Five Came Back

We know them today as the iconic Hollywood directors who brought us such classic films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, The African Queen, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – just to name a few. John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens also served their country on the ground in World War II, bringing its horrors and truth to the American people through film. In Netflix’s new three-part documentary series, based on Mark Harris’ best-selling book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, contemporary filmmakers explore the extraordinary story of how Hollywood changed World War II – and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the interwoven experiences of these five legendary filmmakers.

This documentary series features interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan, who add their own perspectives on these efforts. “Film was an intoxicant from the early days of the silent movies,” says Spielberg in the opening moments of Five Came Back. “And early on, Hollywood realized that it had a tremendous tool or weapon for change, through cinema.” Adds Coppola, “Cinema in its purest form could be put in the service of propaganda. Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels understood the power of the cinema to move large populations toward your way of thinking.”

Five Came Back is directed by Laurent Bouzereau, written by Mark Harris and narrated by Meryl Streep. Bouzereau and his team gathered over 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage; watched over 40 documentaries and training films directed and produced by the five directors during the war; and studied 50 studio films and over 30 hours of outtakes and raw footage from their war films to bring this story to Netflix audiences. Says director Laurent Bouzereau, “These filmmakers, at that time, had a responsibility in that what they were putting into the world would be taken as truth. You can see a lot of echoes in what is happening today. It became clear as we were doing this series that the past was re-emerging in some ways, including the line we see that separates cinema that exists for entertainment and cinema that carries a message. And politics is more than ever a part of entertainment. I find it courageous of filmmakers then, as with artists today, to speak up for those who don’t have a platform.”

An editor’s medium

As every filmmaker knows, documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. Key to telling this story was Will Znidaric, the series editor. Znidaric spent the first sixteen years of his career as a commercial editor in New York City before heading to Los Angeles, in a move to become more involved in narrative projects and hone his craft. This move led to a chance to cut the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Production and post for that film was handled by LA’s Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment, a division of the Rock Paper Scissors post facility. RPS is co-owned by Oscar-winning editor, Angus Wall (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Wall, along with Jason Sterman and Linda Carlson, was an executive producer on Winter of Fire for RPS. The connection was a positive experience, so when RPS got involved with Five Came Back, Wall tapped Znidaric as its editor. Much of the same post team worked on both of these documentaries.

I recently interviewed Will Znidaric about his experience editing Five Came Back. “I enjoyed working with Angus,” he explains. “We edited and finished at Rock Paper Scissors over a fifteen month period. They are structured to encourage creativity, which was great for me as a documentary editor. Narratively, this story has five main characters who are on five individual journeys. The canvas is civilization’s greatest conflict. You have to be clear about the war in order to explain their context. You have to be able to find the connections to weave a tapestry between all of these elements. This came together thanks to the flow and trust that was there with Laurent [Bouzereau, director]. The unsung hero is Adele Sparks, our archival producer, who had to find the footage and clear the rights. We were able to generally get rights to acquire the great majority of the footage on our wish list.”

Editing is paleontology

Znidaric continues, “In a documentary like this, editing is a lot like paleontology – you have to find the old bones and reconstruct something that’s alive. There was a lot of searching through newsreels of the day, which was interesting thematically. We all look at the past through the lens of history, but how was the average American processing the events of that world during that time? Of course, those events were unfolding in real time for them. It really makes you think about today’s films and how world events have an impact on them. We had about 100 hours of archival footage, plus studio films and interviews. For eight to nine months we had our storyboard wall with note cards for each of the films. As more footage came in, you could chart the growth through the cards.”

