French-Canadian producer Josette D Normandeau recently visited New Zealand to present a screening of her epic five hour historical documentary Apocalypse World War I at the French Film Festival.
Representing a herculean effort, the film was produced using more than 500 hours of colourised footage from the era, much of it previously unseen.
Screening at festivals in two parts, Apocalypse World War I treads a very human path through a portal to the past. It's The Great War as you've never seen it on the big screen.
While she was in town, Normandeau and I sat down for a brief chat about the film, which was written and directed by Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle (Apocalypse World War II).
Dominic Corry: How did you corral all the footage for this movie?
Josette D Normandeau: We had to scour all over the world to find the material. Everywhere. There were archives, but we knew we had to find them or the footage would just disintegrate. We found about 500 hours of archival footage. None of the material was at the same speed, in terms of number of frames per second. We discovered film speeds we didn't even know existed. And there was no sound.
Are there aesthetic decisions being made in the colourisation process, or is it simply about replicating reality as closely as possible, based on the information you have?
The decisions were not only artistic in regards to the colourisation - and yes they were - but also in the sound. Everything had to be constituted from scratch - we had nothing. So the sound is original. Most people see the colour but they don't realise that the soundtrack is the most amazing thing. We had this guy whose been collecting sounds for 35 years. Every time someone is fixing up an old weapon or a shotgun or a canon or an engine from a plane, they will call him and he will go and record the sound. He goes everywhere. The only sound we don't have is the Big Bertha which is an immense cannon that shot from 100 kilometres away to Paris, because it exploded and disintegrated the one time it was shot. Everybody around it died.
It almost seems like you're reconstructing the past, piece by piece.
There's a hundred people who work on the production side of it then there's a hundred people who work in the digital platforms, just for the colourisation. We have real colour from the era - books, postcards, photographs at various museums. So there's a digital artist preparing all the charts for each frame, to indicate which colour should be applied from the original colours of the time. And there's a historian on each side arguing about what the right colour was.
So you had to be sort of colour detectives.
Sometimes we had the real artefacts, but sometimes we had nothing. The directors had final say. It's very subdued, the colour, as the colour was at the time.
Do you think seeing footage of this kind is the most potent way for people from today to understand was what happening back then?
Yes because first of all, when this first aired we had a very large percentage of the female population watching with their families. About thirty percent of the people watching were teenagers. They don't watch black and white documentaries traditionally. My feeling is that when the colour arrives on that footage, because we've never seen it before, all of a sudden you're seeing your brother, you're seeing your husband, you're seeing your dad, you're seeing your uncle, you're seeing your sister as one of the nurses on the front. We never had this sort of feeling before. Isabelle and Daniel did something unbelievable in terms of storytelling and the arc - it almost feels like fiction the way it's written. It always starts with a personal incident, which ties it to the audience.
Are you concerned about how much historical footage from this era will be lost without being archived?
My concern is not only about that, because footage from that period is in a better condition to survive than much of the video footage from later. It's a huge concern about salvaging what we have. Money is the issue for everybody.
The French Film Festival continues throughout the country until April 29th