For the generations raised after the First World War, it’s hard to imagine the “war to end war” without also imagining the media produced in the trenches: Silent, scratchy black-and-white photos and films. Invited by the Imperial War Museum in London to turn this old footage into something “fresh and original,” filmmaker Peter Jackson saw an opportunity.
“I thought, ‘Can we actually make this 100-year-old footage look like it was shot now?’” Jackson said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher. “So it’s sharp, it’s clear, it’s stable, it looks like modern [films].”
And he had the means to do that: Over the past five years, Jackson tasked Park Road Post (a subsidiary of his production company WingNut Films) with adding color and sound to the archive footage, as well as making the frame rate consistent and similar to what we’d expect from footage shot today. The result is the new documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which he said removes the “barrier between us and the actual people that were being filmed.”
Jackson told Recode’s Kara Swisher that Park Road Post, which previously worked on his trilogy based on “The Hobbit,” was not at all thrown by the challenge of bringing silent footage to life.
“If you’ve generated a shot of a dragon or Smaug in his gold chamber with thousands of coins that they’re throwing around and jingle, then that shot comes to us as a silent shot, there’s no sound recorded, it’s silent,” he said. “So we have a sound department who look at it and add minute detailed sort of sound effects to it to make it seem real.
“So, I was able to throw all of this footage at that same team of people and say, ‘Please, just give me a soundtrack that makes it sound like we were there, that there was a sound recordist, recording all the sounds that we see on screen,’” Jackson added. “‘Don’t add any artistic flourishes to it, just simply give us a soundtrack that sounds realistic.’”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Peter.
Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large of Recode. You may know me as Bilbo Baggins’s long-lost little sister, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today, I’m really excited to be talking to filmmaker Peter Jackson, but Casey Newton, it’s not about why there are three “Hobbit” movies. Although he’s probably best known for those “Hobbit” movies and for directing “The Lord of the Rings,” his newest film is a documentary about the First World War. It’s called “They Shall Not Grow Old,” and it uses state-of-the-art technology to tell the story of World War I without making it seem like ancient history.
He’s joining us from Los Angeles. Peter, welcome to Recode Decode. Talk a little bit about how you got to doing this. I saw a little bit of an intro to the movie, but why don’t you tell what happened and how you decided to do this?
Peter Jackson: Well, thanks for having me, Kara. I mean, I wish I could claim credit for deciding to do it, but what actually happened was I was in London about 2013, I think it was, for the premier of the last “Hobbit” movie, and I was invited into a meeting for the Imperial War Museum, who were ... At that time, they were preparing a program of commemoration events and commissioning various artistic things to do with the centennial of the First World War, so that was from 2014 to 2018.
They told me that they had a concept of doing a documentary that would be screening in the U.K. in November 2018, which is the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. So from my perspective in 2013, it was five years away. Felt like a long time at that point. And they asked me if I was interested in doing the documentary, and there was an open agenda, really. It was like, I could do anything that I chose to do. And their only proviso was that I used their archive footage, so they wanted to have their library of original First World War footage used.
But the thing that threw me was they said that they’d like me to use their archive footage in a “fresh and original” way. And the words “fresh and original” kind of was a little bit of a dilemma. I mean, I’ve watched decades worth of First World War documentaries. They use the same film. It’s jerky, it’s fast, the soldiers look like sort of Charlie Chaplin characters, it’s scratchy, it’s got breaks in it, and that’s what I’m used to seeing. So fresh and original was a sort of a thing that I couldn’t quite understand. They didn’t have any real sort of guidance for me.
So I went back to New Zealand and I thought about this for a few weeks. What I wondered — and this was a question I asked myself, and it was a real question, I didn’t know the answer to it because I’ve never done it before — I started to wonder how well we could restore this old footage with all the computer tech that we have now. And I’ve never done it, so I didn’t know, but I thought, “Can we actually make this 100-year-old footage look like it was shot now?” So it’s sharp, it’s clear, it’s stable, it looks like modern ... The speed of the footage is what we would expect to see as a normal speed.
