How Film Captured yet Continues to Humanize The Great War

By October 10, 2019News

“It moved me,” said Drew Tekulve (BYU Broadcasting) speaking of They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), not because of the film’s advanced technologies but because of how it made human those who lived over a century before us. Tekulve set out to demonstrate, “How film technology over the years has been used to improve memory and memorialize events. In this case, how the post-production processes in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old assist in memorializing the past.”

Tekulve began by giving an overview of the history of film technology from the 1880s to today by touching upon big leaps that have taken place over the years. In the 1870s, chrono-photography was a series of cameras that each took one photo and when shown in succession it acted as a primitive version of the moving pictures we have today. Celluloid film changed everything with its development in the 1890s. Celluloid could be loaded into a camera and cranked to capture a series of photographs along the film strips. In 1897, filmmakers began splicing film strips together to create movies as we know them today. Kinemacolor brought color to film in 1909. Kinemacolor is done by alternating shots through red and green filters then basically showing them together after processing to give at least some sense of rudimentary color in film; this was known as the “two-strip color/look.” The tri-chromatic procedure or the technicolor process in 1916 where three strips of film filtered through red, green, blue are layered to create almost every color our eyes can perceive. Technicolor was so groundbreaking and became increasingly inexpensive overtime that it persisted into the 1970s.

Other technologies have also been key in the development of cinema as we know it today. In 1927, The Jazz Singer became the first feature to be released with synchronized sound. 1932 marked the first film commercially released to use the full technicolor process with Walt Disney’s Flowers and Trees (not The Wizard of Oz, Tekulve reminded). Cinemascope was developed in 1953 which widened the frame of filmstrips which allowed cameras to capture even more space. Disney’s Tron was released in 1982 and became a groundbreaking work for its digital effects which are harsh on the eyes today but were nevertheless amazing advances in digital film technologies. Windhorse (1998) was the first feature film to be shot exclusively on digital cameras, and the Coen brother’s O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) was the first to use digital color-grading technology which allowed the film to have that sepia look despite being filmed in the summer. Nowadays, almost everything is done digitally: digital cameras, digital coloring, and all-digital post production. 

Peter Jackson came onto the scene with the release of his film Bad Taste in 1987, and as he began to make more and more money he founded a series of studios dedicated to film technologies specifically regarding post-production processes. He is now known best for the kinds of technologically boundary pushing work on The Lord of the Rings Trilogy as well as The Hobbit Trilogy (“questionable but still pretty good VFX,” joked Tekulve). But, according to Tekulve “They Shall Not Grow Old is Peter Jackson’s technological magnum opus.”

Jackson was given hundreds of hours of footage of the First World War from the Imperial War Museum and asked to create a film for the centennial of The Great War. The footage he was given wasn’t the original footage because overtime those filmstrips had decayed but overtime the museum created and preserved copies . Unfortunately, every time you make a copy it becomes more damaged and less clear. Jackson and his team chose to digitize and restore every piece of film in the museum at no cost to the museum because of his interest in WWI and his belief that these windows into the past needed to be preserved. 

The restoration process for the footage you will see in the film consisted of three steps. First, was frame rate standardization and interpolation. Because cameras in the 1910s were manually cranked, film strips were constantly being exposed as different speeds, and this is especially true with war footage. Someone in the trenches, whose heart was pumping, was probably cranking the camera like it would save his life while others may have been distracted by the soldiers cracking jokes so their frame rate slowed. Jackson and his team brought all the footage up to the standard of twenty-four frames per second which meant digitally adding frames as needed to create a motion that more closely matches real life. 

Second, they digitally added color to all of the footage. Using references from photographs of the same places today as well as surviving artifacts, they hand colored every scene in the film. Using photoshop, they would color one frame then use a program they developed to apply those colors to objects as they moved in each frame. The other frames were then checked afterwards. One important note, Dekulve added, is that the skin tones of every person are unique and even within one person’s face tones shift from nose to cheeks to ears so those all needed to put colored as well.

Last and, “the most insane part of the movie,” according to Dekulve, is the sound work in this film. They did original foley work (recording of sound effects) using the same types of weapons from Jackson’s and others’ personal archives of these artifacts. So the guns you hear in the film are the actual guns you see as well as the sounds of boots, tanks, cups, and every other item in the world of the 1910s. Not only did they add sound effects but they added the voices of the soldiers as well. While those could not be perfectly recreated, they analyzed the footage to find what region of the UK the speaking soldier’s were from and hired forensic lip readers in order to find out what they were saying. Finally, they hired actors from those specific regions to record the lines in the correct regional accent.

 “Why go through the lengths of doing this?” asked Dekulve, “Other than it looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful.” Jackson wanted to memorialized this often forgotten event. The humanity of the soldiers and those involved is restored along with the film strips. This film acts as an artifact for the history of World War I and important family history for those who had family members involved.