Synopsis by Ben Lankester - Director
There are, perhaps, a number of reasons short films are rarely made about the Second World War. In a sub-genre of such historical importance and broad scope for adaptation, and with the existence of numerous successful interpretations of the conflict, there may be a hesitance to portray the period in a fresh and authentic way, within such a short space of time. This lack of existing films is what first attracted me to attempting such a project; with my own take on the genre based on my own love of the films and television that have already brought World War II to life.
In taking the Second World War as my context, I attempted to incorporate my own ideas and fascinations, which include the passage of time, memory and the importance of home. The nature of two episodes in one’s life punctuated by only a short time period can often provide a stark contrast that is worth exploring creatively, both in writing and with a visual approach. Thus, concentrating on two brothers separated from each other at war, I decided to set half of the film in the 1940s present, and half in the 1930s past, showing the brothers’ relationship at home, prior to the outbreak of war and their decision to join the British Army. This would not only enable me to make a war film, but include elements personal to me, providing a basis to experiment with grading and sound in editing.
Documentaries on World War II are common, emphasising the humility of war and the horrors that those who fought in it had to endure. Although Second World War feature drama is also a popular genre, I found that my ideas on how to portray the story I wanted to tell was best suited to a dramatic interpretation, creating an original, fictional story with the war as my backdrop, rather than telling a true tale of which so many have already been told. Furthermore, my desire to use visual effects and structured time frames was best suited to drama, where I could tell a moving story based during a period of real human conflict.
Having attempted a large-scale production for a previous Celtic fantasy short, attempting a Second World War film felt like a natural progression, using the same methods in pre-production to enable the recreation of an historical era. My work on a 1940s film noir short also prepared me for the research required in designing and shooting a genre film.
The obvious points of film reference provide the starting point for looking at my visual objectives. The washed out, de-saturated grain of the war sequences in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the HBO mini-series Band Of Brothers (2002), are two fine recent examples of the gritty style in which I could contrast well with the red and oranges of a warm and comfortable home life. The subject of war needs careful handling and should not be glorified. What I aimed to make was an anti-war film, but also a relationship drama, with this terrible conflict a backdrop to the emotional experiences of two brothers. The title, On Cissbury Lane, echoes this. The events at home between the brothers are the most important, despite most of the action taking place at war. The message of ‘war is hell’ has already been said, thus rather than emphasizing this further, I instead used its known horrors to develop the relationship at the heart of my story. The theme of brotherhood at war is common. Kang Je-Gyu’s Brotherhood (2004) is the film my own script most resembles, with two brothers fighting together at war, the older looking out for the younger during times of personal trauma. My own take on the theme is of one not wanting to go and the other persuading him, reversing the audience’s expectations over which brother is which in the first flashback.
Attempting an era as recent as the 1930s and 40s required a great deal of research. My background reading included Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band Of Brothers, on which the mini-series is based, as well as Sebastian Faulkes’ collection of novels, which I have studied in the past. Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices was also an inspiration in drawing on the spontaneity of war, in particular its resistance to conform to any form of structure. This I was able to contrast well to the scenes at home, which have an orderly formation. Such consistencies as the morning postman are lost in the action of war, a process almost devoid of routine. Again, this would provide a stark contrast between my time frames.
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is the best example of a film that contrasts well the difference between war and home, with fleeting flashbacks of colour and warmth. Interestingly, Malick refuses to give his audience anything other than these rapid flashbacks. I took this idea forward in wondering what could occur in a film that treated the time periods equally. ABC’s Lost (2004-present) works successfully because of its carefully structured flashback sequences, which focus on a certain character and, within a single episode, explores and develops that character by intercutting scenes from their lives in the past and the present. In showing each survivor on the island in two different periods of their lives, they are able to develop the character within the time frame twice as effectively. This structure, then, seemed perfect for the shorter drama, whereby I could draw out convincing and rounded characters quickly, giving my finale its needed emotion, which would be harder to create with events set only in the 1940s present.
Immortal Sergeant (1943) used a similar technique in having Henry Fonda’s memories of the love he left at home inspiring his courage whilst at war. In my own script, it is Charlie’s naivety about the realities of war that reveal themselves in the flashback sequences. Whilst in the opening Bill is seen to be the superior, braver soldier and Charlie the more cowardly Private, the flashbacks look to reverse the audience’s expectations; Charlie is the young boy who dreams of war, and Bill is the wiser father figure, trying to wave away his younger brother’s desire for adventure. Therefore, when in the present, we witness Charlie’s cowardice, the immediate flashback to the past parallels the shift in character. Thus the scenes sit together well, despite their huge visual and tonal contrasts, playing on the loss of innocence theme so consistent with the genre.