So I asked them to send me three or four minutes of film just to let me experiment for a few weeks, and they sent me four minutes of just sort of random First World War shots that they had scanned at 2K. And I’m in New Zealand at Park Road Post with our effects team, and we set about sort of analyzing the film, analyzing the problems with it. And the problems are a lot to do with the age of the film and the damage that’s been done in the last 100 years, in the sense of sort of scratches, of the way the film’s snapped and broken and been spliced together and frames have been lost. And often the footage in their archive is a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate, so it’s got all this grain, this buildup. And we sort of looked at each of these particular areas of damage for the film and tried to figure out individual ways in which we could fix it. Each particular piece of damage had to have its own solution, so it took us quite a while, and I had no idea what the results would be. But eventually, after four or five months, Park Road Post, which is the company that I have in New Zealand, they got me in to look at the results, and I was amazed. I mean, they had managed to figure out, using the computer software that we have now, they had managed to figure out ways to make this film look incredibly sharp, normal speed. The human beings in the film just emerged from the screen for the first time. So that was the very beginning of the way that the project began.
Okay. Let me just say, they delivered actual film to you that had been redone and redone and redone again. Is that correct?
Well, I mean, the film in their archive varies because they just have an archive of First World War film, so some of the film is like ... You have to imagine that all film originates with the cameraman filming the original negative, so he’s got the camera, he’s got negative, 35 mil negative, and he’s filming. And obviously, these guys were filming between 1914 and 1918.
Now, since then, some of the film in the archive has been copied and copied and copied, and what they actually hold in the archive is not the original film anymore. It’s a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate, and each time the grain builds up. Sometimes they hold film that’s a little bit nearer the original neg. It varies all over the place.
So the things is is that when you’re looking at the hundreds of hours of film they have, you’re also looking at hundreds of hours of different sources, of different qualities, of different sort of ... of the damage. Some of it’s more damaged than others. I mean, it’s completely all over the place.
What was the technology that they were using at the time? These are hand-cranked cameras, is that correct, that they were doing these films on?
Yeah. The technology in World War I was pretty much the same as they were shooting, obviously, Charlie Chaplin films and D. W. Griffith films and all those Hollywood films that were shot around that time. The camera — and I’ve only seen photos of these cameras — but they’re wooden boxes that are about 18 inches square, six inches wide. They’re on a tripod. They’ve got a lens that ... I think they can alter their lenses. They can use a close-up lens or a wide-shot lens.
But the key thing that’s different to today is they didn’t have a motor to run the film because there was no reason to do that because that only came in when they had sound, which is like 1927, ‘28. So when you’re dealing with the First World War, 1914 to ‘18, you’re dealing with a camera in which the speed that the film is shot is entirely depending on the handle on the side of the camera that the cameraman at the time was rotating the handle around.
And I was led to believe, in all the books I read, that the sort of official speed of the silent film was 16 frames a second, but we quickly realized when we analyzed the film, we realized it was so wrong, that we had everything from 10 frames a second, 11, 12. A lot of it 13, 14 frames a second. Some of it 15, 16. Occasionally 17 or 18 frames.
But when you also think about it, you’ve got a cameraman who’s under shellfire or gunfire. I mean, they’re trying to get as close to the action as they can. They’re staying behind sandbags, but their heart rate and adrenaline they’re experiencing would, I would imagine, affect the speed that they’re rotating that handle around to some degree. So I mean, you could take a 10-minute roll of film from the archive that has 25 or 30 different shots in it, and every single shot is actually filmed at a different speed because the cameramen, they’re rotating that handle by hand, and depending on what conditions they’re under, I’m imagining the speed is going to vary.
Right. And so you get this film, you tried this out with the film that you brought back to your studio, and explain where you are. You’re in New Zealand. You have these very high-level, high-tech studios there in New Zealand that you’ve built.
Well, what we have in New Zealand is ... I mean, I’ve got a company called Park Road Post Production, who does the post-production of our films, but they also have a department of computer effects guys. So I knew that I had the best people in the world, really, to actually pull this off. And so when I asked myself that question, which was how well can we restore this, I knew I had people that could actually devote themselves to try to do that. And it involves that you take this film, and you figure out what’s wrong with it, and it’s largely, as I say, damaged from 100 years of use and neglect and just general wear and tear, and to try and correct it then.
