Descent into the Earth – Perilous Cinematography

Liaoning is a magical terrain for paleontologists. Since 1996, discoveries here have set the world on fire and have brought China to the number one position in the world for the diversity of dinosaurs. But Liaoning in northeastern China, part of old Manchuria, is not noted for its giant dinosaurs. Quite the contrary, dinosaurs here are noteworthy for their very small sizes, and also for their feathers. Here, as nowhere else in the world, the transition from small meat-eating dinosaurs to birds of modern aspect is documented with literally thousands of fossils pertaining to dozens of species and genera. In addition, fossil plants, insects, fishes, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, flying reptiles and even mammals are found in spectacular states of preservation. There is even a large mammal that had the chutzpah to eat a baby dinosaur—imagine! Death was its proper reward! I first visited Liaoning in 1997, at the very beginning of the fossil rush, and I have returned here numerous times. I never need an excuse to come!

Today’s goal is the new Yizhou Fossil and Geology Park near the town of Yixian, located roughly an hour and a half’s drive from the city of Jinzhou. The day dawned chilly—no more late summer as in Shandong. We were on an early call, and departed at 7 a.m. flat (the sharp part was lost when one of our crew got stuck in a hotel elevator for 15 minutes with disgruntled patrons who blamed him (correctly) for the mishap). As I sit here on the second floor of the fossil center tapping out these words in the warmth, I see an interesting panorama out the window of hills and low mountains so characteristic of western Liaoning, and farmers with mule-drawn wagons in the foreground working over the stubble, evidently collecting mounds of dried corn stalks for fuel. It is really very picturesque. The keen observer will also note certain subtle pocks on the landscape that represent farmers’ excavations into the rich fossil beds beneath the corn fields. Although the pits are illegal, the rewards are potentially great. A single spectacular find of a bird or a feathered dinosaur can mean one to 10 years’ wages for a poor farmer. We arrived at the fossil park before 9 a.m. and were greeted by Damien Leloup, a gentle, soft-spoken Frenchman, who speaks both English and Chinese as well. After a quick coffee and a tour of the exquisite treasures of the small museum, we headed out across the landscaped terrain to a hole in the ground, which represents one of the illegal farmers’ pits. It is now surrounded by a low brick wall and has a tightly fitting metal cover. This one evidently was dug by three farmers in about four days working clandestinely. It reportedly produced five coveted fossil birds! For our visit this morning a tall sturdy tripod with a winch stands over the circular hole, which measures about 6 feet in diameter at the top. The object of today’s exercise is to drop Phil into the bottom of the hole so he can examine the beds and find some fossils. Phil seems to prefer the term ‘controlled descent,’ the pit measuring somewhat more than 60 feet in depth. Peter Dodson is invisible today; indeed, Peter Dodson seems not to have traveled to Liaoning. It complicates the story line to have too many characters, especially speaking ones. The producers will have to deal with my mother later over this one.  Hailu is a new principal. In any case, there is no possibility of having extra bodies down the cramped hole. But there had to be two—a camera man plus Phil. Interesting logistic challenges.

Cameraman Alex gets into his harness

Cameraman Alex gets into his harness

Safety is of paramount importance. Wouldn’t it be helpful if there were an experienced climber around? How very helpful indeed it is that DOP Alex Hubert (who is not a dope but a Director of Photography) is a mountain climber who has climbed on three continents. Alex is a handsome dark-haired dude who could easily be on the other side of the camera. He donned his complicated climbing harness with authority, mastering the myriad buckles and latches, and carefully tested and re-tested his ropes and cables and buckled on his yellow safety helmet. He looked like a GQ commercial for an extremely expensive watch. Then he descended into the hole, let down by electric winch all the way to the bottom. After extensive reconnaissance down below he came up with his report and recommendations. One of them was that he needed a safety shield to protect him from falling debris as Phil descended on top of him. When all was ready he descended to the bottom once more, and when he was ready, Phil, trussed up like a turkey as he described it, descended slowly on top of Alex. They were down together in indecent proximity for a long time. For the longest time little seemed to be occurring. I think they were sorting out their relative positions, which limb went where, etc. We could not possibly see from the top, nor did we try because it was imperative to stay away from the rim in order to avoid causing falling debris. All I could think was claustrophobia (it being narrower at the bottom) and to wonder how Alex could possibly get any footage under these appalling conditions? As time dragged on, now well past an hour below, and little seemed to  be happening we began to get worried and started thinking about ordering them back up. It seems that horizontal shafts exploiting the fossil layer were drawing undue attention from Phil. It was much too risky to permit him to go there.

Phil about to descend into the hole

Phil about to descend into the hole

After a semi-eternity, we started getting reports from below and Phil actually started enjoying himself with his characteristic gushing enthusiasm. We finally got him on script, which required him finding some fossils, which fortunately isn’t difficult.  He was communicating by walkie talkie with Hailu standing at the top of the shaft. Hailu called him up top to show the fossil and with the greatest reluctance he was winched up. His down time was roughly an hour and 45 minutes, which was very long indeed. Alex remained down finishing up shots without Phil in the way (cleaning up after their tryst?). When Alex signaled he was ready to come up, he made multiple filming stops along the way, the last one filming Hailu standing at the top of the hole as he rose to the top and out, as the proxy for Phil’s ascent. Alex was down in what many of us on top thought was a very cramped, muddy and disagreeable spot (did I mention the centipedes?!) for well over two hours, absolutely heroic. It seems that this should be some pretty arresting cinema. If this is half as good as I think it will be, I am nominating Alex for an Emmy! Phil emerged from the hole right muddy, really a disgusting mess, and proud of it. It was 3 p.m. before this filming was concluded and we retired for lunch. The weather had deteriorated badly during this time, and we on top were buffeted by wind under gray skies and cool temperatures. Sure enough it rained after lunch and no further filming proved possible.

Phil returns to the surface with photos

Phil returns to the surface with photos

We did have a fine dinner in Yixian with our colleagues from the Yizhou Museum. It was a hot pot, filled with wonderful fresh spices and tasty sesame paste, washed down the Tsingtao. We got back to our hotel in Jinzhou at 8:30 p.m.

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