As the director of elaborate fantasy epics like the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, Peter Jackson has become known for meticulous attention to detail. Now he has put the same amount of care into making a documentary.
With “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Jackson has applied new technology to century-old World War I footage to create a vivid, you-are-there feeling that puts real faces front and center and allows us to hear their stories in their own words.
The documentary, which will screen nationwide Dec. 17 and Dec. 27, concentrates on the experiences of British soldiers as revealed in footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Jackson and his team have digitally restored the footage, adjusted its frame rate, colorized it and converted it to 3-D. They chose not to add a host or title cards. Instead, veterans of the war “narrate” — that is, the filmmakers culled their commentary from hundreds of hours of BBC interviews recorded in the 1960s and ’70s.
The result is a transformation that is nothing less than visually astonishing.
“The clarity was such that these soldiers on the film came alive,” Jackson said in a phone interview describing the restoration process. “Their humanity just jumped out at you. This footage has been around for 100 years and these men had been buried behind a fog of damage, a mask of grain and jerkiness and sped-up film. Once restored, it’s the human aspect that you gain the most.”
The film came about through a partnership between the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, a cultural program that commissioned artists to create work for the centennial of World War I (1914-1918). They approached Jackson about contributing a film to the project.
“We discovered that Peter Jackson has a huge knowledge, expertise and passion for the First World War,” said Jenny Waldman, the director of 14-18 Now. Jackson’s grandfather was a professional soldier in the British Army before the war began, and served in the conflict for its duration.
The centennial project gave Jackson the freedom to make a film as he saw fit, but had two requirements: that he use only the footage from their archive and that he do it in an original way.
Jackson was given 100 hours of footage of varying levels of quality. “It was sometimes a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate,” he said.
Much of this material, of soldiers in training and then in the trenches, was shot for propaganda newsreels that would play in theaters between other movies. “It’s interesting to think that this footage could have been put between a cartoon and a Charlie Chaplin film, and accompanied by organ music,” said Jean Cannon, the co-curator of a 2014 World War I exhibition at the University of Texas at Austin. “So in some ways the war gets on the scale of entertainment.”
In fact, the first feature-length documentary to depict combat, “The Battle of the Somme,” was released mid-war, in 1916, and drew nearly 20 million moviegoers.
For Jackson’s documentary, rather than sift through the archival footage to decide which scenes to use, he opted to restore all 100 hours first (working on that daunting three-year task with a New Zealand company, Park Road Post Production). Decades of scratches, dust and splotches were cleaned up, and the now-pristine material was donated back to the war museum.
There were other technological adjustments as well. Jackson’s goal was to reconnect audiences with the soldiers in a way even more intimate than “The Battle of the Somme” did. The footage had a herky-jerky feel because it had been shot on hand-cranked cameras that produced images at a much slower frame rate than modern audiences are used to. Jackson’s team retimed the footage, speeding up the frame rate, adding extra frames digitally and smoothing out the movement.
Then Jackson turned to the company Stereo D to colorize the film’s centerpiece clips. This required the help of a historian who could identify the military details, down to what colors uniform buttons should be. Additionally, Jackson’s team traveled to some of the battle sites to pin down color references.
The film begins with basic training footage, in black and white, building to the moment when the soldiers go to the Western Front. That’s when the movie transitions into startling color. Was Jackson going for a dramatic, “Wizard of Oz”-style effect? Well, not exactly.
“It was all to do with the budget,” he said. Originally the documentary was to be about half an hour long. “The budget we had was to colorize about 30 to 40 minutes of film.” But as he and his team listened to the interviews, what the veterans said about training provided much-needed context, and the filmmakers didn’t want their movie to “jump straight into the trenches.” Still, the budget wasn’t flexible. So they settled on a feature-length movie with restored black-and-white footage bookending the dramatic, full-color highlights.
Stereo D also worked on converting the film to 3-D for a more immersive effect, a sense of being on the battlefield. And Park Road enhanced the experience with sound editing to rival that of “The Lord of the Rings.” But explosions, gunshots and tank engines aren’t as surprising as the moments when the soldiers speak.
“We got some forensic lip readers, who, before this, I had no idea actually existed,” Jackson said. These experts, who often work with law enforcement to help determine the words of people in security camera video, reviewed the archival footage to reconstruct, as nearly as possible, what the soldiers were saying.
Voice performers were hired to stand in for the soldiers, but Jackson’s team, mindful that regiments were drawn from different regions of Britain, made sure the actors came from those areas and had accurate accents. In a similar vein, military historians provided ideas for what off-camera officers’ commands might have been, and that information made its way into the film as well.
Even with all of these moving parts, and with footage that could have told a dozen different war stories, Jackson tried to keep his film specific.
“I didn’t want to do a little bit of everything,” he said. “I just wanted to focus on one topic and do it properly: the experience of an average soldier infantryman on the Western Front.”
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is playing Dec. 17 and Dec. 27 at theaters around the country. Go to fathomevents.com for more information.