Podcast Interview with "They Shall Not Grow Old" Supervising Sound Editor Brent Burge
"It was really about authenticity"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Rarely in our lifetime will we see a tribute to the veterans of World War I that is as unique, or as vivid, as the new documentary film, "They Shall Not Grow Old", directed by noted filmmaker Peter Jackson.
The film project, which is a WW1CC commemorative partner, was produced by the UK's special WWI public arts office, 1418NOW, and utilizes original 100-year old combat imagery that has been treated with 21st Century digital technology in restoration, colorization, visual-effects, editing -- and sound. The original footage was silent, so all aspects of sound were addressed in the film's overall sound design, be it combat sound effects, lip-readers to provide accurate dialogue, background audio elements, etc. The results have been extraordinary, and have been heralded as a true milestone in filmmaking by critics.
The film's sound achievements came from the remarkable talents of Brent Burge, the film's Supervising Sound Editor. Brent is a legend in the world of sound editing for film, and his credits are ones we are all familiar with -- THE LORD OF THE RINGS/THE HOBBIT film series, READY PLAYER ONE, THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST, etc.
Our Podcast Producer/Host Theo Mayer was able to talk to Brent about his work on the World War I documentary film, and about this film project's impact.
What follows is a transcript of the podcast interview, hosted by WW1CC's Theo Mayer, which can be listened to here.
Theo Mayer: Peter Jackson, one of the most innovative film directors working today had an idea. Using his craft and his genius, he wanted to create a time machine to transport those young men and boys from what we think of as a choppy, crude, black and white silent world from 100 years ago into the present. Of course, the world really wasn't black and white and silent. It was as three dimensional and vibrant as your world is right now. So Peter Jackson led a team of artists, technologists, creators, and they took the hundred year old clunky, silent film footage and brought it to life. The movie is called They Shall Not Grow Old, and you've never seen anything like it.
CLIP FROM TRAILER
WW I Soldier 1: I was 16 years old, and my father allowed me to go.
WW I Soldier 2: I was just turned 17 at the time.
WW I Soldier 3: I was 16.
WW I Soldier 4: I was 15 years.
WW I Soldier 5:When they came to us, we were frightened children and had to made into soldiers.
WW I Soldier 6:All right boys, here it comes. We're in the pictures.
Speaker 16: I gave every part of my youth to do a job.
Theo Mayer: This remarkable work launches a new category of media I've been calling Historical Reconstruction, or maybe it should be called The Age for Virtual History. Anyway, it's going to be playing on 1000 screens over the holidays, but only on the 17th of December and the 27th. There's an afternoon and an evening show on each of those days, in 2D and 3D. Now I would say that every single listener to this podcast do whatever you have to. Drive for two hours, make a road trip out of it, but go see this 90 minute documentary. You will be blown away. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll never forget when you first saw this. Tickets are available through Fathom Events, the guys that screen stage shows, and special events, and operas, and entertainment into movie theaters. You've seen their previews. To find it, Google Fathom. F-A-T-H-O-M, or use the link in the podcast notes, but book your tickets now. I had a special treat earlier this week when the project's supervising sound editor Brent Burge and I spoke. Now he's in New Zealand and I was in LA. Brent's been working with director Peter Jackson on a lot of his projects, including all The Lord of the Ring movies, and he had some great insight into the director's vision of this special film. Here's our conversation.
Brent Burge: I've had a long history with Peter, going back to his first film in fact, back in 1987, Bad Taste. Peter originally had a discussion with us back in 2015 about the show. He got us to come into the cutting room and have a bit of a chat, because it was a new show he was looking at. It was an interesting discussion he had about the show at that point, actually, because the interesting thing that I remember him talking about as he showed us the material was just how everybody looked really happy when they were going to war. The propaganda machine was fully on, the cameras were out with all the men heading off to face the war, and there was just a stark contrast to the way they returned. It was like they were no longer aware of the camera, they didn't care about the camera at that point. It was much more grim in a way. Was a really interesting contrast that he pointed out at that point, when he was obviously reviewing the footage. But of course we thought we were going to start straight away on the show at that point, but that literally ended up taking another two or three years for him to push his way through it.
Theo Mayer: You were starting with essentially a blank page as a sound editor for the project. You literally had to invent the entire audioscape for the scenes. It was all silent footage, right?
Brent Burge: There was absolutely nothing on the tapes in terms of sound for us at all. We did have this library from the UK of some original material, original tapes and so forth, but in terms of this footage, no. Absolutely nothing.
Theo Mayer: One of the things I think is really interesting is that you had to reconstruct what everybody was saying. How did that work?
Brent Burge: Peter had already identified the idea of how detailed he wanted this to be, and it was really about authenticity and about the whole going back into sounds which would have been sounds from the time, and that included the dialogue. There was a number of things about the dialogue that he really had identified, even at that point, of wanting to know what they were saying, so he really was very serious, even back in 2015 to get lip readers in to check out what was being said. Not only did we have the shots that Peter had selected that had to be fully replaced with sounds, foley, dialogue, crowds, the whole thing. Then one step back from that was pretty much the backgrounds of the whole show. Then also you have a voiceover. Hundreds of hours of the stories that the young boys spoke about were distilled down into this project, which was originally only going run 30 minutes, but obviously Peter had in the back of his mind, “No, okay. Yeah, I'm just going to give you boys this footage, but you're just going to keep working your way in the [inaudible] because I've got so much and think I can actually make feature out of this.” And though we didn't know that for a long time. Peter would then hand over the material again, and the foley would be okay, but then at the same time, Peter was also re-cutting the voiceover. So we had a tracking issue between having to track the picture changes that Peter made, and as well as that we then had to track all the voiceover changes that Peter made, because the interviews were of completely varying quality and also had a noise flaw, which was substantial. A lot of cleanup happened on the actual interviews themselves, which we didn't want to lose every time Peter handed the material back over to us. The picture and the voiceover were quite separate in the way Peter wanted to portray what was being talked about.
