I went to see Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, built from actual footage and recordings from The Great War. Jacksons’s attention to detail, to get the colorisation, movement, and sound right make it a different experience than what we usually see in archival film, where people are moving jerkily and too quickly. This is smoothed and shaded, and the sound recordings made by the BBC in the 50s and 60s of actual veterans of the war have been cleaned up as well, so that much of it seems as if it had been filmed recently. A good deal of it is grim, of death and decay, rats, lice, mud, and noise. The audience is not spared those realities.
The lighter and matter-of-fact attitudes of the soldiers are also captured with film and recording. We had a job to do and we did it… A lot of the lads were volunteering and I went down at lunch and signed up direct. My boss said he couldn’t promise me a job when I got back.
There is a fascinating half-hour at the end in which Jackson describes the techniques they used to recover the footage and make it come alive, which is also fascinating stuff. For example, he describes how the original filming speed was not uniform, as it was cranked by the cameraman at 11-18 frames per second, usually about 15. Getting the speed right was not linear, but involved guesswork, which he says the eventually got good at. Jackson describes seeing very clearly when the speed is right, and when he shows the film movement, you see exactly what he means. When the speed is exactly right, the movement looks natural and human, it jumps out at you. A touch slower or faster and it just isn’t right.