Special Report on MIPCOM’s Most Wanted: War of the Worlds – Worldview Pictures divides and conquers in its production, War and Civilization

Project: War and Civilization...
September 1, 1997

Project: War and Civilization

Description: An eight-part, one-hour series examining the history of war, based on the work of respected military historian John Keegan.

Executive producer: Sandra Gregory of The Learning Channel

Series producer/writer/director: Stephen Trombley

Producer: Bruce Eadie

Director: Tony Bulley

Distributor: Louise Rosen Ltd. for Worldview/The Learning Channel/Discovery Channel Incorporated

Louise Rosen, managing director of Louise Rosen Ltd., had no doubts about getting involved with Worldview Pictures’ new series War and Civilization. ‘The track record of the production company, combined with the knowledge that it would be based on the lifetime work of John Keegan – that was it. Nothing more needed to be said.’

Not only does London-based Worldview have a history of award-winning documentaries (most recently an Emmy nomination for Nuremberg), but Keegan has been described as ‘the world’s foremost military historian’ by James Boyle, controller of BBC Radio 4.

Acquiring commitment from a broadcaster wasn’t difficult. The Learning Channel/Discovery Communications snapped up the project, bankrolling it until other broadcasters could be brought in. To Rosen, tlc/dci’s reaction was understandable, but surprising nonetheless. ‘It all comes down to track record and concept,’ she explains, ‘but it was such a strong and immediate reaction. It just sort of blew your hair back.’

The quick acceptance of the project left Rosen in a strange position. ‘In a usual relationship, I begin by acting solely as the producer’s representative – which would be to presell the u.s. rights and then other rights internationally, in order to pool the money needed to cover the budget,’ she explains. ‘In this instance, the enthusiasm for the project was so great on the part of The Learning Channel that they agreed to cashflow the entire series budget in order to get it underway, so they could guarantee it would air third-quarter ’98.’

Rosen found herself acting for both Worldview and tlc/dci. As Worldview had already begun to elicit other broadcasters, the agreement states that Rosen will act on behalf of Worldview until 25% of the production cost is raised from outside sources, helping offset tlc/dci’s initial investment. When that figure is reached, Rosen will promote the project for tlc/dci instead.

The investment is substantial. tlc/dci is notoriously stingy when it comes to releasing budget information, but the average price of a Worldview doc has been about us$400,000 per hour, which would put War and Civilization well over us$3 million. While tlc/dci holds international rights, Rosen is still seeking broadcasters to chip in. France’s La Cinquime is already on board, and there has been interest from Japan, Germany and Scandinavian territories.

1993: Steven Trombley is in Paris doing research for Drancy, a film about a concentration camp where 70,000 French Jews were imprisoned. ‘I was working in the national archives collecting footage,’ he says, ‘and one night I went to a strange shop, which was kind of a combination news agent and bookseller, to buy a newspaper. On the shelf next to the till was a stack of books – John Keegan’s History of Warfare. So I bought them, and read them, and I thought: ‘This would make a really, really good series.” But because of Worldview’s other commitments, the project is put on hold.

1995: The concept has grown on Trombley who has finished three other docs since Drancy. He begins pre-production work for a pitch to Discovery. The idea is presented to John Ford, dci senior vp and general manager. Already a fan of Keegan’s, Ford has also seen much of Worldview’s work. tlc/dci agrees to bankroll War and Civilization, and the project moves forward.

With this commitment, Trombley and Keegan (as series consultant) begin devising a way to squeeze 5,000 years of military history into eight hours. Having decided what topics and eras to cover, they are confronted with the next problem; their first six episodes deal with periods for which there is little historical data, and no visual record.

‘We came up with the idea of accessing the past through the present,’ says Trombley. ‘This was based on a hypothesis that there isn’t all that much new in war. You will find that there have been a few big breaks over a long period, but men killing men has a dull sameness to it throughout history.’

Trombley and Keegan decide to look at the methods of war. Logistics first used by Alexander the Great to move men and equipment over great distances economically were applied by the u.s. during the Gulf War. The production could therefore borrow images from the present to demonstrate events in the past.

The combination of modern footage with extravagant re-creations gives viewers a feel for what it was like to be a soldier on the field. ‘We couldn’t just show a bunch of Greek vases to represent Greeks at war,’ explains Trombley. ‘You have to show it. So, working through history, we devised a number of reconstructions, each of which we would shoot as a feature film. We were shooting on Super 16, but in every other respect, we were shooting like a feature.’ Some shots involve close to 300 extras, trained in the military tactics of the era, mounting battles that take up to four minutes of screentime.

December 1995: La Cinquime comes on board, bringing almost half the 25% tlc/dci was seeking. In exchange, they receive the rights to France, as well as French-speaking Europe and Africa.

1996: Even without a signed agreement, tlc/dci foots the bill to begin shooting in May. Dividing the world down the center, with London as the median, Trombley and Tony Bulley each take half and begin shooting. Peter Miller, the editor involved from the beginning of production, remains in London, piecing together footage from the two crews and the huge amount of archival footage a third team is busy uncovering.

‘It was an interesting way of working,’ says Trombley. ‘Sometimes on a co-directed series, one director will take parts one through four, and the other will take five through eight, but that doesn’t apply here because the stuff I shot applies across all periods – across 5,000 years.’

Both directors find themselves shooting their own footage as well as material the other team requires. ‘It’s a very curious way of working, trying to guess what the other man needs,’ Trombley says. After shooting, the two directors and the editor would sit down and piece the series together from the three sources.

‘It’s an unusual way of making a film for a director like me who’s very used to being in control of everything that’s going on.’

The project changes as opportunities present themselves, or are lost. Countries which had promised access suddenly refuse it. A few hundred horsemen become available for a shot which would otherwise have been a few stills in the finished product. At all times, the two directors and the editor have to look for an anchor to keep themselves from straying. This comes in the form of Keegan who holds a seminar for the crew every Monday, keeping them focused on the idea behind the work.

August 1997: Principle shooting is finished. The final product is hidden among 600 rolls of freshly shot film and 200 rolls of archive film. While much of the post-production had to be done during filming because of the odd way the series was being put together, six months are planned to finish the project. Twenty-five days of pick-up filming are scheduled to fill any gaps.

September 1997: Rosen hits mipcom, looking to secure enough presales to reach the magic number.

Also in this report:

-Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do? Offthe Fence stakes out South Africa’s elite ESPU in a new series that brings Cops-style attitude to the animal world

-Welcome to Mike’s World: After the Big One comes Michael Moore’s World.

-Swimming With Sharks: Predators and distributors come together for Ron Taylor Production’s Shark Pod.

-Stade-by-Stage: For the 1998 World Cup, France pulls out all the stops and LM is there.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.