Being there

Whether it's by using state of the art technology to upgrade decades-old footage, or by eschewing narration and conventional structures, these programs let the pictures, many of them taken by first-hand witnesses, tell their stories.
January 1, 2010


When four main footage researchers began their hunt for material to put together History’s recently-aired WWII in HD, they had a simple mandate: to find footage from the Second World War that was in color. That was it. Simple to say, perhaps, but not so simple to do.

The search took two years and saw the researchers, led by Greg Miller, chief archivist at Lou Reda Productions, searching around the world. The results didn’t only fill out the program impressively, they also bulked up Lou Reda’s Reda Archives, making it one of the largest privately-owned archives in the United States. As of the last count in February 2009, the archive holds over 13,000 hours of content, 5,000 hours of which cover all branches of the U.S. military and 2,000 hours that are strictly color WWII footage.

Of the footage that was used in the program that came from the military, Miller says about 60% of it came from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the other 40% came from a combination of European sources, the Reda Archives and private collectors. ‘There were quite a few great finds,’ says Miller. For instance, Kevin Rawling, a NARA researcher, discovered a shelf of films at the National Archives which was unknown to the archivists at the facility. One of the reels on the shelf contained shots filmed at various locations at the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on the morning of Monday, December 7, 1941 showing the aftermath of the Japanese attack.

In order to provide editors with easier access to the scenes they needed out of the nearly 3,000 hours of footage, Miller created a database that included QuickTime clips of each catalog entry so that editors could easily search a keyword, find and view anything that fit that description.

According to David McKillop, History’s SVP of development and programming and executive producer on WWII in HD, roughly 50% of the footage used in the final series was never before seen archive.

After the footage was found, the next step was transferring all of it into HD. All of the footage that came from the military and private collections was handled by Reda, while the NARA footage was transferred by Henninger Media Services. Reda transferred its footage using the RED ONE digital camera paired with a Telecine machine that projected the original film onto a plate while adjustments to contrast, white balance and exposure were made in the camera as the film rolled.

Donald Miller, preeminent WWII scholar and Greg Miller’s father, led the team that found the stories, diaries and journals of men and women who participated in the war and solidified the 12 main characters whose experiences frame the action. Though the footage the researchers uncovered never showed the war directly through the eyes of the main characters, when the team found a clip that suited the tone of the words, Miller says it was very satisfying.

‘For many of us [involved] the real gems are those pieces that feature the faces of the soldiers, of those who were experiencing this pivotal event in history,’ adds Matthew Ginsburg, the director and executive producer of WWII in HD. ‘One small image of a child and its look into the lens spoke volumes about the humanity and the inhumanity of the whole thing. Those are the moments that for us were the ‘Wow.” Lindsay Gibb


After carefully using various sources of home video, little used news footage and sound from those in Manhattan on 9/11 for History’s Emmy Award-winning special 102 Minutes That Changed America, Siskel/Jacobs Productions is employing similar methodology to create National Geographic Channel’s upcoming two-hour Hurricane Katrina documentary, Witness: Katrina (w/t). ‘It’s going to be all archive, woven together,’ says co-founder Greg Jacobs, just as with 102 Minutes. ‘They are events that are similar in magnitude but so hugely different in feel that [Witness: Katrina] will be a very different project.’

Siskel/Jacobs currently has a producer on the scene in New Orleans, unearthing footage of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans five years ago. That’s where the legwork comes in, making phone call after phone call, talking to a friend of a friend, looking for the home footage that people have been sitting on. ‘A lot of times, for a variety of reasons, people just shoot their footage and don’t know what to do with it. It’s so emotional that they don’t even want to face it,’ says Jacobs. He adds, however, that the locals they’ve encountered do want to talk.

While Siskel/Jacobs aims to have most of the material from Witness: Katrina sourced from home footage, Jacobs says that other members of the team are also busy calling every government agency, from state, federal, county and parish, to see what’s available. Jacobs says they’ve been working with network footage from BBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and local stations in and around New Orleans. The other main source has been stock footage library America by Air.

