Undoubtedly, the art of filmmaking is great – it is no small thing to charm the audience into seeing as real something that they know it is not. Digital effects have taken this art into new heights; it is now possible to create entire worlds from scratch, worlds that seem real, almost tangible.
The creators of the video titled “Athens Technical Demo” are definitely masters of this new digital art form. The result is believable and so realistic that I am not surprised that many of those who saw the video got carried away, failing to notice obvious discrepancies that have little to do with real Athens – present or past.
But let us take things one at a time:
A company called WhiskyTree, which specializes in creating digital environments for movies or gaming, decided to create, for practice, a sample video, using Athens as their canvas. The techniques used for the production of this video were later used to create the details of the environment in the film Elysium.
Using music from the film “Tron Legacy,” the video begins with a panoramic view of a city that, at a first glance, looks a lot like Athens. It is hard to mistake that well-known landmark, the Acropolis, for anything else. Yet the details tell a different story.
What is right
When I showed the video to a friend and told him I was thinking of writing a post about it, he advised me to mention only what’s right: “You’ll save yourself a lot of time and typing,” he added.
So what is right? Only the Parthenon, the statue of Athena Promachos and the shape of the Acropolis, I’m afraid. The Parthenon is shown with its roof half-finished, surrounded by scaffolding; that dates the shot in the 5th century BCE, probably a year or two before the temple’s inauguration, in 438 BCE.
Is that all? I’m afraid so.
What is wrong
A. The monuments
Within seconds from the video’s start, one sees, a Roman-looking temple in the area between the Ancient Agora and the Acropolis. Needless to say such a temple never existed at the spot.
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On the right-hand side of the frame, where Areopagus ought to be, we see a building that looks oddly like a Christian basilica, with a cruciform roof and all. Its half-timbered masonry is typical of North-European structures. Next to it, there are two curving colonnades, much like those of St. Peter’s square in the Vatican. Needless to say, neither the buildings, nor the style have anything to do with Athens, of any period.
* * *
At the entrance of the Acropolis, there is a jumble of walls, fortifications and towers. It resembles what is there today, but one has to remember that the rock’s present look is the result of centuries of invasions, warfare and defensive works. The entrance of the rock when the Parthenon was being built was entirely different – aimed at allowing the easy access of thousands of worshippers, not fortified to prevent the entrance of dangerous foes.
There was a wide ramp there during classical times; later, in Roman times, it was replaced by an equally wide stairway. None of these are visible in this video. Instead, one can see a line of people walking to the entrance following a path similar to the one people follow today. As I’ve already said, that path has nothing to do with what was there in classical times.
* * *
By the way, where are the Propylaea? There is no sign of them – instead there are a few rectangular rooms and a few columns nearby. Perhaps we are meant to understand that they are still under construction, which explains the scaffolding all around. But if the Propylaea are still being built, how can one explain the existence of the base for the monument of Eumenes II, was put up in 178 BCE, two and a half centuries after the Propylaea?
* * *
On the Acropolis itself, there is another jumble of buildings; the worst, by far, is a small temple right in front of the Parthenon. This temple never existed, and neither did the others that were probably put there to fill space, and have little to do with actual structures around the Parthenon.
* * *
As the camera continues to turn around the Acropolis, the theatre of Dionysus comes into view. Unfortunately, it is entirely made of white marble. At the time the Parthenon was being built, the theatre had wooden benches which were replaced with limestone ones about century later. It is also further west than it should be, where the temple of Asclepius ought to be (also half-finished in the video). The latter has been pushed to where the Odeon of Herodes Atticus would be built, a few centuries later.
Several other structures are visible in the area south of the Acropolis; all of them are imaginary, ie. not based on archaeological data or historic sources.
* * *
B. The city
The video shows us an idyllic Athens, full of majestic buildings and lots of greenery. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Athenian streets were narrow and labyrinthine. The city was a maze of alleys, with houses packed closely together. Free space was limited within the city walls.