But it also involves ... You can’t actually just do it with off-the-shelf software, so one of the things we do have there is we have a department of code writers who write computer code in software. So largely what we do in the films we make, and this is, I’m discussing modern films like “The Hobbit” movies and things now, is we would take off-the-shelf software that’s available, and you often write sort of a plugin.
If there’s a particular thing that you want to do that the software isn’t capable of doing, then you have your own department of software writers to actually author little kind of plugins that you can plug into the commercial software. And so these guys set about looking at this old film and figuring out ways to correct it, to fix it, and obviously the results that we see are in the film.
Do you consider yourself technical in that way? Because this is really a technical challenge, what you were trying to do with this film in terms of restoring it and making it real, because you’re right, the herky-jerky, the idea that it’s a Charlie Chaplin movie and things like ... That kind of look is ... What was your goal artistically and technologically from your perspective?
Well, the first part of your question, I’m a completely hopeless computer guy. I mean, if I can send an email, I feel like I’ve had a fantastic day. I am the last person in the world to look at for any computer expertise. I mean, all I can do is I can say to this team of much, much cleverer people than me, “We need this film, which was shot at 13 frames a second, to look like it was shot at 24. Can you please have a go at that and let me know when there’s something to see?” That’s as far as my expertise extends.
So I don’t claim any knowledge of computers, any knowledge of the technical side of it. All I can say is that you hire very, very clever people, and you ask them to do what you’d like them to do, and they go away, do it. And I can’t begin to describe to you what they actually do because I have no idea. I’m completely dense in that regard.
But I mean, what I was trying to achieve, though, is the ... to me it came down to one thing, which was, we’re using this old film, and we’ve seen this old film ... Everybody in the world, I’m sure most likely has seen First World War film at some point or another, and we know what it looks like. It looks sped up, weird, grainy, out of focus, splices, scratches. It just jumps all over the place. And so it presents up with a view of 100 years ago, but through a fog of film damage and all this stuff that sort of presents ... It’s like a barrier between us and the actual people that were being filmed. It’s a barrier of the fog of time and film damage. It’s just like there is this thing that makes it very hard to connect with the actual human beings that were being filmed.
So what I found, though, having restored it is that you can get rid of all that. If you can actually eliminate that fog, that barrier of technological limitation or the damage of 100 years, then the result — which to me was incredibly surprising, although in hindsight it shouldn’t have been surprising — was that the people that were there become ... They become human beings again.
They’re moving at the same speed as us, which means that we can see their body language, the nuances of their face. We can see every little twitch and expression that they do. And they suddenly become real, so the humanity comes back to the people that were being filmed, and it’s the humanity that’s been obliterated by the simple ... The technological defects of 100 years has made it impossible for us to connect in that way, and if you can remove that, you suddenly realize they’re people just like us.
All right. Let’s talk about first the colorization of it because one of things that’s very shocking is to see the colorization, and not just ... I understand the herky-jerky element that you remove, and so you get it to be as if they’re walking through movies you would see now. Talk about the different elements. One is that, removing the speed. The speed is critical, which you talked about. But what about the colorization? How did you approach that concept, and how was that done?
Well, I mean, look, the one thing I’ve got to say in a completely honest way is that I entered this project not knowing what I would be doing. As I say, I was asked to do a film, asked to use the original footage in a unique and original way, and I really was just feeling my way through it. I didn’t have a grand vision. I didn’t have a film that I had in my mind for years and years that I wanted to make. I mean, I didn’t. So this was a way of me sort of finding my way through it piece by piece.
And so once we had restored the black-and-white footage to black and white — so we’re still dealing in the black-and-white world, but it was so sharp, it was so clear, the men were coming to life, they were human beings again — then the film began to sort of piece itself together in my mind.
The first thing that happened at that point was I thought, “Well, if the people who were being filmed were coming to life in such a sharp and intense way, then the only voices we should hear should be of the men that fought this war. So, at this point I went into the Imperial War Museum and the BBC and I asked them to send me all of the audio interviews they had conducted with veterans of the First World War. We’re talking about audio interviews that were done in the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, I actually said to them, “Don’t send me anything from the ’80s and ’90s when these are very old men,” because I didn’t want the voices in this film to be ancient, feeble old men; I wanted them to be a little bit younger than that, you know, in their late 60s, early 70s.
