In 1923, the largest Hollywood film set ever created was buried under tons of sand in the Southern Californian desert.
The pillars, temples and sphinxes created for the Cecil B DeMille epic The Ten Commandments could not be moved at the end of filming so the director ordered trenches to be dug and the massive props covered for ever by the shifting sands.
Now a film, a recipient of the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) Award, and produced by a Goldsmiths university lecturer, has breathed new life into this long-forgotten Hollywood story.
In his visually stunning production And If In A Thousand Years, Patrick Hough, the director and creator, has created a highly conceptual moving image artwork blending expert cinematography with cutting-edge technology to re-create some of the ancient props.
The film focusses on one of DeMille’s unique sphinxes, taking the viewer on a journey of self-discovery from the excavated ruins of the original set, to the museum in which it now resides.
“From a cinematic sense, you get a sweeping, epic feel from the work and you get taken on this narrative arc of the film,” Hough told Eastlondonlines. “There was a kind of emotional impact I wanted to have, using dramatic music scores as a sort of echo from the cinematic epics of Hollywood in the 1920s and the Golden Age in the 1950s.”
At 27 years old, Hough’s vision to create the film was realised in May 2016 when he was given the Jerwood/FVU Award for his concept.
The award grants £20,000 and full production support from FVU to create a proposed film over the course of 10 months to two moving-image artists in the first five years of their careers.
“I wrote it in my dissertation as a theoretical idea, but over the years I wanted to do more,” explained Hough. “I took a research trip with my brother and met with people and specialists who took us through the history of the site.
“That was a step forward to forming a fully realised film so I started looking for funding. It would have happened regardless of winning the award but it would not have had the same level of finesse.”
Producing the film and bringing over 20 years of experience to the project was Tracy Bass, producer and senior lecturer in Filmmaking at Goldsmiths university who spoke to ELL about the project. “When the project came in, it was incredibly complex. Patrick and Steven Bode, director of Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) were looking for someone who had experience and could handle something of this scale.
“The concept pitched to me explored Cecil B. DeMille’s buried film set from the 1923 black and white silent movie The Ten Commandments,” Bass explained. “The film was made in the Californian desert and was the largest set ever built for Hollywood at the time. When the film wrapped, due to the scale of the production, they were unable to move the artefacts back to Hollywood and DeMille ordered trenches to be dug and the set buried in the desert sand. However, in recent years, part of a Sphinx was exhumed when a team of archaeologists began excavating the site.
“The project immediately fascinated me,” she said. “Figuring out the creative approach to the concept was going to be a journey in itself, but my commitment was cemented when I met the artist and felt a real emerging talent.”
Bass went on to explain some of the challenges of producing the film on such a tight budget and time frame: “What we were trying to do was make an ambitious film on a small budget. I had to bring on board an extremely experienced and dedicated film team who would want to help realise Patrick’s vision and work with us on the film, which meant a post-production team commitment from November 2016 until March 2017.”
“We had to film in the Californian desert on a site in a conservation area,” she said.
“You cannot take equipment past a certain point as they were excavating the sphinxes. We needed a dedicated and super-fit crew who could haul state of the art film equipment safely and comfortably, as it was a 90-minute walk to the location in the dunes before you could start filming.
“Another challenge was to create the sphinx, a focal point of the film; masterfully crafted using CGI technology and beautifully voiced with a poetic and compelling script, read by actress Lisa Dwan.”
The film explores the awakening of a Sphinx buried after the film in 1923. It goes on an existential journey whereby the Sphinx comes back as a digital version and discovers itself being excavated. Eventually the two come face to face in the museum.
The film uses a complex technology called LiDAR, cleverly executed by Chris Manning at APR, London. It is a remote sensing method which takes segments of solid matter and uses them to generate 3D images. In this case, LiDAR was used to show what the world might look like to the Sphinx.
“We scanned the whole area including the desert, which was an uncharted way of using the technology” Bass said.
“The raw data was then pushed into a new realm and beautifully animated by Ric Comline and his creative team at BlindPig London, pushing the boundaries of the film and allowing a sophisticated platform for sound design to be explored.”
Patrick Hough’s And If In A Thousand Years premiered on March 21, 2017 at Jerwood Space, SE1 and is touring the country throughout the year.
Applications are now open for the Jerwood/FVU awards 2018 for moving-image artists looking for a springboard into a successful career.