How Did Peter Jackson Make the World War I Documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’?

Director Peter Jackson is known for his gigantic movies including, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and 2005’s King Kong. Now, the acclaimed filmmaker is bringing the lives of the men who fought in World War I to life. In They Shall Not Grow Old, a breathtaking full-color documentary, Jackson is taking his audience back in time 100 years and putting us face to face with English soldiers who fought bravely at the turn of the century in what was known as The Great War.

For the first time, film-going audiences can see lush real-life footage of these soldiers instead of fiction film renditions, still photographs, or choppy black and white video. In They Shall Not Grow Old, we hear how the soldiers sounded, the slag they used, how they looked, how their uniforms were styled, how they moved, as well as their dreams and goals. This was a very personal project for Jackson who dedicated the movie to his paternal grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, who was British and fought during WWI. So how did Jackson and his team bring these men to life from fuzzy, silent black and white video to this spectacular visual display off full color and sound?

A massive time commitment

Partnering with the Imperial War Museums’ archives and using audio from BBC and WM interviews of British soldiers, Jackson and his team painstakingly looked over 600 hours of interviews and 100 hours of original film footage that needed to be paired together. The sample size came from 200 men who fought in War War I and later spoke about their experiences in the 1960s and 1970s

Unlike traditional documentary films, They Shall Not Grow Old does not have a narrator because Jackson wanted the men to be able to speak for themselves. He also chose not to include names or locations to make the film as human as possible. Jackson stated,

We made a decision not to identify the soldiers as the film happened. There were so many of them that names would be popping up on the screen every time a voice appeared. In a way, it became an anonymous and agnostic film. We also edited out any references to dates and places, because I didn’t want the movie to be about this day here or that day there. There are hundreds of books about all that stuff. I wanted the film to be a human experience and be agnostic in that way. I didn’t want individual stories about individuals. I wanted it to be what it ended up being, 120 men telling a single story.

Bringing the men to life

It was not easy to make They Shall Not Grow Old look as lush and striking as it does. To do this, Jackson and his crew had to first clean the original film from WWI, removing dirt, and scratches. Next, they had to colorize the film, being very meticulous to color-match things like the men’s uniforms. Since the film was captured on hand-cranked cameras in the nineteen-teens, the footage had to be sped up so that it would look smooth. Lastly, Jackson had to convert the footage to 3D. It was a lengthy and costly process, to say the least.

Jackson explained, “[The men] saw a war in color, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white. 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.”

It was certainly worth all the effort.

They Shall Not Grow Old will play in theaters through Fathom Events on Dec. 17 and 27.

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