Filmmaker Peter Jackson compiled mute and black-and-white images of World War I and, after a colossal restoration effort, turned them into a colorful, 3D documentary to mark the centennial of the conflict.
The film, titled "They Shall Not Grow Old", will premiere next week at the London Film Festival and simultaneously in several UK cinemas.
Combined with interviews with veterans, these spectacular images also have an unprecedented soundtrack: the filmmaker turned to lip-reading experts to decipher the soldiers' dialogues to be inserted into the film thanks to the work of the folding actors.
"When we finished restoring this material, I was impressed, I did not imagine that this result could be achieved," Peter Jackson told AFP at the project presentation.
This project began four years ago in the office of Diane Lees, director of the British military museum, Imperial War Museums (IWM).
Lees, who knew Jackson was passionate about World War I – where his grandfather fought – suggested that he collaborate in celebrating the centennial of the end of the conflict (1914-1918).
"They wanted me to use their files, but in a surprising way," recalls Jackson, who won an Oscar in 2004 for the latter part of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
From his native New Zealand, the filmmaker contacted restoration experts from around the world to turn over 80 hours of old images into a three-dimensional color ribbon.
The 56-year-old filmmaker has also plunged into more than 600 hours of audio recordings of ex-combatants – made by the IWM and the BBC – to use them as a voice-over.
The end result offers an unprecedented view of World War I, which shows in great detail life on the battlefields in the trenches, restoring the sound of artillery and explosions.
The team encountered a number of challenges from scrapes and lost pictures to films that shrank throughout the century, and in some cases were twice as slow as modern filming.
"The movie has become very exciting," Jackson said of the restoration process. "The faces of men suddenly came to life … Suddenly, I was looking at something I had never seen," he remarked.
"It made me appreciate being alive the same time my grandfather was alive," Jackson explained. "The fact that I could look at something he saw made me think, 'wow, this is extraordinary.'"
As he worked out the plot, Jackson said he tried not to be influenced by other war documentaries he had seen in an attempt to produce something totally original.
"It's an amazing job," Lees said of the book, which he hopes will educate a new generation about the war.