View Full Version : History series rejects old reenactments

04-08-2006, 07:47 PM

History series rejects old reenactments

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff | April 8, 2006
When the History Channel called last year, requesting a film about Antietam for the series ''10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America," director Michael Epstein was intrigued. Not because he was a Civil War buff, but because he hates reenactments.''The narrative is going on, and then all of a sudden you get this re-creation that's clearly modern, that's in film, that's completely anachronistic in time, and you're just aware of the production," Epstein said. ''They seem mostly cheesy, or at least very stylized."
Hence, the problem: how to dramatize Civil War battle scenes -- for the History Channel, no less -- without relying on what Epstein calls ''dead weight" footage. His solution? Set up cameras on the field, shoot a series of sepia-toned stills, and overlay them to create the illusion of motion. ''You stay," Epstein said, ''in 1862."
History Channel executives were satisfied, too. This was the point of choosing directors who were largely new to historical work, said Susan Werbe, executive producer of the series, which premieres with ''Antietam" tomorrow night at 9 and will run for five consecutive days, with two episodes each night. The idea, Werbe said, was to shake up the genre, to seek fresh blood -- and to establish in industry circles that the History Channel has ambition.
''We're one of the few top-10 niche nonfiction networks. We do hundreds of hours of original documentaries a year," Werbe said. ''So it was saying, 'Yeah, hi, we're here. Come to us, too."
The gambit worked; the series drew well-known documentarians who had never worked for the History Channel, some of whom were eager to try unusual approaches. Tapped to do a film about the 1787 Shays' Rebellion, R.J. Cutler, executive producer of FX series ''Black. White." and ''30 Days," decided not to use actors at all.
''It's just all too literal to put people in costumes and have them march around with muskets," Cutler said last week. Instead, he turned to Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton, who created shaky, stylized renderings of Samuel Adams, Daniel Shays, and the debt-ridden farmers of Western Massachusetts.
''I wanted to open up the viewer's imagination," said Cutler, whose film airs Thursday night at 10. ''I wanted this to be a transporting experience."
Cutler was drawn to the project through Joe Berlinger, a longtime independent film colleague who had codirected the 2004 verite film ''Metallica: Some Kind of Monster." Werbe recruited Berlinger to help oversee the series and direct one installment -- even though, he acknowledged this week, ''I am, on paper, the last person on earth you would hire to curate an historical series."
Berlinger was skittish about reenactments, as well; too often, he says, they're like ''an illustrated lecture." He sold colleagues on the notion that the History Channel sympathized.
''I think the channel really wanted to up the ante and really make a statement and have it be about storytelling as much as journalism," he said.
The films, each one hour long, don't entirely break the History Channel mold; most are framed by thoughtful voice-overs and feature authoritative talking heads. Filmmakers occasionally chafed at the balance between story and exposition, Berlinger said.
But producers also encouraged directors to film their reenactments using whatever style they wanted. For her take on the Homestead Strike of 1892, airing Wednesday night at 10, Rory Kennedy filmed her actors in grainy Super 8. For his film, ''Murder at the Fair," airing Monday night at 10, Berlinger lifted a technique from a Nike ad, freezing the action during the crucial shooting scene.
The subjects range from the familiar to the relatively obscure, from the Pequot War of 1637 to the murder of civil rights workers in 1964. Werbe said History Channel executives decided that they didn't want to focus on days that were too recent -- Sept. 11, 2001, for instance -- or on moments that seemed too obvious.
In October 2004, the network held a brainstorming weekend with a dozen historians from across the country, came up with a list of distinct periods in American history, and decided to choose a day from each, Werbe said. Producers presented filmmakers with a list of 30 days and asked them to order their choices.
Doling out the days was the hardest part of the process, Berlinger said: More than one director was clamoring to do Elvis Presley's appearance on ''The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956. (That prize went to Bruce Sinofsky, who had codirected the Metallica film with Berlinger.)
Berlinger said he chose the assassination of President McKinley because no one else wanted it.
''That made it an all the more interesting journey," Berlinger said. ''I didn't know much about the subject, and I didn't think it could possibly be as interesting as it turned out to be."
In fact, McKinley's 1901 murder is a true crime tale with historical significance: the story of a social misfit who wanted to make a mark and who ended up launching the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.
''I think it best exemplifies the series in many ways," Berlinger said. ''The unexpected events that lead to monumental and unknown change."
Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

04-08-2006, 07:51 PM
Well, I sorta see his point, the reenactments are more fun for the participants maybe????? Otherwise I have no idea what the he$$ he is talking about

04-08-2006, 08:07 PM

I thought it was just me.


Who thinks "Bachelor Party" was one of the great cinematic comedies of all time.

04-10-2006, 06:18 AM
Nice use of good looking reenactors as still shots, aged, "animated", and stereoscoped. Pretty much the same information and History Channel format of writers and scholars commenting on the topic. Not bad for anyone who isn't familiar with the battle and the issues,

04-10-2006, 12:09 PM
I was also glad to see the name of RJ Szabo in the credits. Would like to know how much he had to do with the production of the stills. It's always glad to see some folks involved who are VERY good at what they do!

Mr Szabo - I dont know how much you had to do with the production of the stills - but I enjoyed the documentary and the photography! YOU DID GREAT!

Your Obedient Servant,

06-20-2006, 10:25 PM
Sorry to take so long with this reply. Guess I wasnt paying attention :)

I took about 30 wetplate stills for them. I think they used about 10 of them. They were used like the originals where they were made to look 3D. I had a good time working on this, I like the fresh approach they used. Thanks for the compliments!

What Michael was trying to say about reenactment video (I think, my opinion) is that it looks so modern. Its color, its clear its very sharp, it snaps you right back into the 21sth century. He wanted a way to have the film keep you in a period (19th century) state of mind so he didnt use any modern video of reenactments for this.

06-21-2006, 12:12 PM
What Michael was trying to say about reenactment video (I think, my opinion) is that it looks so modern. Its color, its clear its very sharp, it snaps you right back into the 21sth century. He wanted a way to have the film keep you in a period (19th century) state of mind so he didnt use any modern video of reenactments for this.

That's how I understood it as well. Not having cable I didn't see it. However, I have seen a film at a historical site that used a very similar technique. I know it was here in Texas; perhaps at San Jacinto. It was unusual and I liked it. A nice cross between moving pictures and studio stills.