As of press time, the prodco was just getting into the edit stage with the footage it has, while still digging for more. While Witness: Katrina doesn’t have an airdate yet, Jacobs estimates it will air this August, to mark the fifth anniversary of the natural disaster. In the meantime, Jacobs and crew will have the arduous task of sifting through more than 500 hours of footage. ‘Now it’s a matter of, what do we leave out?’ Kelly Anderson


After working as producers on History’s acclaimed 102 Minutes that Changed America, Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundrick, a husband and wife team with a formidable love for archive, formed New Animal Productions. And when History was looking for a new, captivating way to tell the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, New Animal was the perfect fit for its four-hour, two-parter.

‘We very quickly realized it fell into this neat storytelling format,’ says Rittenmeyer from her New York office. ‘You have 48 hours between the first assassination and [that of Lee Harvey] Oswald’s. We felt that it was so well covered that we could do at least the first part in a 102-style.’

That meant unfolding the events leading up to, including and following the assassination in a real-time format. New Animal dug through boxes of archive material from myriad sources, with Rittenmeyer singling out CBS as a ‘gold mine’ and the Sixth Floor Museum, housed in the sixth floor of the infamous book repository in Dallas, as ‘an amazing resource… one-stop shopping.’ Among the footage used by New Animal is material from local Dallas TV stations, personal collections and national and international media outlets.

But as with 9/11, recounting an event that’s burned into the collective consciousness comes with challenges, not the least of which is telling the story in a unique fashion. ‘In 102, we never used the shots of the planes going into the building or the debris field chasing people down the street,’ says Rittenmeyer. ‘That stuff has been shown so many times, I find that I disconnect [when I see it] and it starts to play out like wallpaper.’

The choices of what footage to use and how to use it were crucial. The well-known Zapruder footage isn’t shown until the second part, which examines the aftermath of the assassination and how it has impacted the world, all the way to the present day. The first time U.S. audiences saw the grainy film was on Geraldo Rivera’s Good Night America show in 1975. Watching the clip from that program and hearing the studio audience gasp in horror at the sight of the fatal shots truly transports the viewer. ‘It’s a sense of being there and an unfiltered storytelling that delivers a narrative storyline as well as an emotional one,’ says History SVP of development and programming David McKillop.

‘It sounds cliché,’ says Rittenmeyer, regarding working purely with archive. ‘But it is all in how you use it.’ Barry Walsh


Directors Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle and producer Louis Vaudeville of Paris-based Clarke, Costelle & Co. and a slew of international partners (among them, France 2, NHK Japan, Smithsonian Channel in the U.S., National Geographic Channel International and NDR-ARD, Germany) spent two and a half years on what was to be a mammoth archival undertaking. At a cost of 3.7 million euros, the team behind Apocalypse: The Second World War amassed more than 600 hours of footage from 100 sources in 17 countries, much of it taken by front-line soldiers, operatives, resistance fighters and ordinary citizens, and painstakingly restored and colorized the clips, presented in HD and 5.1 surround sound. Fifty percent of the footage used in the six-part series had never been seen before on television.

The series proved to be a major hit for France Télévisions upon its airing in September, with eight million viewers tuning in to the September 22 episode on France 2. Overall, 13 million viewers in France tuned in to at least one episode of the series, which adds up to 25% of the French population. National Geographic Channels International also reported great success with the series, as it landed the global distrib rights outside of France and the U.S., where Smithsonian Networks aired a reversioned series, narrated by Martin Sheen. The series has been seen worldwide by 40 million people.

David Royle, EVP programming and production at Smithsonian and Joy Galane, executive producer for Smithsonian on the series, both say they were floored by the scope of the project, in terms of the footage gathered and the attention to detail in the colorizing. One archivist on the project, Washington-based Bill Murphy, sent up to 1,000 reels of material to France, says Royle.

Before the actual act of colorizing the film, which took place at a rate of one minute per day, intensive research needed to be made on each color choice. Vaudeville says the research was made easier thanks to the Internet and the scores of dedicated WWII collectors and historians around the world.

‘One of the best colorists in D.C., Dave Martin, said it was almost impossible to tell what shots had been colorized and what hadn’t,’ says Galane, who worked on a color-correct for the U.S. version.

Smithsonian will be airing a ‘making of’ on February 21. ‘At times, it’s almost painfully intimate as a series,’ says Royle. ‘It doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war.’

‘It did well in every territory because we tell a human and a non-nationalist story,’ sums up Vaudeville. Barry Walsh

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.