On April 15, 2019, Joby Lubman got home from work and turned on the TV to see Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral burning. “My jaw just dropped, and I was transfixed. I watched the whole thing happen live on the news as it played out,” says Lubman, who makes documentary films. Like many around the world, Lubman watched as the cathedral’s spire collapsed and firefighters worked for hours to put out the flames, saving the 850-year-old architectural masterpiece from complete destruction.
“The next morning, I had my documentary filmmaker hat on,” says Lubman, who is based in London. “This probably sounds horribly opportunistic, but the first thing I did was I went straight to my boss and said we need to start speaking to these guys about how we can have access to what will be clearly an incredible restoration process.”
His company, Windfall Films, got that access and began filming the high-stakes collaboration to save the cathedral from collapse and restore it to its former glory. Their film Saving Notre Dame for the PBS science series Nova premieres Wednesday, November 25.
Stopping the fire was just the start. As the film explores, the effort to save and rebuild the cathedral involves a unique partnership between scientists, restorers, architects, and historians. They’re using a mix of ancient and cutting-edge technologies to decode how the building was constructed and what it will take to build it back in a historically accurate way.
“The structure itself took hundreds of years to build, generations. They want to rebuild the parts that have been destroyed in five years,” says Lubman. Fortuitously, architectural historians had been working in recent years to digitally document Notre Dame, using 3D scanning technology that created a precise digital twin of the building and its components. It’s “a road map to actually rebuilding the parts that have been destroyed,” Lubman says.
This digital architectural model also helped inform the film, providing both renderings that explain how the building was constructed and animations showing just how close the cathedral was to complete collapse.
The film also follows the restorers working to clean the coal ash from the cathedral’s thousands of pieces of stained glass, the materials scientists identifying the age and type of limestone used to build its walls, and the carpenters who will need to hunt down unique pieces of French oak to rebuild the roof.
This mix of architecture, history, and science has become a specialization for Lubman and his company. He’s previously directed films for Nova on the centuries-long construction of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia cathedral, the process of saving and relocating a Victorian lighthouse, and the complete restoration of a historic covered bridge in New York State. Notre Dame is undoubtedly the highest-profile building he’s ever filmed. But initially, he wasn’t even sure his crew would be able to enter the site. Due to the extreme fire damage and a precarious scaffolding system that had been severely compromised, the cathedral was on the verge of collapse during the early days of filming. Most documentary crews were unable to go inside, but Lubman says his team got in through the sheer tenacity of one of his producers.
“She managed to sneak into this party and schmooze with all of the top people. So they remembered her, and they remembered our project,” Lubman says.
Even so, the first day of filming inside was cut short when motion sensors detected dangerous movement in the overhead scaffolding and everyone had to evacuate. That was a close call, but it was just a glimpse of the risky process of trying to save the building, which was eventually stabilized by shoring up the buttresses holding its walls. Years of work remain to clean and rebuild the cathedral, which was coated in lead dust from the burnt panels that covered its roof.
The film shows a work in progress, and Lubman hopes it’s a story he’ll be able to continue to tell as it progresses, following the efforts to address microcracks in the stained glass, and the work of the carpenters who will be hand-building the intricate roof. “This is not going to be one film,” Lubman says. “We want to follow this process all the way through.”