Tag Archives: PBS

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” (1990) Remastered for 2015 and Beyond

7 Sep

If you visit the PBS website at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/civil-war/ you will find links to the viewing schedule for the remastered 25th anniversary HD version of Ken Burns’ The Civil War at your local PBS affiliate:

“Twenty-five years ago, a film about history made history … From Director Ken Burns, for the first time in high-definition,  “The Civil War,” starts Monday September 7, [2015] at 9:00 pm (8:00 Central) [and concludes on September 11]. Only on PBS.

No historical documentary has ever had the impact of THE CIVIL WAR when it was first broadcast by PBS a quarter of a century ago. More than 40 million people watched its first run. It won more than 40 major television and film awards. Millions more have seen it in classrooms or on videotape.

THE CIVIL WAR, the award-winning film produced and directed by Ken Burns, will be rebroadcast over five consecutive nights … The broadcast, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the series’ initial broadcast in September 1990, will present for the first time a newly restored, high-definition version. This is also the first time the film will be seen with the same fidelity and framing as the negative that Burns and his co-cinematographers … shot more than 25 years ago.”

The Civil War Defines Who We are Today

Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. And I believe that firmly. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars beginning with the First World War did what they did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became … good and bad things …  and it is very necessary if you are going to understand the American character in the [21st] century to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the cross-roads of our being … and it was a hell of a crossroads.”   — Shelby Foote, Historian, quoted in Episode 1 of The Civil War (pictured below, left, with Ken Burns, c. 1990, courtesy of Florentine Films)

ken burns shelby foote

Why Watch the Remastered Film “The Civil War?”

Today’s audiences expect sharper images and richer sound—so much sharper and richer that no one 25 years ago could have imagined the improvements we now take for granted. To reach a whole new audience with the story of America’s greatest crisis, and to offer those who have already seen the series a far more compelling experience, we decided to completely restore the series to ultra high definition4K resolution—to bring it up to the standards that current audiences demand

The 4K film scans capture every nuance of detail in the sharpest focus in the photographs, stock footage, interviews, and live material that are the basic building blocks of the series’ visuals

Visually, THE CIVIL WAR is now rock steady, sharper in focus, cleaner, and with a greatly enhanced visual beauty. The color is now as it was intended to be when the film was originally shot. The still photographs all have been assigned a variety of black-and-white or sepia tones that correspond to the intended emotional effect of the sequences. There is also 10 percent more image area than in the previous version, which was cropped out due to the 4:3 square broadcast.”   — Paul Barnes, Lead Editor of “The Civil War” [emphasis added]

The Starring Role of Civil War Photography in the Film

THE CIVIL WAR was five years in the making. The film vividly embraces the entire sweep of the war: the complex causes and lasting effects of America’s greatest and most moving calamity, the battles and the homefronts, the generals and the private soldiers, the anguish of death in battle and the grief of families at home. 

Archival images of 16,000 photographs, taken from a total of 1 million pictures of the Civil War, along with period paintings, lithographs, and headlines, were combined with moving newsreel footage of Civil War veterans, evocative live cinematography of the now quiet battle sites, interviews with distinguished historians, and the inclusion of first-person accounts.” http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/civil-war/about/about-overview/

The Strengths of the Original Film

The Civil War documentary which first aired in 1990 represents the coming together of many great elements of documentary film-making.  For starters, it offers up a “national treasure trove” of narrators and voices such as: David McCullough (to whom I could listen all day long), Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln, Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, Jason Robards as Ulysses S. Grant, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman, Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman, George Black as Robert E. Lee, Horton Foote as Jefferson Davis, Jody Powell as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Julie Harris as Mary Chesnut, Paul Roebling as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Christopher Murney as Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Charley McDowell as Sam Watkins, and Studs Terkel as Gen. Benjamin Butler.

They dramatically breathe life into the actual words penned or spoken by their real-life characters a century and a half ago.

The film’s telling of the story of the Civil War relies heavily on the words of many of the most famous (as well as some of the more obscure) figures involved in the conflict. But Burns also strategically interjects clips of distinguished historians ruminating about key personalities, battles, triumphs, tragedies, strategies, anecdotes, political machinations, higher purposes, and how the Civil War relates to and continues to impact modern times.  Those historians serve as the modern glue which holds the entirety of the work together.

Say what you will about the music. Some people love the song “Ashokan Farewell” which is played numerous times (25) during the series. Others hate it.  Many don’t realize it was composed in 1982. Even though it is the only modern music used in the series,  it is the tune most identified with Ken Burns’ masterpiece. But it isn’t the film’s only music by any stretch. “Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Bonnie Blue Flag” are two other very catchy period songs which immediately come to mind. And don’t forget about the tremendous sound effects.