With the exception of large public buildings, all the other structures in Ancient Athens were small and unpretentious. Houses were made of mud bricks (not fired bricks or stone, as we see here) and they rarely had an upper floor. They all had an inner courtyard – a necessary element of ancient Greek architecture, which the designers of the video seem to have entirely missed.
Actually, its creators admit to using a pre-existing library of structures, which, by the looks of them, had probably been designed for some medieval computer game or a fantasy film. To me, these structures resemble Italian architecture of the renaissance more than anything else.
Also, there are too many towers scattered all around the city, but, as far as we know, such structures existed only in isolated country estates, not in city dwellings.
* * *
C. The landscape
Athens sits in a small plane surrounded by mountains, with a few rocky hills scattered among them for good measure. Now, those of you who don’t live in the city may not see what’s wrong with the landscape, but for us locals it’s obvious that the picture is missing a few peaks.
For instance, Mt. Hymmetus, once a seat of cloud-gathering Zeus, has become a longish hill, much lower than its imposing 3366 feet.
* * *
Mt Lycabettus’ dimensions seem unchanged, but the rocky hill is not in its usual place. Besides having moved to the NW a little, it also seems to have gotten an extension to another hill or mountain, off the left of the frame. Behind it, two large mountains, Parnes and Penteli (of 4635 and 3638 feet respectively) have disappeared altogether.
The technicians of WhiskyTree have done an amazing job in creating a vivid and realistic image of Athens. In fact it is so realistic that many people got carried away into thinking that this is an actual historic representation of what Athens was like in its heyday. It is not.
Athens was never like that.
It is not only that the representation contains things that were never there (the baroque colonnade being the most prominent example) or is missing others that actually existed (such as assorted hills and mountains); but even some of the ones that are accurately represented are either in the wrong place, or in the wrong time – or both.
The result is definitely Athens-like but its relationship to the real thing is as much as the similarity of Indiana Jones to a real archaeologist.
Sure, this digital Athens has enough features of the real one to justify the name, but in reality, such an Athens never existed. The video reminds me of idealized renderings of Athens made in the 19th century, when actual archaeological data about the city was scant.
But today things are different. Archaeological data has allowed us to piece together what Athens was really like and the information on that is everywhere – all it takes is just a few clicks to have access to a treasure trove of information the 19th century never dreamed of.
And that makes me wonder: those who invested so much time and effort into making this digital Athens seem real, why didn’t they go all the way, to make sure it was real? I mean it would only take a minuscule fraction of their time to search the internet for accurate representations (see here, here and here). Alternatively, they could have consulted an archaeologist – I’m sure they’d find lots willing to help them for free, just for the historic accuracy of it.
If their aim was to show something spectacular, what better than to show Athens in its heyday, in the 5th century BCE, with the Parthenon finished and a crowd of Athenians going up to the Acropolis for the Panathenaic festival?
Alternatively, they could have shown Athens in the 2nd century CE, adorned with the large monuments of the Roman era: the library of Hadrian, the Herodeum, the temple of Olympic Zeus.
Why do I care?
I have to admit that the people who created this video never claimed that this is an accurate depiction of Athens, ancient or modern. The words ancient and reconstruction are never mentioned. I believe the video’s makers just wanted to demonstrate their skill and they chose a familiar background to work on. I am happy they picked Athens instead of, say, Rome or Angor Vat; as an archaeologist I can’t help feeling a certain satisfaction that after 25 centuries or so Athens is still a point of reference to so many people from so many cultures and walks of life.
But their mastery of their art has fooled many people into thinking that this is Athens as it once was. The video has already gone viral with many people singing its praise – who knows, it may even be shown in schools.
That is the reason I’m writing this post – I want to set the record straight. If anyone stumbles on this video I want them to know that it’s just what it is: a demonstration of the skills of a very talented group of people, not a historically accurate reconstruction.
Note: All the images from the company’s videos were taken using image-capture on my computer and are used here purely for educational purposes. All the rights to the images belong to the company that made them.