Grainy, black and white footage of World War One has been given the ultimate restoration treatment to startling effect. 

Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson has used all the firepower of his Lord of the Rings post production house and the Hollywood 3D facility behind Black Panther and Ready Player One to turn black and white film from the First World War into colour in such a startling way that it brings soldiers’ “faces to life”.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

Source: WingNut Films with Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM

The monumental project, using archive from the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in the UK, is one of the largest and longest restorations ever undertaken due mainly to the amount of scanned footage and the post production processes employed to deliver the final look and sound for the film.

The King Kong and Lord of the Rings trilogy director has also sharpened some of the footage and slowed down the jitters that accompanied early, hand-cranked cameras.

A WW1 buff whose British grandfather fought at Gallipoli and whose hobby is the modelling of highly detailed large-scale World War One aircraft, was approached by the IWM four years ago to see if he could create something original about the life of a soldier on the Western front.

Jackson apparently spent several weeks at the museum watching original WW1 archive and made tests at his Wellington, New Zealand postproduction facility Park Road Post on four minutes of footage.

The results were “beyond anything we’ve ever seen before” he explains.

Source: YouTube / 14-18 NOW

Peter Jackson on 'They Shall Not Grow Old'

“The faces of the men just jump out at you. It’s the faces, it’s the people, that come to life in this film.”

Jackson said he was helped by the fact that dozens of feature films were shot during the 1914 to 18 conflict. “It was like a World War One franchise.”

“I wanted to have as much [film footage] as I could,” Jackson told Yahoo. “I didn’t want it to be limited, by saying ‘give me some of your best film’. So, I just asked the IWM to give me everything they had, within reason.”

Jackson ended up with over a hundred hours of film and about 500 hours of audio interviews from 120 veterans recorded by the BBC for 1960s TV series The Great War. Clips from this would provide the audio for the 90-minute documentary They Shall Not Grow Old.

Source: WingNut Films with Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM

Jackson was intrigued if computing power could erase the technical limitations of 100 year cinema “to see and hear the Great War as they experienced it.”

The restoration of the film fell into three key phases – transformation, colour creation, and stereoscopic 3D conversion.

They Shall Not Grow Old was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the 14-18 NOW project (the UK’s official arts programme for the World War One centenary) to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day.

It is produced by Jackson’s WingNut Films, executive produced by Tessa Ross at House Productions with Trafalgar Releasing coordinating a simultaneous screening of the film in cinemas on October 16. It will also be distributed to secondary schools in the country before being broadcast in the UK on BBC1 on 11 November, Armistice Day.

The IWM sent all the material to Jackson’s New Zealand-based Park Road Post where artists completed an initial black and white levelling pass on the original negative to bring overexposed and underexposed footage up to a similar consistent level.

The 100-year old footage, much of which had been shot on the front line, had tears, defects, chemical marks, dust, shrinkage, duplication and starches, scratches and other issues of deterioration.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

Source: Source: WingNut Films with Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM

The footage was cleaned up then digitised and digital repairs made. All 100 hours had its level of grain evened out for consistency. Some footage was very grainy, other clips actually needed addition of more texture to make it appear sharper.

The footage was then re-timed so that the older footage, shot at 13 frames a second, was scaled to the more familiar look and speed of conventional cinema frame rate of 24fps. Our traditional view of WW1 and pre-WW1 footage is of judder (or ‘over-cranked’) because it has been sped up to 24fps without consideration for the difference in frame rate. The team were able to smooth the film out to play back at 24fps for more lifelike movement.

“You didn’t really notice them when the troops were all sped up and jerky, but suddenly they just come into a focus,” says Jackson.

Perhaps the most controversial decision was to colourise the material, although as Jackson points out, colour was the way those soldiers saw the world.

“I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more - rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film,” he explains.

For its part, the Imperial War Museum hoped that colour would draw in audiences, younger audiences in particular, that would otherwise find a flickering black and white film hard to relate to.

Jackson leant on historians to provide detailed notes for each shot identifying each soldier’s rank, uniform colours, what each item should look like. The team also studied pictures of crowds from the internet and drew on Jackson’s extensive private collection of First World War uniforms as reference.

Jackson himself travelled alone through Flanders and France taking thousands photos of the former battlefields to accurately match the colour palettes of the landscape.

The bulk of the colourisation process itself was a manual job. Each frame was rotoscoped, the time-consuming process of painting every part of every frame.

Milton Adamou, Head of Post and colourist for the project at Stereo D described the process to Yahoo “as mostly forensic but also creative”. 

“On one hand we’re recreating a photo-real world, striving to provide an accurate interpretation of the environment and the people within it. Everything in the frame is dissected and analysed, then cross-referenced against records from multiple sources. From the unusually elusive colour of the British uniforms, to more obscure items such as a goatskin jerkin we see once in the movie, we painstakingly laboured over every detail.

“Then we had some creative freedom to hone in on details that will be visually interesting to the audience. For instance, many of the soldiers wore private purchase shirts or other clothing, which we subsequently varied in colour to break up large areas of uniformity.”

Lip readers were hired to interpret what the soldiers are saying to each other to provide context for editing the audio narration.

Supervising Foley editor was Craig Tomlinson, whose credits include all Hobbit and LOTR films, The Adventures of Tintin, District 9 and King Kong.

“I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more” Peter Jackson

If it’s content worth telling, it’s content worth pushing the boundaries for. That’s been Jackson’s maxim on feature films.

Not content with shooting epic amounts of visual effects for The Lord of the Rings he pioneered a new form of motion capture with actor Andy Serkis, turning the character of Gollum into a believable performance-captured animation.

Deciding to shoot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 4K, an exotic resolution back in 2012, he also made the film in stereo 3D and accentuated the realism with an extreme frame rate of 48 frames a second.

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

No surprise then that he decided to make the WW1 project more complicated by rendering it in 3D. You could probably count the number of critically acclaimed stereoscopy film and TV shows on one hand but three of them have been documentaries: Wim Wenders’ Pina, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the Sir David Attenborough-fronted Flying Monsters. All these were shot using stereo cameras rather than digitally converted but prove that 3D can work for documentary storytelling by immersing the viewer in the material.

Jackson had no choice but to stereo convert for They Shall Not Grow Old, but he couldn’t have picked a more world class place to do it.

Burbank-based Stereo D, part of the Deluxe group since 2011, is behind the 2D to 3D conversion of nearly every blockbuster you can name from Ant Man and the Wasp to Avengers: Infinity War and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

The most difficult part of any 2D-3D process is always the creation of footage that doesn’t exist. Stereo D explained that foreground elements are extracted from background elements to create the depth needed, but this means VFX artists have to guess what appears behind the foreground elements, and create it from scratch.

There are algorithmic workarounds for this and Stereo D used its own proprietary software to extrapolate information from adjacent frames to composite new elements.

Stereo D’s 400 strong team of artists performed the bulk of work on the project including colourisation and restoration.

The finished feature length doc demonstrates that old footage can not only be restored, it can be enhanced and used in new ways to tell new stories about our history.