The Documentary Masterpiece that is Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’: How life was brought back into 100 year old archival footage

The Documentary Masterpiece that is Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’: How life was brought back into 100 year old archival footage

What immediately stands out in Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old is the faces of its subjects. A painstaking restoration of century-old video footage from the First World War, the film is a complex project with a simple goal: to try to convey what it was like to live and fight on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. But the technology used is so advanced that the documentary, which has been colourised and enhanced, captures a surprising degree of character and realism. The British soldiers’ faces smile, wrinkle, and grimace—all without the artificial, sped-up look typical of archival cinema.

They Shall Not Grow Old’s executive producer Clare Olssen believes the film has allowed people today to have empathy for what their grandparents, or great grandparents, went through during World War I.

What does it take to create such a masterpiece? Just ask the team at Park Road Post Production in Wellington.

(article by Matt Hurwitz here)

Before editorial could begin, the footage had to be put through several preparatory steps by Park Road Post. The first step was re-speeding (or re-timing) the footage – the conversion of the frame rate from its native, in-camera rate to 24 fps, to get rid of that “silent movie” look. “When we see that kind of zipping around normally associated with silent movies, that’s not how we see people move,” explains Olssen. “It’s doesn’t make you think of a human being’s movement, it’s like something else altogether.”

The challenge was that not only was the native frame rate not consistent from shot to shot, it sometimes varied even within shots. “I had been led to believe that the original footage was filmed at roughly 16 fps, but we found quickly that was completely wrong,” Jackson explained. “Most of it was 13 or 14 fps, but we also found everything from 10 frames to an occasional 15 or 16, and, very rarely, 17 or 18. You can’t bring all those different speeds to 24 fps without knowing at what speed the original was filmed. It’s purely guesswork.”

Variations within shots, Olssen notes, were down to simple humanity. “They were hand-cranking. And if it was a calm, nice day, you might see a steady handcrank. But if the adrenaline kicked in — if they were around a firefight, for instance — then, all of a sudden, things might get a bit faster.”

Jackson would sit in the Park Road Post DI suite with senior colourist Matthew Wear and suggest a frame rate, say, 15 fps, and Wear would enter that rate into the system. The two would then view the corrected shot at 24 fps, and make slight adjustments, if needed, until the movement appeared natural. Similarly, after a corrected shot was viewed in the timeline in the edit bay, adjacent to other speed-corrected shots, what appeared correct when viewed on its own might now reveal itself to need a slight 1 fps tick, back or forward, to give a consistent sense of motion across a scene.

Identifying the native frame rate wasn’t always straightforward. It was often dependent on the activity that was filmed. “It was actually easier when people are walking, which has a natural rhythm,” Olssen explains. “You can feel the natural pace of human movement. So if there were troops marching or people walking within a shot, that was easier than other footage that didn’t include human movement,” such as scenes showing soldiers milling around, chatting, or of artillery firing. “That actually proved more difficult.”

Once re-speeding was accomplished, the footage was given a restoration pass by a team of up to eight artists at PRP over several years’ time, again, at this point, strictly for editorial use. The quality of the base image varied. “In many cases, what the Imperial War Museum has,” Jackson said, “is a duplicate, or a duplicate of a duplicate, or a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate. So the quality isn’t even as good as the original was.”

One thing stuck out immediately upon viewing the restored footage, even at this level. “The response, whenever we showed people that restored footage, was all about the faces,” Olssen states. “People couldn’t believe that all of a sudden, they were seeing the men, not just a trench. They were seeing the human side of it.”

Lastly, the footage was given a base black-and-white colour grade. “We were provided with flat scans, which weren’t particularly dynamic,” says PRP colourist Jon Newell. “Some were too dark, others too bright. And before you can start making an editorial call on a shot, we did a base grade, just to see what was there, so people had an idea of how well we could rebalance each piece of material.”

He and Wear would apply a few layers of grading, Wear notes, “in order to pull detail out of the blacks. And then we had to stretch in different areas, through the mids [and] the low mids, over a series of colour grade nodes.”

Colorist Jon Newell in the DI suite.
Courtesy Wingnut Films

The budget provided by the film’s co-sponsors — the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 (the UK arts commission programming the WW1 Centenary) — was for a 30-minute restored and colorized film. Jackson had spent months reviewing the 100 hours of footage provided by the IWM and had selected the shots he knew he wanted to include. “There were shots that just stood out to him as, ‘Hey, the world needs to see this — and those kids in school in England need to see this,’” Olssen says.

