Peter Jackson, director of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, is more than familiar with the epic. But when he set out to make a documentary about World War I using all the technological resources at his disposal, he came to the realisation that spectacle was not what was required.
“I thought,” he said, “this is going to be an intimate film.”
His feature, They Shall Not Grow Old, which is due for release in Australia on Sunday, was made in collaboration with Britain’s Imperial War Museum. He says he was stumped at first by the brief he received four years ago: to use the museum’s archive footage in a fresh and original way.
“I think I’ve seen all the documentaries about the First World War from the past 20 or 30 years, and they all use the same footage. So I thought: what can you actually do?”
He decided “to use all our computer firepower to restore this footage” as a starting point. After working for several months restoring three or four minutes of film, “the one thing that struck me more than anything else was the faces and the humanity of these men. They suddenly come alive as real people.”
Faces led to voices. “The film was making itself known to me as I was going through the process, and I realised that the only voices we should hear were the soldiers’. No one else should speak.”
Jackson listened to 600-plus hours of audio material, interviews with veterans conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by the BBC and the IWM, and decided their words would provide the narrative for an arc that takes us from the outbreak of war to its aftermath, without mentioning dates, names of battles or strategies.
There were things he could do with digital technology to transform the archival footage. With the sharper image achieved by restoration, he could simulate camera movement, employ the close-up zooms, pan and tilt.
As he listened to the oral history recordings, he was surprised by how matter-of-fact the veterans were.
“I heard 600 hours of veterans talking, and only one guy broke down, and his voice cracked. Nobody else had any emotional response.”
Special i lW WWI magazine