Tuskegee Airmen 75th Anniversary: A Documentary Revisited
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Denton Adkinson : Tuskegee Airmen 75th Anniversary: A Documentary Revisited
Ed. note: When Denton Adkinson and Bryan Williams told us the story of their documentary, In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen, back in 2011, we were amazed. It was one of the most popular stories we published that year, not just because of the inspiring subject matter, but for the remarkable way it came together as a project, and in post. In the years since then, the film has taken on a life of its own, including national DVD distribution, becoming part of high school curricula, NFL celebrations, museum presentations, and more.
Now in 2016, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen, their film will be presented as a live event on over 200 screens across the US. To get there, though, Denton and Bryan had to update their SD original for the big screen, add a surround mix, and prep it for digital distribution. This is a story of faith, fortitude, upres, ProRes, and the power of positive phone calls that you won't want to miss.
On a hot summer day in August 2007, my business partner, Bryan, one of our actor friends, Thomas, and I sat in a Huddle House around midnight in Augusta, GA after a long shoot…two actually. We had scheduled two music video shoots simultaneously through the week, and were resting and refueling from being outdoors in the 106-degree heat for so long.
As we rested, Bryan told us that his wife foresaw us doing a documentary, but in our heat-induced delirium we had no ideas for direction. We prayed about it, being a Christian-based company, and the idea literally walked in the door in the form of an elderly African American gentleman wearing a Tuskegee Airmen hat, t-shirt, and jacket…remember I said this was August in Georgia and hot?
We took this as our sign and set forth on the documentary, not knowing where our funding would come from, our general story direction, how to do a documentary or what to do with it once we finished it. We were setting forth on a journey of blind faith, empty pockets and a desire to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen the best we could.
Lt. Col. Spann Watson, interviewed by Denton and Bryan at his home in New York in July 2008.
Our first interview was with Lt. Col. Charles Dryden in October 2007 and our last was filmed in September 2008. We filmed with our trusty workhorse, the standard definition indie favorite, Panasonic DVX-100.
Denton, Bryan, and Rod Hunt interview Lt. Col. Charles Dryden in 2007
We traveled along the eastern coast of the United States and interviewed sixteen of the original Tuskegee Airmen. We captured raw emotion and unbelievable history in those interviews, and felt we walked away with sixteen new grandfathers.
We made a promise to each of them that we would do our best to never let their story die.
"Our interview with Col. Charles McGee," says Denton. "You can see the DVX-100 in all of its glory. Also, Col. McGee is the current record holder in the US Air Force for combat hours and missions for a fighter pilot - 1,280 hours and 409 missions."
My Powermac G5 hummed day and night for roughly two months. We used Final Cut Pro v5.1 for the editing of the film, Lightwave 3D for reenactments, and Apple Shake for compositing. At the end of those two months, we had a documentary!
SHARING THE STORY
During its nearly two-month shelf life, our documentary was a featured product at Walmart during Black History Month and sold roughly 12,000 copies. We were elated that our work was released nationally, that people actually purchased it, and that we were keeping our promise to the Airmen; but after Red Tails, we had no idea what was coming next.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were next to come calling. In late November of 2012, they helped us lift the Airmen high in front of 59,000 ravenous Steelers fans, and millions more on television when they invited Tuskegee Airman Wendell Freeland, Bryan, and I to be honored on the sidelines during the 2012 Veteran’s Day Monday Night Football Game. Mr. Freeland would pass in 2014, but he spoke to us many times after about the night the Steelers honored him.<r>
Denton Adkinson and Bryan Williams behind Tuskegee Airman Wendell Freeland, honored by the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Monday November 12th 2012
Then in 2013, publishing giant McGraw-Hill “mistakenly” approached our company about licensing an Airmen clip they thought we owned. This particular clip wasn’t exactly what they wanted, however when talking with them further, one of the Strategic Planning and School Development officers realized he had seen and thoroughly enjoyed our documentary on a military airbase. He couldn’t believe it when we made the connection. We were able to customize a five-minute clip of In Their Own Words that fit exactly what they needed.
In turn, that clip was placed in every high school in twenty states as a way of inspiring graduating seniors. Just under three million students per year are now are making this story a part of themselves.
A NEW LIFE FOR IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Then came a job as cinematographer for a WWII movie shot on location in France, and a brand new Red Camera. The story was about a 3-day battle that I would be filming for three months. I think I had it a little worse than the Americans as I had to stop every twelve minutes to change digital magazines, which anyone who has ever seen a war film knows that soldiers never have to reload.
Denton Adkinson and his Red camera on the set of 29, Let's Go near St Lo, France. "We are standing in front of a German 88mm gun that was brought to the location," says Denton, "which was actually the same fields the battle took place on."
