Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 13:20 UK

Uncovering an ancient blueprint

By Natalie Maynes
Series Producer, Blueprint

Series Producer Natalie Maynes
Bringing the past to life was a challenge, says Natalie Maynes

One of the best things about being a programme maker is getting the opportunity to tell stories about aspects of life you'd probably never delve into otherwise.

Having worked as a series producer on Blueprint, I now feel like I've done degrees in geology, botany, zoology and history - at the same time.

The initial idea was sparked by an article I read which claimed that Ireland was once split in two and that both halves of the island were on separate continents.

At the time I found this incredibly hard to believe. But I really wanted to know if it was true.

Deserts and volcanoes

Astonishingly, when I checked it out with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, I discovered, not only that Ireland was once split in two, but that our landscape had also been drowned beneath a tropical ocean, parched under a hot desert sun, torched by erupting volcanoes, and frozen in sub zero temperatures.

The evolution of our landscape became the first programme in the Blueprint series.

The other programmes tell the story of the plants, animals and people that have colonised it in the past 600 million years.

In order to keep ourselves on the right side of factual accuracy, we put together a panel of eight experts who would guide us through each scientific minefield.

Geologists, geneticists, archaeologists and historians were on hand to help us translate the story of our Blueprint into entertaining television.

For months we waded through bogs, clambered up mountains, and paddled down rivers to try to get the story into our heads.

This, we discovered, was evidence that the whole area had once been a desert as hot as the Sahara

At first it seemed to me that the expert guides leading us were speaking in a foreign language with their talk of "metamorphic rocks" and "carbon dating".

But as time passed, and as I became more comfortable with the science, something magical happened.

'Blueprint eyes'

I began to see the landscape around me in a completely different light.

Before Blueprint, Cushendun in County Antrim had simply been a relaxing retreat away from the daily grind of my home in Belfast.

But with the geologists as my guide, I began to see this picturesque village very differently.

William Crawley
William Crawley holds the tooth of a woolly mammoth

As we walked around the local caves, we were encouraged to look closely at the rock face.

It was bright red and very rough.

This, we discovered, was evidence that the whole area had once been a desert as hot as the Sahara.

Coming to life

The challenge was to find a way of bringing the story of our past to life.

That's where three dimensional CGI, or computer generated imagery, comes in.

What would a stone age settlement look like in the middle of a Coleraine housing estate?

CGI is common in modern blockbuster movies and computer games so there is a danger it won't look as good on television.

With that thought in mind, we still reckoned it was worth using for one very good reason.

There are so many scenarios in Blueprint that are almost impossible to imagine, CGI was vital in bringing them to life.

We got to work imagining the scenarios. What would Slieve Gullion mountain look if it was an erupting volcano and you were standing at the foot of it in Forkhill main street?

How would the countryside around Lough Neagh look with woolly mammoths wandering across it?

Mourne Mountains
Mountains, such as the Mournes, were once ancient volcanoes

What would a stone age settlement look like in the middle of a Coleraine housing estate?

Of course, it's one thing imagining what special effects might look like on screen. It's another actually directing a CGI shoot.

In preparation, I often found myself 'getting into character'.

As I imagined what a shot would have looked like from the point of view of someone running away from a volcanic eruption, I found myself sprinting up Forkhill main street backwards.

During preparations for a shoot about stone age settlers in Coleraine, I found myself walking around a scrap of no man's land waxing lyrical about the settlement that was one there.

Directing the CGI sequences were just one highlight of the production process.

Criss-crossing Northern Ireland, as I directed the aerial photography, was another.

But ironically my most memorable experience on Blueprint had nothing to do with technical wizardry or flying in a helicopter.

It also provided the funniest moment of my career.

River shot

While writing the script for programme three, I had envisaged a shot of the presenter William Crawley rowing up the river Bann to illustrate a story about a group of businessmen who visited during the Plantation.

The plan was for William and a safety expert to be in one rowing boat and for the production team and two more safety experts to be in a second, specially adapted boat.

On the day of the shoot, it seemed everything was going according to plan, except for one vital ingredient - the weather.

Throughout our filming period, we had been blessed by glorious sunshine.

But it also meant that the level of the River Bann got lower and lower.

So while William and his safety expert set off to practise their rowing skills, myself, the camera crew, and the experts, loaded ourselves and our kit onto our boat.

Giant deer
How prehistoric deer would look in front of Belfast City Hall

As we set off, everything was going, as they say, swimmingly.

But after 15 minutes we realised that we were going round in circles.

After another fifteen minutes of paddling furiously, we became stranded.

As it turned out the water was only a couple of feet deep and we had moored ourselves on top of an island.

In the end, one of our safety experts had to wade across the river and drag our boat to shore.

It still makes me laugh to think that the water didn't even reach his waist.

But we lived to tell the tale and eventually finished the shoot.

I have come to learn the hard way that you need to be very flexible in order to do my job.

No matter how well you plan, obstacles like the forces of nature will always conspire against you.

Blueprint, BBC One NI, Mondays, at 2100 BST, repeated Wednesdays on BBC Two NI at 1900 BST.

Blueprint: Off The Beaten Track, BBC One NI, Wednesdays at 2240 BST, repeated Thursdays on BBC Two NI at 1900 BST.

Watch both programmes on demand at bbc.co.uk/iplayer.


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