Theo Mayer: What's interesting is in a lot of standard dialogue replacement, you have one or two people, but you were dealing with a lot of crowds.
Brent Burge: Martin Kwok was the dialogue super on it, and he was the one who had to actually literally drill into working out the whole plan of action around how do we approach the crowd. You have what is called walla, and you have broad effects crowds, where sure, you can get a sense of a crowd in a particular scene, and each of those different layers from the general effects crowd, which is more a base layer, through to the walla, through to more discernible dialogue, which is where loop groups come in. All of them were absolutely key to get right, because the authenticity would only come alive once you looked at it and were just completely at ease with the sound that was coming off the screen as paired with the scene. The effects crowd took some time to find, because [inaudible] and when he heard about the show, the absolute thing he said to us, “You have got to get the accents right. Just absolutely no way that you can put this on the page for anybody who knows those people on screen, or can recognize where those people are from on screen through their uniforms or however it was, and you're putting some New Zealand look-grouper trying to imitate an accent from some region in the UK.”
Theo Mayer: Well, talk to me a little about the machine sounds, the explosions, the guns, the tanks.
Brent Burge: Peter is an avid collector. He's got a passion for the First World War, which you can hear in the show, so he had some artillery guns himself. We had an opportunity to record all the shells being loaded, he's got empty shells. We had opportunity to record a lot of the foley background, the guns. As well as that, he has some contact from the army as well here, so occasionally they'll just invite Peter to come up to Uluru, and [inaudible] do a particular exercise that we might be interested in recording, which would be things like shooting off artillery shells in the middle of the desert. We have mountains in the middle of New Zealand where the road goes up onto the plateau, and the army is based around these couple of mountains, and they do a lot of exercises there, and we had an opportunity to go record it. That's how you get to really sense the way a gun sounds.
"When we arrived, the army guys say, “Okay, we'll go out and scout the terrain about where we're going to be doing this. The guns will be shooting from here, and they will be shooting over those foothills over there, about nine kilometers away to a blast site on the other side. And just by the way, we're aiming for a rock.” It took us 40 minutes to drive to the blast site where these shells were going to land. So we had about four people recording sound for it. Two people at the blast site, which included a bunker. The army person that was in charge of the operation was managing it from the blast site, so he could give them instructions about how far to adjust their registration of the gun. Then that was relayed to the gun sites where me and Justin Webster again were positioned, and we just laid out a bunch of microphones. They started shooting before we had finished running the microphones mind you, so I think I had something in my pants at that point, because I was literally just down in front of the guns trying to set up some mics and they started, without warning, they just started firing them off. Obviously had instruction to start firing. So it was one of the most adrenaline filled days, but we still managed to get some great sounds. The guns sounded fantastic.
Theo Mayer: I'm incredibly excited by what you all and Peter have done. When you go back and you think about this project in five years, in ten years, what's the one thing you're going to remember the most?
Brent Burge: I think the thing I'm going to remember the most is the absolute vision that Peter had of how he was going to put this project together. It was such a personal project for him. I just think you can see Peter all the way though it. He knew exactly how it was going to work. All about what Peter put on the page for us to respond to, and we responded to it, and I think audiences are responding to it as well, because it is such a personal thing for him I think, and passionate thing for him.
Theo Mayer: I think that the methods that you are developing here are going to be used for all sorts of things, and the only thing I can say is thank you.
Brent Burge: We really do appreciate it down here, it seems like one of a kind, that's for sure. That was the thing back in 2015 that Peter said. He said, “I'm getting you guys to have a look at this, because I'm going to put something together for us. It's going to be colorized, it's going to be 3D, and it's going to be in IMAX because I don't want people to feel they can just watch it on the History Channel. I really want people to get out of their houses and come and see it.” That's an inspirational thing that often comes up, about just taking things out of the ordinary if you like, and just making them extraordinary for the person to watch
Theo Mayer: Brent Burge is the Supervising Sound Editor for the new Peter Jackson film They Shall Not Grow Old. Google Fathom Events or follow the link in the podcast notes to get your ticket for the 17th or the 27th of December. This is a genuine holiday treat.
2 days in December to see this remarkable World War I film!
Fathom Events has partnered with Warner Bros. Pictures to bring Academy Award® winner Peter Jackson’s poignant WWI documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" to select cinemas on December 17and 27 only. The film is presented in 2D and RealD 3D. The acclaimed documentary is an extraordinary look at the soldiers and events of the Great War, using film footage captured at the time, now presented as the world has never seen. By utilizing state-of-the-art restoration, colorization and 3D technologies, and pulling from 600 hours of BBC archival interviews, Jackson puts forth an intensely gripping, immersive and authentic experience through the eyes and voices of the British soldiers who lived it. For tickets, visit FathomEvents.com
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