Completed in November 1999, 'The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization' was a major three-year project involving a multi-talented production team drawn from both traditional documentary television and the new media technologies.
Interview with series producer Anthony Geffen on the challenges of making The Greeks:
Creating 'The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization'
Series Producer Anthony Geffen explained in a recent interview how this epic documentary series was made:
"The fourth and fifth centuries BC in Greece were two of the most extraordinary centuries in history. It was a period that saw the birth of science, politics, philosophy and drama; achievements that still shape out world," says filmmaker Anthony Geffen. "As a child I was caught up in the wonderful, mythical stories of The Illiad and The Odyssey . Yet the reality of Greece — for me like so many other children — was buried in a dead language and beautiful pots."
"Over the last 18 years I have traveled the world making films, and almost everywhere, I have seen reflections of this enormously important civilization. Then, three years ago, two things happened which enabled Atlantic Productions to make this documentary series. First, I felt that technology had advanced in ways that would allow us to tell this story. Second, PBS and Devillier Donnegan Enterprises backed my vision and saw this an opportunity to extend the boundaries of pre-archival documentary filmmaking."
Series producer Anthony Geffen uses 21st century technology and techniques to breathe new life into a story that is more than two thousand years old. Geffen is passionate about portraying defining moments in history. Atlantic Productions' previous documentary series include the award-winning The Promised Land - a landmark three part series about the great black migration from south to north America, the story of the mechanization of cotton picking and the subsequent migration of Black Americans to the northern United States, and in 1998, The American Dream - a five part series of the history of the 20th century in the United States told through the voices of three generations of 10 families.
The Greeks created a particular challenge. "History is defined by people, individuals," says Geffen. "The great challenge of The Greeks was that we are dealing with fragments of evidence. This is a period before history was properly recorded indeed it was the era when history was 'invented'. The great individuals of Greece were often not represented: there were not even busts, let alone paintings for some of them. This period was pre-portraiture. We had to undertake two-years of meticulous research, drawing on a team of top academics and experts from around the world. This helped us define the key moments, such as the origin of democracy, and from those the key individuals whose achievements not only shaped Greek history, but were to alter the course of Western civilization. Men such as Themistocles, whose military genius saved Greece from being incorporated into the Persian Empire; and Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Ancient Greece and arguably, the most famous in all history."
"Then we had to devise techniques which would allow us to tell the story through individual characters. The director, Cassian Harrison, developed a style of 'living portraits' which really allowed the audience to follow individuals' stories. This involved the team 0trawling through hundreds of actors trying to identify people who, from our research, could embody these great figures. Ironically, one of the academics advisors, Paul Cartledge, pointed out that these 'living portraits' are probably more accurate representations than some of the busts in the world's great collections."
"This was only the first stage" says Geffen. "Not only did we need to film the original locations of these events in Greece, but he had to make the viewers feel part of history: to see the skyline of Athens in the 5th century BC; to face 100 trireme ships at the Battle of Salamis; to walk into the Parthenon and gaze up at the magnificent, 40-foot statue of Athena." To achieve this, the production team had to bring feature-film techniques to pre-archival filmmaking on a documentary budget. For example, to portray the Spartans burning the Athenian fleet the demise of the Athenian empire the team had to combine original location footage in Greece, with matte-glass artists' work and 3-D computer animation. The team involved special effects experts who had previously worked on films such as Star Wars, Titanic, and Seven Years in Tibet.
At another point in the series, Harrison wanted to capture an impression of the Athenian uprising that led to the origin of democracy. Temporarily inhabiting an abandoned village on the Greek island of Kithera, the production team removed all architectural elements which preceded fifth century Athens: specifically, all the arches that had not been invented at the time. Then working with a designer who had been part of the team that made Saving Private Ryan, they scoured Greek markets and museums to gather all the elements to recreate an accurate representation of Greek life. "I was petrified during filming that someone would knock over a priceless pot and our entire production budget would be shot," says Geffen.
Geffen and Harrison were delighted that PBS and Devillier-Donnegan Enterprises wanted to optimize the production in all aspects, including shooting the film on Super 16 with feature film cinematographer Lee Pulbrook, as well as commissioning original music by Michael Gibbs and Simon Turner, who recorded the soundtrack in Prague with a 70-piece orchestra. The final element for the production was recruiting Liam Neeson to narrate the series. "Not only is Liam a marvelous actor with a terrific voice, his enthusiasm for the project gives the narrative terrific resonance," says Geffen.
"The special is only the beginning. There is a huge body of work underlying this series; drawn from a myriad of academics and experts who have worked with us over the last three years. We have developed several complimentary media, including a book by series consultant Paul Cartledge, a cutting-edge Web site, a DVD-ROM, a CD of the soundtrack, and even a special 'broadband' enhanced television demo developed especially for Intel. As soon as viewers finish watching the special, their journey into ancient Greece has only just begun."
Liam Neeson, series narrator, explains why he wanted to be involved in The Greeks:
"I'd love when people see this extraordinary documentary to kind of feel a sense of belonging to the planet earth; a sense of continuance; a sense of where they came from; a sense of these extraordinary events that happened in the history of this earth since the end of civilization as we know it. This was just something relevant, vital energetic and immediate and I wanted to be part of it. I want my sons to see this, not just because I'm involved, but because it's unique film-making; it's telling this amazing story that's, you know, the cinema of Hollywood cannot equal, you know. They say truth is stranger than fiction and this is the case with this docuementary film.
"I think that a programme like this could only be on PBS because PBS are the only people that could actually do this; do it justice and who really care about people's programme. This programme is right in your face; these people you feel you can reach out and touch and that it happened last Tuesday. It's that immediate. It's incredibly exciting story-telling. Having watched this series, you want to find out more about the Greeks and that world that this TV series will open for you. It's not just a beginning and an end; it's …it actually is a beginning - to find out about these extraordinary people.