Re-creating History

With subjects as diverse as the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of The Beatles, or the invention of ice hockey, historical programming has managed to parlay its way into the consciousness of viewers worldwide, as images such as the...
November 1, 1999

With subjects as diverse as the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of The Beatles, or the invention of ice hockey, historical programming has managed to parlay its way into the consciousness of viewers worldwide, as images such as the Berlin Wall coming down and the Tiananmen Square uprising have become etched into the minds of TV audiences globally.

These images – stock images – have also become big business, as the number of stock footage companies have grown exponentially, making it possible to locate images more efficiently and (sometimes) more cost-effectively than ever.

In a world where stock footage was and continues to be the foundation of many historical projects, another method of re-telling history has become popular in the marketplace of late – the re-creation. Allowing filmmakers to re-create events that were never captured on film, re-creations – coupled with 3-D animation – have broadened the scope of possible subjects for doc-makers and the range of choice for broadcasters and distributors. Questions remain about this method, however: How do you shoot history that has never been filmed? What are the ethics involved for the producers who make the projects and the broadcasters who air them? Are re-creations a viable way of re-telling history? Is there a continued market for this particular form of storytelling?

The art of re-creations

Cromwell Productions, a U.K.-based prodco that specializes in historically-oriented programming, has managed to turn re-creations into a profitable business in the ten years since the company was established. With 120 hours of factual programming and one feature film created per year, the company produces arts, cultural and historical docs for a market that includes 100 active territories around the world and such broadcasters as Canada’s History Television, PBS, and the History Channel in the U.K.

According to Bob Carruthers, managing director at Cromwell, the company originally started doing re-creations due to the exorbitant cost of stock footage: ‘We used to buy extracts from feature films but we just got priced out of the market, so we had to start doing it ourselves.’ He cites the emergence of satellite channels as a key reason why historical programming has been selling so well for the prodco, as a multitude of arenas become available for distribution. ‘With the emergence of the satellite channels you can have narrow-casting and can give people what they actually want to see,’ Carruthers says. ‘There’s always been a huge audience for history, which has never been supplied because it’s not big enough to sell to advertisers. As the Internet appears and people actually exercise their choice, they are choosing to see the things they want rather than what they are told they are going to get.’ Big sellers for the prodco include projects on World War II and ancient civilizations.

Unlike producers who use stock footage first-and-foremost in their projects, Cromwell prefers to rely almost exclusively on re-creations, due to their expertise in the area as well as their specialization: periods of history dating so far back that little visual evidence remains. Explains Carruthers: ‘We tend to generate our own stock footage because we really specialize in pre-twentieth century, and obviously that’s difficult to illustrate. It’s either a pile of stones or maybe an engraving if you’re lucky, which can get a bit dull, so we decided that if you wanted to see the Senate in Rome you really needed to re-create it because there’s only so many mosaics you can look at.’ He adds, ‘[Re-creations have] always been the driving force and thereafter you do actually begin to create your own stock footage library.’

For a project such as Tanks, a 12 x 60-minute series that records the development of tanks from battlefields around the world using computer animation and archive footage, Cromwell relied on an important element for getting the project off the ground: the experts. In the case of Tanks, it was help from the Royal Tank Museum in England and the Army Ordnance Museum in the U.S. In the case of re-created projects, such as Lost Treasures of the Ancient World (a 12 x 60-minute series that looks at re-creating the palaces and temples of the ancient world) and Ancient Wonders (a 12 x 60-minute series about the lost civilizations of antiquity), the prodco relied heavily on re-enactment societies and experts in order to achieve the degree of accuracy they were after. Explains Carruthers: ‘Because they are special interest, our projects come under such intense scrutiny that we can’t take any chances. Our military docs are all checked by the Royal Military Academy – we use them full time. We use the Royal Shakespeare Institute in Stratford for all of our literary things. Also, we have consultants from various universities.’ He adds, ‘The shortcut that we’ve [also] always used has been to go to the re-enactment societies. In the U.S. they’ve got the big military society. That’s always our first call if there is such a thing.’ Typical budgets for the prodco run to approximately US$120,000 per hour.

For Margaret Drain, executive producer of PBS’ long running The American Experience strand, experts are crucial in order to lend credibility to re-created events and to help ward off questions of accuracy. This is especially important now that the strand – which airs mostly commissioned programs from both in-house and independent producers – is moving in the direction of incorporating more re-creations into their schedule in addition to stock footage-based shows.

‘Each of our shows has a number of academic advisors,’ Drain explains. ‘We insist on the producers having two or three advisors. Their job is to serve as counsellors and sort of like lawyers; they are there to keep the producers from getting into trouble.’ She adds, ‘It harms the project unless you are pretty meticulous about [checking for accuracy].’