Five Came Back was constructed using three organizing principles: 1) the directors’ films before the war, 2) their documentaries during the war, and 3) their films after the war. According to Znidaric, “We wanted to see how the war affected their work after the war. The book was our guide for causality and order, so I was able to build the structure of the documentary before the contemporary directors were interviewed. I was able to do so with the initial interview with the author, Mark Harris. This way we were able to script an outline to follow. Interview footage of our actual subjects from a few decades ago were also key elements used to tell the story. In recording the modern directors, we wanted to give them space – they are masters – we just needed to make sure we got certain story beats. Their point of view is unique in the sense that they are providing their perspective on their heroes. At the beginning, we have one modern director talking about one of our subject directors. Then that opens up over the three hours, as each talks a little bit about all of these filmmakers.”

From Moviola to Premiere Pro

This was the first film that Znidaric had edited using Adobe Premiere Pro. He says, “During film school, I got to cut 16mm on the Moviola, but throughout my time in New York, I worked on [Avid] Media Composer and then later [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. When Final Cut Pro X came out, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, so it was time to shift over to Premiere Pro. I’m completely sold on it. It was a dream to work with on this project. At Rock Paper Scissors, my associate editor James Long and I were set up in two suites. We had duplicate drives of media – not a SAN, which was just given to how the suites were wired. It worked out well for us, but forced us to be extremely diligent with how our media was organized and maintaining that throughout.” The suites were configured with 6-core 2013 Mac Pros, AJA IoXT boxes and Mackie Big Knob mixers for playback.

“All of the media was first transcoded to ProRes, which I believe is one of the reasons that the systems were rock solid during that whole time. There’s an exemplary engineering department at RPS, and they have a direct line to Adobe, so if there were any issues, they became the go-betweens. That way I could stay focused on the creative and not get bogged down with technical issues. Plus, James [Long] would generally handle issues of a technical nature. All told, it was very minimal. The project ran quite smoothly.” To stay on the safe side, the team did not update their versions of Premiere Pro during this time frame, opting to stick with Premiere Pro CC2015 for the duration. Because of the percentage of archival footage, Five Came Back was finished as HD and not in 4K, as are a number of other Netflix shows.

To handle Premiere Pro projects over the course of fifteen months, Znidaric and Long would transfer copies of the project files on a daily basis between the rooms. Znidaric continues, “There were sequences for individual ‘mini-stories’ inside the film. I would build these and then combine the stories. As the post progressed, we would delete some of the older sequences from the project files in order to keep them lean. Essentially we had a separate Premiere Pro project file for each day, therefore, at any time we could go back to an earlier project file to access an older sequence, if needed. We didn’t do much with the other Creative Cloud tools, since we had Elastic handling the graphics work. I would slug in raw stills or placeholder cards for maps and title cards. That way, again, I could stay focused on weaving the complex narrative tapestry.”

Elastic developed the main title and a stylistic look for the series while a52 handled color correction and finishing. Elastic and a52 are part of the Rock Paper Scissors group. Znidaric explains, “We had a lot of discussions about how to handle photos, stills, flyers, maps, dates and documents. The reality of filming under the stress of wartime and combat creates artifacts like scratches, film burn-outs and so on. These became part of our visual language. The objective was to create new graphics that would be true to the look and style of the archival footage.” The audio mix when out-of-house to Monkeyland, a Los Angeles audio post and mixing shop.

Five Came Back appealed to the film student side of the editor. Znidaric wrapped up our conversation with these thoughts. “The thrill is that you are learning as you go through the details. It’s mind-blowing and the series could easily have been ten hours long. We are trying to replicate a sense of discovery without the hindsight of today’s perspective. This was fun because it was like a graduate level film school. Most folks have seen some of the better known films, but many of these films aren’t as recognized these days. Going through them is a form of ‘cinematic forensics’. You find connections tied to the wartime experience that might not otherwise be as obvious. This is great for a film geek like me. Hopefully many viewers will rediscover some of these films by seeing this documentary series.”

The first episode of Five Came Back aired on Netflix on March 31. In conjunction with the launch of Five Came Back, Netflix will also present thirteen documentaries discussed in the series, including Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Huston’s Report from the Aleutians, Capra’s The Battle of Russia, Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps, and Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

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