But what resonates the most within the film’s nine episodes is its sweeping visual impact thanks in large measure to Ken Burn’s heavy reliance upon images from surviving Civil War photographs and sketches. Although there is some incredibly stunning video — particularly clips from the Gettysburg veterans’ anniversary reunions in 1913 and 1938 as well as  beautiful modern color footage — Burns’ videographers relied almost exclusively upon 1860s photographs. Repeatedly, they zoom-in upon astonishing photographic details in magnificent data-laden wet-plate collodion slides and prints created by men associated with Mathew B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, Andrew J. Russell, George N. Barnard, the Anthonys, Sam A. Cooley, George S. Cook, and others. Unfortunately, 1990 technology made it difficult to quickly discern those details in the original release.

The film’s restorer, Daniel J. White, has promised that within the 2015 HD version “new details will become visible in the hundreds of black-and-white photos used in the film.” Let’s hope so! But also be aware that super hi-resolution scans of the vast majority of photographs used in The Civil War can be viewed online and downloaded sometimes in .tiff files up to 100 to 200 megs in size at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and other institutions.

Because the vast majority of Civil War photographs were taken by photographers living in the “North,” those images offer the richest source of photographic history. Yet Burns’ team still made every effort to film many images taken by southern photographers too.

It should come as no surprise that the surviving photographs don’t always dovetail perfectly with the story-line for The Civil War, particularly relative to the underrepresented western theater of the war. Lacking “on the money” imagery to visually drive home a point, Burns understandably was compelled at times to rely upon photographs unequivalent to the time, place, and/or subject matter addressed by the film’s narrator. In fairness, in some instances no one knows for sure when or where or by whom specific photos were taken because the photographers usually left no records of such and historians haven’t yet solved those mysteries.

But had Civil War photographs played an even more central role in defining the story-line of the film, Ken Burns might have devoted a few minutes to explain the basics of outdoor Civil War photography —  including that nearly 3/4 of the photos were shot so that they can be viewed today in 3D. Despite the cumbersome tasks that befell outdoor photographers in the 1860s and the limitations of their slow exposure technology, the thousands of Civil War photographs they managed to take allow us, several generations later, to “see” and get a “visual feel” for the war which cost us more American lives than the sum total of all of the other conflicts in which Americans have been engaged both before and ever since.

What Is Supposed to Look Better in the Remastered Film

In a September 4, 2015 Washington Post blog article titled “25 years after ‘The Civil War,’ Ken Burns finally made his dream movie” by Alyssa Rosenberg,  there is an illustration of the quality improvement in the new version of “The Civil War.” Ken Burns and his restorer, Daniel J. White, have said that a “murkiness” in many images will be replaced by clearer, more realistic looking scenes. A frame from modern footage of the Burnside Bridge (originally called Rohrbach’s or Lower Bridge) at the Antietam National Battlefield was used to highlight the “before” and “after” differences (see below).

Before-after KB Burnside Bridge, Anitetam Battlefield NP

What I’m most looking forward to seeing is the improvement in the quality of the Civil War photographs used in the film.

In the The Washington Post article, Mr. Burns highlighted the impact of significantly improved photographic imagery by noting the film’s use of an image of Lincoln posing with General McClellan in a tent in early October 1862 near Sharpsburg, MD two weeks after the Battle of Antietam.  Photographer Alexander Gardner’s men took this and other images in that locale to chronicle Lincoln’s visit to the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan. At the time of the visit, Lincoln was greatly disappointed by McClellan’s failure to pursue General Lee’s numerically inferior forces after repelling them at Antietam Creek on September 17. Lincoln wanted McClellan to destroy or capture the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan, on the other hand, thought he should be congratulated for the Antietam “victory” and that Lincoln should defer to his military judgment not to pursue Lee in the aftermath of the single bloodiest day in American history.

