Documentary D-Day: The Lost Evidence uses CGI, re-enactments and archive photos to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Flashback Television’s documentary D-Day: The Lost Evidence aims to take viewers back to the day in 1944 when a massive invasion force of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Northern France to liberate Nazi-held Europe. Combining previously unseen aerial reconnaissance photos from the period, interviews with British, American and German veterans, re-enactments of troop movements and CG graphics, the 90-minute documentary tells the story of the famous D-Day landings.

First airing on The History Channel in the US on June 6, 2004 – the 60th anniversary of D-Day – the documentary will then air on UK television.

“The project has been immense in terms of the amount of research required, managing the many images and ensuring we faithfully recreated history,” says David Edgar, producer of the D-Day special at Flashback Television. “It’s fantastic to have been involved in such a historically significant project.”

Original photography

Flashback worked closely with the GeoInformation Group (GIG), which researched all of the reconnaissance flights flown on D-Day, to ensure that the imagery shown in the programme was of the highest historical accuracy. The aerial reconnaissance photos had been held in various film vaults and repositories since the war, which meant they were in immaculate condition says Edgar. “You can see right down to the details of the landing craft and the people on the beach,” he says.

GIG selected and electronically blended together the photos into seamless mosaics and then passed these along to post-house Evolutions which was tasked with bringing the footage to life. “Effectively creating a brand-new fully animated unique archive,” says Edgar.

“Flashback Television is a long-standing client and asked us last year to look into the project,” explains Matt Gee, graphic designer and 3D artist at Evolutions. “We worked up some tests from some D-Day archive footage they provided. We were awarded the contract as they were very impressed with the result and how it was handled.”

The original brief given to Evolutions was to create a 3D landscape accurate to the detailed views provided by The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives, and add landing craft, tanks, architecture, explosions and gun fire. Flashback Television referenced the style of cut scenes from computer and console games as inspiration for the graphics it was looking for – namely imagery that combined high-altitude views faithful to the original reconnaissance photography and close-up animated scenes on the ground.

Test shots and animations were sent back and forth from Evolutions and Flashback’s offices, recalls Gee, to see if the client’s vision could be fulfiled. Once satisfied that it was achievable, Flashback provided a storyboard showing the exact locations and timing for the clips required along with a large amount of reference material for the project showing vehicles, buildings, aircraft and weapons.

The key challenge of the project was maintaining the integrity of the original photography, says Gee. “The size of the initial pictures was the main problem. As some of these pictures came as images over 26,000-pixels wide, the polygon count required in a deform mesh to hold that level of detail was extremely high,” he explains. “The other main problem was the sky and sea elements, as the pictures ended with such distinct edges, camera angles needed to be closely controlled to prevent the viewer from seeing the edge of the 3D world.”

Gee began by preparing each photographic still in Adobe Photoshop, adding colour in a colourized footage style and creating a contour map. This image was then imported into NewTek LightWave where Gee created a sub-patch cage to match the size and scale required. He then imported this into LightWave’s layout mode where the deformation map was applied to form the basic landscape.

This made it possible to animate the scene with a low-poly count yet render with a much higher order of polygons to form the high detail required, explains Gee. “The gradient surface system was very useful as the contour maps didn’t give any detail for surfaces that were vertical. Cliffs were therefore surfaced separately and this was made easy by matting the surface application dependent on the angle of the polygon,” he says.

“I’ve been working with LightWave for over six years and all the tools required for this job were available in the program,” says Gee. “The environment is very clean and easy to control when designing on such large panoramas. Trying to change a model in situ on the landscape would have been quite impossible but with the Modeller open and the scene linked via the hub system I was able to change the models and see how that looked in the overall scene without any problems.”

The model was then placed inside a panorama sky object to provide a background. A separate sea matte was made in Photoshop and a second layer object with a high sub-patch level was added and deformed with a ripple animation to provide the sea with some animation. Vertical sections were surfaced separately using the gradient tool to relate the surface change to the angle of the polygons in the landscape, he explains.

Additional effects

Key architectural landmarks such as Pegasus Bridge were modelled. “My background in architecture was of great use at this point, as for some objects the only information to be found was a series of photos – and some of the locations had changed completely since D-Day,” comments Gee. Vehicles were then added to the scene. These were a mixture of bought-in objects and models that were produced specifically for the task says Gee.

Finally a series of commercial explosions effects were placed within the scene and set to trigger at specific moments. This provided a series of explosions tied to the same camera move as the final animation, explains Gee. The final shot was then treated in After Effects to give a slight blur and burnout effect, and extra explosion layers were added along with final camera shakes and smoke layers.

“It would have enhanced the project if we had been able to animate people into the scenes and been able to model all the buildings to provide full landscape but this would have taken a huge amount of time,” says Gee.

Evolutions’ audio engineer Ian Marriott-Smith and online editor Paul Fallon completed the post-production on the documentary.

“The challenge with this production has been to integrate archive, CGI and dramatic re-construction into a single narrative. Using graphics, it has been possible to merge from reconstruction straight into the 3D world derived from the lost evidence. CGI allowed us to follow the stories of individual soldiers as they fought their way inland, giving the viewer an entirely new insight into the D-Day story,” says Jobim Sampson, director of D-Day: The Lost Evidence.