Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

How ‘History Retold’ Built a Series From Archival Footage


History is a treasure trove of stories, and while some of its narrative bounties are easy to find, others are buried and need to be dug up.

Historical documentary series History Retold, produced by 1895 Films, seeks to do just that: specifically to present hidden stories and details tied to disasters of air, sea, and earth. And it’s all done with archival photographs and footage.

Crew Getting Out Of Ship On Broken Ice Floe, as seen in History Retold

The Origins of the Series

In a way, History Retold began before it was even conceived. As 1895 producers, Tom Jennings and David Tillman have spent a lot of time researching in the Library of Congress and the National Archives for other projects. Along the way, they discovered amazing stories few know about – all preserved in archival footage and images.

The problem was that nobody would let them tell the stories. Jennings would pitch them, but never with success. When it came to historical moments, unless you’re telling an iconic story – like that of the Titanic or Hindenburg – it can be difficult to find homes for them.

But then their luck changed. The team was approached by distributor Off the Fence, who had a particular need: they desperately wanted low-cost history programming that could easily be sold to foreign markets. What that meant was programming with only narration, no interviews, so that little translation would be required. Just a simple audio track switch, and a program could find its way to Romania, Russia, China, or anywhere else.

The opening of the episode ‘Fire at Sea’

The team knew exactly what they wanted to do, and History Retold was born. “The idea was, ‘Hey, we have all these favorite stories,'” says Jennings. “‘Nobody else is going to do them. Let’s do it ourselves.” But they also wanted to go beyond the stories they already knew, explains executive producer Tillman. “Part of the vision for this show was finding new stories that most people haven’t heard, and shining a light on them using the best-looking archival footage we could find to bring them to life.”

The Search for Archival Footage

The team had some stories (and the corresponding archival material) already in mind, but fulfilling their vision meant finding enough new stories to fill hour-long episodes. Armed with themes – like “Fire at Sea” or “Early Air Disasters” – they went searching for more footage.

That exploration led them to immerse themselves in archives including the Pond5 archival catalog. “We started on Pond5 looking mostly to find ways to establish time and place, and do some color footage before cutting to the black and white, since black and white was something that networks typically don’t enjoy a whole lot of,” says Jennings.

Much of the modern, color, B-roll footage they found was a vital part of the storytelling to aid the black and white archival footage. “It would be introduced by scene-setters that really visually set the table for us, and would make someone watching the show want to keep watching it,” says Jennings. “By using the Pond5 footage, we were able to broaden the shoulders of these old stories.”

But he also stresses what else they found within the marketplace. “While looking through Pond5, we started to see all of the archival materials there,” he says. Before long, the History Retold team was getting the breadth of material they needed to start telling episode-length stories.

Cataloguing the Material

Once material was accumulated, cataloguing was an important step. The team especially relied on the organizational tools in Final Cut X. “You can add as much metadata as you want in your own personalized way, and then have a lot of ways to search and find things as you need them,” says Tillman. The umbrella terms they organized by were primarily: People, Places, Objects, Story Beats, and Image/Footage Source.

To keep an eye on their budget, they also paired the Source category with a program called Producer’s Best Friend, which can analyze exported XML files from Final Cut, keeping track of footage costs. “Using the logs that we got from Producer’s Best Friend, we got a good sense of what the cost for any one scene would be,” says Patrick Southern, the show’s editor (along with Tillman on two episodes). If an episode was becoming too expensive, then adjustments could be made. “Then, we could go back and recut, maybe find a less expensive shot.”

A clip from the episode ‘Natural Disasters’ telling the story of Hurricane Diane in 1955

The Writing Process

If you’re making a show entirely based on images and footage, there’s an important thread needed to bind them all together. “A key element to this show is the writing, and how it’s able to tell these stories through only pictures,” says Tillman. Jennings, who writes and narrates the scripts, says it doesn’t take long for writing to begin. “The script, or at least a rough script, comes very early on.”

That’s partly helped by the images themselves. “It’s almost all chronological, so there’s no guesswork in what’s going to go where,” says Jennings. The footage would aid the story in other ways too — notably through what the team considers a signature of the show: zooming in on details within the high-res images they use. “When we push in on them in the edit bay, we find nuances in the story that we can expand on, because we can actually show things that we didn’t even know were there.”

Men Working Feverishly To Save Aircraft, as used in History Retold

Editing for Pacing and Entertainment

Taking archival and B-roll footage and turning it into episodes requires skillful editing, and the timing around words and images is understandably important to the History Retold crew. “You have to let the images and words co-mingle,” says Jennings. “There’s an elegance to cutting in narration so that the pacing allows the audience to follow the story, understand what’s going on, and appreciate the images at the same time.”

Jennings also jokes about an unexpected influence: “I say it’s like iambic pentameter from Shakespeare. Ba-dum, ba-dum, finish the thought, pause, move on.” If you’re fuzzy on your high-school English education, that may not seem like an easy guide, but it’s become instinctive for the editing team. “Once the guys get into the rhythm of it, they find whatever that sweet spot is for whatever episode or film we’re working on,” says Jennings.

History Retold Collection
Footage of Lincoln Ellsworth’s attempt at a Trans-Antarctic Flight, as featured in History Retold

Southern seconds that. “We get to a space where we almost know the exact number of frames that we want to have between two clauses in a sentence, or between two sentences, or between two paragraphs,” he says. (If you’re curious: it’s six frames for clauses, twelve frames for sentences, and one-to-three seconds per paragraph).

That precision is motivated by what motivates every part of the making of the show, whether it’s discovering historical stories, finding the archival material to tell them, or writing the script: entertainment. “The word ‘entertainment’ is so broad, and usually thought of in Hollywood terms of big, over-the-top movies,” Jennings says. “For me, ‘entertainment’ means engrossing, captivating, and hooking people into a story so that they won’t want to flip the channel.”

History Retold has aired on the Smithsonian Channel Canada and is available for distribution through Off the Fence. For more about History Retold follow David Tillman on twitter @davidtillman

Top Image: Still from Crew Unloading Polar Star Aircraft From Wyatt Earp Ship Onto Ice