"Nature is beautiful because it looks like Art; and Art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as Art while yet it looks like Nature" - Immanuel Kant
A dream job would be that of film location scout. Imagine having to 'drag' yourself out of bed to head out by helicopter day by day to find spectacular cinematic landscapes fit for The Lord of the Rings…Or what about the makers of Lost having to trawl the length and breadth of Hawaii to for desert island beaches and pristine jungle with mountain backdrops…I suppose being an adventure photographer disposes me somewhat towards fulfilling this fantasy. I get to look for appropriately engaging locations where I can hope to create a narrative angle in cinematic perspective! I am fascinated by the craft of film-making and delve into the literature for inspiration and to uncover some of the hidden gems of detail about how certain memorable shots were achieved. It always adds something when I discover a little known fact about a place I already have an affinity towards, and which captures my imagination and elevates the status of this place to more mythical proportions.
An area I came upon a couple of years back and had no idea existed sits in a corner of an island I was never particularly stimulated by. Though over time it is growing on me as I explore further. If anything less for it’s inherent grandeur as the views it affords of the mainland. I am talking of the Isle of Anglesey off the north-west tip of Wales. Being a neighbour of Snowdonia national park, which scenically punches above its weight, the jewel of north Wales, I have perhaps not given Anglesey the benefit of the doubt in the past. It is largely flat or gently undulating for a start. I seek height, mountains, spectacle. What it does have is a stunning coastline however, and in places, spectacular cliffs, particularly around the climbing mecca of Gogarth, and the drama of Rhoscolyn and Holyhead mountain. It could also rightfully claim to be a world-class destination for sea kayaking and general water-borne adventure activities!
An intriguing anecdote attracted my attention recently whilst reading an account of the filming of perhaps my favourite film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The author, Michael Benson (Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the making of a masterpiece), recounts how a junior member of the production team (literally the tea boy), hit upon the perfect opportunity to elevate status, find favour with Stanley Kubrick, and launch his career in the film industry. Andrew Birkin, who went on to later find success as a director and screenwriter, capitalised on a technical problem that the visual effects department were having in rendering background landscapes to complement interior shots of some opening scenes in the movie. This centres round the prologue set in a prehistoric period of human evolution, some 4 million years before the present, and representing the African desert. Kubrick, the obsessive genius, was renowned for his reticence to travel. Though hailing from New York, he lived in quiet seclusion in Hertfordshire, would not fly and insisted on driving everywhere at a steady 29 miles per hour. Nevertheless, he sought to use locations within the UK for any necessary exterior scenes, irrespective of where this was meant to portray - on this world or any other. (His later film about the Vietnam war, Full Metal Jacket, used a gasworks near central London to portray war torn in-country ‘nam, as well as Cambridgeshire locations standing in for a US Marine training camp.)
Now Kubrick had already dispatched a team the length and breadth of the country, and in particular to northern Scotland to ‘find a desert’. This was clearly based on a somewhat naïve belief that such a thing could be found in the British Isles (especially given the north’s proclivity for incessant wet weather!). To no avail, and to much cost and time spent by production assistants. Yet the young Birkin saw an opportune moment to step in, when observing that the art department’s matte background paintings looked too much like…well, paintings. He had seen in a book his mother kept at home a landscape somewhere in Wales that he was convinced would be the desert that Kubrick was seeking. So the anecdote goes, he headed up on a train out of London into Wales, with 20 pounds in his pocket, and before the day was done had located his ‘desert’, taken numerous polaroids from different perspectives, and headed back to London and Borehamwood studios, depositing these on Kubrick’s desk. This greatly impressed the auteur and immediately elevated Birkin to the status of official location scout for this huge Hollywood movie destined to be a monument of 20th Century cinema.
So where was this ‘desert’? I was pleasantly surprised to find the name ‘Newborough Warren’ cropping up in this account. I had discovered such a place in a book myself a couple of years ago, and checked it out as a pleasant diversion on a blustery day. Expecting a thin stretch of sand, some dunes, and a grey Irish Sea that is redolent of these parts, I was quite blown away with what I found. The place tantalises from the offset as one approaches down a stretch of road through a large tract of forest that leads right to the sand. The beach at Newborough stretches for some miles left and right in a wide sweeping bay. To the north this curves round to a spit of land and from thence into a large and barren estuarine plain of. This encompasses a largish tract of forestland (the preserve of red squirrels), and it’s equally large tract of sand dunes and marshland being a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. https://www.visitanglesey.co.uk/en/things-to-do/activities/wildlife-newborough-forest-and-warren/#.XH8FC4j7Q2w
What really crowns this natural area of beauty is this spit of land that strikes out into Caernarfon Bay and is known as Llanddwyn Island (for it is tidally accessible). This is a grassy spur with rocky inlets and small but impressive crags. These seem as if battlements for a prominent lighthouse, as well as hosting various whitewashed cottages and outbuildings. Looking south from here across the surf an impressive scene encompasses a backdrop of Snowdonia’s distant mountains. On a sunny day with rippling blue sea one could be forgiven for thinking one is somewhere (even) more exotic in far off lands, tropical seas and mysterious mountainous isles. Hence it’s potential as ‘stand-in’ for far off climes…
The ‘Warren’ that Birkin found, accurately refers to an area to the south of the main beach, being a long sand bar that stretches for miles. This is boundaried by the Menai Straits reaching out into the Irish Sea. By all accounts, and by the magic of cinema and the imagination facilitated through crafty use of lens and camera angle, this area was deemed most suitable by the fledgling production assistant. To the extent that the World’s Greatest Film Director thought it the perfect ‘desert’ needed to stand in for 4 million BC Africa!
I must confess to not having seen the connection in my mind’s eye, but it is impetus to revisit and look afresh on this scenery. But the point being made is how we can bring to a landscape, or any scene in the real world, a novel perspective fuelled by the imagination and framed through our perceptual apparatus. And with this we can revel and immerse in the unfolding scene to create a fresh and meaningful narrative that inspires and motivates further opportunity for exploration. To paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the doyen of Aesthetics: to appreciate beauty in nature (or indeed art) one brings one’s imagination to bear upon the scene to unlock that beauty. I have written elsewhere (see ‘SCIENCE’), about the notion of ‘environmental affordance’. This refers to how the world ‘out there’ provides key information that, catalysed by the brain and our mechanisms of cognition and perception, enables a perspective to be formed regarding functional (i.e. what can I do within and to the environment) and aesthetic (what is the impression is has upon me, emotionally, artistically) aspects of the environment we are privy to.
I draw upon filmmaking as well as photography to view landscapes and interesting natural scenes through the lens of the imagination. This can give new purpose to visiting locations with great potential for adventure activities, and embellish the experience in vivid ways. It also helps to think upon how others with creative vision have ‘repurposed’ the landscape to fit into a grander picture and narrative. A valuable component of perspective is of course trying to envisage how others have seen a place, not just for what it is inherently, but what it could be, what it could represent. In my next post I will continue this theme of film location scouting. This concerns how the same fellow pushed the envelope further into more adventurous photography for some of the most pivotal scenes for which 2001 was famous. This time in the far north of Scotland, and to especially ‘psychedelic’ purposes. I’ll also briefly mention how I recently got involved in a professional shoot involving glorious Lake District locations using that most modern of technologies, Virtual Reality, and so did somewhat fulfil my fantasy on location…(see also my blog piece under SCIENCE concerning the utility of VR in changing perspective and behaviour and understanding perceived experience).