Historical programming ain’t what it used to be – and that’s a good thing. The traditional and tame use of black-and-white footage is a thing of, well, the past. In our YouTube-addicted culture, where there’s instant and unfettered access to imagery and raw footage, both broadcasters and producers of historical programming are competing to stay relevant with audiences by connecting footage to storytelling. And sorry, but déjà vu-inducing shots just won’t cut it.
‘We often tell our producers to avoid using archive as wallpaper,’ says Steve Gamester, production executive at Canada’s History Television. ‘For years and years, if you saw a documentary about the Second World War, it’d be talking about a battle and cue some footage of the tanks rolling across the French countryside. It’s not specific about what’s being told, it’s just ‘Okay, here’s our generic image of what war looks like.” Gamester wants History Television’s producers to avoid falling into this ho-hum storytelling trap, and he’s not alone.
Pointing to one of his favorite recent examples of a project that gets specific in its use of archive, Gamester praises Yap Films’ Finding the Fallen (or Trench Detectives in the UK). In this archeology-driven series – the second season of which started airing mid-November on History Television -
contemporary forensics people called ‘the Trench Detectives’ uncover artifacts from World War I battlefields and trace back their stories.
The use of archive in the one-hour episodes is purposefully sparse, and the little that is used has razor-sharp relevance. ‘The archive is always for emotion and nothing else could be used to replace it,’ says Gamester. ‘When you can use the archive as evidence on a contemporary investigation, it really gives a new pacing to the story, and it makes it more interesting.’
Take, for instance, an episode in the second season of Finding the Fallen that follows the story of Will Maybury, a Canadian soldier who held a position in a mortar pit in France. Archive pictures of Maybury are used at pivotal points in the episode to link parts of the man’s life. It’s a seemingly simple way to use the images, but it packs a whopping emotional punch. Add to that the fact that tracing this man’s story required some major sleuthing and viewers shift that much closer to the edge of their seats.
Elliott Halpern, co-founder of Leeds and Toronto-based Yap, says the trench detectives searched through an 827-page expeditionary honor roll listing 66,000 names of Canadians who died in World War I to find Maybury’s name. Once they did, they were able to use his attestation paper from the army – which included where he lived – to track down his obituary. The obit offered more clues about this soldier: he was originally from England, had two siblings, and came to Canada without parents. From there, the detectives found other records, including ship manifests, which show the boy and one sibling, his sister, came to Canada thanks to an organization led by a British philanthropist named Dr. Barnardo who sent kids from the slums of England to Canada for a better life.
Since the Barnardo organization will only release records to relatives, the detectives faced another huge hurdle: finding a descendant of the soldier. They eventually tracked down a 30-something great-grand nephew, who, in a stroke of sheer luck, already had his relatives’ Barnardo file because he’d needed it to prove his British descent for a fellowship at Oxford University. ‘What’s really cool about the file is the Barnardo people heavily documented these kids,’ says Halpern. For instance, a detailed intake document describes where they were found, their condition at the time, and that their parents were dead. ‘It was really right out of Dickens, the whole description,’ says Halpern.
Adding even more emotional weight to the file (and, in turn, the impact of the TV series) are the photos it contains. One is an intake photo snapped when the three siblings were brought in to the Barnardo group, says Gamester: ‘It’s really powerful because from that archive, this story comes to life. The kids look dirty and malnourished, and on-camera the experts say ‘There are even signs of infection here – see the way one kid’s eye is drooping?”
The detectives discover that Maybury (who was 10 at the time) and his sister were split up and sent to live in different parts of Ontario when they came to Canada in 1903. A decade later, they were reunited. ‘Then we have these really charming photographs of this picnic, and what’s more remarkable is they even have annotations the sister wrote on the back of them,’ says Halpern. It’s assumed the photos were taken in the summer of 1914. ‘So in terms of emotional beat of the story, we use the photograph as ‘This is the high point of the life they had together, when they’re reunited and they had this one glorious summer,” he says.
From there, things turn somber quickly. The last photo viewers see is of the sister and brother at an especially significant time – the fall of 1914. ‘They’re no longer smiling, he’s in his uniform and he’s about to be shipped off,’ says Gamester, ‘and he’s killed. This is the last photograph of them ever together. So at each link in the story, it’s the archive that provides not only information to the story, but also emotional power.’ It’s enough to make any viewer weepy.
The investigative history approach used in Finding the Fallen is also used in The Final Report, a series produced by Chicago-based Towers Productions. The Final Report deconstructs iconic events from recent times, such as the Waco tragedy, and dissects why they happened the way they did. Laurent Sicouri, buyer for the ‘Jeudi histoire’ strand on French pubcaster Planete, is a big fan of how the series (the first season of which has 15 episodes; the second has eight) mixes re-enactment and archival materials in a dynamic way. He’s such a fan, in fact, that he recently acquired The Final Report for Planete Justice. Rather than bore viewers with a standard ‘Here’s the event, and here are some related archive shots’ treatment, The Final Report accelerates footage, zooms in on pictures, overlaps archives and even adds sound effects. ‘Another impressive visual aspect in the show,’ says Sicouri, ‘is the splitting of the images.’ He compares it to the technique used in A&E TV’s The First 48, when the screen is divided into different sections with something – whether it be a still archive photo or moving footage – happening in each.
