How Peter Jackson Made His State-of-the-Art World War I Documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old: An Inside Look

There are very few work­ing direc­tors today who can do what Peter Jack­son does so well—create extra­or­di­nary spec­ta­cles on the grand­est of scales while also stay­ing tight­ly focused on char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and emo­tion­al depth. He’s made mis­steps. His Hob­bit tril­o­gy felt bloat­ed, busy and unnec­es­sary, but one rea­son it so dis­ap­point­ed was because he’d already shown him­self a mas­ter of fan­ta­sy film­mak­ing with what many con­sid­ered the unfilm­ma­ble Lord of the Rings.

Of course non-Tolkien-relat­ed Jack­son films like Heav­en­ly Crea­tures also show­case these strengths, on a small­er scale: the abil­i­ty to retain the human dimen­sion amidst cin­e­mat­ic spec­ta­cles and inhu­man dark­ness (a qual­i­ty he mined explic­it­ly in his years as a hor­ror direc­tor). All of these sen­si­bil­i­ties, includ­ing a pro­nounced streak of dark humor and tal­ent for manip­u­lat­ing his audi­ences, make him the ide­al direc­tor for a doc­u­men­tary on World War I.

It’s a con­flict that makes lit­tle his­tor­i­cal sense to most of us, that unfold­ed on a scale few of us can imag­ine, with few iden­ti­fi­able heroes and vil­lains and a com­pli­cat­ed geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion that can feel out of our grasp.

Many doc­u­men­taries on the war are infor­ma­tive but, frankly, quite dull. In striv­ing for objec­tiv­i­ty, they lose sight of human­i­ty. Rather than adopt the voice of god and news­reel look that char­ac­ter­izes the usu­al fare, Jack­son has tak­en an active role in shap­ing the nar­ra­tive for us with cut­ting-edge block­buster cin­e­mat­ic tech­niques. He gives us char­ac­ters to care about in show­ing the hor­ror of trench war­fare, the con­fu­sion and cama­raderie of war. Though he uses orig­i­nal footage, it is dig­i­tal­ly enhanced and col­orized, screened in 3D, with record­ings of remem­brances from the sol­diers them­selves dra­mat­i­cal­ly over­laid to cre­ate the sense that the fig­ures we see onscreen are speak­ing to us.

The result, as Guy Lodge writes at Vari­ety, “is a tech­ni­cal daz­zler with a sur­pris­ing­ly humane streak…. So daz­zling­ly trans­for­ma­tive is the restora­tion of this footage that it may as well be the prod­uct of a movie shoot.” Indeed, once the cred­its roll, view­ers see the same “ver­i­ta­ble army of mag­ic-work­ing tech­ni­cians’ names” as they would on any big-bud­get action movie. Jack­son has, in effect, pro­duced “the world’s most state-of-the-art edu­ca­tion­al film,” apply­ing all the emo­tion­al levers and pul­leys of fea­ture film­mak­ing to a his­tor­i­cal archive.

Like most of us, stu­dents have trou­ble under­stand­ing the scale of the war and con­nect­ing with the lives of peo­ple so indis­tinct­ly pho­tographed and far away in time. Jack­son makes sure that they can do both, and his film will be sent to every high school in the U.K. Those schools will not, of course, be able to repro­duce the 3D effects. Yet even these, though they sound “gim­micky on the face of it,” writes Lodge, prove “to have an expe­ri­en­tial pur­pose, con­vey­ing the jud­der­ing move­ment and chaos of a con­flict many of us have large­ly viewed through cal­ci­fied still images.”

In the inter­views and behind the scenes videos here, we learn how Jack­son and his team solved the film speed prob­lem to make the old reels look nat­ur­al, how they cre­at­ed a col­or palette and removed blur­ri­ness and blem­ish­es. Jack­son also talks about his own per­son­al stake in the project, imag­in­ing what his grand­fa­ther endured in the Great War. This con­nec­tion seems to have spurred him all the more in the effort.

“To memo­ri­al­ize these sol­diers a hun­dred years lat­er,” he says, “is to try to bring some of their human­i­ty back into the world again, to stop them being a black and white cliché.” In cre­at­ing this mov­ing memo­r­i­al, Jack­son goes far beyond the man­date of an edu­ca­tion­al film. He has used all the tech­niques at his dis­pos­al to make good on the promise in Robert Lau­rence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fall­en,” from which the doc­u­men­tary takes its title:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years con­demn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morn­ing
We will remem­ber them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Peter Jackson’s New Film on World War I Fea­tures Incred­i­ble Dig­i­tal­ly-Restored Footage From the Front Lines: Get a Glimpse

Watch World War I Unfold in a 6 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1914 to 1918

The Great War: Video Series Will Doc­u­ment How WWI Unfold­ed, Week-by-Week, for the Next 4 Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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