The planning of costume, make up and props, were vital in replicating this period in history. Careful attention was paid to recreating the 1930s era at home, with authentic postcards and Christmas decorations selling the period to an audience looking for contextual clues. Managing to set the scenes at home in the 1930s was as important as transporting the audience to the fields of 1940s France, and this was ensured through the preparation and collection of the mise en scene. Establishing a true time and place for the scenes was also important for a film reliant on realism. Thus, captions initially appear to help the audience separate the events in 1930s England, and 1940s France.
In attempting a project of this scale on such a limited budget, good organisation was paramount. Due to the four different locations being used, the large number of actors and extras involved, and the required historical authenticity, there were many elements of production that had to be put in place weeks in advance of the shoot.
Due to the importance of the opening battle sequence, much time was spent mapping out the exact sequence of events leading up to the separation of the two brothers. Throughout the planning stages, emphasis was put on this separation as the focal point of the battle. It would have been easy to get consumed with the magnitude of the battle at the expense of the story. This was something I made clear to my crew and re-enactors through the use of the overhead battle plan we drew up for the purpose of explaining the relatively simple sequence of events. This plan gave the cast and crew an exact idea of the action taking place, and meant time was not lost on the day.
I visited the battle site on a number of occasions, selecting the exact settings for each scene in the huge expanse of National Trust land available to us. Thus I was able to create each sequence, and prepare for the crew’s responses when they came for the first of three subsequent visits to the location. It was from these recces that I drew up the battle plan and implemented the storyboards. Filming each cell of the storyboards, we edited together the frames to create an accurate replication of the story in a storyboard montage. We then combined this with sound design and music from a number of films that inspired me in the writing of the story.
Among our first time experiences on this film came in the use of squibs and it was down to a number of rehearsals and practice tests that we were able to successfully create this important effect. Online research led us to the suitable device to implement the squibs and the cast and crew were fully briefed in their safe use. We ensured this by drawing up a ‘How To’ sheet on the correct use of the effect. This helped enormously in pre-production and again as reference on the day.
During rehearsal days I gave time to allow each actor to get to know the other. This was especially vital for the success of the Charlie/Bill dynamic to work convincingly on screen. I was able to see a bond between them growing on the days prior to the shoot, which carried across into the final film. This was a conscious decision I made before my auditions; I was careful to select actors who I could see not only physically as brothers, but also working together and enjoying each other’s company. This was paramount to the realism of their relationship on screen, and both actors agreed that the time together prior to the shoot helped them enormously in recognising the elements to each brother’s character.
During rehearsal, I focused, in particular, on the flashbacks in the dining room and in the field, where the audience would see the true dynamic of their relationship, and bank needed emotional connections for the final climactic payoff. Whilst concentrating on nuances and the vitality of character actions on each word of dialogue, I was also mindful not to over rehearse these scenes and negate them of their realism on the day of shooting. Simply directing the actions during the rehearsals and working on the delivery and timing of each line brought new ideas and approaches to the scene, and led to a more rounded performance on the day. I also saw it important to run through the action sequences at our main war location with the actors. In choreographing each scene, the actors were able to visualise the outcome of the battle, in relation to the storyboards.
Shooting and Editing
The main learning experience I took away from the production was the complexities of orchestrating and directing an action sequence. Our inexperience in putting together such a scene made it challenging, but I believe careful planning and briefing of the troops meant that we achieved our objective. For these scenes I had a second camera specialist and an assistant director, who used a Mini-DV and a Super 8mm camera, acting as freelance operators, with me directing them in obtaining more improvisational footage. This meant that even though we had an intricately planned sequence in place, we would still secure a more hand held approach to the filming that was essential to the success of this scene. I did not want my over-planning to detract from the documentary, observing-the-action, approach to most action sequences adopted in my research films.
Ultimately, this was successful, with the extra cameras providing supplementary angles, heightening the intensity of the action in a style akin to the American television series 24 (2001-present) and the recent Friday Night Lights (2004), where multiple camera setups deliver the intensity of the action. Further to this, the slightly reduced quality of the Mini-DV and Super 8 footage, provided blurred frames, giving the images a style reminiscent of actual war footage. This heightened the documentary look to the battle scenes and brought realism to the main camera footage, which followed my shot list.