Drain says that at The American Experience, copies of each show are sent to advisors who will pre-screen the projects and have an opportunity to raise questions or concerns. She points to The Duel, a one-hour doc to air in February about the famous standoff in the U.S. between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as an example of a project which raised questions inherent to re-creations. ‘[The Duel] takes place before the Revolutionary War, so there’s nothing really to shoot,’ Drain says. ‘We can rely on some portraiture up to a point and then you can rely on impressionistic shooting, i.e. exteriors of buildings and some tabletop photography where you could use dishes and plates and glasses to set the scene. But this time we sort of went full tilt. We have characters in costume, but they are non-speaking parts. There’s more re-creation, proportionally, than there is archival material.’ She adds later, ‘When you go back before 1848 and try to tell a story for which there are no pictures, even though there might be lithographs, or etchings, or portraiture, it still isn’t enough to carry a story for an hour. Television is a very hungry beast, so we need to come up with new ideas for illustrating those periods. The story of The Duel [produced by Carl Byker] is a great story but it scared us to death to do it. Five years ago we wouldn’t have done something like this because I think we would have been too frightened to go in the direction of re-creations. But now I think we’ve learned as we’ve gone along.’

The international marketplace

Not all broadcasters are seeing an increase in the use of re-creations, however. Sydney Suissa, VP of programming at History Television in Canada, says he’s seen a decrease in re-creation-based treatments, as more producers have been leaning towards incorporating contemporary images, such as using present-day footage to illustrate historical events. Explains Suissa, ‘Rather than get Alexander Mackenzie 300 years ago in period costume, you get people who knew Alexander Mackenzie to show how the musket he would have used worked, for example.’

Continues Suissa, ‘There’s a lot more imagination being applied now and fundamentally what that does is make history relevant, it makes it seem like a real thing that is still around us. I really welcome that because I think there’s a dangerous spot with re-enactments and re-creations. I think they work well, but we saw a rash over the past few years where they were being abused. It became the only way to solve the problem of images. I’m seeing now much more creativity involved in solving those problems.’

How does Suissa explain this decrease? ‘One [reason] is a concern for credibility, i.e. where do you draw the line? There is no accountability in re-creations. Also, once you put people in period costumes and re-enact things, what you are saying to the audience is this happened a long time ago and we have no record of it. Whereas, if you make the really far-out attempt to find and use contemporary images to illustrate something that is historical, you’re telling viewers that this is still with us and it’s still part of our lives. I think this brings a certain edge and energy to historical documentaries that has been lacking. ‘It might also have to do with budgets,’ Suissa continues. ‘Ultimately, it’s cheaper to use your imagination than big budgets. Lastly, like everything else in life, it’s cyclical. We were enamored with re-enactments but now we are moving on to something else.’

There are notable exceptions to this rule at History, however. The broadcaster has, for example, acquired some projects from Cromwell – a move that Suissa explains is due to the professionalism and exhaustive research the prodco employs. ‘I would never commission what they do, but I acquire it because there’s a market for it. If there’s anything scripted, it’s always from a document or a memoir.’ He adds, ‘A lot of their stuff gets great responses from our viewers because they use archives that, by and large, have never been seen. They use archives from East Germany, Germany, the Soviet Union and they are fabulous. People watch the shows and are enthralled because they have never seen it before.’

Suissa also has strict criteria when it comes to the re-enactments the broadcaster will air: no speaking parts are allowed. ‘My policy is that I will not take scripted re-creations,’ Suissa explains. ‘I will except re-creations that are purely visual to re-create an action or a sense of place, but I certainly will not accept re-creations where the actors speak, unless those words are pulled verbatim from an existing document or a transcript. That takes us into docu-dramas and dramas, and I have no desire to go there. I think that’s very dangerous for the audience and it brings into question the credibility. I think for any historical network or any channel that uses history as its genre, credibility is paramount.’ Projects on History this season include: Millennium (a ten-hour series from CNN, produced by Sir Jeremy Isaacs), Scandal! Then and Now (13 x 60-minutes from Associated Producers), Battle for Midway (60 minutes from National Geographic) and Nuremberg (60 minutes from Worldview Pictures).

What’s to come

As for the future of the genre, a growing trend that serves as a compliment to re-created footage is computer animation (CGI), which allows for elaborate re-stagings of events using the latest in digital technology. CGI takes viewers to places that even re-creations cannot reach.

‘In terms of trends, I’m starting to see not a lot more, but a number more productions where computer graphics are being used to illustrate. They are being used as part of a treatment in the storytelling,’ Suissa says. ‘I see this more and more in military or war docs, where computer graphics can illustrate in a way that no other pictures can. They can give you the bird’s eye view, the overall picture. . . . [CGI] can also be used in things that involve interesting or intricate chronologies and geographies. Rather than the old standard use of maps I think we’re moving much more towards intricately animated 3-D views of things.’

What remains largely irreplaceable as the foundation for historical docs, according to Suissa, is stock footage – long viewed as the building block of a successful program. ‘Archives for historical remain paramount,’ Suissa explains. ‘That will always be the case. And I think finding new archives [that have never been seen] will always be the key target of any good producer.’

This dependence on stock footage is echoed by Joerg Langer, co-managing director of Germany’s Athos Films Distribution, who sees the U.S. marketplace, in particular, as being heavily reliant on stock images. ‘We don’t sell historical docs very well to the U.S.,’ Langer admits. ‘The problem is if you sell to History Television or The History Channel, for example, the first question is: `How much archive material do you have?’ And if I say I only have 5-10%, they say they aren’t interested. They usually want more than 50% to be stock footage based.’