At the same time, I thought that, as well as the men themselves telling me their own story, because they suddenly had come into such a sharp relief in terms of their humanity was just restored, and they should be telling us their story. I also wanted the film to now become a reasonably accurate view of what they saw. The veterans, or the men … not even the veterans, I shouldn’t say that. The soldiers that were in the First World War, they didn’t see this war in black and white, they saw it in color.
I know that colorization has got its detractors, which is fair enough. I mean, if you have a director in the 1930s that chose to use black-and-white film stock, a director of photography who carefully lit it to make the most of the black-and-white image and you suddenly, a few decades later, smear color over it, then you are actually defiling the artistic vision of the people that made that film.
But that’s not what you’re dealing with here. You’re dealing with people that the government hired, filmmakers that were government employees with the agenda of going to the Western Front in France and Belgium with their cameras and recording the First World War for posterity. It was the first time ever that a war could be recorded with moving picture film; obviously the American Civil War is very famous in the sense that Matthew Brady and many other photographers were able to take photos. So, it’s the first war where we had black-and-white photos.
The First World War is the first war that we have film, moving film. That was deliberate; the British government, they wanted to record this war for posterity. And certainly, for propaganda use as well, I must say.
But I just felt that if a cameraman was packing their bags to go across the channel to the Western Front and somebody came in and said, “Okay, here’s your film stock: Do you want the black-and-white film stock or do you want the color film stock?” Then, they would’ve chosen the color film, because their job was to record this war in as accurate detail as they possibly could. So, obviously they would’ve chosen color. But, of course, color didn’t exist. So, they didn’t have that choice. They were only given black-and-white film.
So, to me, converting this into color with the agenda, basically, of making it as close as we could approximate to what the soldiers themselves actually witnessed and saw was no issue at all. It became a fairly obvious thing to do.
How did you pick the colors, then? Because smearing, you’re using the right word. Smearing of colors; when they’ve colorized things, people have had problems with that. Obviously, I get your point that these were government photographers and videographers, essentially. But what were you thinking in terms? How did you decide on the colors? Was that an artistic decision? A technological decision? Or, how do you? And I wanna get to sound, also, because I think sound is a critical part of this movie, is the sounds, the behind-the-scenes sounds.
How did you pick the colors and what to do? Were you trying to be purposely not too much, not too bright? The last time that this had been done, which I think was, I think, surprising when you’re in the movie theater, is “The Wizard of Oz.” When you’re in black and white and then you suddenly get to Emerald City and color pulls up, which I think is the time where people have seen that transformation.
“The Wizard of Oz” is a little bit different in the sense that they shot the first 20 minutes or so with black-and-white film stock and then they switched to color film stock. In this particular case, there was no color film stock. It was all black and white, so we did have to resort to what is known to colorization.
The thing that I found — and I hadn’t done this before, so again, I’m just learning and discovering as I go along — the thing I realized with colorization is that the technology of colorizing something has existed for quite a long time. But the quality is totally dependent on the amount of manpower or labor that you put into the job. So, in other words, if you take a shot, a black-and-white shot, and you go and colorize it; if you say, “We want this to be done in four or five days,” which I suspect is what a lot of the colorizing you’ve seen, the budget requires it to be done in a certain amount of pace, then you get the result, that’s the best result you can get for that four or five days.
If you can say to people, “Well, you’re gonna spend three months doing this shot,” then you’re gonna get a whole lot better result. Because the technology of the colorizing is not new, it’s old. But the quality depends on the amount of time you spend.
Now, if anybody that’s hearing this podcast: If you just lift your eyes up and you look around the room, you’re not seeing seven or eight colors, you’re not seeing eight or nine, you’re seeing thousands of colors. Thousands of colors in all their shades and their nuances. You might have curtains that are green: Well, if you look at the curtains, they’re actually 500 shades of green. Even though they’re the same, it’s with the light and the shadow. It just creates a whole other ...
So, what I realized with colorization is the longer you’re gonna spend on it, and the more labor you can put into each shot and just add nuances and shades of color and shades of color on that; every blade of grass has got a slightly different shade. Then, the results become so much more real.
