Journey to Mecca: Camel Capers and Caravan Choreography
Loading the camels on the day was "epic" according to Art Director Phil Murphy. Three hundred camels linked in groups of three and four were each brought to their knees in turn by their 80 camel wranglers to be loaded with the double packs or palanquins.
Unaccustomed to such large and floppy accoutrements, the camels would shake them off. Once one camel stood up, all the others would rise and they would have to be cut loose. Eventually they got used to the unwieldy loads and stayed in line. At first Murphy was terrified and was trying to load the packs at a distance of two yards, but by day three he was taking the lead rein and bringing the camels to their knees and flinging packs over their backs. "In the end, I began to like them. They were quite obliging, despite their slobbering, kicking, screaming and bucking." Other camels had been trained to move on "action" so one had to be careful as one assistant director discovered to his chagrin when he shouted "action" and a camel took off with the lead actor.
Along with his own aristocratic 'white' camels, the Animal Wrangler Joël Proust, who also worked as the Stunt Coordinator, collected the camels from as far as 200 miles away. He transported some camels by truck but often walked them 25 miles overnight to the next desert location. Six hundred sheep and goats in addition to horses and donkeys were added to the mix.
Second Assistant Director Richie Goodwin applied straightforward mathematics to break down the almost 1,000 animals and over 500 extras into 12 groups of 35 people, 25 camels, three donkeys and 50 goats under the headings of Poor, Standard, Rich and Very Rich. For example in the Rich category, there was a mix of pilgrims, water carriers, camel handlers, a Qadi, his servant, an Imam, the Imam's servant, Muezzin, Koranic camel, and musicians. A Poor group included pilgrims, merchants, water carriers, camel handlers and a blacksmith. Ibn Battuta was included in a Standard group featuring Battuta, pilgrims, merchants, water carriers, strong camel handler, goat handler, eight camel handlers and a torchbearer. The groups were numbered from 1 to 12 and sent out in number order. The yawing of the camels and braying of the donkeys added an authentic voice to the proceedings.
"The two kinds of danger for the caravan were bandits on the outside and internal strife on the inside. That's why there were lawyers," points out Costume Designer Emma Bellocq. To easily distinguish the different characters in the caravan, she had the professions grouped together. As an overall look for the caravan, we chose vibrant colours, separating out the classes. She imagined the caravan like a painting. In the distance, the palanquins punctuated the horizon.