There was another key source of material that would form the other half of Jackson’s storytelling. “As we restored the footage, and the faces of the men became so sharp and clear, I knew that the audio soundtrack should be just the voices of the men who were there,” the director recalled. “No historians, no hosts walking through the trenches, telling us about the First World War. These men should be the ones describing to us what the war was like. This should be an average man’s experience of what it was like to be an infantry soldier in WWI.”

The Imperial War Museum had made him aware of over 600 hours of oral histories and interviews, some with video, which had been collected from 250 to 300 World War veterans by the BBC during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Jackson requested all 600 hours, which he personally reviewed and studied — along with transcripts made by Olssen and her assistant — multiple times over a period of one and a half years. “Peter just thoroughly immersed himself,” Olssen says, “listening to all 600 hours, over and over and over again.”

Longtime Jackson editor and collaborator Jabez Olssen at work.
Courtesy Wingnut Films

Though he had heard and familiarized himself with the audio content, Jackson had not yet formulated the story itself. So he began the long process of crafting the then-30-minute story with editor Jabez Olssen, who had cut Jackson’s Hobbit and Lord of the Ringstrilogies (and is Clare Olssen’s husband), in their editing bay at Park Road Post. Working with the full 100 hours of footage restored by PRP, “They sat together and crafted the imagery without getting into the thick of the audio,” explains Clare Olssen. “There were just shots that he knew he needed in this film. And he knew he needed to get selects to Stereo D if we were going to make delivery of the film. So that 30 minutes needed to be selected.”

The story takes the audience through the soldiers’ lives prior to their entry into the British Army, through their training experience, and on into battle. “From a practical perspective, there’s very little combat footage,” Olssen reveals. “There’s not a lot of footage of the guys going over the top, because cameramen didn’t get quite that close to the front lines. So some of the footage that you see is the guys practicing – they did drills so they were prepared for the real thing.” Those clips were supplemented by soldiers’ own drawings, which appeared at the time in War Illustrated. “Those are as close as we could come to footage.”

Few images, if any, display gory combat injuries or deaths; instead, Jackson and Olssen opt for footage of infantrymen warmly carousing with their comrades, intercut with still images of battlefield deaths. “It, again, puts a human face on that side of things,” Olssen states. “You just look at these faces as people, and realize where so many ended up.”

Olssen herself was personally struck with that sense of humanity upon the arrival of one restored and colorized image. “I remember when the first colorized image came in to my inbox, and I brought it up,” she recalls. “It was an image I had seen many, many times before. And all of a sudden, I looked at the soldier’s face, and he looked just like my brother, and I involuntarily had tears streaming down my face. I made that connection. So by putting that human face on this experience, you’re not just seeing a number or ‘some guy,’ you’re actually seeing the human being. And that was really important to me.”

Final Touches

Once restored, colourised and composited, Stereo D’s 34 minutes of footage was sent back to Park Road Post for colour-grading. “The colour-grading process was integral in serving the realism of the images,” Wear states. “Each element within every shot was assessed and adjusted, according to the uncompromising vision set by Peter Jackson.” Adds Newell, “We’ve kept it grounded. We’ve tried to make it as real as possible, by making sure everything is technically accurate. We didn’t do a creative grade. We tried to keep it real.”

Though Stereo D’s artists had the colour key frames to help guide them in their pursuit of that same accuracy, Olssen notes, “Remember, their talented artists were seeing the shots that are selected. They weren’t seeing the cut, because that was evolving throughout the whole process. So when you lined those shots up, of course, you had to do a colour grade. So it became a very, very important part of the process, once their colorized scenes came back to Park Road.” Notes Newell, “In a sense, it’s just classic color grading.”

Along with the completed — and flat (not dimensionalised yet) — footage, Stereo D also sent along, as part of the EXR package for each frame, the individual rotoscoped black-and-white mattes used to create the colorization. “We were able to take any of those cutouts, as many as 65 or 70 in one shot, to isolate certain areas within the flattened main image and just adjust those areas,” Wear explains.

