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Controversial History Channel “WWII in HD” debate - THE TRUTH

Archival methods, database management and editorial direction

By Steve Hullfish | November 18, 2009


?The History Channel's WW2 in HD series has created a firestorm of debate over archival methods.

If you read the AMIA listserve, the Cinematographer's Mailing List, or the Telecine Internet Group or TKColorist Internet Group listserve, chances are you saw the huge debate over how the huge amount of rare color footage from World War II was transferred. Many people thought that historical records were being destroyed by careless film transfers. Several web stories - that were actually created by publicists - supported this controversy, but turned out to be mis-information.

The true story of the making of the series turns out to be far more interesting than the fiction, as so often is the case. I interviewed the series' director, Frederic Lumiere on the phone in the midst of the controversy and discovered a man passionate about his project and for the care and cataloging of the materials he oversaw. Any misquotes can be attributed to my transcription. I recorded the entire interview and did the transcription word for word, but phonetic transcription is contextual and between Mr. Lumiere's mild French accent and the quality of the phone line audio, I may have made minor mistakes. My intent was to be honest and portray the events correctly.

This interview covers three interesting aspects of this massive project: the film transfers of the archival color footage - including the novel use of Lumiere's RED camera - the creation and use of a database to keep track of 3,000 hours of archival footage, and the editing concept that delivered emotional impact on top of historical factuality.

Because this is kind of "breaking news" item, what follows is a transcription of our interview with no additional information or clean up.

PVC: Tell me about the process of getting all of this rare 35mm and 16mm film footage to a broadcastable form.

image Frederic Lumiere: Well the first thing we did was we really spent about a year to find every piece of color footage from the 1940s that we could. The sources came from the National Archives, the Marines, the Navy, from other countries, from World War Two museums, you name it. If the source had World War Two footage, we got access to it. And that took betweek 10 to 12 months to do that and the way we processed the film all depended on the source. For example, the National Archives - only certain companies are allowed to work with the film and so we enlisted one of these companies to process the things wanted. And what they used was a C-Reality Hi-res scanner, (CORRECTION - HENNINGER used a Spirit) which scans the film frame by frame. And it was delivered to us just uncompressed high definition video as Quicktime on hard drives. In Europe, we used another company that is approved by a lot of the archives that are there and they would use Cinetel scanner, I believe which does similar things as the C-Reality. So between these two sources, I would say we got 1200 hours, 1100 hours of footage. Through the National Archives, one of the ways we did it is we had a guy who virtually lived there, who basically shot the film off the projection at the National Archives and we used these as sceeners so to speak to evaluate what we wanted and what we didn't want. It was just a really cheap (Sony HVR) Z1U or something like that. And that was just to document "This is what's available." Keep in mind that with 2500 to 3000 hours for an editing team of 21 to 22 editors when it all comes down to it plus researchers, plus producers and writers and so forth on a SAN, that required 22 to 24 terabytes, I can't even remember.


So the whole series is actually edited in DV and a lot of that screener footage actually didn't look that good. There was only so much time to document the footage that the gentleman who was at the National Archives would shoot the footage as it was being projected by a National Archives employee and sometimes you'd see his face in a reflection and it was shot from an angle. But that footage was just to see what was in color and what we had. And then, once we made a cut we would go out to the National Archives and place and order and the reels would then be sent to a company approved by NARA - the National Archives - and they would send us hard drives. Now with the Marines and the Navy, we'd also get a lot of that stuff because of Lou (Scott) Reda's connections, directly from them and a lot of them were prints and so forth and for those we used the RED to capture the footage in a telecine configuration from an older telecine machine, but a really good one. (CLARIFICATION: It seems Mr. Lumiere means that they used a film chain or multiplexer for a film chain, probably by RCA, which used to use an Ikegami camera. This is somewhat different from a modern telecine.)

PVC: Who exactly was this company that you used to transfer the film that the National Archives approved?

FL: I think they're called Prelinger? (CORRECTION: This is a mis-transcription. The work was done at Henninger. They also used Bono Labs in Washington, D.C. and Ascent Media who used a C-Reality.)

image PVC: How was this footage saved to disk? With what codec?

FL: We started out doing it uncompressed Quicktime, but quickly realized that we needed to switch to ProRes HD 4:2:2.

PVC: Can you describe the RED used in telecine configuration a little better?