Alyssa Rosenberg wrote that “it’s now possible to read President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan’s facial expressions in a snapshot of the two men taken during the meeting at which Lincoln fired his top commander.” To be more precise, Ken Burns was quoted as saying:  

You can now see in the pictures of them in the tent the tension between them. Now, it may have been apparent in the previous images because of the quality of the writing, whatever the music and the sound effects were suggesting, but now you’ve taken away that veil and you’re permitted to see that interpersonal dynamic, and suddenly you can understand McClellan’s kind of combination of arrogant distance from Lincoln and Lincoln’s exasperation, and the fact that his sorry butt is going to be axed in a couple of moments is terrific.” (detail from two views at the Library of Congress, LC-B811- 602 and LC-B817- 7948, below)

LC-B811- 602 01131ax3  LC-B817- 7948 04351ax

My own take on the Lincoln-McClellan “tent” photographs is a bit less dramatic, especially in view of the vagaries of outdoor photography in 1862 as well as Lincoln’s record of posing before the camera. For starters, Lincoln did not relieve McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac until November 5, 1862, more than a month after these “tent” poses were taken. Although there surely was tension between Lincoln and McClellan throughout their relationship and Lincoln visited McClellan to try to cajole him into action, I think Mr. Burns reads too much into his interpretation of Lincoln’s face and body language by suggesting that there is palpable “exasperation” on Lincoln’s face.

Perhaps it can be said that McClellan’s face or attitude betrays some form of “arrogant distance,” but I think even that overplays the simple fact that McClellan’s paramount concern during the picture taking session was to look squarely at Lincoln with his “I am the commander” look and hold his pose for several seconds. For that matter, I have not seen any photographs of McClellan in uniform in which he didn’t try to look “dashing” or “authoritative;” he surely didn’t earn the moniker “Young Napoleon” for nothing (examples, below, courtesy of the Library of Congress).

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The Alexander Gardner photographic team prepared the glass plate for each of the Lincoln-McClellan photographs shortly before they were created. It would have taken them about 5 minutes of time to do so, followed by another 5 minutes to complete the development of each specific negative shortly thereafter [I believe the Gardner team simultaneously prepared the two negative plates used for the creation of these photos]. In other words, sitting for a photograph was a lengthy process by today’s standards, especially for an ultra-busy and fidgety President who was in the midst of prosecuting a war which hadn’t been going too well up to that point. The two images captured by the photographers were not candid snapshots. The technology which then existed required the men to be posed and to hold their poses.

In the first photograph of Lincoln seated in the tent with McClellan (above), Alexander Gardner situated the Commander-in-Chief slightly forward of McClellan and likely asked Lincoln not to gaze directly at McClellan. To make the scene as patriotic looking as possible, Lincoln was posed next to a table draped with the American flag upon which his stovepipe hat rested between two candlesticks. It needs to be understood that Lincoln never looked completely comfortable when he was photographed. As Ohio politician Donn Piatt recalled, Lincoln “had a face that defied artistic skill to soften or idealize.” Writes Harold Holzer, “photographs did little to disguise Lincoln’s sometimes vacant expression, his so-called photographer’s face.” Lloyd Ostendorf describes Lincoln’s “photographer’s face” in the following manner:

Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required. A man who knew Lincoln, Dr. James Miner, commented: ‘His large bony face when in repose was unspeakably sad and as unreadable as that of a sphinx, his eyes were as expressionless as those of a dead fish’” (emphasis added)

It is THAT “photographer’s face” which I see particularly in the first photograph — Lincoln with vacant and expressionless eyes gazing off into the distance. I detect no palpable tension in Lincoln’s face, although he surely felt some discomfort over posing rigidly during each of the several second exposures (perhaps for as long as 5 to 10 seconds as betrayed by the flag blurred by the movement of a breeze and the piece of paper blown up against the bottom of Lincoln’s chair in the second view).

Lincoln-McClellan-tent Antietam

McClellan’s gaze is locked onto Lincoln’s face in both views. In the first, the General sat with his left hand relaxed on his leg and a cigar perched in that hand. But in the second, when Lincoln presumably was directed by Alexander Gardner to look McClellan straight in the eye, McClellan sat up straighter in his chair and leaned slightly forward so his face wasn’t partially in the sunlight. You might conclude that his demeanor was a bit more attentive and even respectful (for example, his cigar can no longer be seen).

macLC-x

McClellan looks somewhat less comfortable in that second photo. But his slight discomfort probably had little to do with Lincoln’s gaze. Alex Gardner likely directed him to bring his face completely into the shadows — so that it wouldn’t be bisected half-in and half-out of the sunlight as occurred in the first view. Lincoln, on the other hand, did not do anything between the exposures other than execute a slight turn of his head in order to look directly at McClellan’s face. Yet, in profile he still affected his “photographer’s face;” kind of like a poker-face expression. If anything, Lincoln’s appearance and demeanor in the second view might be described as “cool as a cucumber.”LC-B817- 7948 04351az

Watch for the appearance of the second “tent” photograph in Episode 3, “Forever Free.” When you see it, realize that Ken Burns in 1990 did not have access to the ultra-high resolution digital scans I have used in this piece. The quality of the photographs which he then filmed with his 16mm camera just wasn’t anything like what can be seen today. His 2015 edition is the product of remastering that original 16mm film stock. It does not utilize today’s digital scans of what are presumed to be first or early generation glass plate negatives. Without criticizing or taking away anything from Ken Burn’s Civil War masterpiece, I think the best way to answer what the faces of men like Lincoln project or betray in 150+ year old photographs is to look at their modern day digital scans.