Some items may simply have required more refinement in this second pass, Newell points out. “They might put all trousers in one rotoscope matte, and then we might have to isolate certain trousers to be a different colour from other trousers. The variations on khaki are quite amazing,” depending on how long a soldier had been wearing them or their rank, etc. “We’d either split them off, or we’d use keys within the rotoscope matte and could build up more subtlety that way, within the image.”

Vintage World War I uniforms were available for reference in the DI suite.
Courtesy Wingnut Films

Once again, Jackson’s collection of historical artifacts — and Jackson himself, along with Connor — were present at the colour-grading sessions, to help guide the colourists’ work. “We were spoiled in terms of the amount of reference material we were given,” Newell says. “We didn’t really want for anything at all. We had an expert in the room telling us exactly how it should be.”

Racks of uniforms and equipment and tables covered with hats, webbing, ribbons, bandoliers, etc., were always at the ready. “And sometimes, we could divide our screen, which is five meters in width, and put the image we’re grading on one side and just white light on the other. And then we could literally hold up jackets or greatcoats and check that they looked correct under the same colour temperature light.” For grading environments, Jackson’s location photographs were always available, allowing adjustments to be made in a similar fashion.

And, as Stereo D did to restore missing detail, Wear and Newell could draw on the original restored black-and-white footage to find whatever their instinct told them could bring yet more to the image. “One of the things about colorization is that some subtlety of light and shade and face tone roll off into black and white, and ambience is sometimes lost,” Wear explains. “Jon and I found a technique where we could apply the luminance from the black and white back into the colorized version, to readjust the luminance of each pixel set. And that brought the image back alive and added a reality and depth.”

“Those guys are incredibly clever,” Olssen notes. “They would pull detail back through from the black and white, if they needed to.”

Once that 2D colour-grading adjustment was completed, the footage was sent back to Stereo D, where they would perform their well-known dimensionalisation skills, turning them into 3D. “They had already done all of their dimensionalisation, in a sense, during their rotoscoping process for colorization,” Wear notes.

PRP’s own stereo artist, Antonis Voutsinos, then did a final convergence adjustment across the entire 94-minute film. “We do a 3D pass, a convergence adjustment, just to create consistency from shot to shot,” Newell explains. “So that you don’t get a huge amount of depth in one shot, followed by one that is really shallow. There are subtle changes that we can make in order to create consistency for the viewer, so that it isn’t too jarring a jump between shots.” Voutsinos also created whatever dimensionality was required in the prologue and epilogue, mostly appearing in the framed black-and-white footage, which inset somewhat from the plane of the screen as if one is peering through a window.

Foley artist James Carroll at work
Courtesy Wingnut Films

The final element of the film, of course, is the soundtrack, mixed by re-recording mixer Phil Heywood. “Just as the soldiers saw the war in colour,” Jackson said, “they certainly didn’t experience it silently.” Sound effects editor Brent Burge had the sounds of period weapons and artillery recorded at a military base in New Zealand, which his team incorporated faithfully. “We wanted, as best we could, to give the impression of the sounds the soldiers would have been hearing,” noted the director.

The aforementioned archival interviews, skilfully crafted from Jackson’s selects by dialogue editors Emile De Le Ray and Martin Kwok, were to be used as the film’s narration. After beginning to view the final footage, Jackson saw something else. “Peter wanted to be very, very faithful to the footage,” Olssen explains, “and when he saw the men’s lips moving, he said, ‘Well, we need to look at that.’”

Forensic lip-readers were hired to read the lips of the men on-screen and tell the team what was being said, as best as could be deciphered. “Then we had our military historians identify, from shoulder patches, etc., what regiment that soldier belonged to and where they were from.” Actors from those very regions in England were then hired to record the ADR, using the correct accents and dialects. “We even looked at how or if accents and dialects changed over time, which was interesting.”

That was just one of countless details the production was proud to include to help bring the time-ravaged footage to life, both to the eyes and the ears. “We work on roughly eight to 10 day-and-date movies a year, and every movie we work on is special,” says Adamou. “But this is a different kind of movie. It has historical implications. People usually think of World War I as a silent war, a flat, black-and-white war. And you go from looking at these pictures as memories, or fragments of memories, and the minute they are restored, and you add colour, and then you dimensionalise them, they become real people.”

A restored and color-graded image from They Shall Not Grow Old.
Courtesy Wingnut Films

Read the full article by Matt Hurwitz here:

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