Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Blood, sweat and special effects: The making of a Civil War visitor center film

First of two parts

The special effects alone are frighteningly realistic.

Paintballs filled with dust fly through the air, mimicking bullets as they make contact. A shell burst brings terrors to advancing troops, who move around fake boulders put in place by the film crew.

Then there’s the artillery.

Black powder and a small charge, buried in a pot, push up sod and cork to approximate explosions.

“They don’t blow it right where you are walking. Maybe a foot away. It doesn’t hurt you,” said Travis Devine (left), 26, of Sweetwater, Tenn.

Devine, caked in fake blood and dirt, was among about 175 re-enactors taking part in a film shoot in June for a new film at the visitor center at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. Officials expect it to debut before the 150th anniversary of the failed Union assault during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

Devine has taken part in other films, including one that will debut in October at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

While Devine says film shoots are fun, he realizes there’s a serious dimension to what he does, given the ghastly cost of the Civil War.

“When you are doing a historical film, you try to do your best in honor to the guys that fought,” said Devine. “You want to make it the best you can.”

The effort begins and ends with accuracy.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield’s Chief Ranger Anthony Winegar and historian Willie Johnson traveled to Chitwood Farm in Resaca, Ga., for filming of several battle scenes, including the fighting at Cheatham Hill and Pigeon Hill.

They provided details of the Confederate earthworks at the “Dead Angle” on Cheatham Hill, scene of a fierce Union assault on June 27, 1864. Hundreds of men were killed or wounded in the dogged, but failed, attack waves.

“We knew the story of Kennesaw Mountain would be a story of earthworks,” said Winegar. “I said if we are going to do it, we need to do it right. We needed to show how substantial those lines were in 1864.”

Working from those plans, executive producer and director Chris Wheeler of Denver-based Great Divide Pictures hired a contractor to build a re-created section of the “Dead Angle.”

It took a week for the contractor, a Civil War re-enactor, to haul in dirt and build the fortifications, which includes pine logs and poles.

“We found some places where the terrain was pretty close” to the actual battlefield, Winegar told the Picket. “That’s the closest I have ever seen to textbook 1864 earthworks.”

Illinois regiments assaulted the “Dead Angle,” a relative weak spot in the Rebel line.

“There were no mutual fields of fire by the defending troops. Everywhere else the Confederate line is in a zigzag fashion to support each other,” said Winegar.

In addition to combat, the new visitor center film -- entitled “Kennesaw: One Last Mountain” -- will convey the war’s impact on Georgia civilians and two former slaves, Emma Stephenson and Austin Gilmore.

Stephenson served as a 17th Army Corps nurse. She fell ill while caring for white soldiers and later died. Gilmore enlisted in the 111th Illinois Infantry to fight for freedom. A stretcher bearer, Austin removed bodies of wounded and dead soldiers during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He was mortally wounded while rescuing a soldier.

Wheeler and his 25-member crew also filmed in Dalton, Ga., and at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site.

Wheeler, whose company has made many films for the National Park Service, said special effects and animated graphics give productions like the recent “Shiloh: Fiery Trial” a certain wow factor.

“(But) We’re not trying to sugar coat or minimize the battle,” he said. “If you were still alive in 1864, fighting in this war, you had to be one tough SOB.”

“I’m not sure how to get my head around the carnage. It happened in our our back yards,” Wheeler added. “We are trying to convey and touch this nerve to get people interested.”

Great Divide Pictures paid most re-enactors about $50 a day, plus expenses, including food and powder, for the Kennesaw project. “These guys don’t do it for the money. We wish we could pay them more,” said the director.

The crew has worked with the same group of “hardcore” re-enactors.

“They practice how you react after being shot and what is the reaction when you have artillery going off,” said Wheeler.

Winegar did double duty at the film shoot.

A re-enactor with a Federal hardcore unit, he “got blown up twice and shot once, much to the satisfaction of several of my employees, I’m sure.”

Winegar, historian Brad Quinlin and park historian Johnson helped ensure accuracy.

They asked some re-enactors to remove hats or leather haversacks that wouldn’t have been worn by soldiers in that war theater.

“We had some younger children that were there in support roles as musicians. There was one scene at Cheatham Hill, having a 10 or 11 year old face there, we politely moved him to another part of the scene,” said Winegar. “It’s a delicate balance. You want to keep that spirit in a young kid. At same time, you don’t want to give the American public who views the film the wrong impression.”

A few women who disguised their gender were among those filmed.

Scott MacKay, president of the Kennesaw Mountain Trail Club, which does vital trail improvements in the battlefield, witnessed filming in Resaca, some of it in rainy conditions.

“There was smoke, explosives, soldiers and shouting,” MacKay said. “There is some standing around. I have been to other shoots. You feel like you are in 1864 until shortly after they say ‘cut.’ You see the smart phones come out and them checking it.”

Wheeler said work begins a year before shooting.

“The planning of these Civil War movies are monsters,” he said. “I know in my head what we want. We have a script. That said, we’re also flexible. Sometimes things happen you don’t anticipate -- and you must take advantage.”

The principal day of shooting for the Shiloh film was a “complete disaster” brought on by severe storms.

“The whole day was shot as far as I planned. (But) There was a silver lining,” Wheeler said. “There were incredible shots of guys in the rain … the mood that was created by that.”

Like others, Travis Devine portrayed both Confederate and Union soldiers in the Kennesaw filming.

Days are long and there were moments of hurry up and wait.

“One scene we shot almost 15 times. There would be noise in the background, someone was smiling or they could not hear it,” he said.

Devine is a member of a mainstream re-enacting unit.

“I’m working on my impression to get better,” he told the Picket. “I do campaign, but I don’t have the best of uniforms yet. It’s a work in progress.”

Devine said he’s satisfied with the modest pay.

“It pays for the gas and you have fun and you are doing something for the battlefield.”

CREDITS: Photos 2, 3 and 4 courtesy of Scott MacKay. All others courtesy of Travis Devine.

COMING SOON: These aren't your grandfather's visitor center films. Parks are telling a more inclusive story about the Civil War.

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