Craig Heberton, September 7, 2015

[Stay tuned for updates after episodes of the 2015 remastered The Civil War run over the course of the next several days]

If You Like the Improvement in Civil War Photo Quality, Check This Out …

If you are finding the Civil War photographs used in the 2015 remastered version of  “The Civil War” to be a significant step forward in improved quality, you might want to watch Burns’ short video “Restoring the Film” at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/civil-war/ which explains the restoration process. Here is a capture of one of the examples used in that video. It is a “before-and-after” vidcap of detail within a photograph of “Fighting Joe” Hooker, a Union General who briefly commanded the Army of the Potomac. The “before” version is on the right side; the “after” on the left.

Ken Burns_Restoration examples in video-02

Ken Burns explains in the video that within the Civil War photographs, you now can see that “the whites are whiter and the blacks are deeper and richer.” His restorers also elaborate that this is so because the digital scanning process applied to the original film stock allowed them to manipulate the contrast in order to enhance details within the original photographs which were filmed by Burns and his team in 16mm.

But if you want to see the same image in even more amazing detail on your computer screen, go to the source which houses the original print image — the Library of Congress — and see and download (if you are inclined) at their website a 104.7 megabyte .tiff file of the print.  You can find it here. Now place detail of Hooker from that Library of Congress scan next to the restored Ken Burns image. After some of my own photo editing work, here is what they look like side-by-side. The details in Hooker’s face are substantially better revealed in the Library of Congress scan.

LC-B8184-10366compare2

However, the most impressive details to be seen within super hi-res scans at the Library of Congress collection are those made from the glass plate negatives in its collection or housed at the National Archives. The General Hooker example, above, is from a print so there are limitations in the amount of detail that even very high resolution scans can extract from such an old print.

Craig Heberton, September 9, 2015

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Ancestry.com’s Leafy Depiction of Photographing the Gettysburg Address

25 Oct

Have you seen the Ancestry.com commercial which “virtually recreates” the scene at the dedication of the Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery on November 19, 1863? It’s pretty cool. If you haven’t, CLICK HERE to watch it.

I’m sure a number of people who have seen this commercial have checked out Ancestry.com. As someone who has used that service, I can vouch for it as a powerful digital research tool for one’s family tree. With the 151st anniversary of the Gettysburg Address fast approaching, we undoubtedly will continue to see this commercial in numerous television and internet spots. As these kinds of advertisements go, Ancestry’s digital recreation of one of America’s most compelling historical events is visually stunning even though it is littered with many troubling historical inaccuracies. But why let history get in the way of making an aesthetically pleasing commercial designed to induce people to subscribe to a service?

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Having seen the commercial, you surely noticed a digitally enhanced Abraham Lincoln standing by a table on a single-level platform delivering his Gettysburg Address, surrounded on the rostrum by a sparse, numerically unimpressive group of dignitaries. The advert also depicts a large, low slung white tent, off to the side, facing the speakers’ platform. In the direction of that tent, standing on an elevated position above the ground-level spectators, is a photographer — the ancestral “star” of the commercial — who aims his tripod-mounted camera at Lincoln’s sun-illuminated side profile. The photographer’s view of his prize is completely unimpeded.

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Several seconds into the commercial, a gentle breeze whimsically blows an Ancestry.com “leaf” from the screen of a laptop held by a woman searching nearly 151 years into the past to a scene representing a portion of the battlefield where the Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery was dedicated. Soon thereafter, the animated leaf loops its way towards Lincoln’s face and then away from the speakers’ platform, dragging the viewer’s perspective along with it over to the photographer and his camera positioned on top of an open wagon. The sight of the dancing leaf instantly reminded me of the dancing feather imagery used in the movie Forrest Gump — the greatest modern day depiction of a man seemingly unequipped for greatness, but who repeatedly does great deeds all the while crossing paths with the most famous people at the most historic events of his time. But I digress. Meanwhile, the Ancestry ad’s narrator melodically describes the leaf icon as a sort of metaphorical representation of a helping aid employed by Ancestry.com to guide its subscribers on a journey to their “past filled with stories that intrigue and inspire, and, in doing so, reveal the one unique, improbable, and completely remarkable path that led to YOU. [So] discover your story by searching for free now at Ancestry.com.” Soft, pleasing music accompanies the spot throughout, reminding me again of the final “feather” scene in Forrest Gump. It is just a brilliantly crafted and conceived ad!

