The Mystery of “Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia” Answered
The 11th edition of the Cambodia International Film Festival has over 140 high-quality feature-length films, short films, documentaries and animations from over 40 countries, so choosing what to watch can be overwhelming. Any history buff, a fan of science, or anyone with an appreciation of Cambodia’s beautiful landscape, must see the film, Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia.
Filmed with 8K resolution red Monstro cameras for IMAX, the audience will feel like they are flying over Angkor Temple Complex. The film covers the Angkorian Empire, which lasted from the 9th to the 15th century and answers a question that has puzzled many scholars for more than a century: Why did most of the people of Angkor (750,000 to 1 million persons) leave the area, leaving only a small number of villagers behind?
The film’s Australian director Murray Pope answers that question through a process that took years of shooting, technical research, and drone cinematography to make the IMAX film.
Kingdom of Inspiration
Established in the feature film industry as a producer, director, and visual effects supervisor, Pope was fascinated by Cambodia and eventually sought to make a film in the country of wonders. “As a kid in Australia I was amazed by images of Ta Prohm, the Bayon and Angkor Wat, and the (completely outdated) notion of a lost city in the jungle,” Pope recalled. “When I eventually came to visit in 2011, I realised there was a terrific gain screen story here, but it’s taken ten years for the production to be completed.”
Pope made his first visit to Cambodia in 2011 for the production of the award-winning Cambodian film, The Last Reel. “Our key team here in Cambodia were Kulikar, Nick and Andy at Hanuman Films, they helped us greatly and became partners in the project,” Pope said. “We also met many other great filmmakers here, many of the crew were Cambodian. We saw a huge increase in local capability with the crew and much better equipment here than what we had seen when we worked with Hanuman. A lot is going on in Cambodia and we’re grateful to work with some terrific local people.”
Inspired by a conference given by Damian Evans, Pope learned about the archeologists who began using LiDAR technology in the mid-2010s to detect surface areas that may indicate ancient structures. LiDAR detects and measures laser pulses as they are emitted and reflected towards a sensor, producing 3-D maps of the terrain. The project CALI (Cambodia Archeological Lidar Initiative) was launched and the results obtained with LiDAR were the foundation of Pope’s story.
“We were very fortunate that during this period, the Greater Angkor Project was very active, and commenced its airborne LIDAR operations, which changed the story of Angkor in all sorts of revealing ways,” Pope explained. “We spent time with archaeologists Heng Piphal, Alison Carter and Damian Evans to research their roles, and then we interviewed them in many places where they were working.”
Pope started filming in 2018, shooting mostly in the Siem Reap region, near Kep, Vietnam, and in a science lab in Australia. The film was produced for the California Science Center in Los Angeles, which is now showing it in its IMAX theater along with an exhibition on Angkor featuring more than 120 artifacts and held in cooperation with the National Museum of Cambodia and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The elaborate touring exhibition will plan to keep travelling for the next five years, as well as the film, according to Pope.
Weathering the Stormy Production
“We worked for a long period with drone cinematographer Kimlong Meng, he and his team spent a lot of time with us,” Pope praised. “Chasing great shots with perfect light and perfect weather, that’s a very time-consuming process and working with the local team was brilliant as we could react to changing circumstances quickly.”
Shooting for IMAX was important to Pope, he wanted the film to be an immersive experience which can engage the viewer. “Forty minutes is the maximum duration,” Pope stated. “It has to appeal to audiences between 5 and 95 otherwise the IMAX imagery will be too much for audiences.”
Although they started shooting in 2018, the movie took longer to film than planned due to weather conditions and organizing scheduled helicopter flights for expensive shots, creating a difficult shoot. Drone cinematographer, Meng spent weeks in Siem Reap waiting for the perfect weather, often waking before sunrise to fly his drone for the perfect shot.
Pope spent most of COVID lockdown editing he says, filming in IMAX format is very complex, very demanding and very precise.
While editing during the COVID-19 lockdown, Pope realized that some specific images were still needed. So, whenever the country would reopen, Pope said, “we’d go back and reshoot things. And then new research would come along.” And that had to be incorporated into the film, he added.
Where Did Angkorians Go?
So what happened to the Angkor Empire? In the film, Researchers at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), showed that centuries of destructive weather patterns in Cambodia led to the temple complex being abandoned.
Due to drought and lack of water, people migrated to more viable water sources. Research-based on radiocarbon dating shows a period of decades-long droughts during the 14th-16th centuries AD which spread across most of the region during this period.
To find out more, watch the film on IMAX on July 2 at 7 pm at Aeon 2 in Sen Sok
Written by Sotheavy Nou