10 fascinating facts behind the making of They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old comes to Screen25 this week bringing with it a stunningly realised depiction of the Great War as you’ve never seen it before.

Using state-of-the-art technology, Jackson restored countless hours of original archival footage dating back 100 years to help bring to life the stories and experiences of those who survived the first major conflict of the 20th century.

It’s a film focusing on the human face of war through the accounts of the soldiers that were there and the footage that captured, first-hand, the experience of life on the frontline.

Ahead of the Screen25 debut of a film the BBC’s Mark Kermode ranked among the best on offer in 2018, here are 10 fascinating facts behind the making of They Shall Not Grow Old.

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1. The film’s crew reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with over 200 soldiers and watched around 100 hours of original footage from the Imperial War Museum archive and the BBC film and TV library. Jackson estimates they spent close to a year reviewing the material.

2. They Shall Not Grow Old was originally conceived as a 30-minute film but, after reviewing the vast amount of footage, Jackson felt the film would require a longer running time to tell the incredible story of the war.

3. Using a sophisticated computer algorithm, Jackson’s production company Wingnut Films scanned the original footage, filmed on hand-cranked cameras operating at speeds of round 15 frames a second, and add additional, artificial frames pushing the frame-rate up to 24 a second, giving it a more natural, realistic feel.

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4. Jackson and his team created the film’s unique soundscape using a variety of techniques. Sound effects like the tremble of shell fire in the distance was used in the background while lip readers were employed to work out what the soldiers filmed were saying. Actors then recorded these lines for use in the film.

5.  A total of 120 surviving veterans were recorded talking about their experiences with this audio severing as an overlay in place of a narrator or guiding voiceover. Jackson was keen to highlight the universal experience of the war, meaning none of the soldiers or battlegrounds from the war were ever identified, with Jackson keen not to slow down the pace of the film.

6. All of the footage featured in the film was originally shot in monochrome and later colourised by the Wingnut film’s production company using computer augmented colourisation techniques. Jackson visited several of the battlefields featured in the film and took pictures for reference.

7. Much of the film’s budget was spent on the painstaking colourisation process which Jackson insists would have been even better had he been given longer to work on the project. The production saved money by bookending the film with black and white scenes. Grass and dirt were apparently the most challenging items to colourise.

8. No footage of fighting in the trenches existed, meaning Jackson had to rely on a series of dramatic pencil sketches of combat from the serial magazine The War Illustrated to help depict the conflict. While this helped maintain the film’s authentic feel, Jackson was careful to edit out or crop any images that may have been jingoistic or propagandist in nature.

9. Jackson deliberately left out accounts of the war from French, Canadian, American, German and Russian soldiers fighting in the First World War. He felt by focusing on the British forces, the film would have a clear narrative voice and sense of shared experience. He also overlooked other elements of the Great War like naval combat, the air force and the war effort at home as he felt each was worthy of its own documentary.

10. Jackson’s grandfather, William, fought in the Great War. He signed up for the conflict in 1910 and went on to receive the medal for Distinguished Conduct following his efforts at Gallipoli.

Wounded on the first day of the Somme, William went on to fight at Passchendaele and survived the conflict. The mental scars of what he witnessed lived on though with William eventually passing, aged 50. His grandfathers’ experience was a source of some personal interest to Jackson, who owns large collection of WWI uniforms and weaponry and dedicated They Shall Not Grow Old to William.

Words by Jack Beresford.

They Shall Not Grow Old screens on Saturday 9th March. Book now.



Screen25 South Norwod