FL: We had a telecine machine that has been used for many, many years and the RED camera is mounted in place of the original camera. I think we had an Ikegami there before. In a virtual, dark environment the RED shoots the film. Now, all of that film, first looks fantastic, because the RED captures every little detail of the film, probably not as good as a scanner, but this way we were able to capture every little piece of film from the Marines and the Navy. And one of the things that I said in a previous interview, I said some of the film fell apart when it was projected only once. That was in reference to some 8mm home movies that were from families who had kept the film in boxes. First of all most of that film was not even used (in the final production). It was a wedding or it was...really it was not that big of a deal. The film is still there, we just kind of have to patch it back together, but I think it happened on only one reel to be honest with you and the whole controversy started from this statement about a minute of film when we dealt with virtually 3,000 hours of footage.

image PVC: And how did you transfer the 8mm stuff?

FL: Through an 8mm projector right onto the wall. And it looked great. A lot of it was in Episode One when we do Pearl Harbor and you see all the home movies. That's from that.

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Jeff Kreines: | November, 18, 2009

None of this changes my opinion.  The dreadful quality of all the home-made transfers is appalling—full of really odd motion artifacts, ghost images, judder, poor dynamic range, weird color biases (not from the original film), lack of focus (grain out of focus, so it’s a transfer fault), blown-out highlights (due to poor transfers or grading), etc.

Cropping the 4:3 material to 16:9 just to fit HD TV screens is a crime.  What gives them the right?  Shouldn’t there be a statement at the head of the program explaining that the precious archival images in this show have been lopped off to fit your new HDTV set? 

Lumiere states:

“In Europe, we used another company that is approved by a lot of the archives that are there and they would use Cinetel scanner, I believe which does similar things as the C-Reality”

I suspect he means Cintel—they manufacture the C-Reality and other machines.


“VC: Who exactly was this company that you used to transfer the film that the National Archives approved?

FL: I think they’re called Prelinger? (and some other company that was inaudible in the interview “Otto?)”

(Rick) Prelinger is an archivist/collector who specializes in ephemeral films.  He doesn’t run a telecine facility.  There is Henninger in the DC area, who are authorized for National Archives transfers, but their web site indicates they have a Spirit, not a C-Reality.  Both are HD telecines, but they are quite different.

It strains credulity that someone so deeply involved in this production wouldn’t know the names of the two facilities that were used (unless the facilities didn’t want their names associated with this project).   

He seems equally clueless about the home-brew telecine (I suspect he means a multiplexer from an old film chain, which is quite different from a telecine). 

I only mention this because all of it—to an outside observer—makes his claims less than fully credible, due to a lack of knowledge.  On this sort of forum, one expects people to understand technical and aesthetic matters.

He also adds:

” A documentary editor is trained to tell a story visually, the best he can with b-roll. That is really the first approach.”

That’s the approach of one kind of editor.  There are those of us who make non-fiction films who never use the word “B-roll” unless we are discussing negative cutting, and think cutaways are the work of a lazy editor.  But that’s an aesthetic argument, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

But the criminal treatment of archival film—even if the film wasn’t harmed—is wrong.  What this does is lead people to believe that even “experts” with a “revolutionary new camera” can’t capture images from 8mm or 16mm home movies without making them unwatchable.  That will lead to others either accepting this sort of quality as being the best that can be had from small-format film, or ignoring it in the future out of the belief that it will always look awful.

That would be a loss, to history and to art.

Jeff Kreines
Coosada, Alabama

Steve Hullfish: | November, 18, 2009

The Prelinger/Henniger mistake and the Cintel/Cinetel confusion may be mine. I did the interview and in some instances had to guess on some spellings and meanings of words. (All word meaning is contextual.) I knew there was a Prelinger archive of historical footage. I thought maybe they also did film transfers, since they would probably know how to take care of archival film materials. I have friends who have worked at Henniger. He may have said either name. You can’t blame those mistakes on him. I take full responsibility.

I agree about the multiplexer comment. In my post to the CML and the TIG I specifically mentioned that while he said it was a telecine, it was actually a “film chain.” I’d only worked with one many years ago and I thought the whole unit was called the “film chain.” Thanks for the correction in terminology.