And, to be honest with you, if I could’ve spent twice as long on colorizing the shots… we colorized about 300 shots for this film. Black and white, first of all, it was all shot, so we colorized about 300. And if I could’ve spent twice as long, then the results probably would’ve been twice as good. But obviously every film has a schedule and a budget that you have to stick to.
But I was happy in the sense that we probably spent longer on colorizing this footage than anyone had done before. In other words, we did get better results. The colors themselves, I wanted them to be accurate. Now, fortunately, we’re dealing with the army, so, you know, back in New Zealand, they’ve got a big collection of First World War uniforms of all sorts: British, Germans; I’ve got artillery, tanks, guns; I’ve got all sorts of things, because I’ve been interested in the First World War my entire life and I’ve got a big collection of stuff.
So, the colors of the actual uniforms, of the badges, of the military equipment, was pretty straightforward. We knew what those colors were and we had to make them look as accurate as we could. But then we come to the landscapes, because when you realize that there’s ... the soldiers are there with their uniforms, that’s the easy part. But the bulk of the shot, sometimes the majority of the shot you’re looking at, there’s not army or military or soldiers, it’s actually fields, it’s trees, it’s grass, it’s sky.
What I did, and I wasn’t sure if I was being a bit insane, but, about a year and a half ago, I rented a car and I drove around all by myself. It was just me, alone, by myself. I drove around the battlefields of the Somme, in France; the battlefields of Flanders, in Belgium; and I spent two or three days and I photographed thousands and thousands of photos of the fields, the trees, the hedges, the crops in the field.
People think of the First World War as being a muddy, gray, overcast war, but it was fought for ... That was probably true of the winter months. But if you’re looking at the Somme Offensive, or any of the battles that were fought during summer, then there was green grass, there was blue skies; it was fought under very bright, sunny conditions.
But I still wanted to make sure that the vegetation of that particular part of the world, of the Somme area in France, in Northern France, and the Flanders area in Belgium: I wanted to make sure that we were showing the colors to be accurate to that part of the world.
So, you actually drove around and took pictures? With an iPhone or with just a ... How did you do that?
No, I had a camera. No, I did slightly better than an iPhone. I had a proper 35 … I mean it was a digital camera, but it was a sort of a bulkier Sony camera, in fact. But I was just taking photos, I was just taking pano. I’d just drive around, stop at a field and take a panoramic photo of that field booth; drive another mile or two, stop, take a photo with that.
And in some cases I actually found the exact locations that some of our shots were in, because this is a ... The Western Front, in terms of the British Army, is not that vast. It’s about 80 or 90 miles of land, and we know exactly where the trenches were. So, it’s not that hard to pinpoint a black-and-white shot that was filmed in 1918, 1917, 1915, and it’s not hard to actually stand in the exact spot where that cameraman was in and actually was filming that shot.
You know, the hedges and the trees and the grass today would be no different to the colors that they were then, or the mud. I took lots and lots of photos of the mud. And even though the trenches have gone ... Well, that’s actually not true. There are a lot of trenches still there. But the muddy sort of shell holes are gone; the shell holes are all covered in grass now. But even so, there were still fields. Because it’s like a farmland, there’s lots of mud, there’s lots of dirt around, so I was particularly photographing the color of the mud to make sure that we got that right.
Well, you got the mud right. Let me ask about two colors that I was really particularly struck by: One was when you move to the colors of the machines, which I thought you did beautifully, the green on the machines; and then the blood. That was, I think, the most disturbing, is when you see those pictures of the trenches, you do get a sense that it was terrible. But this just brought it up to a new level. All the dead bodies, the dead horses; you had dead animals. Body parts and stuff. It was really ... It was so hard to look at, and yet you couldn’t look away at the same time. And the color had a lot to do with it.
I completely agree. The colors of the military equipment, like the tanks and the guns, that’s historically known colors. In fact, there’s museums in Belgium and London that have tanks that have not been restored. So, you can see a tank in the actual, original First World War paint, and they’re still on the tank. That stuff is not hard to get right.
And the colors of, well, obviously, same thing: We know what blood’s like. We know what the color of blood is. It’s not a debatable thing. But I agree with you. I mean, we’re used to seeing black-and-white shots of bodies lying on the ground and once you add the blood ... I mean, people bleed when they get ... Anybody: If you cut your finger in the kitchen, you bleed. These guys, if they get bullets through them and shrapnel through them, they bleed a lot.
Look, I wasn’t out to exploit anything, but at the same time, I think the opposite of exploitation is to sanitize. And I think it’s equally important not to sanitize. I wanted to present... This film, it sort of found its own shape, in a way, over a period of time, as we did everything I’ve described, but one of the things that was clear is that we should just simply be showing and hearing the soldiers talking about what they experienced in this war. And unfortunately, one of the things they experienced was there were dead bodies lying all over the place. And if there’s dead bodies lying around, then they’re gonna have a lot of blood on them.
It wasn’t an attempt to artistically push the film or to shock people; it was just an attempt to show it like they would’ve seen it.
Yeah, and also the feet. The trench feet. I’ve read about that so much and then to see it, to actually see it, and the way you colorized it was disturbing and fantastic, at the same time.
Well, the thing with trench feet is it’s basically gangrene. In the modern world, we often see images of gangrene from mountaineers that are climbing Everest and their feet get frostbite. In today’s world, we’re more familiar with it being a product of frostbite and gangrene sets in and you’ve gotta amputate the toes or the legs.
But in the First World War, the gangrene was the result of, basically, rotting feet. Because you were standing in water for weeks and weeks, weeks on end. This is during the winter months. It wasn’t always like that: In the summer it was dry, but during the winter months when the rains came in, the soldiers had little choice but to have their boots and their feet immersed in water, mud, and with little relief. So, everything would be saturated in water. And it doesn’t take long.
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest, how long it takes, but within a reasonably short time, I imagine a week or two, your feet begin to rot. I mean, it sounds awful, and it is awful, but they rot. And when they rot, gangrene sets in. In the First World War, it was known by a name, it was called “trench feet.” And if you had trench feet, you basically had rotting feet, and there’s only one way to fix it, because the gangrene that’s set in is gonna kill you, it’s gonna go into your bloodstream and you’re gonna die. So, they had to chop off the feet.
That’s just one of the things, amongst many other hardships that these soldiers had to deal with. And obviously the army were fixated on trying to keep their feet dry, so they introduced whale oil; they brought pots of whale oil in and got the soldiers to smear their feet in whale oil, then put their socks on. Then put more oil on, then put their boots on. In an effort to fend off the water from rotting their feet.
The sound. I think the sound, to me, was the most moving part of the entire thing. Not just people’s voices, but everything going on behind them. Can you describe how you decided to do that? In terms of doing that? Because I think it brought, as you said, people that didn’t seem real, alive.
Yeah, it goes back to that initial ... Well, it wasn’t the initial concept; it was actually a concept that came about once we saw the footage and things, is that we decided that we have to present this film as realistically as we can, in the sense of making the film, which has always been black and white, it’s always been jerky, it’s always been scratchy, making the film look like it was shot today, but it was shot 100 years ago. So it’s like a time travel situation.
To do that, in addition to the colorizing of the footage and the 3-D dimensionalization of the footage, we needed to have sound, because it’s obviously silent footage. If we really wanted to achieve what became our agenda, which was to show this the way that, you know, as close as possible to what the soldiers were experiencing, sound was a very important thing because they certainly, they heard sounds as well as saw these images.
So, fortunately, going back in Park Road Post in New Zealand, Park Road Post Production, we’ve got a really good team who won an Academy Awards for editing sound to silent pictures, because people don’t really realize that when you’re dealing with these modern effects movies like “The Hobbit” movies or the Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings,” a lot of the footage is actually silent.
If you’ve generated a shot of a dragon or Smaug in his gold chamber with thousands of coins that they’re throwing around and jingle, then that shot comes to us as a silent shot, there’s no sound recorded, it’s silent. So we have a sound department who look at it and add minute detailed sort of sound effects to it to make it seem real.