Another thing that appeals to Sicouri about The Final Report is the way it popularizes historical events. ‘It’s an innovative treatment, and very accessible for people who don’t know anything about the historical events presented,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t go deep inside to explain the historical elements, it just takes the central points and archives. It’s done for the ‘grande public’ – everybody.’
While both Finding the Fallen and The Final Report use an investigative history style, the comparisons stop there. If the quiet use of archive in Fallen can be described as a flute solo, The Final Report uses a full marching band in comparison. Towers Productions executive producer, Jonathan Towers, says viewers want to see real things and ‘clients appreciate our ability to cram a lot of archive material into one show.’ To do so, the prodco uses a technique that started with its Emmy-nominated Inside 9/11 documentary. ‘We do what we call ‘quick-cut sections’ where there may be a five- or seven-second section where you see 40 images,’ says Towers. To describe the rights and clearances process required to pull this off as complicated is a gross understatement. ‘It means that every five frames you’re clearing another piece of footage,’ says Towers. ‘And that’s innovative – a lot of production companies would turn to the executive producer and say ‘What the blank are you doing?’ But we’ve found that our clients and viewers really dig that – they’re very into the in-your-face, here is the real world, very raw style.’
While the sheer volume of stock used in The Final Report is extraordinary, History Television’s Gamester goes back to the idea of using archive sparsely, as punctuation. He cites a recent four-part series by Toronto’s Breakthrough Entertainment as one that’s pulled it off with stunning results. Airing around Remembrance Week in November on History Television, Battlefield Mysteries uses matching shots in a way Gamester says he hasn’t seen before, and that means a lot coming from him. ‘I’ve never seen this [technique] before, and I’ve seen a lot of World War II stuff – I’ve got an airtight case for psychological damage in the amount of war footage I’ve looked at over the years,’ he says. In one Battlefield Mysteries episode about the Battle of Malta, there’s a scene in which a former Canadian pilot in his 80s revisits Malta to tell his war tale. As he’s walking around a restored Spitfire, he points out what different buttons and levers in the plane do, and several times that is seamlessly blended with a piece of archive that illustrates exactly what he’s saying. At one point, he describes a lever with a special booster function. ‘He says, ‘There were a couple of times I thought I was going to die, but if you push this lever forward it puts water into the fuel line and gives you an instant burst of power to get away from someone if they’re shooting at you,” says Gamester. ‘That’s cut immediately and blended really well with actual archive footage of a pilot doing that, and then it cuts back to the vet. Not only is it authentic because you’ve got the vet who was there showing you this, but you’ve got the specific illustration in history of what he’s talking about.’
Paul Kilback, Breakthrough’s producer/director on Battlefield Mysteries, says the intercutting was meant to bring the past and present together. Admitting that stock footage for subject matters pertaining to World War II is ‘really well-trod territory,’ he’s pleased with the outcome of Mysteries. Digging through the Imperial War museum to find the spitfire stock, Kilback and his team found almost the exact same shot of a pilot pushing the booster level. ‘So we shot our close-up of him doing the lever, and it turns out there’s only so much room in a cockpit, so [the archive we found is] almost the exact same shot, but it’s the gloved hand of the Spitfire pilot pushing it down,’ says Kilback. ‘It’s amazing.’
There are other examples of astounding pairings of archive footage and present day footage. In January, National Geographic aired Inside the Vietnam War, another Towers Productions project. The three-hour one-off took a different approach to the Vietnam War. ‘Everyone thinks they have seen everything you could imagine about Vietnam, but if you narrow it down to those shots and sequences that are truly meaningful, by looking deeply into what happened, you get a bigger picture of the war,’ says Michael Cascio, SVP of programming and production at National Geographic Channel. ‘We decided to get the soldiers’ take on it and really break down the footage: who was there? What was happening at the time? What did that represent? It’s much more targeted to illuminate the actual subject, and for me that’s why the program was a success, both creatively and in terms of audience response.’ For the record, the one-off reached 5.1 million people across two airings on its premiere night.
‘The idea was to get the storytelling to connect to the actual footage of the things being described,’ says Towers. So as you see archive footage of a soldier leaping into a foxhole, you’ll also hear that same soldier saying ‘I jumped into that foxhole’ in a present-day interview. ‘That took hundreds upon hundreds of source tapes from dozens of soldiers and the National Archive,’ says Towers. Many times the interviewers would bring an archive tape to the interview and ask the former soldiers to talk about the footage. ‘What we’re striving for is making that archive so integral to the storytelling that people are wowed by its usage,’ says Towers. ‘I’m not an archivist per se, but as a storyteller, I think this is what distinguishes us.’
The next step in telling historical tales
While Oliver Proebst, director of programming at Germany’s Planet TV, says stock footage has a reputation for mainly being used as ‘a simple illustration – ‘Well, that looked like this, then,” it’s now re-enactments and, more recently, CGI that have taken over history programs.
It’s no coincidence, then, that broadcasters want to lure younger audiences to history. ‘We have a really high-energy, video game-driven culture now, so CGI has been the call to arms for the past few years,’ says Breakthrough Entertainment director/producer Paul Kilback. ‘It’s become the new stock footage.’
Toronto-based Breakthrough is now in pre-production on a 10 x 1-hour series for History Canada on tank battles that will be 50% CGI. ‘But we’re also interviewing veterans and going back to the battlefields, but we’re going to recreate these battles that are really well documented, or from first-person accounts, the way they happened to tell the stories. We’re pretty much replacing stock footage completely in the show.’ Welcome to what many believe is the next evolution in history programming.