Putting a face to the legend

Siôn Hughes explains how the use of the latest ground-breaking technology and meticulous detective work helped recreate the face of Welsh medieval rebel hero.

The saying that “History is written by the conqueror” is very apt and true when it comes to the history of Owain Glyndwr and the Welsh rebellion that he led. He was a thorn in the side of Henry the 4th of England and in crushing the rebellion. It’s obvious that the English King wanted to obliterate the name of Owain Glyndwr from history. Sycharth, Glyndwr’s main residence was burnt to the ground and when Harlech Castle fell to the English, Glyndwr’s family were taken to the Tower to die and evidence of his brief but eventful reign as the Prince of Wales was rubbed out.

To this day, historians have attempted to recreate the life of Owain Glyndwr but with very little primary evidence remaining it is like a historical jigsaw with many missing parts. We don’t know when he was born, when he died, where he died, where he was buried or what he looked like. For me, the fact that he was never captured gives his story an added twist. This allows those that believe in legend to dream of a resurrection, that he will one day rise again – like King Arthur.

I can imagine that for the historian, professional or amateur, the lack of hard facts about Owain Glyndwr is frustrating. I found that 100 year old history books on Glyndwr had the same information as the more recent publications. Unlike the history of a civilisation like Egypt, where recent finds can change our understanding of history and how people lived, Owain Glyndwr’s story has stood still, with very little new information coming from anywhere.

As a production company we had developed new technology to recreate faces of iconic figures from history for the History Channel. We wanted to see if we could apply this technology to the story of Owain Glyndwr and we knew it would be very ambitious yet potentially very rewarding.

In terms of the actual technology to make the CGI face, we had developed a ground breaking technique of scanning a life and death masks. The idea was quite simple – life and death masks were exact plaster cast moulds made from the face of the famous or infamous. By scanning these into a computer we could make a precise copy of some of the greatest faces from history – warts and all. Working with our CGI collaborators Yafkas, we had spent almost a year working on scanning and building skin textures, eye colour, hair textures and lighting techniques – scanning the faces of Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Dillinger and Napoleon. The film has since been Emmy nominated and recently won an International documentary award for its innovation.

Once we mastered the technology of this CGI facial reconstruction the temptation to try and do the same with Owain Glyndwr proved too great to resist.

So the challenge was on. Owain Glyndwr, a rebel and a crowned Prince of Wales had disappeared without trace in 1410 leaving nothing behind.

But who would be brave enough to commission us to make it? With no images to work from commissioning a programme about finding and recreating a face that hasn’t been seen in 600 years would take a brave commissioning editor. But the timing proved good as S4C were looking for some high impact programmes and this fell into their lap.

To take on a challenge of recreating a character, who acquired almost mythical status in Wales was always going to prove a challenge, particularly as quite a few Glyndwr experts think that they already know everything that there is to know about the man. But in much the same way as a historian will put forward a new theory to promote a new book, we wanted to attempt something that had never been done before, and give Owain Glyndwr a new visual identity.

But how could we achieve this with credibility? Owain Glyndwr wrote six letters to the King of France and thankfully these are preserved in the National Archives in France, but apart from these letters very little has survived from the Glyndwr story.

One key clue was a portrait of a man called Jack of Kent, a mystery man. The intriguing thing about this portrait was that it has been at Kentchurch Court probably since the 15th century. We knew that the portrait belonged to Glyndwr’s era because an analysis of the painting by an expert commissioned by the National Museum of Wales in 2004 placed it in the fifteenth century. We didn’t have exact dates but we were of the view that it could possibly be Owain Glyndwr. Was it a portrait commissioned by his daughter, Alice out of respect for her ageing father? Many believe it to be Owain Glyndwr as an old man, others disagree. We had to have an open mind but it was a clue worthy of exploring and we de-aged the portrait, using FBI style technology and revealed very striking results. Ultimately we revealed a possible new face of Owain Glyndwr.

On the whole the response to the programme has been excellent and many have said it stands out in terms of quality and high production values. The programme director Stuart Clarke gave it a very filmic look as the audience are taken on a journey to look for historical clues. Not everyone agrees that we ultimately found the face of Owain Glyndwr but many have been impressed by whole process, either way we believe that we have breathed new life into an important part of medieval history.

Wyneb Glyndwr is available to view on S4C’s on-demand service, s4c.co.uk/clic.

Sion Hughes is Producer for Wild Dream Films, the company behind Wyneb Glyndwr

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