans change about four times during the evening and I end up leaving to go and stay with Lisa at about 10:30 leaving Jake on the roulette tables. I hear later that he left about 5 minutes after us anyway….
Somewhere outside Vegas
Our last day is spent two hours outside vegas – in the place we’d originally planned to dig. The snow’s gone. It’s a sunny day and the digging is easy – plus, we’re eating slightly better since the remaining steak and lobster form last night are packed away for lunch. There are lots of fossils in this mountain and soon most of the team (including me) have made finds.
It’s a great day to be out in the mountains, but from a filming point of view, it’s not so good. The fossils here are common ones and there’s not the tension of the previous digs. Jake and Jason, the professional diggers see this as an amateur dig site – lots of fun things to find, but nothing really special like the $10,000 trilobite they found yesterday.
It’s clear to me that the climax of the documentary was yesterday, and I’ve got to find a way to put today’s dig before it in the film – without explicitly saying that it happened in that order. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to make the ending a damp squib.
At the end of the day, it’s agreed we’ve had a good trip. I think I’ve got everything I need – at least I better had!
Over dinner, Carlo starts talking about wanting to dig up a Triceratops. A triceratops is a whole different ball game from a trilobite – for a start, it’s the size of a truck – and for another thing, virtually everywhere you’re likely to find one is filled with men with guns.
Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was serious.