top of page

Sagan at the Library of Alexandria

This piece was featured in the publication To Arrive Where We Started, produced by Laura Smith which was a collection of artist writing responding to the exhibitionWhat We Have Done, What We Are About to Do at the CCA, Glasgow.

Sagan at the Library of Alexandria


Shooting had been starting at 7:30am all week. I’ve been in the routine of waking in the dark for the duration of the show since PBS had OK’d the project back in February last year. Today though, we have a slightly earlier start to fit in a quick catch up session with the special effects team. There are just a few minor points about matching the lighting of Carl’s live action scenes that we will shoot today with the footage that the effects team had already shot from the scale model of the library last week. As the months have gone past Carl has become much more fluid while shooting these blue screen sequences; his facial expressions and body gestures becoming much more natural, corresponding perfectly to the imagined environment that will be added in postproduction.


The ships that had passed through the city today had yielded little. Apart from a couple of codices including some basic notes on Euclid’s Elements, which I’d finished off transcribing earlier this afternoon. I’d been appointed to the north eastern harbour over two years ago. The position bears two main responsibilities: Firstly to oversee the acquisition of all manuscripts coming in and out of the port by seizing the scrolls, copying them out and returning a copy back to the ship. Secondly is to catalogue and then archive the acquired original document within the relevant section of the library.


We are all set in Studio 2. The final scene will have Carl walking along a hallway with Doric columns on one side and a detailed mosaic wall behind him. For today I’ve laid out a series of life sized polystyrene columns within the set, which has been entirely blue-screened. In the pre-shot footage taken from the scale model of the library the lighting is coming in from the left almost horizontally as though just before dusk. To match this, to the left of the set, are several large halogen lamps with yellow filters diffusing the light emulating a sunset quality.

The columns and blue-screened walls have all been precisely positioned to match up with the proportions of the correlating features of the scale model. For this first sequence Carl will walk along the hallway. The exact positioning of his footsteps are mapped out with gaffer taped X’s on the floor.


The last ship of the day has docked and again the search men issue the edict to the captains and board with little complaint. I’d already heard the dockworkers heaving the mooring ropes in and descended from my chambers to head down to the Serapeum. The search party arrive at my door with a dozen scrolls and inform me they were from a medium sized trading ship departed from Samos three weeks ago.

Scanning quickly through the scrolls I find the majority are reused pieces of papyrus describing basic sailing routes to Alexandria. These reused papyruses are very common, executed upon old scraps, which are rotated again and again, reworked upon each time.


After the morning shoot we move away from the blue screen set into studio 1. We will film a close up of Carl browsing through a section of the library. The mosaic design used on the scale model has been enlarged and painted onto the wall with shelves holding bundles of scrolls below. The props department have produced over 100 scrolls made from a thin vellum with two wooden dowling rods at each end. Hanging off a couple of these are paper tags with the names of the supposed scholars who’s work should exist within, but for the purposes of filming are completely blank.

“Hipparchus”, “Ptolemaios”, “….Here we are, Aristarchus, this is the book. How I’d love to read this book. To know how Aristarchus figured it out. But it’s gone, utterly and forever”


Underneath the reused papyruses I am very pleased to see a full individual scroll: A beautifully written codex by the astronomer Aristarchus containing writings on his theory of a heliocentric cosmos. It is only every month or so that I get the opportunity to see such a fine document and rarer still to receive a scroll by someone as important as Aristarchus. I have only once before copied out his work and it will be good to refamiliarise myself with his writings.

bottom of page