Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson has taken century-old archival footage and treated it like any of his effects-driven epics, delivering a striking and visceral view of World War One.
Jackson’s first documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is more than just a movie: it’s a brain-shattering experience, a surreal insight into what it was like to fight in the trenches during the Great War.
An immense technical and aesthetic achievement, Jackson and his team took black and white film footage from the vaults of the BBC and the Imperial War Museum and gave them an astounding makeover. Aside from restoring the images, they colourised them, stabilised the shots, converted the footage to 3D and created a soundscape as if it was a summer blockbuster.
Most sound you hear in any given film is carefully built in a sound studio in post-production. Actors are brought in to undertake a process called ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) in which they act out their lines while watching their performances on a screen to match their own mouth movements. Background noise and incidental sounds are crafted by foley artists too.
Peter Jackson has approached this archival material in the same way. He used lip reading specialists to figure out what soldiers were saying in the footage and brought actors in to deliver their lines. The film also has audio which sounds more like an action movie than a traditional documentary.
Most of the footage that they were working with was shot at variable frame rates between 10 and 18 frames per second. This slower frame rate gives the images a jittery effect when played at the 24fps industry standard. Jackson is no stranger to experimenting with frame rates: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug played at 48fps and offered a unique cinematic experience.
The unique quality of motion on old films is one of the most important traits that allow spectators to separate it in time and experience events as distant from our modern reality. One of the most striking achievements of They Shall Not Grow Old is the smooth transition to 24fps, seeing that Jackson and his crew had to rebuild missing frames to give the footage the sensation of natural movement.
To see these century-old soldiers, breathing, laughing and gesturing as vividly as we experience footage today is shocking and almost disconcerting. Your brain knows what it’s seeing but it somehow notices something’s not quite right.
The film doesn’t delve into places, names or dates. It’s also devoid of a narrator. We focus solely on the voices of these soldiers, on recordings of actual veterans telling their own experiences and their opinions on the conflict and life in the trenches.
Most of the recordings we hear were taken by the BBC during the making of their 1964 documentary series The Great War.
This spectacular film was commissioned for the Armistice centenary by The Imperial War Museum by the organisation 14-18 NOW, an arts programme dedicated to commemorating the centenary of World War One, in association with the BBC.
They Shall Not Grow Old premiered simultaneously at the BFI London Film Festival and in selected theatres in the UK on October 16. It later aired on BBC Two in a special broadcast on the 11th of November, the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice in 1918.
The good news? In the coming months, it will have a brief theatrical run in various theatres around the world. You can head to the official site to find out if it’s screening in a theatre near you.