Story Telling with WW I Archival Film…Success & Failure

In my journal project I intend to mix sketches with WW1 archival photos to support telling a story.  With the centennial of the Great War upon us, there are many examples out there where creative people have attempted to use World War I archival footage to support their story telling.   Some succeed and some do not.

Apocalypse is one of the big players out there.  Created by Clarke Costelle & Company located in Paris, France, they have produced a number of historical programs using cinematic archives.

The first three examples come from their company or collaboration with others using their archival expertise.

Slide1These Apocalypse War Series documentaries are certainly well done.  You can find them on cable networks like the History channel.  They aggressively colorize the footage and their audio dubbing adds voices, gunshots, clinking gear to make the footage seem complete and real.  Technically it is impressive and engaging, but for me there is something both about the company name ( Apocalypse) and the technique that feels like it is “amping up”  history.   There are times when shows like these start feeling like a “True Crime” drama instead of connecting to us emotionally.


Valiant Hearts is a  wonderful video game tied to World War I history.  It tells the story of several characters in a puzzle / adventure game environment. Real historical facts are interwoven in the story.  Colorized images are used here as still photographs on fact cards that you can pull up in the game as you discover objects or reach milestones.  The objects, the images, the information all back up the story and the  animated characters that you really care about.  Even better, as you can see above with the flag hung from rifles, the archival information is reinforced in the game itself.  A very satisfying collaboration.


After experiencing Valiant Hearts, I was thrilled to see “Apocalypse 10 Lives” show up on the Ipad.  This story telling game shoots very high with the concept here and it is a wonderful premise.  Ten lives, downloadable stories of characters in World War I from all different countries.  You download the character and run thru a series of graphic novel style dramas.  The character’s overlap and little icons at the top of the page show you when a second character’s story is intersecting.  You can jump from a soldier’s story to the nurse who is caring for him.  Videos of archival footage are mixed in so when nurses on a ship are chatting on the deck, shouts ring out and archival footage pops up of a torpedo hurtling towards them.


Unfortunately the game falls short on so many fronts.  For children of the 60’s the graphic novel images will remind you of “Chuck Cargo” cartoons .  They are pretty rough and most of the animation involves panning the camera and zooming in.  This you could overcome, but the writing and the voice acting is just bad.  Like Valiant Hearts there are some nice features like objects in the story that can be opened, letter, books etc. but I found myself relieved when the video footage came up.  It definitely got me thinking about my own project. No matter how good the “concept” is, if you don’t manage to connect to the audience emotionally you will not succeed.


Finally there is “14 Diaries of the Great War”.  This is an eight episode series available on Netflix.  To me this series is successful on so many fronts.  You can read more about the production here.

The series focuses on real stories about real people and how they were impacted by the war.  The episodes focus on themes, young men and women being drawn into the war, what they experienced once in battle, the impact back at home, the impact on world culture.  All this is done with interwoven stories from Russia, England, France and Germany.  Characters speak their native language with subtitles, sometimes transitioning into English.  The stories are personal and real, even if the theme of the episode is more global.  When they introduce a theme using archival photos the graphics are inventive and rich.


Where the series shines is when they integrate archival footage in the story telling. Footage integrates directly into the story.

An actor is in a trench and his face lights up from a flare, he looks up…..and the flare is archival footage.

A nurse is working in a nursery and cares for a starving baby in Germany and when she reaches for supplies….real archival footage of nurses in a nursery.

In the images below French soldiers have a conversation and then turn their backs to the camera trudging along the trench, it immediately cuts to archival footage of French soldiers walking towards you with audio of sloshing feet in the mud.


A Russian girl who wants to be a Cossack is given a saber, while she is practicing the image switches to real footage of Russian soldiers going thru saber drills


Finally this very simple graphic shows while the narrator  describes how almost every  households was the impacted by the loss of family members.  Image after image of family portraits come up and slowly one family member fades away. So simple and so direct.


Fantastic stuff.  With the centennial here we are lucky to have so many examples to experience.

It makes clear to me that when you do it right the result can be heartfelt and impactful.

Ghost Soldiers – Finding the Past in the Present

It started with a rainy day.

The Blue Max Project involves the creation of a soldier’s journal with written thoughts, sketches and photographs.  I have been musing about how I will use photographs.  I don’t want to grab archival photos and pretend it is something that happened in the story.  I want to create photos that reinforce the story.  I had been thinking about photos that aren’t really photos.  Something I create that use historical photos as a source but allows me to compose my own image.  A mix of imagination and reality.  Since the project involves a focus on aviation I thought I would experiment taking photographs of cloudy skies and mix in airplane images to see if I could “create” a photograph.

So on a rainy Sunday morning I became a “cloud hunter”.  With my dog on leash I took a morning walk with camera in hand along a bike trail near where I live.  The trail follows along a long row of high voltage power lines over an easement of scrub grasses.  Not sure I know how to photograph clouds very well just yet, became clear that walking by power lines was not the ideal location to photograph the sky, but got a number of images including this one.

SkyAs I was walking back, figuring I had pretty much gotten what I was going to get, I started to look down instead of up.  With the help of my friends at The Great War Forum  I had spent the last few weeks researching the military service of my wife’s grandfather William Rigg.  I had spent the night before reading through the dozens of battles his regiment had participated in during his four years of service.  Names like the Somme, Bapaume, Arras, Ypres, Lys, Menin Road….. the maps, the details and casualty statistics where dizzying.  What his life was like during those four years was hard to imagine.

I started noticing the potholes filled with water in the access road under the power lines.  Was wondering if I could photograph a field and compose a crash scene from The Blue Max.  Than I came upon some rutted tire tracks going up a muddy road.  It immediately made me think of the foot soldier, trodding along a road.  I took a number of photos including this one.


Back at home, I dug through Google Images, searching for views of soldiers walking along the front.  This image stood out right away.

WW1 Photo

I used photoshop to take my muddy road shot, clip out the house and sky in the background and combine it with my cloudy sky shot.  I converted everything to black and white and clipped out the soldiers from the vintage photo and duplicated them on my roadway, attempting a composition that felt right.  Some soldiers I used twice or reversed them so they looked like they naturally followed the roadway.

Test Run2This is where it got tricky.  My initial tries of drawing over the soldiers was very cartoony because of all the details on them.  I wanted something that evoked memory and perhaps emotion, not a drafting exercise.  I used my line drawings as a source and added shading to give them a three dimensional look.  I left the outline but removed the detail lines and gave them shadows to stand off the page.  Finally I applied a filter to the backround drawing to make it look a little less real.  I decided to leave them somewhat transparent and title the work “Ghost Soldiers”

Ghost Soldiers

I want to dedicate this week’s blog and the “Ghost Soldiers” image above to the men and women at The Great War Forum for the work they do helping others research their family’s history.

KevinBattle, Roughdiamond, Tom Lang and many others helped me with gathering information to better understand William Rigg and his life during his service to his country.  That journey is not over yet and eventually I will share more of what I have gathered with the help of their efforts.

“Ghost Soldiers” for me  became a reference for the journey people make researching documents and records in the present day to give flesh and spirit to the past.  The path is muddy and difficult, the image will always be a bit unclear, but the reward for your efforts is a connection between the past and the present that gives us perspective on our history, our family and our own lives.