It is the duty of every generation to create its own sense of style, just to make sure the footsteps they are following in are headed down their own signature path. But to the degree that this new style turns a blind eye to its predecessors, it can become a barrier to communication.
Starting at the end of February and continuing in 10 weekly installments to the beginning of May, the cable network now known as History (formerly The History Channel) presented a series called “Battle 360” utilizing a style encompassing the full arsenal of today’s digital post-production tools combined with a blazingly fast editing technique to bring alive one of the epic stories of World War II. Part of the goal of “Battle 360” is to communicate directly to a younger generation that is oblivious to the classic history/war documentaries of their forebears, such as 1952’s monumental “Victory at Sea,” since their outdated style blocks any relevance. This new series is intended to overcome that barrier.
(click thumbnail)A shot of the big E from “Battle 360”THE BIG E
“Battle 360” is the sweeping story of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise, the most decorated Navy warship of World War II. For the echo boomers of Generation Y who think the only interesting Enterprise is powered with dilithium crystals by galaxy-galloping star sailors, the on-screen CGI (computer generated images) excitement of “Battle 360” can open a window into the relevance of a real ship fighting real battles that really saved our country.
“We had previously tested many of these CGI techniques in a series called ‘Dogfights’ to recreate the past without relying solely on archival footage,” said Charles Nordlander, vice president of development and programming at History. “The idea for ‘Battle 360’ came from Dolores Gavin here at History, but it is being sponsored with limited commercial interruptions by Enterprise Rent-A-Car to honor its founder, Jack Taylor, who actually served on the Big E. It’s a whole new way to bring what that generation accomplished to a new generation of viewers.”
The style of “Battle 360” was designed by its production company, Flight 33 Productions (named after the classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33”), under executive producers Douglas J. Cohen and Louis C. Tarantino. Along with 3D model work of historically accurate CGI ships and planes sailing in harm’s way interspersed with live action stock footage, to amp up the energy rarely is any shot seen without at least one or two composited layers of overlaid maps, charts, Japanese calligraphy or even flashes of film leader zipping by. Younger filmmakers may not have any idea of what some of those elements, especially the sprocket-driven film leader, actually are. But this visual complexity lends the overall production a sense of excitement and authenticity.
“These extensive graphics are crucial to the visual style of the show, and a central element is the use of 360 degree sweeps of the whole battlefield that transition viewers between different sections of the action,” said Cohen. “We think of it as a 3D version of a navigation chart, spanning the vast distances of warfare at sea.”
(click thumbnail)CGI promotional still for History series, “Battle 360”CUTS THAT COUNT
The narration voiced by Wally Kurth is spiced with 21st century phrases. In Episode 6, “The Grey Ghost,” during the Enterprise’s refit in Pearl Harbor, Kurth said, “Hundreds of yard workers swarm in to trick out the mighty flattop and get her ripped and ready for more conflict.” And the soundtrack, with music by Eric Amdahl, has enough swooshes and blasts to satisfy any video gamer.
A team of six editors using Avid Media Composers worked on the series: Kyle Yaskin, Motoshi Wakabayashi, Conrad Stanley, Gerard San Gemino, Sean Presant, and Gina Vecchione.
“When we finally figured out the style of this show, it was so refreshing to be able to go crazy with five layers of images intertwined on the screen,” Vecchione said. “Then we go into a weird graphics world during transitions in which we dip beneath the waves to see an attack or soar overhead to fly down on a ship from the clouds. There is always something new we can throw in.”
But it is important to recognize that this high energy series is not just based on fast glitzy cuts. In “Battle 360,” each edit is designed to thrust the story forward or provide greater insight into the context of the action. This can be especially effective when bringing surviving veterans of the big E’s conquests into the story. For example, when introducing a rear-seat gunner who flew from the Enterprise, Lloyd F. Childers, the screen flickers between a B&W photo of him from that era and a modern shot of Childers in an interview setting. Not only is the jump across generations made more poignant, the cuts are designed specifically to emphasize Childers’ eyes to bring the viewer into his inner personality.
“We have such a large team of editors and graphics artists working on this show that everyone has contributed to its style,” Vecchione said. “It’s amazing how much you can learn just by watching it.”
DIVIDED WE STAND
With 16 to 20 minutes of new 3D graphics in each “Battle 360” episode, the job had to be divided between two CGI houses. Crazybridge Studios in Glendale, Calif., helped create the overall look of the show along with all the 3D maps under the guidance of its founder and CEO, Christopher Gaal. Crazybridge Studios crafted the graphics for about half of the series’ episodes using Autodesk’s Maya software on their in-house designed Windows platforms.
The majority of the graphics for the rest of the “Battle 360” episodes were created by Radical 3D in Rancho Park, Calif., the folks who were also behind the “Dogfights” series. The team at Radical 3D was headed by Mark Kochinski and Matthew Zeyn who employed NewTek’s LightWave 3D with their fellow artists on 70 multicore Dell computers.
Of course, since CGI images from each episode had to be shared with other weeks’ chapters, part of the challenge was to get Maya and LightWave 3D to work smoothly together. But in our digital era, anything is possible.
“Battle 360,” which is still in production as this is being written, has earned an impressive audience. One-and-a-half million viewers tuned in to early episodes, a 62 percent increase for the timeslot over last year with the greatest boost coming in the 18-49 male demographic, according to Nielsen. It is onlined to HDCAM tape in 1080P at Flight 33 by Rod Decker using an Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system. Frequently, lower thirds direct viewers to discussion groups on the Web and History streamed each week’s episode on their site after it aired.
“Battle 360” is a tribute to heroes of the past by digital artists of today… lest we ever forget.
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