Controversial History Channel "WWII in HD" debate - THE TRUTH

Archival methods, database management and editorial direction
Steve Hullfish
By Steve Hullfish 11.18.09

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?The History Channel's WW2 in HD series has created a firestorm of debate over archival methods.

If you read the AMIA listserve, the Cinematographer's Mailing List, or the Telecine Internet Group or TKColorist Internet Group listserve, chances are you saw the huge debate over how the huge amount of rare color footage from World War II was transferred. Many people thought that historical records were being destroyed by careless film transfers. Several web stories - that were actually created by publicists - supported this controversy, but turned out to be mis-information.

The true story of the making of the series turns out to be far more interesting than the fiction, as so often is the case. I interviewed the series' director, Frederic Lumiere on the phone in the midst of the controversy and discovered a man passionate about his project and for the care and cataloging of the materials he oversaw. Any misquotes can be attributed to my transcription. I recorded the entire interview and did the transcription word for word, but phonetic transcription is contextual and between Mr. Lumiere's mild French accent and the quality of the phone line audio, I may have made minor mistakes. My intent was to be honest and portray the events correctly.

This interview covers three interesting aspects of this massive project: the film transfers of the archival color footage - including the novel use of Lumiere's RED camera - the creation and use of a database to keep track of 3,000 hours of archival footage, and the editing concept that delivered emotional impact on top of historical factuality.

Because this is kind of "breaking news" item, what follows is a transcription of our interview with no additional information or clean up.

PVC: Tell me about the process of getting all of this rare 35mm and 16mm film footage to a broadcastable form.

image Frederic Lumiere: Well the first thing we did was we really spent about a year to find every piece of color footage from the 1940s that we could. The sources came from the National Archives, the Marines, the Navy, from other countries, from World War Two museums, you name it. If the source had World War Two footage, we got access to it. And that took betweek 10 to 12 months to do that and the way we processed the film all depended on the source. For example, the National Archives - only certain companies are allowed to work with the film and so we enlisted one of these companies to process the things wanted. And what they used was a C-Reality Hi-res scanner, (CORRECTION - HENNINGER used a Spirit) which scans the film frame by frame. And it was delivered to us just uncompressed high definition video as Quicktime on hard drives. In Europe, we used another company that is approved by a lot of the archives that are there and they would use Cinetel scanner, I believe which does similar things as the C-Reality. So between these two sources, I would say we got 1200 hours, 1100 hours of footage. Through the National Archives, one of the ways we did it is we had a guy who virtually lived there, who basically shot the film off the projection at the National Archives and we used these as sceeners so to speak to evaluate what we wanted and what we didn't want. It was just a really cheap (Sony HVR) Z1U or something like that. And that was just to document "This is what's available." Keep in mind that with 2500 to 3000 hours for an editing team of 21 to 22 editors when it all comes down to it plus researchers, plus producers and writers and so forth on a SAN, that required 22 to 24 terabytes, I can't even remember.

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So the whole series is actually edited in DV and a lot of that screener footage actually didn't look that good. There was only so much time to document the footage that the gentleman who was at the National Archives would shoot the footage as it was being projected by a National Archives employee and sometimes you'd see his face in a reflection and it was shot from an angle. But that footage was just to see what was in color and what we had. And then, once we made a cut we would go out to the National Archives and place and order and the reels would then be sent to a company approved by NARA - the National Archives - and they would send us hard drives. Now with the Marines and the Navy, we'd also get a lot of that stuff because of Lou (Scott) Reda's connections, directly from them and a lot of them were prints and so forth and for those we used the RED to capture the footage in a telecine configuration from an older telecine machine, but a really good one. (CLARIFICATION: It seems Mr. Lumiere means that they used a film chain or multiplexer for a film chain, probably by RCA, which used to use an Ikegami camera. This is somewhat different from a modern telecine.)

PVC: Who exactly was this company that you used to transfer the film that the National Archives approved?

FL: I think they're called Prelinger? (CORRECTION: This is a mis-transcription. The work was done at Henninger. They also used Bono Labs in Washington, D.C. and Ascent Media who used a C-Reality.)

image PVC: How was this footage saved to disk? With what codec?

FL: We started out doing it uncompressed Quicktime, but quickly realized that we needed to switch to ProRes HD 4:2:2.

PVC: Can you describe the RED used in telecine configuration a little better?

FL: We had a telecine machine that has been used for many, many years and the RED camera is mounted in place of the original camera. I think we had an Ikegami there before. In a virtual, dark environment the RED shoots the film. Now, all of that film, first looks fantastic, because the RED captures every little detail of the film, probably not as good as a scanner, but this way we were able to capture every little piece of film from the Marines and the Navy. And one of the things that I said in a previous interview, I said some of the film fell apart when it was projected only once. That was in reference to some 8mm home movies that were from families who had kept the film in boxes. First of all most of that film was not even used (in the final production). It was a wedding or it was...really it was not that big of a deal. The film is still there, we just kind of have to patch it back together, but I think it happened on only one reel to be honest with you and the whole controversy started from this statement about a minute of film when we dealt with virtually 3,000 hours of footage.



image PVC: And how did you transfer the 8mm stuff?

FL: Through an 8mm projector right onto the wall. And it looked great. A lot of it was in Episode One when we do Pearl Harbor and you see all the home movies. That's from that.


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