A different kind of war doc

When Nat Geo asked for a series on the battles of the Second World War, Windfall Films saw the number of obstacles in their way. Ian Duncan, company director, tells realscreen how they steered around these obstacles... using cardboard cutouts of tanks.
January 22, 2009

Approaching a project on the Second World War, one thing came to mind for Ian Duncan and his team at Windfall Films: WWII has been done to death. So the first obstacle Duncan saw for his project Generals at War – a six part series on certain battles that took place during that particular conflict – was that they were heading down a well-trodden path.

The next hurdle was the budget. It was a low budget project that required 90% HD footage so their task was to make a distinctive WWII program on little money. The first decision they made was to limit the cast of characters in the program, so they decided to tell the stories of each battle through the opposing general’s point of view. They also decided to use one main set where they based most of the action. ‘The opposing generals would both be in the same war room and they’d be looking at each other from across the map table,’ Duncan describes. ‘So it’s the sort of theatrical device you might see in a cheap theatrical performance,’ he laughs.

While this technique, combined with the key device in the program (their cardboard reenactments of the battles) may sound cheap, they turned out to be well-executed ideas.

First of all, basing much of the action in the bunker helped in the long run when they had to figure out how to use the great archive footage of the battles even though 90% of the program had to be in HD. They decided to project the footage on the wall of the bunker and film the general watching the action, as though he was watching and contemplating his next move as it happened.

And the cardboard cut-outs were an entertaining touch. ‘CGI doesn’t [always] mean computer-generated images,’ Duncan says as he explains the special effect techniques they used in the program. ‘Our CGI is ‘Cardboard Generated Images.” While the general stands at his map table, looking at the model of the battle, the cardboard tanks and planes come to life and begin shooting at each other, while cardboard soldiers sustain injuries and boats sink through the map.

Another key ingredient in the originality of this WWII series is the way the team handled interviews. Rather than simply interviewing historians, the team at Windfall decided to speak to present day Generals – such as Major General Simon Mayall, a general in both Gulf Wars who was interviewed for the Battle of Stalingrad episode – who have studied these battles in their training, but who also have hands-on experience in warfare and can bring another level of understanding while explaining how the battle was won.

‘It’s a kind of odd program,’ says Duncan. ‘We brought fun back to warfare.’ Generals at War airs on the National Geographic Channel.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.