“History is written by the victor” is a quote which has been proven many times down the ages. For the discovery of insulin, the battle was fighting between certain death for the sufferers of Type 1 diabetes and life. Prior to insulin that battle was almost always lost – diabetes was a death sentence. That was until Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip, under the direction of John Macleod ‘discovered’ insulin. Ever since, legend would have it that this was a ‘eureka’ moment by Banting and Best and from that point forwards history was ‘written’ by those two Canadians. Despite receiving a Nobel Prize for his part in the discovery, Macleod was effectively written out of the history books. From the 1920s right up until today, insulin was discovered by ‘Banting and Best’ and Macleod, a humble and self-effacing Aberdonian was airbrushed from the story. History was written by the victors much aided by the alliteration of ‘Banting and Best’.
Why are our motives relevant to making a short documentary about Macleod? The answer is simple: nothing feeds through into the fabric of a project than passion, and the Page Break Media Team all shared in that passion. First and foremost, we set out to right a grave injustice and secondly, make the best short documentary we could. We also wanted to celebrate the work carried out by the Macleod Memorial Statue Society to build an ever lasting tribute to Macleod’s life.
RESEARCH – RESEARCH - RESEARCH
So how did we set about this work? Before bringing the first principles of filmmaking to the project we needed to understand fully the historical facts and their context. We spent hours with the world-leading expert on Macleod, Dr Ken McHardy who related much of the Nobel Prize-winner’s story as we frantically made notes.
This is the all-important stage before Pre-production and Production (shooting the documentary). Get things wrong at this early stage and the law of navigation comes into play – one-degree miscalculation at the start of a voyage will mean missing the destination by hundreds of miles at the end.
The Page Break team spent hours with the client breaking the project into constituent parts to be represented in the final edit. This then manifested itself as a detailed edit plan which would dictate all the required‘ assets’ – filmed footage – still photographs – script – voice-over narration – locations of the statue-making and stone masonry, music and so on.
Once we had the detailed concept in place (and of course ready to flex and adapt it to changing circumstances) we could set about the Pre-production Phase.
This was dictated by the nature of the documentary, and we proceeded on several fronts simultaneously. We gathered the existing material – mostly historical photographs – and triaged them into a logical series which matched the progression of the story. Meanwhile, several shoot locations had to be ‘recced’ – Girvan in Ayrshire where the statue was being designed and the mould built, the University of Aberdeen Special Collections where Macleod’s Nobel Prize Certificate was stored, the stone masons where the stones and plinth would be cut and Provost Skene’s House, Aberdeen, where we would film the Nobel Medal. Each of these locations had to be recce’d, risk-assessed, a shot list drawn up and a shooting schedule put in place. The detailed preparation here made for much smoother shoot sessions for the Production phase.
Because Page Break had a detailed edit plan, other aspects of the project could be advanced in parallel with the Production elements. We considered the voice of the narrator, the running order of the documentary, the script in broad terms, and the music – its tone, where it would be required. This detailed planning and preparation consumed a lot of the Producers’ time, but at the end of the project, it would pay off with smooth filming sessions and an edit that would almost assemble itself.
This phase (filming) requires very little description as it all went smoothly because of the effort expended in Pre-production. Each shoot went efficiently, with few hiccups. We filmed a short segment at the grave of JJR Macleod, beside his tall granite gravestone inside Aberdeen’s Allenvale Cemetery, where we suffered minor sound issues due to the strong winds, and at Provost Skene’s House in Aberdeen, the time taken to dis-assemble the show case for the Nobel Medal meant much waiting while the staff patiently took everything apart to help us.
By the time we reached ‘post’ almost everything was in place to make a smooth transition to the finished product. Every aspect of the final edit had been planned, assembled, and filmed. As we had worked closely with the clients (John Otto and Kimberlie Hamilton) of the Macleod Memorial Statue Society, from day one we had virtually zero edit-review loops at the end. We quickly locked the edit, Kimberlie re-wrote the script to fit, and the narrator (Lucy Cowie) provided a near-perfect recording. The music genre had been agreed upon weeks before this phase and armed with a ‘picture lock’ edit, John Logan of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland completed the score. He then provided Page Break with a midi-sample to check the timing and assembled a small ensemble of musicians with whom he recorded the tracks at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland recording studio. The music had been conceived and planned so well, that the recording session went smoothly with minimum takes and maximum quality.
Finally, the colour grade was agreed, and the credits and some animation (by James Watson of Fifty-Fifty) were included to show how Macleod was airbrushed away at the start of the documentary and airbrushed back in at the end.
With such an experienced and talented team at Page Break: Michael Silva, Producing, Editing and Grading, Richard Burke, Producing and Directing, along with Faustas Talacka on camera and the talented Petya Indzhova managing all aspects of promotion and digital marketing this was a dream project.
Now we are left with a much bigger aspiration, to make a biopic of Macleod’s story in a full feature format and then, only then, will we get the chance to play at being ‘victors’ and re-write history to give JJR Macleod his rightful place in the co-discovery of insulin.
You can watch the documentary by clicking here.