While I was off fighting the wars of 4K footage, Bryan headed into the realm of documentaries.
However, In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen would constantly creep back into our thoughts. But what more could we do? The answer was about to come, in August of 2015.
THE POWER OF PHONE CALLS
Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Anderson take flight in March 1941
Now that the realization had set in, where would we go from here? Back in 2011, when we heard that Red Tails was coming. we made phone call after phone call to try and figure out how to get our documentary into stores. It wasn’t until Bryan’s cousin Ginger, a Walmart employee, told us of a group called Anderson Merchandising that supplied the audio/ video section of their stores.
Denton and Bryan with their documentary, In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen on the day of its release at Walmart, 2011
Immediately Bryan called them and got right through to the head of video, who was leaving in two weeks. We were that close to missing the right person.
Here in 2016, Bryan’s wheels began to turn, and he thought why not call Regal Cinemas and see if we could do an exclusive for the 75th anniversary by playing the documentary in theaters with them?
As much progress as we had made, we couldn’t figure out quite the right things say if we even got them on the phone. After all, we are this tiny little company who had (years ago) produced a standard definition documentary in what was now the world of 4K. How hard would they laugh if we called and mentioned the silver screen?
It was at that moment the phone rang. Bryan answered. It was a museum director from Arkansas who wanted to know if he could license In Their Own Words: the Tuskegee Airmen, for a Black History Month event he was having in 2016. He started off by telling him how “wonderful the story was” and how he just “had to show it. ” Then he told Bryan that he “should watch it”, obviously not knowing he was the producer. He said “You’ll learn a lot and it will inspire you. ”
An even bigger revelation would come in his next sentence. “Oh by the way, I haven’t seen it yet!” He hadn’t seen it. That was odd. He explained he had friends in the military and other museums who had raved about it. At this point Bryan told him who he was and they both had a big laugh.
THE 75th ANNIVERSARY OF THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN: CALLING REGAL CINEMAS
Bryan left a powerful message on the CEO’s voicemail. To this day, he can’t remember exactly what he said, but the next morning, we received a call from one of the Senior Vice Presidents at Regal, who told us “We heard your voicemail. You’re not going to believe this, but we were just recently discussing doing something that would honor the military, and then you called. ”
Why was Regal Cinemas, the nation's largest movie chain, inclined to move forward on our project? Because they understand that sometimes a story comes along that unites us all, and these stories deserve a platform to be shown. Our country is in desperate need of healing and that’s exactly what this story does. It shows the absolute worst, how to deal with it, and become the absolute best of America’s history. Most importantly, it shows that we must work together for the good of all.
They say God works in mysterious ways. That phone call from Regal Cinemas didn’t just reignite our passion and the documentary’s flame. It poured gasoline on it.
After a series of phone calls and a few weeks, we were put in touch with Fathom Events, who specialize in one-night national theatrical showings of films and special events. They loved the idea of our documentary and the timeliness of it, and wanted to pursue it as a Fathom Event.
The Fathom Events page for the March 29, 2016 showing of In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen in 207 theaters across 175 cities.
They recommended we add a panel discussion with Bryan and I to be shown after the documentary plays in theaters, to give the audience an added bonus. We agreed, but Fathom felt we should trim the documentary to keep the event under two hours with the added panel discussion.
Our documentary was 91 minutes long, and the panel was estimated to be about 35 minutes. I was open to the idea of shortening the documentary, as there were a few edits I had always wanted to tweak. So I sat down and critically watched the film, paying close attention and asking myself what each sound bite add to the overall story.
I made a list of possible edits while watching. Mostly I noted any time the pacing felt like it slowed. Once the film ended, I set out to “trim the fat” of our labor of love for so many years. For two days I cut and cut some more, and felt sure I had cut at least fifteen minutes out.
But, when reviewing my timecode, I realized I managed to trim the documentary by only four minutes! I watched the film again, made more notes and somehow cut a total of nine minutes, bringing the total run running time to 82 minutes. I’m not sure how it happened, but I feel it is a better film overall.
For our panel discussion, we coordinated with the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. They had reached out to us to show our documentary as part of their film series, and we were more than happy to oblige. We asked our friend Tuskegee Airman George Hardy about joining Bryan and I on the panel, for which he jumped out of his relaxing South Florida beach chair.
We also got retired astronaut and former Administrator of NASA Col. Fred Gregory to moderate it. We filmed the discussion with three Panasonic HVX-200 HD cameras in front of a live audience, which was quite fun!
GETTING READY FOR THE BIG SCREEN: FROM SD TO HD
After cutting the film to 82 minutes and editing our panel discussion, the first hurdle to jump over was the best method to upres our standard definition documentary to 1080. We looked into hardware solutions for the conversion, but with our limited, almost non-existent budget, we decided to pursue the software route.
