Camera at running speed ... and ... action!

One and a half months ago my phone started to vibrate during a meeting at work, in Leiden, The Netherlands. To my surprise I saw on the display that I was being called from England. After the meeting the phone rang again. "Hello, this is Discovery Channel UK". This was clearly not an everyday phone call.

Would I like to contribute to a documentary called "Engineering the Impossible", on the architectural aspects of ancient Rome? I would have to contribute to shots of Ostia Antica. The documentary will be 90 minutes long and Ostia will get at least 5 minutes. The presenter is Steve Burrows, the engineer responsible for building the Bird's Nest, the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Through the Ostia website and the Superintendency, Atlantic Productions (, working for Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, BBC and so on, had found me.

The negotiations were initially somewhat difficult. Atlantic offered to pay for travel and accommodation and up to 500 euro for one days filming. My fee is substantially higher, but eventually we found an elegant solution. Furthermore, I wanted my son Simon (23) to accompany me, as personal assistant and for mental support. That was agreed.

Thursday and Friday 11 and 12 March were reserved for the necessary preparations: read about the designated buildings, buy clothes, a haircut, glasses adjusted ... Saturday we flew to Rome, to the airport Fiumicino / Leonardo da Vinci. We were picked up by Matteo, a student who worked as a "runner". He took us to Hotel Mediterraneo in Rome, near Termini station.

Sunday I went to Ostia, along with Simon and Tonnie, a good friend, working as a geoarcheologist and living in Rocca di Papa. She told us that it had rained the previous week continuously. The groundwater was higher than I had ever seen. A pity, because in the documentary we wanted to focus on the water supply, but the viewing of the underground drains and pipes was clearly not an option.

That evening I met with some of the crew, which numbered some 13 people. Steve looks a lot like Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond. We were born in the same year and we both play online pool billiards. He is an avid supporter of Manchester United and since Simon is a walking encyclopaedia of soccer there was no lack of conversation. The director, Mark, was relatively young, but experienced. He has worked among others in Iraq. David, the camera-man (in his late 50's I think) was very kind. He was assisted by Brad. "AJ" was responsible for the sound.

Monday, March 15th was the big day. We had chosen Monday as the excavations are then closed to the public. Luckily a nice, sunny day, around 13 degrees C. At 7.45 AM we departed with two vans and one car. I had never done all this, and I was not tense, of course.

Around nine o'clock we reached Ostia, as always an oasis of tranquillity, with beautiful trees and many birds singing. Until half past ten I did my fastest ever tour of Ostia, along designated buildings. Guards with keys of closed buildings followed us.

The recordings were started. There were two teams. Team 1 would film Steve and me, team 2 would film at various locations in Ostia.

My son Simon, my personal "runner".

The first thing to be filmed was the "arrival" of Steve by car. For some time they did not need me. "It's a waiting game", I was told. Subsequently I had to "meet" Steve. This was done in one of the most famous streets of Ostia, the Via di Diana. The camera was attached to a long lever and would go from bottom to top, for a panoramic shot of Steve and Jan Theo walking, seen from behind. It should start with my right boot. We needed about ten minutes to get the shoe on the right place and practice the first few steps. But then, finally, David said: "Camera at running speed" and Mark: "Action!".

"It's a waiting game".

The assembly of the lever for the camera.

The director is giving instructions to Steve and me.

David is determining the correct position for my right boot
and I have to practice the first few steps.

Steve and I calmly strolled on the ancient basalt stones, talking and looking around us. There was no sound recorded and we could have talked about Manchester United - Chelsea, but we decided to talk about Ostia. At the end of the street we had to enter a building at the left (the House of Diana), but we did not get that far. "Cut!", someone shouted near the camera. They had made a false move with the camera. The fourth take was in order. Then we were filmed three or four times from the front and next - to my mind endlessly - walking up and down stairs. I got a microphone in my coat.

Steve and I in take 1.

Then we waited again. Mark and David had to think how they would start filming on the first floor of the House of Diana. When they had figured it out there was again the endless "arriving" and "leaving". "Can you please walk one metre?" said Mark at a given moment. Steve and I converted that to feet, so that it sounded as more of an achievement.

On the first floor of the apartment complex Steve would ask me questions and I had to explain things about Ostia. This was tricky. The camera was sitting on about two feet from my face. Sometimes "AJ" stopped the filming, because in the distance an aircraft was heard, and we had to start over. I had to find a balance. It had to be simple and popular, but I did not want to say nonsense. Now and then I had to improvise. At one point Steve said: "So we already have a grey water system in a city that is 2000 years old?" I had no idea what a "grey water system" is, but replied enthusiastically: "Yes, absolutely Steve!".

Filming on the first floor of the House of Diana.
Left to right: Steve, Jan Theo, David, Brad, AJ and Mark.

I think we worked here for more than one hour. It was hot and I said: "My throat is getting dry", and someone shouted: "Water !!!". Moments later a "runner" appeared with a bottle of mineral water. Great.

The end of the recordings here was entertaining. I later heard from Simon that the camera was focused much on me, but the director wanted to alternate that with a nodding Steve. Therefore there was need for a "nodding shot". I was asked to talk to Steve for 30 seconds (archaeology again, but it could have been about pool-billiard) and Steve had to nod for 30 seconds. The best nods will be used I guess.

The final recording took place in the Baths of Mithras, in and near narrow rooms for water wheels for raising the groundwater. One of those rooms was only accessible through a narrow opening, where Steve and I had to climb through. It was again the now familiar work: practice, in front, behind, outside, inside, one more time. After I had squeezed myself for the twelfth time or so through that hole I was pretty fed up with it.

Filming near the water wheels.

Meanwhile we were running out of time and also the light disappeared. Mark began to suggest questions to Steve. That made it all more complicated, because in one shot Steve and I had "real" talk, then listened to Mark, then had "real" talk, and so on.

Finally Steve and I discussed some reconstruction drawings (yes, from front, behind the shoulder and again). Initially I had the drawings in the wrong order, but we just kept talking, it was a shot in front, so nobody could see we were watching the wrong drawing.

Steve comments on the reconstruction drawings,
with the camera looking over his shoulder.

And that was it. On Tuesday, Simon and I walked to the Colosseum, where we enjoyed a Nastro Azzurro. Matteo took us to the airport and at about nine PM we were met at Schiphol Airport by my girlfriend Jolande and daughter Lotte (10).

Jan Theo Bakker

March 21, 2010

February 6, 2012: some months later the documentary could be seen on History Channel US; none of the footage of me and other guests was used.