During this narrated segment, as the viewer’s perspective pans to the right, the photographer’s head pops up from behind his camera just before he moves to the side and lifts the cap off its single lens in order to expose a presumably magnificent image of Lincoln giving his most famous oration.

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All the while, the focus upon the cameraman continues to tighten until superimposed graphics appear above his head revealing his identity and vital statistics. At the commercial’s conclusion, the photographer’s descendant is shown in the present day closing her laptop and swelling with pride after her search on Ancestry.com revealed that it was HER forefather who photographed Lincoln delivering the immortal Gettysburg Address seven score and eleven years ago. Wow! Imagine discovering it was one of your ancestor’s who did THAT!

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It was at that moment, during my first viewing of the ad in the midst of a commercial break from the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” that I moved my face closer to the television screen and squinted in order to try to make out the photographer’s superimposed name. Not only was I was extremely excited to see a Civil War era photographer depicted as an ancestor in whom one should take GREAT, GREAT PRIDE, but I wondered to myself which known photographer’s name Ancestry would choose for the advert. Would they flash on the screen “Alexander Gardner,” the Washington, D.C.-based genius whose team of photographers created the only known pictures taken anywhere remotely close to the general vicinity depicted in the commercial? Or would Ancestry select Baltimore’s “David Bachrach,” the photographer whom William Frassanito believes most likely took the only known image of Lincoln on the Gettysburg speakers’ platform? Or how about “Anthony Berger” or “David Woodbury,” the two Mathew Brady photographers whose dedication ceremony images somehow have gone missing with the passage of time? Surely Ancestry wouldn’t hit us with a dark-horse local candidate like “Peter S. Weaver,” who took at least one and maybe two long-range images of the ceremony, or one of the Tyson brothers (not the fellows with the chicken business, but the brothers who had a photography studio in Gettysburg).

When my eyes finally came into focus on the photographer’s name and his vital statistics, it read:

FREDRIC MILLER (1829-1885), husband of Susan Hutton (1833-1889).

Wait a second. Fredric Miller? Who the heck is Fredric Miller and the genealogist in me wants to know how is it that he and his wife both died at the age of 56?

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If you have used Ancestry.com’s search engine in an effort to find this “Fredric Miller,” then you are aware that no one by that name is known to have photographed the dedication ceremony, let alone Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address. Moreover, no photos of Lincoln orating or even standing on the rostrum at Gettysburg are known to exist. The brevity of Honest Abe’s speech is credited for the failure of photographers then present to capture such an image. In fact, I am not aware of the existence of any prominent or obscure professional photographer named “Frederic Miller” during the entire Civil War. If Ancestry ever proves me wrong, I’ll be quick to dole out mea culpas. But until then, I think that Snopes.com should pronounce this guy a fake.

So what did I really think of this ad? On the one hand, I learned that a company in the business of helping people find accurate information about their past has elected to market itself by making up a fake name for a photographer, placing that fellow where no photographer is known to have situated his camera, and then depicting him taking a photographic image of Lincoln orating at Gettysburg despite the fact that no such image is known to exist. I can only surmise that the Ancestry Legal Department instructed its Marketing Department that it is wiser to depict a fictitious person engaged in a fictitious act of photographing Lincoln at a very famous historic event rather than risk being sued by the descendants of a real photographer who might claim that Ancestry is unfairly profiting from the use of their ancestor’s name and image. Perhaps visions of suits by image copyright holders also served as further motivation. When in doubt, fictionalize.

On the other hand, I’m more or less at ease with Ancestry’s aesthetically pleasing commercial despite their failure to depict the scene accurately and to identify one of the REAL PHOTOGRAPHERS at the Gettysburg dedication on November 19, 1863. Although it is hard for me to ignore blatant historical inaccuracies, I have to admit that the commercial wildly succeeded in calling attention to how we should celebrate and take pride in those cameramen (many of whom still are not properly credited 150+ years later) who played critical roles in capturing historic events on glass plate negative slides during America’s bloody Civil War. Anyone lucky enough to discover family connections to the people who toiled to create the photo-historical record of Gettysburg in November 1863 have every reason to be supremely proud of their ancestor.

— Craig Heberton, October 25, 2014

 

Note: The images herein are used under the doctrine of fair use for the purpose of commentary