Lip-readers give a voice to Peter Jackson’s first World War soldiers

‘Hobbit’ director lets troops speak for themselves in century-old footage

Director Peter Jackson discusses the techniques used to add sound and colour to archive footage from the first World War to create his new documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old". Video: Reuters

 

For his new first World War documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings director, was adamant the soldiers should tell their own stories. So he hired forensic lip-readers to go through old silent film footage of the war and uncover the conversations that took place in the trenches and on the battlegrounds 100 years ago.

Then he mixed those words with interviews with former soldiers from 600 hours of tape in the BBC archives to create a documentary that includes only the words of the soldiers themselves, in a full-colour war as they would have seen it.

“There’s been lots of documentaries made on the first World War... and I just decided for this one to strictly just use the voices of the guys that fought there,” the Oscar-winning New Zealand film-maker says. “So no historians, no narration, no nothing.”

I wanted to pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity, rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in archive film

Old footage from the Imperial War Museum has been meticulously restored. Computers have been used not only to add colour to black-and-white footage but also to remove imperfections, fill splices and reconstruct missing frames from film that was shot with fewer frames per second than today.

Forensic lip readers, who usually work with the police to determine what people say on silent security-camera footage, have been able to decipher the words spoken long ago on film. Actors give the soldiers on screen a voice.

“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,” Jackson says.

The documentary will have its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on Tuesday, October 16th. “It’s not the story of the war,” the director says. “It’s the story of the human experience of fighting in the war.” – Reuters, PA

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