Battle of the budget

How do you create a war series with a difference on a tight budget? Windfall Films' Ian Duncan and Leesa Rumley and National Geographic International's Stephen Hunter explain how they steered around financial obstacles - in cardboard tanks - for Generals at War.
March 1, 2009

Most channels featuring factual programs, and even those that don’t, have aired World War II projects at one point or another, and that partially goes to show that war programming is still popular. But it also creates a stumbling block for producers approaching the subject to find new ways to tell its stories.

This was only the first obstacle that Ian Duncan, company director at Windfall Films, and his team had to face when working on Generals at War, a six-part series for National Geographic International that covers six Second World War battles. Of course, the next important consideration was the budget.

Nat Geo International’s VP of production, Stephen Hunter, put out word that it was looking for a program about World War II battles to mark the 70th anniversary of the conflict. It was also looking for something inexpensive.

‘History Television in Canada had Turning Points of History; you could just crank them out, they were good and they rated,’ says Hunter. ‘It’s important for most cable channels to have those kinds of ‘meat and potatoes’ series.’

While looking for its meat and potatoes, Nat Geo International put out the call to a number of producers, citing the idea and the tight budget. ‘Windfall, and especially Ian, was virtually the only [company] who saw it as a challenge,’ remembers Hunter, who declined to give numbers of cost per episode. ‘It was almost like people who want to put on a production of Henry V and they only have five people to do the Battle of Agincourt.’

In addition to finding ways to keep the budget low, Windfall also had to stick to a laundry list of deliverables which included the requirement that at least 90% of the program be filmed on HD cameras. ‘Internationally we have to serve so many territories with so many different requirements that it’s a longer deliverable list than most broadcasters ask for,’ says Hunter.

Thus, Windfall’s challenge was to make a distinctive war program on little money and almost fully in HD. To clear these obstacles the first decision they made was to limit the cast of characters. They decided to tell the stories of each battle through the opposing general’s point of view, so they only had to hire two actors as generals for each episode. All the action with the actors was confined to one main set – a bunker – where the generals would sit across the table from each other, contemplating the map in front of them.

This theatrical device helped Windfall in the long run, not only in saving money on actors and sets, but also for when the team was looking for interesting ways to use the great archive footage it had access to. Since 90% of the program had to be in HD, the idea came to project the footage onto the wall of the bunker and film a general watching the action, as though he was watching and contemplating his next move as it happened.

But perhaps the most creative and entertaining touch was when cardboard cut-outs were added to the equation. ‘CGI doesn’t [always] mean computer generated images,’ Duncan jokes as he explains the special effect techniques used in the program. ‘Our CGI is ‘Cardboard Generated Images.” While a general stands looking at the map table, the camera moves inside the model of the battle and cardboard tanks and planes come to life. As they shoot at each other, red and orange cardboard explosions leap from the vehicles while cardboard soldiers sustain injuries and boats sink through the water on the map board.

The team also decided that instead of live re-enactments, it would take still photos of a few men in authentic uniforms so that the soldiers on the board would be more than just the little green men of war games past; they would have real faces, covered in dirt, with blood dripping down their cheeks. Photos were treated to appear as if they were taken with a Russian camera in the 1940s, while also evoking a comic book feel which ties them in nicely with the cardboard scenery.

‘I jokingly told Ian, ‘We’re out to make war fun again,” says Hunter. And though the cardboard cut-outs add a fresh take to the treatment, everyone involved emphasizes that they weren’t meant to trivialize the content. ‘These are serious subjects,’ acknowledges Leesa Rumley, staff producer and director at Windfall. ‘I think we achieved [depicting] that. I think it’s got a kind of Commando-comic book style to it.’

Duncan also cites the comic title from the ’60s as inspiration. ‘The iconography’s absolutely fantastic,’ he says. ‘They’re very dramatic, hand-drawn comics of warfare, of people going ‘Aaaaah!’ and ‘Bonsai!’ Our approach to the stills and the cardboard cut-outs came out of that.’

Another key ingredient to Generals at War‘s original presentation is the way the team handled on-camera interviews. Rather than sticking with historians, Windfall decided to speak to present-day generals – such as Major General Simon Mayall, who served in both Gulf Wars – that have studied these battles in their training, but also have hands-on experience in warfare and can bring another level of understanding to explaining how the battles were won.

‘One of my favorite quotes from the series is when one of the generals started talking about the minefields in the Battle of Kursk,’ remembers Rumley. ‘He started off by saying, ‘Having been in a minefield myself….’ It was brilliant because he understood the pressures and the fear of entering that situation, which a historian has never experienced.’

Windfall also used ex-generals and experts in the field to demonstrate the tanks and weaponry that were used, to explain how the uniforms would have handled the weather conditions soldiers were facing and to re-enact strategies used by the armies.

‘For the live demonstrations they went down to the South Coast of England somewhere and just spent two or three days shooting all the demonstrations for all six hours,’ says Hunter. ‘There’s everything from tanks to explosives to even what each soldier had in his kit to eat. In the Battle of Stalingrad, what they were wearing had a great deal to do with the outcome.’

In the long run, Hunter believes that Generals at War turned out better because of the small budget. ‘In this case, I think a low budget was turned into a virtue by a company that took it as a creative challenge rather than seeing it as ‘not worth our time,” he says. ‘You had to come up with solutions and it actually made the end product better than had you said, ‘Here’s $400,000 an episode.”

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.