The Moving Past


A very different creative experience this week. Inspired by a couple of book trailers on Amy Bruno’s Historical Fiction site (on which I will be appearing in July) I decided I’d try my hand at a video. My hand pointed out it had never tried anything like this before so I roped in my friend, Steve Harris, who has all the appropriate skills and gadgets. By Friday last, we were sat together on location (in Steve’s study) in front on an unfeasibly large monitor and I got to do some creative back seat driving.


Before Friday, I’d already had to face up to some new challenges. Some were analogous to writing so I had a handle on those: brief is best, no history lessons and don’t give away the farm. I tried to think of the best movie trailers I had seen, but of course I had a big limitation: my video would be a sequence of stills. What’s more, they would need some connection in style otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t hang together. They also had to be free to use. A couple of searches later I was browsing through Civil War photos in the Library of Congress collection thinking, this’ll be great. But the more I browsed, the more my heart sank. At the time of the Civil War (1861 – 65) photography was in its infancy and the only pictures possible were stills. You could be forgiven for thinking that for most of the war the generals and soldiers did nothing but strike poses. You don’t even see many horses as they couldn’t be trusted to stand still (or not to blink). The only movement implied is when someone accidentally ghosts into the shot.


It made me think on how we perceive wars. WWI I always see in sped-up black and white, everybody in a hurry and kinda fidgety. Vietnam I imagine in overblown technicolour. For the Civil War, the classic piece of television is Ken Burns ‘The Civil War’ using the very stills I was looking at, set alternately to a sad lyrical fiddle or marshal band music. The effect is wonderful, but ultimately misleading. It’s too soothing. The irony is that the war was nothing but movement across half a continent. The recording medium of the time only matches the mood in retrospect because we’ve been trained to it.


My little project was saved by Alfred Waud, the Victorian equivalent of a modern day war photographer, but his medium was paintings – paintings that are wonderfully full of movement. Waud worked for the New York Illustrated News and later Harpers Weekly. He sketched the battles on the day, while the smoke was still in the air, and sent his results by courier for engraving and printing. The soldiers in his sketches have an almost Lowry like simplicity about them, but they are full of movement: a company of soldiers leaning into the slope as they head into battle, a sergeant half-crouched expecting a volley, an officer with his sword held high in forced bravado. All of this smudged into a gun-smoke forest. This was what I needed.


Steve and I synced Waud’s pictures with the accelerating pace of my chosen music and it was as good as a moving picture, better perhaps, as it still left some space for the imagination.


Please watch the video. It’s not half bad! Whirligig Trailer.


But please also take a look at the wonderful work of Alfred Waud.  Alfred Waud. Library of Congress.


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