Peter Jackson brings World War One into the 21st century with They Shall Not Grow Old.
Last year was the centenary of the conclusion to World War One where on November 11, 1918, all hostilities ceased. Inevitably, the broad coverage brought renewed interest and awareness to the first modern war in history that introduced tanks, aerial combat, the true killing potential of the machine gun, and the large-scale use of chemical warfare.
However, in the early 1900s the film industry was still in its infancy, so while the conflict was widely captured on celluloid, grain, dust and scratches affect the 100-year-old reels of film. Moreover, the early cameras deployed were operated with a hand crank, resulting in a sped up, unpredictable and unrealistic frame rate speed. Consequently, the footage from WW1 has always presented an unrelatable antiquity; flickering figures from an untouchable age.
Director Peter Jackson has had a lifelong interest in military history and in particular, the First World War – a conflict his grandfather fought in.
He is also an avid militaria collector of the era, including a collection of vintage aircraft. The British Imperial War Museum approached Jackson in 2015 for a WW1 project, and he was given 100 hours of footage to work with.
After mulling over possibilities on how to approach the project, Jackson opted to set the entire film in the trenches on the Western Front, eschewing the viewpoint of generals and politicians, and instead telling the story of the ordinary soldier. In doing so, he sifted through 600 hours of commentary recorded by veterans in the 1960s and ’70s and selected as the primary narrative the stories from 120 soldiers.
The most significant task facing Jackson and his team was the colourisation.
“The colour was done by an American company called Stereo D”, Jackson told the British Film Institute. “Fortunately, I have a big collection of uniforms so we knew what those colours were.
“And I hired a car and drove around the Somme and Flanders in Belgium taking photos of the landscapes because I wanted to get the colours of the mud and everything accurate. So we had a great portfolio to work off.”
They Shall Not Grow Old begins in black and white with the transition to colour occurring at around the 25-minute mark. It’s a breathtaking transformation that alters the frame rate from the hand-cranked 11-13 frames per second (fps) to 24 fps – the standard for today’s movies – expanding to full screen at the same time.
Almost hauntingly, the soldiers and trenches of WW1 emerge through the fog of history in a presentation that is as clear and defined as a contemporary war film.
It’s a visual time machine that captures the hope and humour of the soldiers in the early stages of the war –the graphic (and often disturbing) detail of the fallen and the forlorn look of despair of the battle weary evoking a remarkable confluence of emotion across its 100-minute run time.
But it’s not just the colour that Jackson worked on. He added full audio and sound effects too.
“We took the footage and added very detailed sound effects to it,” says Jackson. “We took the approach that we wanted people to think there were microphones there, so we’d look at the shot and anything that would make a sound we’d have it there – it was a real detailed soundtrack.
“The people talking was a key part to that and being a silent movie, all you have are lips moving.”
Jackson enlisted forensic lip readers – who work with the police analysing security footage of a crime – for the task.
“We sent the footage out wherever we had people clearly talking,” explains Jackson. “They would come back with what they were saying so we could then add that to the film by using actors. We would then find out what the regiment was and match the accent with an actor from that region of the UK.”
They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredibly rewarding and absorbing exercise in not just preserving history, but breathing life and vitality into one of the bloodiest conflicts in history in a way never seen before. It’s a tangible and fitting tribute to a generation who endured unimaginable suffering.