So, I was able to throw all of this footage at that same team of people and say, “Please, just give me a soundtrack that makes it sound like we were there, that there was a sound recordist, recording all the sounds that we see on screen. Don’t add any artistic flourishes to it, just simply give us a soundtrack that sounds realistic.”
And part of that was, the difficulty, I guess the hardest part of that, I mean it’s easy to add horse hooves and gunfire and all the jingling and the jangling of the equipment, that’s the easy part. The hard part is when we had soldiers talking, because all that we had were their lips moving and obviously, we have to record of what they were saying. So we managed to find some forensic lip readers. I had no idea these people existed.
But there is a very small group of people who read lips of silent footage, mainly for law enforcement. So if there’s a security camera footage of a break-in of a bank or a shop and you’ve got the robbers sort of ... it’s not recording sound, but the security camera are showing them doing what they’re doing, then they try to read the lips of what they’re saying, to get clues of who they are so they can catch them and solve the crime.
And there was this small group of people that do, are incredibly skilled, unbelievably talented at looking at moving lips and figuring out what these guys are actually saying.
So we sent all of our shots, any time we had a soldier on camera talking, but didn’t know what they were saying, we would send it to ... We had two or three of these clever forensic lip readers who were working with us to help us and they would come back with a written thing and say, “Well, this is what we think this guy is saying.”
And what we had to do then was we had to work out what the regiment was because, as you can imagine, in the U.K. there’s a wide range of regional accents and you can’t have some ... Even if you know what the soldier is saying or the lip reader people telling us, “This soldier is saying this,” you can’t take a Yorkshire or a Lancashire regiment record a voice of someone from Kent or London or Somerset because it just won’t fit, because the rhythm is so different, the vowels are so different.
So we had to then do a whole range of research to figure out where these guys came from. In each of these shots, often there’s no record so it was a lot of detective work to figure out, okay, well, we’re working at a regiment, we’re looking at a Norfolk regiment so therefore we’ve got to find an actor in Norfolk who can recite the lines and we’re going to fit those with the lips. And you know that the lip readers got it right, because they actually do fit.
They don’t ... It doesn’t look wrong, the vowels and the consonants and all the sort of shapes of the mouth, it completely fits, which was quite extraordinary.
Right, it was. That was a really interesting because at first I thought it was actually them on tape, I couldn’t tell, it was a really interesting way to tell the stories, especially when they were going by them. They were going by and the guy said, “Oh, we’re on film now.” And that is what he was saying, that is what he was saying.
And especially around their mouths, it was really interesting to look, especially the teeth, actually, some of the teeth were pretty awful.
Well, the teeth are a whole different story. The British dental technology of the turn of the 19th century was certainly something to be ... Something to not be proud about, I have to say.
So I want to finish over two different things, is where you think sort of the storytelling is going, but to finish up on this movie, so you what you’re trying to do here is just tell the story of these people in a way that modern audiences can discern, or what? To get to the heart of what they were doing?
Well, I’ll tell you what it became, and again, I’m not claiming any great genius thought at the beginning of this because I had no idea, but what to me, what it evolved into through all of the different things that we described, is to me, it became apparent that the film I was really making — and I certainly realized this without actually having intended to particularly — the film that I was really making was a film in which people today, even though there are no survivors of the First World War, there is still the next generation.
So in other words, what I mean by that is, that if you have an elderly grandfather or great-grandfather then it’s possible, and it was a World War, a lot of the world was involved, it’s possible that their father was a soldier in this war and they heard a lot of stories from their own father, who is no longer around.
Now, I just hope that ... This is what I’m actually hoping to achieve with the film, and it became sort of slowly dawning on me as I went through it, is that it’s the last period of time that the younger people can ask their older relations, the elder members of a family, what ... Who did we have in the First World War? And I think if people can ask that question of their older members of their individual families, they’re going to get all sorts of stories that in 20 years time, they’re going to be gone because that generation will have passed.
And so I hope, I really ... and because the First World War, there’s hundreds and hundreds of books, thousands of books written about the war, there’s lots of documentaries. If you want to know about the First World War, there’s all sorts of ways to find out, but I think it’s more important right now.
