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Alfons Kennis talks about building the face of the 'First Brit'

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Picture: Alfons Kennis (left) (or possibly right) (definitely not the one in the middle, anyhow)

Explain a little bit about what it is you guys do for a living?

In America they have a nice term for it – it’s Paleo-art. We make reconstructions of extinct mammals and especially early humans. So when human relics are discovered, people want to know what the individual would have looked like, so we reconstruct them using forensic methods. The difference between most forensic cases and ours is that ours are very, very, very old cases. Most of them have died hundreds of thousands of years ago. So we have to look at primates more, as well.

How did you end up going into that field – what are your backgrounds?

Adrie and I were always interested in prehistory, even as kids. We had a fascinating book that showed the transition from an ape to a human, and how its face changed, and we were fascinated. We weren’t so fascinated by dinosaurs, they were too alien for us. But we liked the ones you could imagine more easily, and we used to draw them a lot. After leaving school, we both became art teachers, but prehistory remained a hobby, and we collected skulls of prehistoric animals. And then we got a pretty good reputation in Holland for drawing and reconstructing prehistoric mammals. And we were asked to illustrate some children’s books about the evolution of birds and of humans. And soon after that we began making casts of the skulls of prehistoric humans, and decided to reconstruct them in a forensic way. We were doing more illustration work, and we found that to properly illustrate, we needed a 3D model to work from, to see things like how the morphology of the face would look with light falling on it.

Is there an element of guesswork in what you do?

It’s always difficult. These aren’t portraits. It’s a broad idea of how someone would have looked – you can tell yourself, if you put your hand on your face, you can feel where your bone is very near to the skin. It’s easy to know what a reconstruction would look like where the flesh is thin – for example, the nasal bridge, the frontal bone – the skin is very good, so if you know the skull shape, it’s easy to know what people would look like. But what brings a lot of character to a person is the fullness of the lips, the shape of the nostrils, the shape of the tip of the nose, the folds of the eyes – and you can’t know this.

How long does it take to make a model?

The one we did for the programme was only a skull, so it was about two-and-a-half to three months.

What is it like working together? Do you work well with each other? Do you ever argue?

We always argue, but we work very well with each other. He’s one of my biggest critics, but also my biggest adviser. Sometimes I’ll have what I think is a good idea, and I’ll give a model a good character, and Adrie will come by, and if he doesn’t smile or show emotion, I know enough, it’s nothing. And it works the other way around as well. So we help each other out. If you work on reconstruction for a long time, it’s hard to see novelties in it. So, for ourselves as artists, we want to have something new in a reconstruction – some element of surprise, some feature in his character – which will also make it more interesting for the public. If you do a lot of reconstructions, your box of ideas becomes nearly empty. So we are always looking for a nice expression of character. You can work for hours and hours staring at the same face, and not seeing any novelty. You can get bored of the face you’re making. But when you then have Adrie coming in fresh, telling you what’s good and what’s not so good, and he asks for my ideas, and he helps out with the idea and tells me to change a few things, it is immediately better. So we help each other out.

Do you each have different areas of expertise that you bring to each task?

More so with illustrations, not so much with the models we make. But with the illustrations, Adrie said I was better in manipulating very small elements so a character could change suddenly, so looking at really subtle, fine things, and Adrie was a little bit better at the big things, changing the light on the face, so it looks much stronger or more beautiful. I would sometimes get lost in details, and he would get a big brush and paint over it, and my God, it worked much better than drowning in the details.

Explain what you were asked to do for this programme.

We were sent the skull of Cheddar Man [a 10,000-year-old skull found in a cave in Cheddar Gorge], a Mesolithic skull, and they wanted us to reconstruct it, with the aid of new information from DNA.

Why was that a particularly exciting thing to be involved with?

Firstly, we had made so many Neanderthals, so many big brutes, and we were very glad to make a more modern guy. It’s really nice to make a more graceful man, not a heavy-browed Neanderthal. So we were very excited that it was a guy from after the Ice Age. We were very interested in what kind of human he was. We were very curious to find out what he would look like. What kind of Mesolithic guy was he, what kind of face did these guys have who were wandering around Europe. And with the new DNA information, it was really revolutionary. And it allowed us to look more at race, this revealed stuff that we’d never have known before.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

For us, the biggest challenge is always how complete it is. The most prominent thing in a face is the nasal area, and this area was mostly broken off, so for us the nose was the big question mark. What kind of nose would he have?

You came to the Natural History Museum to unveil your creation – was that an exciting moment?

We were a bit tense – nervous about how the scientists would react. We already knew what we’d made – it’s a long process of weeks, and slowly the face appears, so the surprise wasn’t for us. The scientists had managed to give us so much information about the model, and we just wanted to make sure that we’d be able to meet expectations.

Why do you think it’s important to know about what early man looked like?

People define themselves by which country they’re from, and they assume that their ancestors were just like them. And then suddenly new research shows that we used to be a totally different people with a different genetic makeup. It’s a story all about migrations throughout history. So people will be surprised. And maybe it will make immigrants into countries feel a bit more involved in the story. And it maybe gets rid of the idea that you have to look a certain way to be from somewhere. We are all immigrants.

First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man will air on Channel 4 on Sunday 18th February at 8pm.

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