By Al Caudullo, 3DGuy Productions
As we pushed against the crush of people crowding into Beijing ‘s Forbidden City, I began to ask myself whether it was all worthwhile – the crowds, our tight schedule, the maze-like layout of this otherwise mesmerising site. Not to mention hauling our Panasonic AG-3DA1 camera with the NanoFlash 3D, a Sony HDR TD10 camera that was intended only for behind-the-scenes shots, and GoPro Hero 3D rig and the assortment of memory cards, batteries, filters, tripods and a monopod that accompany us on every trip.
Suddenly, I had my answer. Our Chinese guide, Michael, pushed us through a series of gates – some of which were so tight they produced a sense of claustrophobia – until we came into an appealing open courtyard. This had to be the intent of the original architects. It couldn’t ‘t be an accident that we found such ready relief from the gates and so immediately saw our spirits elevated. But there was an even greater discovery resting just across from us.
A Master of Chinese Calligraphy
Essentially, what lay before us looked like a studio of some sort. We quickly found ourselves led to the workroom of a master of Chinese calligraphy. Spread out before us, was a beautiful array of silk scrolls decorated with the ancient way of writing Chinese text that has been elevated to an art form. And the master before us had a tale to relate to us that was as fascinating as the calligraphy itself.
According to our host, he had retired from a career in the government to pursue his love of ancient Chinese tradition, in particular his admiration and reverence for calligraphy. And he also claimed an even more intimate relationship to the art. For one of the greatest influences on the development of Chinese calligraphy was the reform measures that Chinese emperors took to standardise the characters. And the elder before us was purported to be a nephew of the last emperor of China, Puyi. Also clustered throughout the studio were photos of the master with several Chinese and foreign dignitaries. This was certainly a far cry from the fate of Puyi himself, who died in relative obscurity in 1967, while facing the wrath of Mao ‘s Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960s.
The Four Treasures of Study
Chinese calligraphy is as old as China itself, stretching back some 4000 years. Over the millennia it developed many different variations and styles. But it was the intervention of the emperors and the standardisation they imposed that gave calligraphy the firm grounding on which to grow into an established art form. While today it is the handwritten calligraphy that imparts magic and artistry through the ink brush, ink stone, ink, and paper (or the Four Treasures of Study, as they are known), it was the application of printing technology, such as wooden or clay printing blocks, that allowed character standardisation to thrive and a stable set of characters to emerge.
Now, over fifteen centuries after the idea of the Four Treasures of Study had first taken root in China, we were observing the preservation and maintenance of this art form right before our eyes. To Westerners such as we, it was an instruction in the art of patience, detail, and subtlety as much as it was calligraphy. The master, meanwhile, worked with a fluidity and studied control that amazed everyone. Beneath the heavy wooden beams and shadows nesting in the ceiling, we felt ourselves plunged back in time, into an era when the creators of this art followed an exacting regimen to communicate in a fashion that still seems secretive and mysterious to Occidental eyes.
Filming the Master at Work
We were immediately entranced by his work and knew that we found a marvellously enchanting story. Our hopes were dashed when we were informed that we could not shoot the master at work. But as with most things in China, subtle negotiations can yield unexpected results. The artisan would create a special scroll, symbolising the love between my wife Bee and me. Not only would this be an irresistible 3D shoot but a good luck talisman for us, “ensuring that our love would last through eternity”, as the artist put it.
Readying our cameras, we simultaneously shot the birth of our keepsake. This would be a one-take shot – no time for second chances unless we wanted to indulge in another scroll. His hands seemed to glide over the surface of the scroll – the immaculate Chinese characters flowing from the tip of his pen. The Panasonic and Sony were staged stage right and left, which allowed the Hero 3D to hover overhead, perched on the monopod and capturing a 170-degree angle of view.
Once the scroll was completed, we were able to get some shots around the studio, and took in some magnificent antiques and works of art from the glory of ancient China.
A New Awareness
After observing the work of the calligrapher, we re-emerged into the Forbidden City. Whether it was the tangible connection we had just made with ancient Chinese traditions or simply a new appreciation of our surroundings, suddenly we felt an awe and majesty for the Forbidden City that we had not realised was there before. Our perspective had changed, and we viewed things through our lenses in an entirely different manner.
No longer claustrophobic, the gates, walls, structures, and steps instead seemed intertwined with an intricacy that someone might spend a lifetime exploring. It was all about the detail and mastery of the subtlety of design. Instead of rushing through the Forbidden City like someone trying to catch a train or subway connection, you understood that the attitude of the observer was as vital to the appreciation of the city as the outward forms of architecture itself.
Whereas our entry into the Forbidden City had at first seemed to promise only a glimpse into China ‘s past, our exit allowed us to connect over the span of time to that past. As we reviewed our footage that night at the hotel on our Toshiba Qosmio laptop loaded with the Grass Valley Edius 3D, the images on the LG Cinema 3D display made us feel as if the whole day was a somewhat magical voyage back in time. The 3D images pulled us into the scenes and created a sense of what it must have been like. How infinitely more satisfying to be at one with a way of life than to stand apart, merely looking at it through a lens.
Al Caudullo is Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, 3D Evangelist, Producer, 3D Stereographer and Editor for 3DGuy Productions. Al has won the Association of Virtual Worlds award for 3D Excellence, and has used his thirty plus years of video production experience as a foundation for stereoscopic image capture. As principal of 3DGuy Productions, Al served as 3D Stereographer and 3D Editor many on projects including film, TV and corporate production. Clients include Panasonic, Hitachi, Imagimax Studios, 3DeeCentral, Polaroid, Spatial View, Toyota and many others.