World War II: The Last War Heroes, a new documentary series produced by Impossible Pictures and EOne, is set to illustrate the testimony from the last surviving veterans of the Allied Troops by recreating battlefield scenes and filming real bombs and bullets with high-speed cameras in intricate detail. The reconstructions were shot with Cooke 5/i and Panchro/i lenses which brought an elegance to the reconstruction scenes.
The premise of the series was to capture what it was really like to be on the field of battle based on highly detailed descriptions from the veterans, some of them sharing their stories for the first time. Rather than rely on visual effects, the production team traveled to a Canadian military base in New Brunswick and used the same types of explosives that these men described, blowing apart incredibly realistic sets, including foxholes, church steeples and village streets. Unlike a typical movie explosion, the audience can clearly see the real-life intensity of bricks, windows and other debris shattering and flying around, and understand how terrifying it was for these men in the midst of battle.
Jeremy Benning CSC, lead DP, Last War Heroes, explained, “It was a challenging, physically demanding and collaborative project to work on. We had to figure out how to shoot these explosions while ensuring the crew’s safety and protecting the cameras and lenses. We prepped for weeks, experimenting with custom-built fibre optic cables, coffin-like camera housing and a bullet-proof, yet clear, Perspex cover for the lenses that would withstand being 50-100ft away from several 100lbs of explosive.”
Benning used four Phantom cameras throughout the 17 day shoot at the military base, as well as some mini Go Pro cameras closer to the action. He used the full range of Cooke Optics’ 5/i prime lenses with some Panchro/i lenses for specific scenes. He had previously used Panchro/i lenses on the feature film Afghan Luke and is a long-time fan of the organic “Cooke Look.”
“The Cooke Look brought a naturalness to each scene – you see it as a witness, not as if you are watching a scientific explosives test,” said Benning. “It helped us to retain the look of the world of this story, linking from the archive footage to interviews and then to our reconstruction, so it’s velvety and desaturated with a shallow depth of field that leads your eye to the subject matter – something that Cooke lenses do beautifully.”
The scenes were shot largely with available light, mainly during the day, but some footage showing incendiary bombs was shot at dusk, with the set lit by the resulting fire.
“We shot most of the explosions at 1000-2000fps and seeing that amount of power at that frame rate was incredible. You see the shock wave, dust coming off the ground, and things you’d never see with the naked eye,” Jeremy added. “We also had to deal with the extreme contrasts, from flashes of bright light directly to heavy black smoke, which the Cookes captured without any double imaging or ghosting. The high performance levels of the lenses also meant we didn’t lose any sharpness due to shooting through the Perspex cover.”
The six-part series will air on Channel 4 in the U.K. starting Oct. 16, and on the History Channel in Canada starting Nov. 9.