We jokingly thought about film an HD monitor with our RED, to give us a 4K version, but dismissed this for obvious reasons.
We looked into Magic Bullet’s InstantHD on our Adobe Premiere system running on Windows and were mostly pleased with the results, except for the fonts and a number of photos. But doing the upres on PC meant dealing with FAT32 and exporting the documentary in stages, and finding a solution to export to ProRes 422 HQ, as it isn’t a native codec on Windows machines.
The decision was made to create the master via Final Cut Pro; but, after I explored my Final Cut version, version 5.1, I realized I lacked the ProRes codec on my system…sigh…
I will say, angels come in all shapes and forms, but our angel came in the form of our curly-haired, Tom Berringer-look-alike friend Ben Goss, who owns a production company here in town. Ben has an iMac with Final Cut 7, which beautifully has the option of ProRes 422 HQ, and he was more than happy to let us borrow his computer for a week.
Tom Berenger lookalike and unlikely angel Ben Goss
With the ProRes export issue solved, we concentrated on the upres. We made the decision to only upres the DVX-100 footage and our actual interviews, and build a new timeline with re-edited photos and fonts.
We lacked InstandHD on the iMac, but I studied the look and how the filter worked on our footage enough that I felt I could match it inside Final Cut Pro using Sharpen, Blur, and Sharpen Some More filters. I then took the original scans of the photographs and re-edited them into the timeline, recreating the original documentary with the full resolution photos.
CREATING A NEW 5.1 MIX
I reached out to a friend of mine who does audio and he agreed to do the 5.1 mix, but our dates somehow got mixed up and he was in Jamaica working on a documentary the day I needed the mix. Well, if you’ve ever heard the term “baptism by fire,” you know how much I read about 5.1 mixing in a short time, as I had to mail a hard drive with a 5.1 mix at the end of the week. I visited a number of pages on Creative COW, and gained enough of a false sense of confidence to open a program and start mixing.
Remember my angel, Ben Goss? Well, his computer also had Soundtrack Pro 3, which had the capability of 5.1 mixing. After watching a clip of “Major League” in Ben’s honor, I watched a YouTube video about the user interface of Soundtrack Pro and 5.1 mixing, and I dove in and started working.
Luckily, being a documentary, I was limited in my need of all of the channels. I didn’t really need the surround fields for sound effects or the LFE channel. I just used the center for the narrator; the left and right for my interviewees, and mixed the score amongst the left, right and a touch of the surround fields. I exported the mix to Final Cut Pro and put it into my timeline.
After tweaking the sequence settings to export six mono panned channels, I exported the entire sequence to ProRes 422 HQ with my 5.1 mix.
Six hours later, I watched it, and had to go back in and fix a few mistakes. After re-exporting it, I checked and rechecked the file, and once satisfied, copied it to an external hard drive to mail to Fathom.
The way they distribute their content is they ingest the ProRes 422 file into their system, and transmit a satellite feed to all of the participating theaters on their network. So instead of 207 hard drives going to theaters across America, we sent one hard drive to Fathom’s Denver office, which really made things easy for us!
MARKETING THE NEW IN THEIR OWN WORDS: THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN
Bryan and I still have to remind ourselves we aren’t dreaming. Our Tuskegee Airmen documentary will show March 29th in 207 theaters across 175 cities. We’ve reached out to the eight still living Airmen that we interviewed – they’re all in their early- to mid-90s -- and we have joyfully told them the news. They’ve congratulated us as filmmakers and friends, but most importantly, they’ve commended us for keeping our promise, that we would do our best to keep their story alive!
What’s next for the documentary? Our ultimate goal has always been to get the film into curriculums in schools across the country. We’ve reached out to see how we can make that happen, and for right now, it is on our list of things to do in the future. Maybe we should head back to the Huddle House and see who walks in.
With the Tuskegee Airmen’s blessings, our Red One, Tom Berenger’s iMac and Final Cut Pro 7, and a slew of new contacts who appreciate genuine filmmakers who are as transparent as the new iPhones, we feel anything is possible.
BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! The live presentation of In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen to celebrate their 75th anniversary, is THIS TUESDAY, MARCH 29! Playing on over 200 screens in 175 cities across the nation, it's quite likely that one of them is near you! For more details on the showing, visit http://www.fathomevents.com/event/in-their-own-words-the-tuskegee-airmen
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Denton Adkinson and Bryan Williams are the principals of Bryton Entertainment, LLC, a multifaceted video production company located in Augusta, GA, whose services range from commercials, music videos, concerts, documentaries, and live events, to graphic design and 3D animation.
Ed. note: And be sure to check out our original 2011 story telling the remarkable tale of the making of In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen.