Documentary: <I>The Vietnam War</I>
Issue: January 1, 2018

Documentary: The Vietnam War

NEW YORK CITY — Spanning 18 hours over 10 parts, The Vietnam War is arguably the most ambitious documentary directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have undertaken. Burns, Novick, producer Sarah Botstein and their team at Florentine Films spent more than 10 years compiling interviews with participants from all sides, along with masses of television news footage, archival photography, news clippings, maps and other material, and editing it into a taut narrative that captures the bitter conflict’s complexities, contradictions, emotions and legacy.
Final post production for the series was completed at Technicolor PostWorks New York (, and was similarly demanding. The post team, led by colorist Jack Lewars and lead conform editor Jeff Cornell, began receiving material from the film’s editors early in 2016 and delivered the final masters more than 20 months later, shortly before the series’ debut on PBS. The time in between was spent organizing, preparing and conforming source files, grading black & white and color media, restoring damaged archival elements, applying hundreds of titles and graphics, and producing a long list of deliverables.

Technicolor PostWorks has worked with Ken Burns before. The facility provided conforming and color grading services for the 2016 documentary Jackie Robinson. Also last year, it remastered The Civil War for its 25th anniversary re-release. It is currently remastering two early Burns docs, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God and Brooklyn Bridge. While all have been complicated projects, The Vietnam War posed unique challenges. Often called the first war that was fought on television, the conflict was chronicled in every form of media available at the time, including 35mm, 16mm and Super 8mm film, as well as early videotape formats. The documentary employs all those sources and blends them with contemporary interviews, photographs, animated maps and other elements. 
Managing all that material and assembling it into a seamless timeline was an enormous task. “We had to be very organized in handling elements as they arrived, especially as we were working on multiple episodes simultaneously,” recalls Jeff Cornell. “It was one of the biggest mixed format projects we’ve ever taken on. There were interviews that were shot on film, shot on DV and shot digitally. The producers were working on the project for such a long time, it spanned all three ways of shooting. And then there was the true archival media as well as still moves, animated maps and other things.” 

In addition, the conform team produced hundreds of titles and graphics, ranging from chapter titles to lower-third subtitles for Vietnamese speakers. Color grading sessions also spanned many months. Jack Lewars notes that his focus was to establish broad consistency and apply a neutral palette throughout. “We weren’t using color to push emotions; the story does that on its own,” he explains. “We kept it as clean as possible. We didn’t want people to notice the color when they should be focused on the story.”

With news footage and other archival media, the aim was to remain faithful to the original and present material true to the way people experienced it at the time. It wasn’t always easy. “Film elements were scanned at 2K and the picture would often come in super flat or have a green or yellow tint,” recalls Lewars. “A lot of jungle scenes were very lush and green, and we spent a lot of time bringing that out to make you feel like you were in the battleground. We also developed color corrections for certain recurring elements like mud.”

Some battlefield scenes were toned down. “The blood that was visible in some shots was very saturated,” Lewars says. “It was a little gory, so a lot of times we pulled the color back. We didn’t want it to be impossible for the viewer to watch.”

Some of the archival material derived from poor quality sources and needed special attention. Technicolor PostWorks’ restoration team spent many hours addressing dust, scratches, film weave, stains and other issues. “We did a lot of clean up but we stopped short of making it pristine. It needed to look like archival news footage and not modern digital cinematography,” Cornell explains. 

Burns, Novick and Botstein maintained close supervision throughout the post process. The team at Technicolor PostWorks also developed a close rapport with both the Florentine Films production staff in New York City and the editorial department based in Walpole, NH. “We set up a seamless workflow to send footage back and forth so Ken and his team could approve it, whether they were there or here,” Cornell says. “Both sides were super organized and that allowed us to be very efficient and not let anything fall through the cracks.”