WWII Nat Geo special created in post
Issue: February 1, 2011

WWII Nat Geo special created in post

Earlier this month, National Geographic Channel premiered The Wereth 11 , a feature about a group of African American soldiers caught behind enemy lines in Belgium during World War II. The rest of their story — like most war stories — is brutal. The story of the efforts to shine a spotlight on their sacrifice is inspiring. And the story behind the making of this film is innovative, ingenious and deceivingly creative. Here is that story...

Director Robert Child had a vision for Wereth 11 . When executive producer, Joseph Small, approached Child with the idea — and the challenge — Child rose to it. Small had seen Child’s work and knew his creative and innovative approach for tackling projects. In this case, the challenge was to capture the intensity of this compelling drama, but with a modest budget and a steep VFX aspect.  Child had done this sort of thing before, and he knew he could turn to Frederic Lumiere of Lumiere Media ( www.FredericLumiere.com) to help him bring his vision to the screen. Frederic describes his encounter with Child:

“I was both amazed and inspired when Robert told me what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. I was familiar with the story, and could visualize the battle scenes, with hundreds of soldiers marching through forests in the dead of a snowy Belgian winter. But that’s where the story got interesting. You see, Robert didn’t shoot hundreds of actors in the forest. He worked with maybe six or seven actors. And most were filmed in front of a bluescreen. The challenge was becoming clear to me.”

So with a modest budget and the goal of stretching the VFX as far as possible without compromising the theatrical experience, Frederic enthusiastically dove in.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, then Robert handed me hundreds of rushes of soldiers running in front of a bluescreen. He had shots of soldiers running away from the camera, running toward the camera, some at 45 degree angles, some ducking in reaction to an imagined explosion; he had pre-thought everything. It became clear to me what he was thinking. It was ingenious; he had visualized the entire sequence in his mind, shot every conceivable action pose or movement individually, and had a plan for piecing it all together to come out with a dramatic, suspenseful and gripping action sequence. And this is where I came in,” says Lumiere.

“Diving into the project, I really didn’t have the entire story, just the vision of the scene. For weeks, I placed individual actors onto my timeline, almost like placing stills in a collage — in fact, many shots were actual stills. Working in Final Cut Pro, I edited each soldier into the scenes, taking into account where CG vehicles — like tanks, cannons and trucks, would be inserted later by the VFX team in Toronto, headed up by Jonathan Gibson, VFX supervisor at C4 Studios.”

“What I was left with was 67 tracks of HD with over 70 layers; after all, each soldier was a layer. And it looked beautiful, it was working. Of course, Jonathan’s VFX team now had to do its magic — adding looks, explosions, planes, tanks, trucks, and even snow on the soldier’s shoulders and the trees since everything was shot in the summer. But it was at this point really where I realized my biggest challenge; a potential deal killer. How was I now supposed to get 67 tracks of HD with these beautifully crafted layers to the VFX crew at C4 in Toronto? So far, I had edited all my work in Final Cut Pro, and they were doing just about all their compositing in After Effects. It’s not like FCP talks to AE, or does it?”

“The answer was simple: Automatic Duck Pro Import AE! All I had to do was export the XML files from Final Cut, email them to Jonathan’s team in Toronto, and they simply imported them into After Effects. The result was astounding; the timeline — every layer — appeared perfectly in the After Effects timeline. In fact, it was so easy and instant, I could even export the layers into my own version of After Effects, make notes for the VFX team, then send them the After Effects files via email. All they had to do was reconnect them to the rushes; it worked perfectly. This workflow not only made this seemingly impossible project quite possible, it made it easier to communicate with the VFX team and just a breeze to work.

“I’m amazed at how accurately Automatic Duck held the layers together, with all the back and forth. There were never any surprises, which is unheard of. I had all of this media on a single 700 MB/s RAID array and I never had to compromise.”

Once the picture was locked, each section was exported to After Effects for color grading and additional last minute VFX.

“This film couldn’t have been done without tools like Automatic Duck. These tools are so important for people like me; we have to make the most of tight situations, and in this case, there was so much at stake. We all truly believed in the story, and Robert’s vision, and we wanted to make this work.”

Caught By The SS: The Wereth 11 made its debut on National Geographic on February 16, and airs again on February 23.