As for the cropping of the images, many would agree. This is an argument that directors of photography used to make (and still do) about seeing their essentially 16:9 images cropped to 4:3 back in the pre-widescreen days. I agree with you, though in the case of some of this footage, the shooter may not have been composing his images quite so carefully, since he was being shot at, so as long as you don’t crop away important information, or as long as your crop doesn’t ruin a careful composition, I disagree that it’s really such an abomination of the footage. I didn’t see the original footage for every shot, so I can’t comment other than to basically agree that if they wanted to create an historical document, then cropping the image just to make it look more “HD” is a bad choice. But following the idea that this is supposed to be an “experience” then the cropping can help keep you in that experience. The cropping argument from feature film DoPs is largely about the sanctity of the “theatrical experience.” But for Lumiere, the “experience” was one of experiencing the history, not the experience of the person who captured it. The original debate about Lumiere and his colleagues was that he had ruined all kinds of rare historical documents, for the majority of this work, it was done by other people. And the point is made that most of this footage is still there to be transferred by competent archivists if they so desire.

Thank you for your expertise in the matter and for your passionate response to the piece. I appreciate and value your opinion.

Jeff Kreines: | November, 19, 2009

Steve adds:

”  (CORRECTION - HENNINGER used a Spirit) which scans the film frame by frame.”

Actually, no.  The Spirit uses line-array sensors and scans film line-by-line, using a sprocket attached to a precision encoder to determine when each line is captured.  This works well for new film with no splices.  But spliced, repaired, shrunken, or otherwise damaged film will travel unevenly over the sprocket, which means that the lines are scanned in an irregular relationship to the film—frame geometry can vary frame to frame, leading to what is known as the “waterfall effect” as the image fluctuates in height and looks as if it’s being viewed through water.

C-Realitys and other Cintel machines also scan film line by line, but they us a clever but somewhat bizarre system where the film is illuminated by a precision, expensive CRT (picture tube) and that light passes through the film and is captured by three photomultiplier tubes or their solid-state successors.  These suffer from the same problems with shrunken and damaged film.

However, neither of these machines can do the same damage as a TP-66 or other projector in normal use.

hopefades: | November, 19, 2009

i don’t think that this looks HD at all. When it comes to historical videos and documentaries I believe they should be left in their original appearance. It helps to make it more historical looking.

aaronlewis144: | November, 20, 2009

the blog is good i like it very much
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ENIGMACODE: | November, 20, 2009

Hello my name is Mike Fraticelli

I’d like to add a few comments to this discussion.
I’ve been working on a WWII Documentary for over 4 years now. I’m very familiar with the research and duplication process having done extensive research at both NARA and The Army War College. I won’t delve into the complex technical transfer process. But I can offer some educated feedback in regard to archival footage specifically concerning North Africa.

Unless I’m missing something, I did notice a few pieces of ‘Colorized’ footage. In fact I can probably identify the NARA reference number to the original footage which was definitely shot in Blk./Wht. I also remember seeing this same ‘Colorized’ footage on U Tube.

Why does this matter?

Unless I’ve misunderstood something, the Reda production ‘appeared’ to have made claims that their rare footage was originally in color, and of course transferred/converted in their unique process. I realize you don’t have to be an expert to recognize ‘Colorized’ footage. If I’ve missed something about the details of their claims, then perhaps someone can comment here.

The other thing, yes I agree that it would appear the preservation and duplicating process available to archivists and researchers at NARA seems to be unchanged. It would ‘appear’ no damage has been done to their footage, at least in regard to some claims here. NARA is a wonderful place to visit.

One last comment; And again, unless I’ve missed something, The Reda production people have launched a campaign to collect private film stock from anyone who would like to offer it. The only downside is that the material will be privately owned, and may not be in the public domain. But I suppose not everyone knows NARA will accept historical material, (I think). Whereas more people watch the History Channel. So I guess having it preserved by ‘someone’, ‘anyone’ is a good thing.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment

Paul_Lewis: | November, 21, 2009

Wow, I used to work at Lou Reda Productions as Post Production Supervisor, April 1994 to March 2000.
I had modified the old RCA film chain to what you listed above. It was a 16mm RCA TP-66, 35mm Simplex XL, and a RCA slide projector, I took out the slide projector, and mounted a Ikegami HL-79E in its place, aimed at the optical splitter. I had tried to keep the old RCA Telecine camera going, including re-tubing it, but it was soooo old, it was very un-reliable. The Simplex 35mm sounded like a diesel engine because of the 3:2 pull down mechanism. Oh and we had a RCN 2” Quad deck and a Ampex VPR-3 with Zeus TBC, what a collection!

Paul_Lewis: | November, 21, 2009

opps, I mean RCA Quad deck, my bad, I work for RCN-TV now.

chicagowebdesign: | December, 28, 2010

A little off topic, but for those of us who love WWI & WWII Video footage, the BBC had an amazing peiece of some lost footage from WWI. I cant find the link on the BBC anymore, but live leak has it, as Im sure other sites do as well.

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