Adolf Hitler bends down to look at the map laid out before him on the oak table. His piercing eyes stare intently as a general points a black-gloved hand to show troop movements on the eastern front. As the camera pans and the Fuhrer leans on his right arm to get a better view, a blinding orange flash is followed by a ball of smoke as the picture blurs.
It is the documentary-maker's ultimate fantasy: never-before-seen footage of one of the most famous moments in twentieth-century history -- the assassination attempt against Hitler at his Rastenburg headquarters in eastern Prussia.
The quality is such, from the color of the film to the graininess of the images, that it could even have been taken by the Fuhrer's private cameraman, Walter Frentz.
ILLUSTRATION: LIN YAN-FU
But the clip was not shot inside the Wolf's Lair in July 1944. In fact, this scene was never filmed at all.
Instead it was made for the Discovery Channel in the London editing suites of the Moving Picture Company, Britain's most successful creator of computer-generated imagery (CGI).
For the program-makers, the project heralds the next generation of television history programs and the "holy grail" of CGI, bringing historical events to life so realistically that the audience believes it is watching genuine archive footage.
But the Virtual History program -- which will have a global launch in the autumn, the first time a Discovery Channel program made in the UK has received such an accolade -- is set to ignite an argument among both historians and documentary-makers about the ethics of interspersing CGI with archive film.
According to the Discovery Channel, the technique has the potential to change the way viewers watch historical documentaries in the future and will create an entirely new genre of documentary.
The first in what the makers hope will be a series of virtual history programs will attempt to stage the events of July 20, 1944, from the perspectives of the four main wartime leaders. So as well as seeing Hitler sitting dazed and bloodied beside the table that saved his life, there will be scenes of Churchill working in bed in his pajamas, Roosevelt having a heart attack and Stalin ordering attacks on the eastern front.
The feature-length program, which is still in production (the Guardian was given a sneak preview of several scenes last week) uses real archive footage to support the "archive reconstructions."
Historians such as Andrew Roberts (whose books include Hitler and Churchill), were brought in to advise and to maintain historical accuracy.
Actors with physical similarities to the key protagonists acted out the "missing" parts of the story before technical experts used CGI to recreate the faces of the wartime leaders and transformed the modern film into footage which runs seamlessly with the original archive clips.
"Our feeling is that whenever you see a historical re-enactment with an actor you have to suspend disbelief and it deviates from the power of what you are watching, whereas with this it's like mainlining straight into history; that's what it feels like when you watch it," says David Abraham, general manager of Discovery Networks Europe.
Charles Brand, managing director of Tiger Aspect, the production company behind the new program, says the making of the series was inspired by the success of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs.
"Audiences are very hungry for new tricks all the time, and there was a program that suddenly got three or four times the size of audience watching a program about prehistoric animals," he says.
"Hopefully it gives you a wider audience than a specialist history audience to really engage in a very important subject. I think coming up with a new technique like this is a fantastically strong way of getting that new audience in."
But it has taken nearly three years to get to the point where they are happy with the realism of the product. The technical demands of trying to recreate well-known faces using CGI should not be underestimated, says David Jefferies, CEO of the Moving Picture Company.
"The one thing humans are most acutely aware of is the precise proportions of other people's faces, and if you deviate by even the smallest amount, you are suddenly looking at a close relative and not the person themselves," he said. It took the program-makers and technicians months of trial and error to identify and recreate the movements that make a person's face look real.
But what about those who claim this type of program will lead to the distortion of history, with the possibility that fake archive footage will be passed off as real? Documentary film-maker Roger Graef thinks that the idea is "very dodgy" and warns that it could have serious ramifications.
"Capturing reality, whether it's obscure archive or observational film, is a slightly unpredictable task," he says. "If you are going out looking for home videos of the Nazi period or filming things as they happen, these are both unpredictable activities, in ways that shareholders and accountants dislike. It is up to the people at the top of broadcasting and the regulators to insist on the flexibility and willingness to back the authentic in order to resist the easy temptation of putting everything into an artificial box. That is the difference between reality and reality television."
However, there are several historians who approve of the use of CGI. Richard Evans, a Cambridge University professor of modern history, says: "It can do almost anything, and if it helps make the past come alive, and if it is done carefully and responsibly on the basis of good research, and as long as program-makers flag up what they are doing, then this can only be a good thing."
Andrew Roberts agrees. "Obviously this opens up a number of ethical issues, but things that look like archive are not dangerous historically, as long as there is the understanding that the program-makers make it very clear what is going on, which is what they are doing in this case."
Aspect's Brand recognizes that this is a concern, but says: "We have spent the past two years scared witless that we would suddenly read in the trade press that someone else was doing it, so it's not an option to say somebody may someday do something evil with this. You have got to accept that it is an advance that has been made and you have to try and do it bloody well and do it with every bit of historical accuracy that you can."
The producers are adamant that everything that appears in the program can be vouched for, whether by the stenographer's notes of Hitler's briefing that stopped at the moment of the explosion, or Churchill's diaries.
"While it is a risk that we have very carefully thought about, we see it as our responsibility to continue to bring to life these subjects," Discovery's Abraham says. "There is an element of excitement and drama about this technique which we don't apologize for. The intensity of the history in this show is extraordinary. You will see things that have been very well documented but are now brought to life, like Hitler being injected with his morning drug cocktail."
Phil Dolling, executive producer of BBC History, says: "It sounds fascinating and I can't wait to see it, but you have to be very careful what you show and let audiences know -- not just at the beginning but at regular intervals throughout -- what you are doing or you are at risk of deceiving the audience."
So what's next for Virtual History? Abraham admits other projects are being discussed. "Everybody has still images of people like Lincoln, Disraeli and Queen Victoria in their heads and it would be fantastic to bring them to life," he says. "This is a technique we have developed and championed and we will be working hard on finding new and exciting ways to use it."
A Virtual History clip can be viewed online at www.discoverychannel.co.uk/virtualhistory.
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