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.

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