The Mustang caves of Nepal

Watching Fernando Baptista, one of our Senior Graphics Editors, at work is a fascinating experience. The October issue of National Geographic features just another impressive reconstruction graphic born out of his endessly creative and perfectionist mind. The story is about a series of caves in the Nepalese district and former kingdom of Mustang. Although spectacular complexes of cliffside caves were already known in the area, a new key find was the so-called Tomb 5 in Samdzong. A powerful leader was buried there 1,300 to 1,800 years ago in a wooden coffin, surrounded by sacrificed animals, ceremonial objects and, mysteriously, a child.

Here is Fernando’s finished graphic, a photographed model painstakingly built with papier maché, clay, plasticine, wood, and many weeks of research. The map at the bottom is by Senior Graphic Editor Martin Gamache.

And this is the video Fernando and Video Director editor Hans Weise created for our iPad edition (for subscribers only):

THE FIRST IDEA The original idea was to focus on the cave city complex of Tsarang. Fernando created several pencil and watercolor sketches, but it turned out information on the interior of the caves was insufficient to attempt a detailed reconstruction. I love the look of unfinished and rough sketches. Today these are all drawn in paper or on the computer, but we have quite a few old sketches in the office painted with oil over canvas! and mailed by artists. I’ll photograph a few one of these days to show you.

FOCUSING ON TOMB 5 Our main consultant, Dr. Mark Aldenferder, was part of the team of archeologists and mountaineers working in the area. He pointed Fernando to the sensational find of the funerary cave complex of Samdzong. The first pencil sketches were made (above).

Fernando has a Fine Arts background and worked for Spanish daily newspaper El Correo for 14 years before coming over to Nat Geo. He is an exceptional illustrator. Fernando often creates small clay models just as reference for his illustrations. This allows him to investigate the volume and lightning and to find the best point of view possible. What others may do with 3D software, Fernando does with plasticine, clay and carving tools from the art store or from his kitchen. The model above was created for this purpose but when our Creative Director Bill Marr saw it, the concept was born. Why not create a larger, very accurate model of the cave and photograph it?. We thought this would not only have a striking presence in the printed page, but it would allow us to play with a moving camera and create a video for our iPad edition that would immerse the readers into the tight, claustrophobic cave space as they looked at the different offerings and remains.

Fernando and Senior Design Editor John Baxter worked on several layout possibilities. Two early examples are shown below. We thought we would have bigger impact on a vertical spread (the reader must turn the magazine to read it). At this point we are mostly dealing with hierarchy, flow of information and determining which elements will be essential in the storytelling and which can be eliminated or more effectively shown elsewhere in the layout. Usually we start with quick pencil sketches.

We were still planning to show the city cave complex in Tsarang (the larger block), but we realized this could confuse readers because the tomb shown in the main art is actually not part of that complex.

Fernando enlisted our talented art research intern, Fanna Gebreyesus, to dive into the details of the cave, and ultimately also to help build it. The large model wall structure was created in papier maché, using glue to hold dozens of layers of newspapers together. Here you can see it at an early stage.

To create the rock and earth texture, Fernando and Fanna gathered six different types of sand and earth of different colors and grain texture (from the park, from the street, from a weekend visit to Alexandria, VA…). Fernando’s wife Begoña helped eliminate the biggest particles with a cheesecloth and then they were sprinkled them around the cave on top a layer of adhesive spray.

To create the different mummified animal skulls found in the cave (probably ritual offerings) Fernando calculated the exact size needed, printed out photographs of the same species in three views (front, side and top) at the same size and carefully sculpted them in clay. To complicate things, we had to calculate how much the skulls would shrink after baking them (in Fernando’s oven at home!), which turned out to be about 20 percent.

The idea was to represent the cave as it would look around 20 years after the burial, with mummified skin still attached to the skulls. To create that effect, Fernando applied a thin layer of paper, glue and leather from an old jacket, and then he painted them. The metallic objects were made in clay, painted with metallic shine paint and then “aged” with acrylic colors. Fernando molded iron wire to create the low tripod that sustained one of the vessels.

A stunning gold mask covered the face of the man’s remains. After careful observation, it was apparent that there were traces of paint in the nose but also a series of thin lines around the face. Fernando pointed this out to Dr. Aldenderfer, suggesting a way of reconstructing the original design of those lines. After several rounds, the expert archeologist was really excited. It’s not unusual for us to collaborate with an expert as they investigate, helping visualize and solidify their theories.

Fernando used copper to sculpt the mask. To create the hood covering the mummy head (see the first picture in the post) Fanna brought a piece of ethiopian cloth, which Fernando aged with watercolors and coffee. Then Fanna sewed the mask to the cloth using metallic thread through extremely thin holes following Dr. Aldenderfer’s instructions.

