A New Television Technique Recreates Scenes from History that Were Never Filmed ... But Look As If They Were

Roundup: Talking About History

Jamie Wilson, in the Guardian (July 19, 2004):

Adolf Hitler bends down to look at the map laid out before him on the oak table. His piercing eyes stare intently as a general points a black-gloved hand to show troop movements on the eastern front. As the camera pans and the Fuhrer leans on his right arm to get a better view there is a blinding orange flash followed by a ball of smoke as the picture blurs.

It is the documentary-maker's ultimate fantasy: never-before-seen footage of one of the most famous moments in 20th-century history - the assassination attempt against Hitler at his Rastenburg headquarters in eastern Prussia.

The quality is such - from the colour of the film to the graininess of the images - that it could even have been taken by the Fuhrer's private cameraman, Walter Frentz. But the clip was not shot inside the Wolf's Lair in July 1944. In fact this scene was never filmed at all.

Instead it was made for the Discovery Channel in the Soho editing suites of the Moving Picture Company, Britain's most successful creator of computer-generated imagery.

For the programme-makers, the project heralds the next generation of television history programmes and the "holy grail" of CGI - bringing historical events to life so realistically that the audience believes that it is watching genuine archive footage.

But the Virtual History strand - which will have a global launch in the autumn, the first time a Discovery programme made in the UK has received such an accolade - is set to ignite an argument among both historians and documentary-makers about the ethics of interspersing CGI with archive film.

According to the Discovery Channel, the technique has the potential to change the way viewers watch his torical documentaries in the future and will create an entirely new genre of documentary making.

The first in what the makers hope will be a series of virtual history programmes will attempt to stage the events of July 20 1944 from the perspective of the four main wartime leaders. So as well as seeing Hitler sitting dazed and bloodied beside the table that saved his life, there will be scenes of Churchill working in bed in his pyjamas, Roosevelt having a heart attack and Stalin ordering attacks on the eastern front.

The feature-length programme, which is still in production (the Guardian was given a sneak preview of several scenes last week) uses real archive footage to support the "archive reconstructions". Historians, such as Andrew Roberts (whose books include Hitler and Churchill), were brought in to advise and to maintain historical accuracy.

Actors with physical similarities to the key protagonists acted out the "missing" parts of the story before technical experts used CGI to recreate the faces of the wartime leaders and transformed the modern film into footage which runs seamlessly with the original archive clips.

"Our feeling is that whenever you see an historical re-enactment with an actor you have to suspend disbelief and it deviates from the power of what you are watching, whereas with this it's like mainlining straight into history; that's what it feels like when you watch it," says David Abraham, general manager of Discovery Networks Europe.

Charles Brand, managing director of Tiger Aspect, the production company behind the new programme, says the making of the series was inspired by the success of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs. "Audiences are very hungry for new tricks all the time, and there was a programme that suddenly got three or four times the size of audience watching a programme about prehistoric animals," he says.

"Hopefully it gives you a wider audience than a specialist history audience to really engage in a very important subject. I think coming up with a new technique like this is a fantastically strong way of getting that new audience in."

But it has taken nearly three years to get to the point where they are happy with the realism of the product. The technical demands of trying to recreate well-known faces using CGI should not be underestimated, says David Jefferies, CEO of the Moving Picture Company. "The one thing humans are most acutely aware of is the precise proportions of other people's faces, and if you deviate by even the smallest amount you are suddenly looking at a close relative and not the person themselves."

It took the programme-makers and technicians months of trial and error to identify and recreate the movements that make a person's face look real. But what about those who claim this type of programme will lead to the distortion of history, with the possibility that fake archive footage will be passed off as real? Documentary film-maker Roger Graef, who was recently awarded a Bafta fellowship, thinks that the idea is "very dodgy" and warns that it could have serious ramifications.

"Capturing reality, whether it's obscure archive or observational film is a slightly unpredictable task," he says. "If you are going out looking for home videos of the Nazi period or filming things as they happen, these are both unpredictable activities in ways that shareholders and accountants dislike. It is up to the people at the top of broadcasting and the regulators to insist on the flexibility and willingness to back the authentic in order to resist the easy temptation of putting everything into an artificial box. That is the difference between reality and reality television."

However, there are several historians who approve the use of CGI. Richard Evans, professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, says: "It can do almost anything and if it helps make the past come alive, and if it is done carefully and responsibly on the basis of good research, and as long as programme-makers flag up what they are doing then this can only be a good thing."...

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 7/23/2004

It's still hard to do, which means that we don't have too much to worry about yet. But we might want to start talking (again) about how to handle and authenticate evidence in these new forms.