I sat in a darkened theater recently, seeing images and hearing sounds my grandfather may have experienced over one hundred years ago. I was watching Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a documentary that brings to life the experience of World War I soldiers.
This is not the scratchy, jerky documentary footage you’ve probably seen before. Using digital technology and historical artifacts, Mr. Jackson painstakingly recreated the colors, voices, and sounds of a soldiers’ world, which, as Jackson says, they did not see in black and white. The movie brings to life the men and, sadly, many boys, who before seemed frozen in black and white celluloid.
The main movie was a moving, often intense, experience. I especially enjoyed Jackson’s behind-the-scenes tour, which played after the closing credits. Although Jackson used high-end computers and an army of digital filmmaking specialists, he also used some simple techniques which family historians can use to make our own videos, bringing our own ancestors to life.
Technique No. 1
Jackson used lithograph illustrations from his personal collection of The War Illustrated magazine to show battle images not available from the archival film footage.
You can use digitized versions of publications in the public domain available from online archival collections.
For my video, “The Civil War Journey of William Hunter Davis,” I used a drawing of Sherman’s march into Savannah from the Harper’s Weekly collection available in the Library of Congress’ digital collection at loc.gov.
You can get my free eBooklet on how to discover and use images from online archives like the Library of Congress by going to https://vidgen.me/tsngob.
Zoom in or crop a wide shot within video footage or a still photograph to focus on the action or specific people. Jackson took a wide shot showing a trench in an expansive battlefield and narrowed down the shot to men in the trench and did camera moves to help viewers focus on a specific action.
You can use effects in free or low-cost video editing software to move within the frame of a video or still photo to emphasize an action or create movement.
Free iMovie software calls this feature the Ken Burns effect. Many other editing platforms offer a similar effect, which is fairly easy to create.
For digitized still photos, you can use the Snipping Tool in Windows or the screen capture feature (Shift-Command-4) on the Mac to select a specific portion of the image to show.
In my video “Davis Bookstore”, I used cropped shots of a photo I had showing my grandpa standing in his bookstore in the 1930s. I used the shots to highlight products and décor in his office supply business, including a desktop photograph of his two daughters.
Use excerpts from interviews to tell the story.
The only voices you hear in Jackson’s documentary are those of WWI soldiers interviewed in the 1960s for a BBC television program. For music to accompany the ending credits, New Zealander Peter Jackson recruited staff from the nearby British consulate to sing a rousing rendition of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” in authentic English accents.
You can enlist family members, friends or neighbors to reenact voices or songs from your ancestor’s era. Record someone reading excerpts from a letter or diary, playing music, or singing a song and incorporate it into your video. Be sure the music is in the public domain.
Hint: the New York Public Library digital collection offers sheet music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When interviewed about the film, Peter Jackson mentions his grandfather, a British soldier, who was the inspiration for his passion for World War I history. I know you have ancestors who can inspire you, too. I loved that in the last words of his behind-the-scenes film, Jackson encourages viewers to talk to older family members before their memories pass on with them. I encourage you to do the same. The Great War impacted our ancestors’ world of the early 20th century in many ways. Each family has a story to tell from that time.
I invite you to get more tips and techniques for using video storytelling to bring your ancestors’ world to life. Get free tools to help you jumpstart your ancestor stories at https://vidgen.me/toolspjb.
I hope you’ll have the chance to view “They Shall Not Grow Old.” I created a Google alert after I missed the December 2018 limited release of the film and luckily got a chance to see it in January.
UPDATE: As of February 17, 2019, “They Shall Not Grow Old” was still showing in movie theaters in the U.S. Check your local theaters!