Visual FX Bring an Ancient Holy Land Back to Life

Filmmaker and animator Kieran Baxter uses aerial photography and digital techniques to reconstruct a prehistoric fort.
November 15, 2016, 1:45pm
Screencap via

Situated in the Grampian Mountains in Angus, Scotland lies the former sites of two prehistoric Iron Age hillforts. Known as the Caterthuns, it's thought they were holy monuments used by ancient civilizations for ritualistic purposes. In The Caterthuns filmmaker Kieran Baxter, who specializes in merging aerial photography with digital visualization, has reconstructed what they might have looked like, combining archaeological research and visual FX with the stunning landscapes of the Scottish Highlands.


The film recently won The Doctoral Award at the AHRC Research in Film Awards 2016, which looks for the best new talent working in both filmmaking and the arts and humanities. Baxter, who's studying for a PhD at Scotland's Dundee University, says he's interested in exploring the idea of "creative practice as a research tool."

"In 2011 I began combining my background in digital animation with my passion for aerial photography and landscape," Baxter tells The Creators Project. "I found there was a lot of interest in developing these approaches for public engagement in archaeology. Our approach is most closely related to visual effects for film and television where different elements are combined [and] layered together, but ultimately we want to gather as much material 'in camera' as possible. [The Caterthuns] were a perfect case study for my methods, giving a sense of not just the topography but also the atmosphere of the place."

Screengrab via

Baxter says that the hillforts are so large it's hard to truly appreciate them from the ground, but in the video you get a sense of the majesty of the place. Of how the setting obviously played a part in evoking the right sensation—certainly the right proximity—for communing with gods and goddesses.

"We used every technique imaginable!" Baxter explains about how they captured the spectacular visuals. "Photography and filming at ground level but also from boom, kite and drone. The higher altitude photography was conducted from a Cessna manned light aircraft. We used almost exclusively Sony APS-C type cameras which are fantastic quality but also small and light enough to lift from a kite, for example."

Image courtesy of Kieran Baxter

The digtial reconstructions of the hillfort itself fell to Baxter's collaborator, Dr. Alice Watterson, an archaeologist and artist. Watterson has created her interpretation based on excavations that took place in the 1990s, which fed into the structure of the visualization, and also the human stories archaeologists were able to determine from findings at the site.

"From my position, it's the stories which arise from the interpretations which are the most interesting aspect," Watterson explains. "Visualization work in archaeology is primarily about communication so crafting the excavated evidence and interpretations into something which engages a wider audience is key. For us I think the balance lies in remaining faithful to the evidence while developing a narrative which captures the archaeologists' interpretations."


Check out the video below:

Learn more about Kieran Baxter's work at his website here.


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