A regrettable aspect of history and the march of time is that many interesting stories are buried or forgotten. We learn the bullet points of the past, but not the nuances that bring history alive. It’s a challenge that many documentarians seek to meet. While the WWII era is ripe with heroic tales, one unit was almost forgotten.
Women Airforce Service Pilots (aka WASP)
As WWII ramped up, qualified male pilots were sent to European and Pacific combat, leaving a shortage of stateside pilots. The WASP unit was created as a civilian auxiliary attached to the U. S. Army Air Forces, It was organized and managed by Jackie Cochran, an accomplished female aviator and entrepreneur. More than 25,000 women applied for the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted into the program.
The WASP members engaged in military-style training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. They wore uniforms, and were given flight assignments by the military, yet they weren’t actually in the military. Their role was to handle all non-combat, military flight tasks within the states, including ferrying aircraft cross-country from factories to deployment bases, serve as test pilots, and handle training tasks like towing targets and mock strafing runs over combat trainees. During her service, the typical WASP would fly more types of aircraft than most male, military pilots. Sadly, 38 WASP died during training or active duty assignments.
Although WASP members joined with the promise of their unit becoming integrated into the regular military, that never happened. As the war wound down and male pilots returned home needing jobs, the WASP units were disbanded, due in part to Congressional and media resistance. Records were sealed and classified and the WASP were almost forgotten by history. Finally in the late 1970s President Carter signed legislation that recognized WASP members as veterans and authorized veterans benefits. In 2009 President Obama and the Congress awarded WASP members with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Documentary filmmaker Jon Anderson set out over a decade ago to tell a complete story of the WASP in a feature-length film. Anderson, a history buff, had already produced and directed one documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen. So the WASP story was the next logical subject. The task was to interview as many living WASP to tell their story as possible. The goal was not just the historical facts, but also what it was like to be a WASP, along with some of the backstory details about Cochran and the unit’s formation. The result was W.A.S.P. – A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower.
Anderson accumulated a wealth of interviews, but with limited resources. This meant that interviews were recorded mostly on DV cameras in standard definition. However, as an instructor of documentary filmmaking at Valencia College, Anderson also utilized some of the film program’s resources in the production. This included a number of re-enactments – filmed with student crews, talent, and RED cameras. The initial capture and organization of footage was handled by a previous student of his using Final Cut Pro 7.
Jon asked me to join the project as co-editor after the bulk of interviews and re-enactments had been compiled. Several dilemmas faced me at the front end. The project was started in FCP7, which was now a zombie application. Should I move the project to Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, or Media Composer? After a bit of experimentation, the best translation of the work that had already been done was into Premiere Pro. Since we had a mix of SD and HD/4K content, what would be the best path forward – upconvert to HD or stay in standard def? HD seemed to be the best option for distribution possibilities, but that posed additional challenges.
Only portions of tapes were originally captured – not complete tapes. These were also captured with separated audio and video going to different capture folders (a feature of FCP “classic”). Timecode accuracy was questionable, so it would be nearly impossible to conform the current organized clips from the tapes at a higher resolution. But since it was captured as DV from DV tapes, there was no extra quality loss due to interim transcoding into a lower resolution file format.
Ultimately I opted to stick with what was on the drives as my starting point. Jon and I organized sequences and I was able to borrow a Blackmagic Teranex unit. I exported the various sequences between two computers through the Teranex, which handled the SD to HD conversion and de-interlacing of any interlaced footage. This left us with upscaled ProRes interviews that were 4×3 within a 16×9 HD sequence. Nearly all interviews were filmed against a black limbo background, so I then masked around each woman on camera. In addition, each was reframed to the left or right side, depending on where they faced. Now we could place them against another background – either true black, a graphic, or B-roll. Finally, all clips were graded using Lumetri within Premiere Pro. My home base for video post was TinMen – an Orlando creative production company.
Refining the story
With the technical details sorted out, it was time to refine the story. Like many docs, you end up with more possible storylines than will fit. It’s always a whittling process to reveal a story’s essence and to decide which items are best left out so that the rest remains clear. Interviews were bridged with voice-overs plus archival footage, photos, or re-enactments to fill in historical details. This went through numerous rounds of refinement with input from Jon and Rachel Becker Wright, the producer and co-editor on the film. Along the way Rachel was researching, locating, and licensing archival footage for B-roll.
Once the bulk of the main storyline was assembled with proper voice-overs, re-enactments, and some B-roll, I turned the cut over to Rachel. She continued with Jon to refine the edit with graphics, music, and final B-roll. Sound post was handled by the audio production department at Valencia College. A nearly-final version of the 90-minute documentary was presented at a “friends and family” screening at the college.
Many readers know about the national Emmy® Awards handed out annually by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS). It may be less known that NATAS includes 19 regional chapters, which also award Emmys within their chapters. Awards are handed out for projects presented in that region, usually via local broadcast or streaming. Typically the project wins the award without additional craft categories. Anderson was able to submit a shortened version of the documentary for judging by the Suncoast regional chapter, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico, and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. I’m happy to say that W.A.S.P. – A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower won a 2020 regional Emmy, which included Jon Anderson, Rachel Becker Wright, Joe Stone (production designer), and myself.
Awards are nice, of course, but getting the story out about the courageous ladies of the WASP is far more important and I was happy to play a small part in that.
©2021 Oliver Peters