Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Tarting up the truth: Computer imaging for TV

Computer-generated imaging is being used to recreate historical events in an amazing new documentary for the Discovery Channel. But how dangerous could this technology be in the wrong hands?

By Jamie Wilson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: LIN YAN-FU

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.

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.

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