On December 7, 2001 the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor more than three hundred survivors of the Japanese raid gathered in Fredericksburg, Texas to remember the day that forever changed our nation.
Hundreds of other veterans from WWIIs Pacific Theatre, including 2nd Lt. Bill Brown, USAAC, and Col. Bill Henderson, UCMC, both of whom fought in the bloody battle for Iwo Jima in 1945, also converged in Admiral Nimitz hometown to reflect upon the event that propelled their generation into war.
Doug Phillips met both Brown and Henderson that day, and following several hours of interviews with the two Iwo warriors, the idea for The League of Grateful Sons documentary was birthed.
After much discussion, the target date was set for an expedition back to Iwo Jima: March 12, 2005 the sixtieth anniversary of the epic battle.
In the opening weeks of 2004, the plans for the journey across the Pacific were being made in earnest. Clearance had to be secured by the Japanese government for our team to touch down on Iwo Jima. This was facilitated through Combat Veterans of Iwo Jima, the only group the Japanese government interfaces with to arrange access for Americans to visit the island. Military Historic Tours, under exclusive contract with CVIA, helped to organize all of the details for the sixtieth anniversary trip back to Iwos black sands.
Logistical requirements for our one-day shoot on Iwo prompted heavy dialogue with the United States Marine Corps. The USMC served as our escort while on the island, and, through the help of their Media Relations Officer, we were able to obtain a dedicated 7-ton transport vehicle and ready access to key shoot locations. The jurisdictional and logistical hoops we had to jump through prior to our day on Iwo alone were many not to mention all of the advance planning that was needed for the rest of the stops we made as part of our five-week excursion, noted associate producer Wesley Strackbein. While we had to improvise once the project got underway, we would have not have been successful in this mission of honor apart from many months of careful planning.
Prior to departure, each member of The League of Grateful Sons film team was give an assignment whether it was managing interviews, handling a camera, or simply carrying water for the rest of the crew. The family members of the vets were not excluded from this: each son and grandson had a role to play to ensure that the mission was successful.
The project would take the crew halfway around the world, shooting in Texas, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and on Iwo Jima itself. We needed to choose camera equipment that was rugged and light, but we couldnt afford to compromise on quality, explained cinematographer Isaac Botkin. We were also limited in the number of crew members that we would be able to bring to Iwo, since the trip was such an exclusive event. In light of this fact, we decided to go with the miniDV format and limit ourselves to two mid-level DV cameras for most of the shooting, which we adapted to accept larger batteries.
After choosing the format and the Canon XL2 camera as a base, the crew built a production kit that could be scaled down as the trip progressed. Isaac Botkin explains: The first stage of production involved a number of interviews here in Texas, as well as the Iwo Jima anniversary parade in Fredericksburg and a reenactment of the battle for Mount Suribachi. At that point we were using four cameras and field monitors and a number of things that we really couldnt take with us. The second stage was our time on Guam and Hawaii, and we were using two cameras, a backup camera, a few different lenses and a smaller light kit. For the day we spent in Iwo, we were down to the bare minimum just the things we could carry onto the plane.
One aspect of production that remained constant throughout production was the highly complex sound design. Because the goal of the trip was to record veterans with their families, up to eight wireless lapel microphones were used at a time, along with a Sennheiser shotgun mic mounted on a boom. Certain mics were recorded on separate camera channels, others were combined on a portable mixer run by sound engineer and boom operator Peter Bradrick.
At the end of the shoot, there were over ninety full tapes, totaling almost one hundred hours of footage, that would need to be edited into the final 74-minute product. Most of these tapes were interviews with veterans and their families, and the contents needed to be readily accessible to the script writers. Thousands of questions and answers needed to be shared with the writers in such a way that they could search for specific comments. The solution involved a semi-automated process that created an MP3 file of a video files audio which was posted onto an FTP server. Volunteers then transcribed the audio clips and posted the text files in the same place.
It turned out to be a pretty efficient way to do it, reports head editor David Botkin. The writers could connect to the server, see the text and MP3 files into the same directory structure that we were using for our final edit, and search for specific words across all the interviews. Once they found what they were looking for, they could actually listen to those pieces of the interviews to get a better idea of how clips might work together. It made things much easier for them, and because their files had the same names and lengths as our original video files, it was very simple for us to cut together exactly what they put into the script.
Once the script had reached a rough draft, the first edits were made, and researchers began to look for historical photos and footage to fit the final product. Combing through the National Archives, libraries across America, The Marine Corps Archives, and the personal collections of historians, the team began to amass a body of fascinating material. Unfortunately, not all of it was in pristine condition. Most of the film footage obtained from the National Archives had degraded severely over the last sixty years and had to be digitally cleaned and stabilized before it could be used.
The post team also created graphics to illustrate points of the film, such as a photorealistic Curtis JN-4 for a reenactment, and 3D topographic models of Iwo Jimas surface and underlying tunnel system. During the last phase of post, these graphics were tweaked, and a color-correction pass was applied to the entire film. At the same time, the soundtrack was undergoing its final mixdown. Originally created using Garritans Personal Orchestra, it was mastered on Cubase.