To make his groundbreaking World War I documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” director Peter Jackson received unprecedented access to the Imperial War Museum’s film archive in London. Jackson’s dream was to make the 100-year-old footage look as modern as possible. The hope was that by restoring the footage and removing from it what made it look and feel dated, he would also remove the filter that prevents a modern viewer from relating to the soldiers up on screen.
To restore the archival footage and transform it into a 24 frames-per-second, color, 3D film, Jackson turned to Stereo D, a company that specialized in converting blockbusters (Marvel and the Star Wars films) from 2D to 3D.
“One of the cornerstones that Peter was instilling in us and our artists was staying as true to the original material as we possibly could,” said Stereo D Producer Mark Simone. “So if it was photographed, our job wasn’t to change it. It was to bring it forward to make it look as it did on the day [it was shot].”
At the heart of Stereo D’s 3D conversion work is rotoscoping, a century-old animation technique in which artists manually trace, draw, or separate (creating mattes) on the actual footage, working frame by frame.
“The most exciting part about the project was figuring out how to make this footage look modern and doing it with tools that we’ve developed for a different line of business,” said Russell McCoy, a stenographer and color compositing supervisor at Stereo D.
Step one was restoring the highly deteriorated material. It was scanned in 4K, removing dust, scratches, tears, chemical splotches, and smoothing the thick grain of the film stock itself. Various types of software were applied to the footage, but often Stereo D’s army of 400 rotoscope artists had to dig into the frames, sometimes even having to fill and create missing elements.
“The were giant holes where there would literally be frames missing, where we would have to rebuild them,” McCoy. “There’d be shots where a piece of tape was clearly taping up the negative for a couple frames on them. We made is through by recreating anything we had to or basically painting.”
The Stereo D team also had to recreate parts of frames in converting the footage from 13 frames to 24 frames per second. While they relied on software to supply a base for the newly created frames, digital paint artist filled in gaps, making motion look more realistic, and replaced soldiers’ body parts that disappeared in motion during the frame conversion process.
“If you’re taking one frame and stretching it across two, you’re going to have smearing and edge issues,” said Simone. “This is where our frame-by-frame painting is cleaning up conversion artifacts.”
The most painstaking work was the colorization process. Every frame had to be painstakingly rotoscoped — isolating, and literally tracing, things as finite as a blade of grass – so that correct color could be applied to each element of the frame. Jackson’s team supplied incredible reference material for the colorization process with everything from actual WWI uniforms worn by the men to photographs of the locations, some as they exist today. The Stereo D development team also created a piece of to help with the shading of colors, so they would appear more realistic.
“Nothing has a single color on it in the entire image,” said McCoy. “The highs, mids, and lows are all keyed differently and the colors are combined differently, so nothing has a pure green or a pure blue. Every shadow goes to a darker more of a gray tone. Every highlight goes to a nice cool blue tone.”
The restored and colorized footage was sent back to Jackson’s Park Road Post in New Zealand so that Jackson, or someone from his team, could sign off and approve an image before it could appear in the film. Along the way, the Stereo D team learned which tools worked best in which situation, along with creating new ones. At the beginning a single shot could take 11 months to fully restore and convert, but by the end of the three-year process the company could turnaround a shot in two months.
While 2D to 3D conversion is Stereo D’s bread and butter, McCoy assumed that converting “They Shall Not Grow Old” would present more challenges than it did. “To be honest, it just fell into place beautifully,” he said. “Tanks looked really nice; people walking across these giant, epic fields. The environment we had to work with was these beautiful, epic landscapes of these battlefields. And they just played so well and so nicely to 3D that I think it really adds another layer of immersion.”
Simone said the key was to mirror what the human eye sees naturally. “I think it adds a visceral layer of immersion,” he said. “Definitely when you watch it in 2D it’s still stunning and looks great, but when we really started looking at these images the 3D adds a whole other naturalistic layer that makes the viewer understand what it was like to be on these battlefields.”
“They Shall Not Grow Old” will be in 1000+ theaters as part of a Fathom Events release on Monday, December 17, with an encore screening on Thursday December 27. In early 2019 Warner Brothers will release the film, starting in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC on January 11, with more markets to follow after that. Click here for Fathom Events tickets.