All that I was interested in is families. A lot of people in this world are descended from people who fought in this war that their DNA is in our bodies, we are so connected to them and it’s an opportunity ... This is the last opportunity. I mean, the soldiers are gone but the next generation hasn’t and the next generation heard all the stories. It’s the last opportunity we’ve got to actually, for families, for individual families to collect their own family history. And that’s what I hope this film actually inspires.
That’s terrific. I want to finish up just talking for about a few minutes about where you think storytelling is going. Obviously, you’re well known, it’s funny that you say that you’re not very technological because a lot of your movies are very ... There’s a lot of special effects going on, there’s a lot of things and you have this studio there. How do you look at storytelling going forward? Because this is a really simple movie in a lot of ways, you know, compared to a lot of things you do which are complicated.
I agree. Of all the options, of all the ability that we had to sort of do something, we ended up with actually something that’s almost the most simple result, which is just have these soldiers, through their archive tapes, which have by the way, been in archives for 50 years. Anybody could access these tapes and use them. I mean, we didn’t discover a hidden stockpile of tapes, they’ve been sitting there. We just simply used them. So I agree with you, it’s very simple.
I mean, technology, I mean, everything is different. Like on one level, I try and use technology in the modern films I make to simply show incredible things that, in terms of the story, what’s in the script, like if it’s a Tolkien script, or the “Mortal Engines” film we just made, or “King Kong” or whatever it is, I try and use technology to give people an escapist piece of entertainment at the movies and believable.
But I actually kind of like about this movie is it’s almost the polar opposite in a weird way, is that you’re using technology today to try and make this film of 100 years ago, look as close to being what the cameraman saw. So, if you’re going to imagine that you’re a cameraman in the first World War and you’re cranking the handle of the camera and you’re filming and you’re trying to stay alive, what the camera filmed is one thing. But if you had just glanced past the camera with your own eyes and you saw this in color, 3-D, these images, that’s what we’re trying to sort of almost bypass the film and the camera, but still use the film, which is all we have obviously, but still use the film to give a much more realistic completion of what would have been happening in front of that camera.
And I love the fact that, 100 years later, there’s technology that these guys back then would never have dreamed about. I mean, who would have ever thought that if you were shooting on the Western Front in the First World War that 100 years afterwards, that this computer tech, I mean, it’s almost as unbelievable to even think about it, but these guys had no idea what was actually going to be possible in 100 years, so I do love the idea that we’re using all of this technology, but we’re using it to go back in time and to kind of transform the film in the way that we’re doing.
Do you try not to depend too much on technology? I could imagine doing this via drone shots or 3-D or all the different things that are coming, how do you look at all those technologies as they ... that’s a longer discussion for you, and not here, but ...
Well, the advantage of it, as you say, is I don’t, and as I told you, I don’t have any ability. I mean, I can’t do this stuff. If somebody said to me, “Sit down and transform this film or restore it or colorize it or create a dragon,” I don’t have a clue how to do it. I’ve just got very clever people that do it for me.
So from that level, I don’t actually get too obsessed with it. I literally don’t know anything about it, so therefore, I don’t sit in bed at night and think about the code and the software and the pixels. I don’t think like that. All I think about is story and character, and I think what the technology is is just a step, it’s a technique that you have available to tell a story. So I don’t get obsessed with the technology.
I make sure that I know where the development of it is so if I want something to be on a film, I know that I’m not asking for something that is completely impossible. It used to be impossible once, a lot of things, but now ... it’s really much of what you can imagine in your head, you can actually do on film now. So to me, you know, the technology is no different then just any other aspect of filmmaking, you want to tell a story and you just tell a story as you need to.
If you need to build a set, you get timber and you get nails and you hammer a set together and you paint it and you make it look like it’s whatever it is, a piece of Middle-Earth or a piece of ancient Rome or whatever it is, and computer technology is no different. If you want to show something and you can’t build a set because it’s too vast, what you’re imagining, or it’s too huge or it’s too expensive, you have a computer do it, it’s no different to the timber and nails and paint approach, in my mind.
Well that’s a perfect way to end. Peter, thank you so much. This is a wonderful movie and they didn’t grow old, it’s really quite a moving movie and it really does bring together World War I and I really appreciate you talking to us. Thank you so much.
It’s been a pleasure, thanks so much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.