The skeleton of the adult male was a plastic toy that had just the right size. Fernando applied the same aging technique he used with the skulls. However, we had to add the smaller skeleton of a child, also present in the cave. It was found laying close to the wooden coffin, on the floor. Fernando and Fanna looked for the right size plastic skeleton all over the Internet and in city stores for over a week, with no result. Utimately, Fernando decided to buy another plastic skeleton like the one he used for the adult, and then proceeded to cut almost every bone of the body,  (that’s right, manually and one by one!!!) shorten it, reshape it and reattach it. Insanity! That is how far Fernando will go to achieve accuracy in his reconstructions.

The row of beads that once adorned the mask of the chief turned Fernando’s office into a workshop for tiny jewelry work (below). I think he missed his work with large canvasses more than ever…

We kept looking at different layout options, but none of them was really convincig us. The one shown above had a somewhat clunky stacking of two horizontal layers of context information. It was too much work before the reader could reach the main image, and the lack of hierarchy given by so elements of similar size was apparent. On top of that, the very realisitc model could have been read as an actual photograph of the cave. At the end, we decided that it was important to show the edges of the model itself to present it as a hand-made recreation. The structure of the graphic (below) was now much simpler.

The wooden box that served a coffin (the original is shown below) was recreated by Fernando in wood working closely with the expert, as Fernando wanted to use the same assemblage technique to hold the four walls together with wooden rivets. We also recreated the decoration.

Our work with consultants continues to the very end of a project, and they are continuously sent new versions for revision. . Below is one of many files sent by Fanna and Fernando to Dr. Aldenferder to get his approval on the different details of the cave.

Staff photographer Mark Thiessen (below) made final photographs of our model with multiple angles and light settings in our photo studio. Here you can see the actual size of the model. The small plates contain the different types of sand and earth Fernando used to texturize the cave walls.

Most people are surprised to learn National Geographic magazine only has two photographers in staff, to do studio photography. Nearly all stories are shot by freelancers. But Mark is an award winning photographer that has done several feature stories for the magazine.

With a finished model, it was time to work on the video the video. Fernando had the idea of having the flickering light of a candle illuminating the scene to get a mysterious ambience and some motion in the light and shadows to bring the inanimate object to life. Here you can see him making a test, filming a short scene with his iPhone and a candle light. Ultimately, we decided that a hand holding a candle would be visible in the video. Without its presence, the scene would have looked all too real and perhaps confuse readers.

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31 thoughts on “The Mustang caves of Nepal

  1. Thank you. This is the first of this type of blog that I’ve seen. I’m so glad it was Freshly Pressed. I was very impressed by the way you described the process and used photographs of the less-than-perfect moments along the way. Facts and figures are a necessary component of our learning experience. BUT, I believe that understanding process and problem solving greatly benefits our society as a whole. So many people are only interested in presenting their final version, the polished product, which is a shame because it teaches us so little. It was a delight to read your post.

  2. Plasticine, the most underrated wonderful hunk of coloured stuff. I’m dragging out my old copies of Nat Geo today to take another closer look at the magic that is made. Thanks for sharing.

  3. So you guys are the ones who put together the awesome pictorials in my NGM copies! I love them – the maps, the giant fold out pictures, the pretty colours! Great behind-the-scenes article on how these are put together. For some reason I always assumed it was all digital (sry, can’t help it, am Gen-Y), but this is soooo much more involved and requires much more skill and work. Awesome post, look forward to more and have just followed!

    • Thank you Peggy, you have a nice blog yourself! The majority of our work is digital, but we also commission traditional painters. And Fernando Baptista, our in-house artist and graphics editor featured in the post uses clay, watercolors, computers…anything that fits his mood and creativity.

  4. That was one of the best posts I’ve read in a while! I love Nat Geo and always am blown away with the photography but this is a masterpiece. The whole project from beginning to end is proof that passion transcends all scopes and levels. Two cliche’s come to mind: The Devil’s in the Details and It takes a village. Amazing stuff, thank you.

  5. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! I loved the mix of media in the post: video, drawings, pictures, and text–each used to get the most info across in the most efficient and user-friendly way.

  6. You guys do such a terrific job over there! Thank you so much for providing some insight into the NGS design process, an on a crazy cool place! It is without a doubt that it is the people *inside* the Society that makes NatGeo continue stand out after more than 100 years. Bravo and THANK YOU.

  7. Pingback: Reinventing Nat Geo art, maps and graphics for the iPhone | NATIONAL INFOGRAPHIC

  8. Pingback: Dust to Dust: Closing the Loop With Ceramic Pots « Trash Backwards

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