The making of the Sri Lanka film
This was an adventure like no other
It required months of planning, logistical fine tuning and too many phone calls to and from Sri Lanka to count. We also had to negotiate a global pandemic, multiple time zones and a language barrier. It was no easy feat and at times it was testing.
There were many moving parts, most of which were out of our control and a huge amount of pressure on our shoulders. As a small team, we were pushed to the limit but the thrill we felt when we eventually landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka made it all worthwhile.
Five days, six locations, 500 miles
Arriving in Sri Lanka was only the beginning. We had our work cut out and we wanted to make the most of every minute. Our plan was to shoot in multiple locations, scattered throughout Ratnapura, the world renowned mining region in South Western Sri Lanka.
Our aim was to show every step in the gem's journey; from the mine where the stone is plucked from the ground to the rough gem market and the cutting and heating stages that give the gem its vibrant colour and geometrically perfect shape.
Each location was a new experience for all of us. We'd only ever seen pictures of a sapphire mine in Sri Lanka or read about the rough gem markets in Ratnapura. We didn't know what to expect when we arrived, which made filming challenging. We could only do so much to anticipate the potential risks. What happens if we're caught in a downpour? What happens if our vehicle breaks down? How do we explain the nature of our project to the gem workers? These were just a couple of questions going through our minds and keeping us on our toes.
London to Sri Lanka
Mid-January; it was dark, the thermostat read below freezing and between the two of us, we were wearing four pairs of socks. At this point it was hard to imagine being somewhere with white-sand beaches, palm trees and actual heat.
We flew to Colombo where we planned to meet Will the videographer and Armil, a 5th generation gemstone dealer and a force to be reckoned with in the gem industry.
Excitement, anticipation and nerves would summarise the general feeling on the flight, combined with an endless loop of questions. It was almost too much to keep us from sleeping but we did manage to sneak in a quick forty winks.
Off the plane and blinking into the dazzling sun, we headed to arrivals where we eventually found our driver who took us straight to meet Armil.
After a long afternoon of meticulous planning in Armil's office, we leave to meet Will, our cameraman and a fundamental part of bringing the gemstone's story to life.
Will and several bags of camera gear in tow, we drove to our accommodation.
Doing our best to stay awake and fight off the jet lag, we caved and our heads finally hit the pillow at 10pm. This time, not even the adrenaline of our adventure could stop us from sleeping.
Our 4am wake-up time came as a shock. After a fleeting instant of forgetting and then remembering where we were, we packed up, piled into our minibus and headed to Ratnapura, where we visited a sapphire mine.
As we arrived at the site of the mine, all we could see was dense rainforest. It's a sea of vibrant green framed by the silhouette of mountains in the background.
Will immediately set about finding places to position himself so he could capture every moment on camera. Taken aback by the surroundings, we wondered whether it would be possible to do justice to such a beautiful landscape.
Watching Will at work, his eyes darted between the small screen on his camera to his subject. He made everyone feel comfortable in the presence of this foreign-looking device and he has a natural ability for making himself almost invisible so he could capture every nuance of the action that was playing out in real-time.
There was a lot to take in: the landscape and any signs of the region's geology, the gem workers whose hands are weather-worn and dexterous as they sift through the silt and grit in the hope of finding a rough sapphire; and the heat.
The air was thick and hot, which came as a shock to the system after the frigid temperatures we'd left in London.
Footage saved and reels of photos later, we bundled back in the minibus. Overwhelmed with how much we've learned and seen in a day, it wasn't not long before we were all nodding off on the long drive back to our accommodation.
Later, we raise our beers and toast to a successful day and our first-time experience in a Sri Lankan sapphire mine.
The Rough Gem Market
This day was arguably our most challenging. Picture a thriving market, people everywhere, the babble of chatter and a mix of smells, some spicy, some sweet and all delicious. Our aim was to capture the hustle and bustle while not getting too caught up in all the commotion of passing traffic and gem traders!
We knew it wouldn't be easy from the moment we arrived. The market was literally on the side of a busy mountain road, all honking horns and dicey driving. There were also no obvious signs to say we were in the right place but with Armil close by, we knew we were close at least.
Staying focussed on the task at hand – searching for top quality rough stones – the team started talking to gem traders, taking the lead from Armil who breezed through the throngs of people as though he was in his natural habitat. Meanwhile, Will weaved between people capturing stills and snippets of video as he went.
After looking at hundreds of gems – each unique, some with more potential than others – we called it a day. We were high on adrenaline on the ride back to our accommodation – a combination of a day well spent and the feeling of relief knowing we had captured the next step in the gemstone's journey.
We ended our long day with beers on the beach, overlooking the sunset as locals played in the waves.
Heating and cutting
Heating and cutting are two crucial steps in a gemstone's journey that are often overlooked. Our goal for this day was to show exactly how a rough gem is transformed into the prize stone you see in our fine jewellery pieces.
Ready to face another challenging day of filming, we set off from our accommodation early to give ourselves as much time as possible.
In Batugedara, Armil led us to a small house. Inside, there's a man sitting in the dim obscurity, his face lit by the glow coming from a small brick kiln. He's holding a blow pipe to his mouth and the white-hot coals crackle with his every exhale.
The first issue we identified was lighting. There were only a couple of windows letting just enough light in for us to see what we were doing. Undeterred, Will set up his camera in a matter of seconds and started filming.
The heating process is crucial for bringing out the gemstones vibrant colour. The rough stones are heated at intense temperatures to mimic the temperature within the earth, which alters the stone's structure.
The next step in the gem's journey is cutting. Again, our location for filming this process was dimly lit and tight on space but Will still managed to capture the highly skilled work of the experienced gem cutter.
As we left Batugedara, we breathed a sigh of relief. Another day done and some more footage saved, ready to piece together with the other stages from our journey to find Sri Lanka's prized sapphires.
The cut gem market
Another market, another set of filming challenges.
This time however, we felt better prepared to face the commotion. Plus we had an ideal vantage point from Armil's office, which overlooked the bustling street while also acting as a base where we could cool off with the added bonus of air con.
The cut gem market felt even busier than the rough stone market we'd been to two days previously. There were traders as far as the eye could see, all armed with neatly folded brifkas to keep their precious stones safe.
We ventured into the crowds, torches at the ready, keeping eyes peeled for any prize gemstones. In the meantime, Will multitasked between filming, dodging traffic and chatting with local gem traders.
Once again, the amount of gemstones was overwhelming. We could've easily spent several more hours searching for perfect stones however the day was already drawing to a close so we reluctantly decided to leave.
Away from the bustling market, we had time to think and reflect about all the gemstone's we'd seen. Not just the ones at the cut gemstone market but those we'd seen plucked from the earth at the mines in Ratnapura.
Considering how far a gemstone has to travel; from the centre of the earth, to the surface and then to far-flung places where it's heated, cut and eventually set as a magnificent centre stone in a piece of fine jewellery, it's remarkable to appreciate the journey these natural wonders embark on even before they make it to a wearer's hands.
Back at our accommodation, we toasted cold beers to the wrap of a successful trip! In total we captured 10 hours of footage and around 700 images. We travelled approximately 500 miles and we made a small dent in trying the numerous Sri Lankan curries.
It was a once in a lifetime experience for us all and we left Sri Lanka feeling fuelled with knowledge and excitement at the thought of sharing this journey of discovery with you.
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