A good example of this more improvisational approach is the final shoot out in the woods, when Charlie picks off the final German in a scene similar to the opening of Enemy At The Gates (2001). Jude Law’s character snipes the final German in a slow motion action of swinging the gun up to his eye level and firing. On the day, I saw the opportunity to replicate this action in a sequence slightly different from that storyboarded. The end result is one of the most dramatically successful moments of the film. As director, I always had the edit in mind, and this forward planning resulted in me getting closer to the product I intended.
On the back of the fantasy film’s involvement with re-enactment groups, I contacted a number of different organisations throughout the UK. My numbers were around thirty people, and this was the perfect number to obtain the footage I needed. Organising such a large group of re-enactors on location was an exciting new experience. I was confident the group I selected would give me their best. Indeed, through the use of these men we had our own military advisors on the project, answering questions and contributing ideas in much the same way as Dale Dye, Spielberg’s military advisor. They also provided authentic uniforms, equipment and pyrotechnics, as well as the numbers needed for the battle scenes. Hiring German speaking actors and a linguist to help with the dialogue added further authenticity.
During post-production, a lot of effort was spent ensuring the success of the opening battle scene, with appropriate sound design created from Foley work and on location recordings. The sound design was a huge part of the editing process, and work was done on this prior to the shoot in order to capture the necessary sound effects during the war scenes on location. With an opening sequence reliant on sound design, on location and post-production effects were crucial in accurately and convincingly conveying the chaotic horrors of the action on screen. Not having edited such a frenetic sequence before, I found the process of making a succession of rough cuts the most beneficial. The editing was a highly satisfying experience, in seeing the development of the film and the slow building of the effectiveness of the contrasts with grading techniques. I was able to take the template seen in most modern war films for the scenes in the film’s present, de-saturating half the colour of the image and tweaking the dull colours using correction filters, applying a sepia effect to emphasise subtly the change in time period and tone. I spent time in post-production adjusting many of my home sequences with sky replacement effects. Through the use of Shake, a program currently being used for the computer generated imaging in such event pictures as King Kong (2005), I was able to convincingly show the strong contrast between the skies of war and home. Post-production also saw the process of adjusting colours and grading to emphasise the visual differences between life at war and home. The gritty, de-saturated war palette was convincingly realised, with after effects layered to create the desired image. With the home flashbacks, I worked carefully on the colouring and grading, giving a warm and sunlit English landscape a deep palette of reds and oranges, attempting to portray a homely and welcoming community in a beautiful setting. The sky replacement effects were the lengthiest element of the post production process, as were the incorporation of gun flares. Where these flares were not captured on camera, I was able in Photoshop to apply a small image to the picture in the edit, using frame-by-frame animation to achieve the final effect.
Musically, it was important to highlight the differences in time periods through the contrasting scores of the past and present. Although the time differences are written, shot and edited to signify a contrast, the music should serve to emphasise their distinction further, linking and easing transitions. It was important to not only create a score that followed the generic constructs of the war film, but also not to detract from the impact of what was developing on screen. Continual experimentation resulted in the use of incidental music on just the opening scene, Bill’s capture, and the final shoot out. In the end, such decisions as the low hum of the radio during breakfast better served the story. Although music for the barn scenes and the scenes at home were composed, the sparse use of the score served to highlight the effectiveness of these slower moments, and, indeed, the effect of the brothers’ transition between time frames was lost once music replaced the silence.
Together, the sound design, editing, visual effects and music composition worked simultaneously to bring the film further towards the genre piece I initially intended.
I am pleased that On Cissbury Lane fulfils many of the objectives I initially set out to achieve during the research and scripting process. I feel I have managed to make a genre film that still holds original qualities, particularly in the short film format. I have been able to merge two time periods and use the function of the flashback to set the structure of the film and to serve the story. This was always crucial to the success of the film, and I certainly see this narrative device as one of the more obvious qualities of the finished piece. In taking the template used by a number of texts, I have been able to show the startling contrast of war in a generic context, whilst developing my characters within such a narrow running time.
The extensive planning and careful cutting of the action sequences was crucial to the success of the initial battle scene. In post-production, the edit, sound design, visual effects, picture grading and use of incidental music have all come together to successfully recreate the visceral force of the soldier at war. I have done as much as I can throughout the production stages to make this sequence feel as authentic as possible on such a limited budget and time frame.
Generically, I am pleased with how I have been able to tap into the audience expectations of the traditional war film. The visual effect of the war scenes are akin to the style of battle coverage seen in the modern war picture, with the titles closing the film with this generic formula intact. The use of photographs of soldier’s uniforms in the end title sequence proved successful. In applying a typical generic text font over these images, the end result is a credit list sympathetic to the tone of the final scenes of the film, and not detracting from the melancholic mood of the finale. This is in tune with my research films, in particular Full Metal Jacket (1988), which uses a minimalist title sequence.
