“War of Words: The Soldier Poets of the Somme” is a 90 minute BBC Arts documentary that seeks to reconnect the history and the landscape of the notorious 1916 Battle of the Somme with the extraordinary poetry and literature that it inspired. BDH created both the striking content graphics and exceptional poetry animation to achieve this aim.
For the content graphics BDH used panoramic landscape photography taken at the time of the battle, manipulated portraits of the poets embedded into landscapes and tracked names onto drone photography to show the specific positions of each individual at various times of the battle. The team worked with historian, Jeremy Banning, to create detailed analytical maps showing the complex movements, advance and retreats throughout the three months and eighteen days of the battle.
For the poetry animations themselves, it was most important they stood separately from the rest of the programme to allow the words to breath and let the audience explore and immerse themselves in the poetry, now presented with a fresh perspective.
BDH, therefore, sought to develop a new visual language and style, weaving together a myriad of techniques and technologies, including puppetry, CGI, illustration, particle dynamics and drawn animation that would take the viewer to a different place to the rest of the film, uncompromisingly showing the spirit, violence, terror, honour, sadness and anger the extraordinary poems so vividly expressed.
For Siegfried Sassoon’s interpretation of the bloodthirsty rhetoric of his drill sergeant, “The Kiss”, a disembodied rifle assembles and loads itself, fires off a round and then, inspired by the footage of the Great War training fields, joyfully animates and plunges itself into ghostly German bodies, invoking the downward darting kiss of Sassoon’s ‘Sister Steel’.
Watercolour landscapes were dimensionalised and drawn animation, fluid dynamics and 3D puppetry added for William Hodgson’s prayer before death, “Before Action”, a work published the day before he was lost on the first day of the battle.
For David Jones’ often overlooked epic “In Parenthesis”, hand held footage of walking through the modern day Mametz Wood, was tracked and applied to virtual cameras moving through a CGI wood. With added explosions, machine gun fire, falling trees, exploding splinters, flying body parts, drawings and twisted human wreckage, BDH attempted to capture the bravery and disorientation experienced by the private soldiers as they attempted to take the wood on that awful day.
Isaacs Rosenberg’s “Louse Hunting” inspired a room filled with frozen twisted drawn forms, echoing the Austrian style Rosenberg himself painted in, as the soldiers attempted to seek and rid themselves of the tiny lice tormentors that presented such a risk to health.
The team used all the resources available to dismantle moments, to bring what is so often perceived as a war between blocks of humanity back to a personal, understandable perspective, and to honour those who saw and experience things thankfully so few of us will only have to imagine.
This compilation was put together as a teaser for the full length documentary and released on the iPlayer the weekend of Rememberance Day.
Making these animations was a very humbling privilege, and a hefty responsibility, and we hope they are a fitting tribute to the people who saw and experienced things thankfully most of us only have to imagine.
A great big thanks to Hugh Cowling and Libby Redden who contributed so much to the finished work.