Lip readers give voice to WWI soldiers in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’

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CLINTON—Imagine taking a 100-year-old piece of silent film and turning it into a modern looking color movie with actual dialogue of what the people on the screen were saying at the time and the sound effects that are heard in everyday life.

That’s exactly what New Zealand film director and producer Sir Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit”) did with his first-ever documentary effort titled “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a film that tells the story of New Zealand and British soldiers who fought during WWI, and it’s playing at the Town of Kirkland Library this Monday in the Monday Afternoon Movie Series.

Colorizing a movie is not a new process; we’ve seen it before ever since Ted Turner thought it was a good idea to colorize classic noir movies like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Casablanca” ...wrong.

But in this project it works, because as Jackson said in an interview upon the film’s 2018 release, “these blokes did not live in a black and white, silent world, and this film is not about the war; it’s about the soldier’s experience fighting the war. I wanted the audience to see, as close as possible, what the soldiers saw, and how they saw it, and heard it.”

But what is new is how they actually found a way to get the soldiers to speak from beyond the grave. The secret was forensic lip readers.

The same type of lip readers who might work with law enforcement to figure out what a criminal, caught on silent surveillance tape, is saying during the execution of a crime.

The lip readers were so precise they were even able to determine the dialect and accent of the people speaking. Once the dialogue was understood actors were used to record the words, and presto, a silent movie is now a talkie. Sound effects were also recorded and added to the video to achieve ambient sound, in addition to the film’s score.

The next challenge was the film speed. The film in the camera that took the moving pictures in 1918 only shot anywhere from 13 to 15 frames per second.

But according to Jackson, the film was fed into a special computer, and through the magic of technology the computer actually generated new frames from the existing frames and brought the film speed up to 24 frames per second. This gives the film the fluid mobility we’ve all come to expect from modern-day films.

Jackson actually said in an interview, “Don’t ask me how the computer does that. I have absolutely no idea.”

As previously explained, Jackson said this is not a movie about the war, but rather about the men who fought the war: the relationships they had, the fact that a lot of them were only boys fighting in a man’s war.

They gave their lives, and those who were able to survive gave their youth, because after that they could not have been able to be kids again.

In fact, Jackson said one of the disgraces of WWI was the acceptance of boys as young as 14 years old fighting alongside the adults. The official age for British soldiers was 19 years old, but the officials just turned a blind eye to the adolescents who signed up.

The film is dedicated to Jackson’s grandfather who fought in the war. The reviews are terrific, as is the film. A must see for anyone who enjoys a glimpse back into the days of yesteryear.

I give this film a five bags of popcorn rating on my popcorn bag rating scale. Showtime is 2 p.m. on Monday, June 24. Snacks will be served.

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