The collaboration I have achieved with my composer is suitable, particularly during the climactic standoff. The music composed for this sequence, from the action on the field to the walking up the road, deliberately prevents the possible over sentimental tone of the climax. Although tempting to compose a score more akin to the weeping themes of such downbeat war finales, I felt it important to instead downplay the emotion. In the end the finale uses the bittersweet theme of In The Bleak Midwinter, which I feel ties together all the aspects of the multilayered conclusion.
The use of Shake for the sky replacement effects proved effective, particularly in the film’s final shot. The changing of the white, overcast skies to the more homely blue colours seen in the finished flashbacks was vital to completing the true effectiveness of the time contrasts. This perfect blue speaks of home, comfort and colour, the polar opposite to the washed out, ochre grading of the war sequences. The gun flares I also feel add an extra element to the success of the battle scenes. The most effective instance of this comes during the final standoff, where the second German is killed. The effect of the squib is used in conjunction with the sound of his gun and the visible flares. This scene is given a further layer of realism through the use of these simple effects.
Through the set dressing, costume, makeup and colouring, I was able to highlight the set dressing of the breakfast scene, with small parts of the image such as the loaf of bread on the table achieving a look of authenticity. I am pleased with the house interior and exterior locations I was able to find for the flashback settings. The house provides the perfect representation of the brother’s idyllic home life, the road a suitable dusty path for the film’s finale. The costumes in the gun flashback match the nature of the brothers’ relationship; Bill the older, fatherly figure, Charlie the naïve, yet adventurous younger brother, gun in his hand but gloves firmly fighting away the cold. Framing was also important in these flashback scenes. Whereas Bill is framed at eye level, the man of the manor with his house framed behind him, we look down on Charlie, playing on his vulnerability and, therefore, deliberately siding with Bill during the conflict of the scene. Much like Spielberg achieved when shooting Christian Bale’s character in Empire Of The Sun (1987), this perspective emphasises the size of the conflict that bears down on an overeager young man. All these elements combine with the subtle dialogue in the overall success of this central scene.
It is the difference in camera set up and style that further strengthens the contrast of the time frames. With the jerky approach to the opening battle, the instant contrast between the morning flashback is immediately clear, the kiss of the mother and the following sound bridge into the back of a soldier the most sudden and powerful use of the different time periods. This hand held style is most successful in the capture sequence where Bill and the German face off. The quick zooms into the close ups of each character heightens the sense of danger going into Bill being hit. The scene with the French girl in the barn was supposed to provide a reprieve for the audience amid the war scenes, the relationship between Charlie and the girl spoken through the sound of the sheep and water. The scene acts as a meeting point of the two styles, with the quieter sound and warmer colours of the ideal location combining with the hand held approach to the framing. These factors were vital to achieve within the shooting and colouring of the scene, and I believe I succeeded with the finished sequences.
The French girl’s plea for Charlie to stay with her provides a tempting obstacle, which Charlie has to overcome. He could stay out of danger with the girl looking after him but, instead, he goes back to look for his comrades. The moment when the French girl wishes Charlie farewell, will be replicated later when the mother watches the boys leave for war. This again is one of the film’s strengths, a running motif that ties in the present day with the flashback, with the theme of motherhood bridging the time divide. The cut between Bill being hit by the German in the wood, to the girl wiping Charlie’s forehead in the barn, is effective in the sudden tonal difference and provides another strong contrast. The moment is almost comedic, with Charlie’s situation differing so much from Bill’s that the audience knows Charlie must not stay where he is. This audience expectation heightens the enjoyment of the scene, tapping into the generic conventions on display.
The making of this film provided me with a good learning experience, from directing an action sequence to the developed use of visual effects software and animation programs. In attempting a project of this size, I have learnt the importance of careful planning, particularly for the action sequence, where I was responsible for the handling of so many extras. The rehearsal process, too, strengthened the relationship between myself and my actors prior to the shoot. In developing ideas and building the relationship between the characters, I was able to ensure strong performances on the day.
Overall I am pleased with the finished film and what I have been able to accomplish with the money and within the time available to me. From the initial scripting process, focussing on developing generic conventions within an original structure, to the final stages of post production, I have thoroughly enjoyed the making of this short, with a fantastic team of colleagues helping me realise a film of which, finally, I am proud.