Gioia Avvantaggiato, president and CEO of producer/distributor GA&A in Italy, agrees that historical docs from the international marketplace don’t always sell well in North America. ‘Outside of Europe what I’ve heard a lot of is, `Yeah this is really good and interesting but we find that there’s too much of an Italian viewpoint in the way this portion of history is being told,” Avvantaggiato says. ‘I don’t know why this wasn’t the case with European broadcasters.’

As for what makes historical programming marketable, Cromwell’s Carruthers points to varied elements as a key way to woo broadcasters. ‘You can only make history programs that work if they have a variety of elements: experts, location shooting, re-creations, contemporary images, etc. To sit there and listen to historians for an hour gets a bit dull. It is TV at the end of the day; you do need something that’s got movement and scale to it, because otherwise you’re making a radio program if it’s a string of interviews.’

Whether re-creation or stock footage-based, historical programs appear to have established a toehold on the marketplace. Says Suissa: ‘Overall, there’s certainly a boom in historical documentaries worldwide. It seems to me that there’s more and more that are being produced every year, which would underline the viewers appetite for them. Generally, broadcasters are recognizing finally that history as a subject provides great stories – dramatic stories, engaging and compelling stories – for doc producers.’


World War III:

ZDF Enterprises’ pseudo doc stirs up controversy

The idea for a fictional account of ‘World War III’ began simply enough: New York director Robert Stone was approached by ZDF Enterprises to make a film in the style of a documentary that imagined an alternative outcome to the Cold War. The film was to use re-creations and stock footage manipulations, among other things, in order to demonstrate to viewers what would have happened if the Cold War had not ended peacefully but instead had escalated into a full-blown nuclear conflict (for a production diary of World War III, see the October 1998 issue of RealScreen or search According to Stone, the pitch for World War III was appealing from the start because it was unique within the TV marketplace. ‘There are so many films made about nuclear issues and the Cold War that we decided to try something different,’ Stone explains, ‘which would be to imagine that all these plans had actually taken place and just to breathe a little life into this old and dusty subject.’

Breathing new life into an old subject was not the only outcome of the film, however. Plagued by controversy from the start, World War III has only aired in two countries (Germany on ZDF and Italy on RAI 3) since its completion in the late spring of 1998, although it has been sold to broadcasters in Poland, Slovenia, Japan, and Holland. Germany, according to Stone, was a very receptive audience, where the project aired to ‘huge ratings and great reviews.’

The idea of manipulating existing footage, staging fake interviews (with actors hired to play military officials), and graphically altering still photos was contentious enough to cause rumblings from documentary filmmakers when World War III was screened at the Input 99 conference in Fort Worth, Texas (despite a crawl at the beginning of the film stating that the work was fictional and that footage had been manipulated). The Learning Channel (TLC), a copro partner on the project from the beginning, added to the controversy by pulling World War III from their broadcast schedule days before it was slated to air. ‘Most of the people who were involved in bringing this film on board had either moved on or been shifted around at the company so at the last minute there was a change of heart about a documentary station programming a fake documentary,’ Stone explains. A spokesperson for TLC would only say, ‘In light of the events in Kosovo [occurring at that time], we felt that it wasn’t appropriate timing to be airing a fictional documentary on World War III.’ TLC has no current plans to air the project. Another U.S. broadcaster has yet to come on board.

For his part, Stone, who has worked on projects with a similar style in the past, admits that World War III was meant to cause the controversy that it ultimately received. ‘We were really pushing the envelope in terms of using historical footage in a way that I think really hasn’t been done before,’ he admits, ‘so it was naturally going to cause a controversy among makers of historical documentaries to be using historical footage out of context to create a fictional scenario. But that was the whole point.’

The point, according to Stone, was also to call into question the ethics of using stock footage in the first place. ‘One of the things that interested me about [World War III] is that it shows how subjective documentaries are,’ Stone explains. ‘People who hold up archival footage as being some window into the truth of what actually happened are deluding themselves. If a camera happens to be there when something happens then, okay, they recorded that event, but there’s all kinds of things that go on that no camera ever recorded. Also, I’ve seen countless documentaries – and I know archival footage and watch a lot of this stuff – that have misused archival footage while presenting it as true. It happens all the time and sometimes it’s a question of people just making mistakes.’ He adds later, ‘One of the things I was interested in was showing how easily real footage can be manipulated for propaganda purposes and all kinds of other purposes. This [film] is such an obvious example of that – of how you can use real footage to tell a complete fiction – that I think it’s a very good education for people to be skeptical of what they see.’

Ingo Helm, co-writer on the project, agrees that World War III resulted in more questions than answers, but argues that its creative merits were never in question: ‘Astonishingly enough, everybody said it [the stock footage manipulation] was quite seamlessly done and well crafted,’ Helm explains. Adds Stone, ‘Some people disliked the film, other people think it’s totally amazing and great and groundbreaking. People seem to have extreme opinions about it.’

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