A few years back, Peter Jackson was approached by England’s Imperial War Museums. Knowing of the world-famous director’s interest in World War I, they asked him if he wanted to make a documentary in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the end of the conflict, offering him access to hours of historical footage to work with.
Given the increasing availability of archival WWI footage, a lot of versatility can be afforded to directors looking for creative ways to tell a story about the Great War. In Jackson’s case, he had a very specific idea of what he wanted to do: take the past and make it feel like the present. The result is They Shall Not Grow Old, which uses modern technology to restore and colorize World War I footage in a remarkable new way. We spoke with producer Mark Simone of Stereo D, the production service studio that handled the footage, to see how it was done.
The Beginning of an Unexpected Journey
Stereo D has become well known for the 2D-to-3D conversions it’s provided for the likes of Marvel Studios, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. But Peter Jackson, who had previously worked with them through his visual effects company, Weta, had something else in mind this time.
Three years ago, his team reached out with a small amount of WWI-era footage to see if his ambitions for the documentary could be realized. “They wanted to see what could be done, what they could get out of footage that had gone through the ravages of time, and how that product could ultimately look,” says Simone. The result was what Jackson called “far beyond anything I actually imagined.” Stereo D spent the next two years building new tools to make the process easier. Then the real work began.
The Restoration Process
Whenever Stereo D was provided footage by the Jackson-owned Park Road Post Production facility, they began by cleaning up the images. That included a typical step in any restoration process — removing scratches and blemishes in the image. But they also had to “clean up” and make adjustments to the speed of the footage. “The original footage wasn’t filmed at 24 frames per second,” explains Simone. “Sometimes it was 13 frames a second, sometimes 16. When you look at something that’s shot at that rate, it moves kind of unnaturally.”
Adjusting the FPS made movement more natural, but also caused smudging. “If you think about it, you’re taking one frame and you’re creating two, or sometimes three,” Simone says. “We would hand those images over to our artists, and we’d instruct them that they would need to paint out, or clean up, those smudging frames, to make the motion look natural. It’s not unlike frame-by-frame painting.” Once that process was done, the footage moved on to the next phase.
Colorizing the Past
When it comes to colorization, Simone says the more you put into it, the better it can look. The Stereo D team put a lot into it. The process started with rotoscoping. “That is literally tracing every part of every frame, so that you can decide how to play that in 3D space,” explains Simone. “Once you’ve isolated every part of the image, you’re able to treat different layers of it.” The resulting depth map makes coloring layers easier.
The specific color decisions themselves came from research. “We had extensive access to reference images. Peter has access to a lot of original World War I uniforms and even weaponry,” says Simone. That allowed them to compare, contrast, and color. But they had further help as well: Jackson hired a WWI historian to provide historical context for the footage Stereo D was given. “They would turn over material with very detailed instructions about what was in the frame, who was in the frame, what ranks they were, what time of year it was, and — if they had that information — time of day, even.”
That proved invaluable for not just coloring, but also lighting accurately. “You can take one item that you’re photographing — let’s say a German uniform — and it can be photographed at different times of day or different seasons of the year, and it can look different to your eye,” Simone says. “We could take all that real information and make decisions that not only were historically accurate, but actually fit with the footage.”
Adding Dimension to the Footage
The last step of Stereo D’s treatment required them to add dimension to the footage for a 3D version of the film. “There’s a final paint phase for the 3D, which gets rid of any occlusion, because you’re stretching a 2D image to a 3D image. So you’re faking the distance between your eyes,” says Simone. “Doing that causes you to have to fill in information from the back. Similar to the restoration cleanup phase, it’s a frame-by-frame paint process that we’ve perfected.”
During this step, the studio always kept the nature of the project in mind. “We know that this isn’t a big-budget popcorn movie. We’re not going to have things flying out of the screen and have the audience jumping,” the producer says. “The philosophical approach was to not distract. What we were trying to do is put the viewer on the field, or in the trenches, with these people, and get you as close to them as you possibly could.”
For all the technical aspects of bringing the WWI footage to life, the team at Stereo D never overlooked the emotional component of connecting audiences to history. “You’re not just working on something that someone thought up. These are actual people,” Simone says. “We really wanted to honor that. It was really to be good stewards to the material and the people in it.”
It wasn’t hard to keep that in the forefront of their minds as they worked on the project day-to-day, and often screened their work. “You’re almost removing this kind of fog or veil from the footage, and bringing these people into the future,” the producer says.
The importance and impact of that was something Simone could see when the film was publicly screened for the first time in London on October 16, 2018. The screening was even a royal occasion, with Prince William in attendance. It served as a reminder of what the project and the history tied to it meant, not just to the filmmakers, but to an entire nation and the world.
That was something Simone and the team at Stereo D aspired to honor with a singular goal that, by all accounts, they achieved. “Everything about this production was about respecting the original photography and the people within it.”
All images from They Shall Not Grow Old courtesy of Trafalgar Releasing
Interested in exploring more archival World War I footage for your own projects? Discover thousands of rare WWI clips in the Pond5 Archival collection.