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Four Questions for John DeBello

"We protect our future by remembering our past."

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission has a new set of fundraising videos that are designed to raise awareness for World War One, and for the Commission's effort to build a new National WW1 Memorial in Washington DC. The video series consists of pieces that tell the WW1 story in formats of 7 minute, 3-minute, 60-second, 30-second, and they can be applied to a variety of communication uses, to include classroom settings, fundraiser events, TV public service announcements, etc. The pieces in the series are narrated by noted Hollywood actor -- and unabashed military supporter -- Gary Sinese, whose own grandfather served as an ambulance driver during World War One. Writer/Director/Producer of the series is award-winning filmmaker John DeBello, who took some time to share with us his vision for the video series project.

You have created a new series of videos to help tell the story of the Commission, the Memorial, and of World War One. Tell us about these videos & their different missions.

John DeBelloJohn DeBelloWorld War One is a hazy memory for most Americans. If they think about it at all, it’s as a prelude to World War Two. That’s unfortunate, and unfair to the more than 116,000 U.S. servicemen who gave their lives in defense of freedom. The goal of this video series is to underscore a very important fact--their sacrifice ended a global conflict that had already taken literally millions of lives. In addition, our participation in what was called “The Great War” became a seminal turning point in our history--the beginning of the American Century and the promise of the American Dream to so many more people of all ethnicities.

This film series is quite high quality. The scripts are solid. The imagery is remarkable. There are some amazing visual & audio effects used. Plus, you got a pretty notable actor to be the voice-over talent. Tell us about putting together the elements to create these films.

The idea was to use powerful period footage and images, many of which are relatively unknown to most people. We also used motion graphic techniques to subtly animate some of the photos. However, no matter how much the visuals resonate, the key to any narrative is the storytelling. We strove for an understated approach that would deliver important information succinctly, but with an emotional punch. Gary Sinise is one of the nation’s foremost actors, and we were very fortunate that he was kind enough to donate his talents to this cause. His grandfather was a “Doughboy” who served in France during the War, and actually appears in the video. When you see his photo circa 1918, you’ll see a strong resemblance.

What themes and tones did you choose to use, and why? What experiences do you want to impart to your audiences as they watch these films?

I felt the key takeaway we wanted to impart to our many audiences was the idea that young Americans willingly took up arms to defend democracy and made a critical difference in doing so. Their participation and sacrifice saved countless lives because they broke a stalemate that would have cost millions more. 100 years seems like a long time. It’s not. Growing up, my next-door neighbor was a Doughboy. In the past year alone, I’ve interviewed veterans who’ve told me vividly about fighting at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Afghanistan in 2010. As we say in the video series, “Liberty must always be defended, strengthened and cherished.”

WW1 happened 100 years ago. All the veterans of the war are gone. Why is it important to create this WW1 memorial, and to remember those people?

We protect our future by remembering our past. This Memorial will be a vivid, tangible reminder of the people who served and sacrificed on behalf of our nation and the values we hold dear. More Americans fell during six months of combat than in a decade of war in Korea and Viet Nam, combined--a higher casualty rate than World War Two. It’s time.