‘They come alive’ Tolkien di­rec­tor re­vives war footage

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Luke Buck­mas­ter

The BBC TV pre­miere and cin­ema re­lease of They Shall Not Grow Old, the first world war doc­u­men­tary cre­ated by the Lord of the Rings di­rec­tor, Peter Jack­son, will be a high point of this week­end’s Re­mem­brance Day com­mem­o­ra­tions, mark­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the armistice that ended the con­flict.

Culled from footage and au­dio from the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum ar­chive, They Shall Not Grow Old has at­tracted rave re­views for its painstak­ing con­ver­sion of grainy footage of British troops on the west­ern front into star­tling colourised im­ages. The Guardian’s chief film critic, Peter Brad­shaw, said: “The ef­fect is elec­tri­fy­ing … sol­diers are re­turned to an eerie, hy­per-real kind of life in front of our eyes.” The Tele­graph sug­gested it was a “his­tor­i­cal por­trait of match­less im­me­di­acy and power”. Jack­son ac­com­pa­nies his vi­brantly re­stored footage with an ex­ten­sive oral his­tory gleaned from in­ter­view record­ings with vet­er­ans. The tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ments are sure to daz­zle au­di­ences, but it’s the small things that pack the most punch – namely the strik­ingly ex­pres­sive faces of the troops.

“I’ve been lucky enough see 100 hours of first world war footage and God, the faces are un­be­liev­able,” Jack­son told the Guardian. “Th­ese peo­ple come alive and you are in­stantly drawn to them. They be­come real peo­ple. Peo­ple that you recog­nise from work. Peo­ple that you’ve been to school with. You’re sort of see­ing who they are, al­most, in their faces. It’s in­cred­i­ble.”

Based in New Zealand, Jack­son, aged 57, is best known for the multi-Os­car win­ning Lord of the Rings tril­ogy (the fi­nal in­stal­ment of which, The Re­turn of the King, won a record-equalling 11 Os­cars in 2004), as well as an­other Tolkien tril­ogy adapted from The Hob­bit.

Jack­son has been an in­no­va­tor since early in his ca­reer, hand­mak­ing spe­cial ef­fects for his low bud­get hor­ror flicks Bad Taste (1987) and Brain­dead (1992). Hav­ing co-founded the vis­ual ef­fects com­pany Weta Dig­i­tal, Jack­son had de­vel­oped in­no­va­tions such as per­for­mance cap­ture tech­nol­ogy (Gol­lum in The Lord of the Rings is seen as a mile­stone in this field) and higher frame rates (The Hob­bit was pre­sented in a hy­per-real 48 frames per sec­ond, twice the usual rate).

For They Shall Not Grow Old, the film-maker en­tered un­known ter­ri­tory: “I had no idea what the re­sult would be be­cause I had never done it [colouris­ing] be­fore. I had never taken an old film and thought, ‘How can we use our com­put­ers to make this look good?’

“When it came out the other end I was ab­so­lutely amazed. It was one of the times in my life when com­puter tech­nol­ogy ac­tu­ally stunned me. I didn’t re­alise how good it could be. Then I im­me­di­ately thought: ev­ery sin­gle ar­chive in the world should be restor­ing its film, be­cause it can be done. We don’t have to look at sped-up and stretchy film any more.”

They Shall Not Grow Old fol­lows the men through army re­cruit­ment and train­ing pro­cesses, then to the hor­rors of the bat­tle­field and the dis­may of re­turn­ing home to dis­cover lim­ited em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. The fo­cus re­mains squarely on British troops on the west­ern front: it’s their words, their story, their per­spec­tive.

Why not broaden the fo­cus to ac­com­mo­date other per­spec­tives, such as nurses work­ing in hospi­tals?

“We had so much stuff. Hon­estly, 600 hours of sound and 100 hours of footage. There is prob­a­bly five or six films of this sort that could be made from that ar­chive... Give me two-and-a-half hours and, sure, the nurses would have been there. [But] you need to do some­thing fo­cused and in­tensely and do it jus­tice, or you kind of spread your­self too thin. It was a de­ci­sion I had to make.”

He ex­plained his process: “We’re sim­ply tak­ing 100-year-old footage that looks ap­palling … We’re not adding any­thing that wasn’t there on the day it was shot. We’re sim­ply bring­ing it back to what it was 100 years ago. That’s ex­cit­ing, be­cause in do­ing so we’re bring­ing th­ese guys back to life.”

In cin­e­mas now and on BBC Two to­mor­row at 9.30pm

‘Ev­ery ar­chive should be restor­ing its film. We don’t have to look at sped-up, stretchy film any more’ Peter Jack­son Di­rec­tor


A still from They Shall Not Grow Old, com­par­ing the new colourised ver­sion with the old grainy film

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