In this most recent blog I have decided to touch on the tricky subject of all things regarding military authenticity in the movie and TV industry. Surprisingly, despite the production team having a military technical advisor on board, “things will not be 100% authentically correct every time. “Penny wise and pound foolish” Bear this phrase in mind when reading the rest of my blog.
“Filmmakers are under more pressure than ever to make sure military tactics and equipment are depicted realistically on-screen, and experienced advisors can make the difference” wrote Nick Goundry for KFTV.com last year
What we do
Production will often hire a technical advisor to ensure that a complicated area is portrayed as accurately as possible in the production. Similarly, a period movie may include one or more historians of the period, or eyewitnesses if possible, for the same purpose.
Technical advisors typically answer to the director and Line Producers. Their expertise adds realism both to the acting and to the setting of a movie. Some advisors for military movies have been known to run miniature boot camps to give actors a first-hand experience of a military setting. Boot camps additionally help provide the basics so when the camera rolls only a quick remind and revise is required. So less takes, less time and as we all know. Time is money!
To be a technical advisor you do not have to know every aspect of warfare, military history or have taken out several enemy bunkers armed with just a wooden spoon. What you do need is the ability to research your subject thoroughly, honestly and have that all important art of diplomacy. There is more to it than that, but I will reserve that explanation for another time.
I have made no secret during media interviews that advising in any capacity is 60% research and 40% your experience articulated to the Director, actor, stunt coordinator and supporting actors. You can only offer advice; you cannot demand it’s taken. The Director will have the last call and he may have a set look he wants to portray.
The Seven Ps during the early stages.
Movie or TV production preparations can take anything from six months to a year before the camera starts rolling. In most cases costume, art and prop departments are approached long before a technical advisor and although other departments are very experienced in their field, not all are subject matter experts (SME’S) on military jargon and Google image takes a pounding in the search for the right look, but without really knowing what they are looking for.
In an ideal world a Military Advisor (MA) should be brought in as early into pre-production as possible. An MA’s knowledge (tactfully delivered so not to offend) can save departments a lot of time and money from the offset, bringing the desired look as close to reality as possible from the very start, with communication at the very beginning and at all levels to avoid embarrassing mistakes that film critics and tabloids crave to exploit for headlines.
The wrong flags or medal, a beret worn like a helicopter landing pad on an actor’s head or even a WW2 fighter aircraft painted in the wrong markings for the year might seem trivial, but can make all the difference with the end product and can avoid fuelling critics looking for page space.
Don’t Shoot the MA.
Contrary to popular belief, and from my experience so far, Military Technical Advisors are not always approached by production during the early preparation stage of a film or TV program as much as you would think. Unfortunately it’s an all too common mistake and only identified once it’s too late and the budget on props and costumes have already been spent.
Most people with a service background or those who regularly attend historical re-enactment events are quick to critique any production with Military content and no Film or TV program are exempt and unfortunately it’s the MA who gets it in the neck most the time from those less experienced in the industry.
Before I started in the film industry I was the very same, pointing out inaccuracies until I had my first real taste as a full time Military Advisor on War and Peace for the BBC.
I was brought in with only a few days to learn Napoleonic warfare and put together a structured safe training program fit for purpose, before jetting off to Lithuania.
Once I landed in Lithuania I had a day for my own prep then straight into a seven day intensive Boot camp for 200 extras for the winter scenes. When time permitted I attempted to liaise with all the various departments, but it was obvious all the preparation work and fittings had already been done months in advance with very little I could do or add to change things.
Thankfully the team on War and Peace were mostly on their game and they had consulted a Historical advisor for all the costumes and medals, but that’s not always been the case. Once I was brought in the day before a scene was due to be filmed and it was the first time I had met the director or been able to train the actors with the supporting cast on set, just minutes before the cameras rolled!
These are not the droids you are looking for.
Set etiquette, diplomacy, and respect for the work and effort of each department is a skill in itself which must be mastered if you are to survive as a Military Technical Advisor. The ability to muster the force with the director comes in handy too!
Stepping on other department’s toes, strutting on set with a big ego, a reenactment head or a Regimental Sergeant Majors approach to every situation, while shouting and screaming from the roof tops will not get you far and you will have a short lived career.
You have to remember most people within the relevant departments have no service history and will not respond or tolerate it.
A few Classic Examples.
On one production scene I spent most of the 12 hour shoot correcting berets which had obviously been taken straight out of the hire company laundry bag and just pulled over the heads of cast in the changing room, with no attempt at shaping them a few days before. When I asked why this had happened I was simply told the hire company wanted them returned in the same state.
All I could do was to keep re-dressing the actor’s berets whilst teaching them what actions were required only to have to repeat the process minutes after. It was a very frustrating and repetitive day.
It’s not the costume departments fault of course as most of them would not know how or why there is a need to shape military headdress. However, on rare occasions I have had time with the costume department in advance and managed to convince them to allow me to take the berets out for a few days before a shoot and shape them to the respective heads during a boot camp.
This allowed the costume department to concentrate on other matters and I could correct how the actors would react to a given situation as well as answer all the other departments’ questions being fired at me during the day.
Some battles I have won and just this one example of adopting a diplomatic approach during prep, saved time, energy and the ever embarrassing berets saga. Other such battles I have lost and could only suck it up and grit my teeth. A very thick skin helps as it can be like banging your head against a brick wall at times.
Other examples, such as the configuration of soldier’s equipment, can also be an issue overlooked by departments not fully in the know.
On one production I had been required to step in at the last minute and change all the 58 pattern webbing belts to depict the units realistically for how they would wear them. For example the difference in equipment from an SAS soldier to a line infantry unit where an SAS soldier’s equipment and weapons would be more personalised and not standardised as a line unit.
The Props department were being led by a Google image they had been sent by a ‘Historian’ thinking the men in the picture were SAS troopers. Until I pointed out the unit was a light infantry regiment. Turned out the Historian had never served in the military so had no idea on how servicemen adapt issued equipment.
Current in-service unit insignia, badges, medals and flags are another gray area and sometime due to copy write laws productions are not always permitted to use these in films due to restrictions imposed by the MOD or DOD, so close alternatives have to be designed and made from scratch. I expect that more than half of you reading this never knew that!
There are also situations when heads of departments looking at savings feel they only need a technical adviser to train actors for a few hours then are no longer required during filming so to save money. This has proved to be counter productive as there is no one to correct obvious mistakes on set.
The actors and background are just that, actors. They are not soldiers and would not remember a few days training. So an experienced advisor should always be on set to remind, revise and be on hand for any questions.
From experience most Directors and Assistant Directors (AD) will not know the rank order of saluting or the difference from a Major to a corporal or unit trades when placing supporting actors in the background to act their respective roles.
I have been on set during filming with up to 400 supporting cast and I can find myself running from one group to the other correcting the obvious mistakes AD’s have made which would never have be noticed had I not been on set.
Again it’s not an AD’s fault, they are not to know and I only have two pair of eyes so something’s will be missed. It’s inevitable. However, Here are just a few howlers I have managed to correct on time.
1. A Russian private soldier shouting orders at a KGB Officer and giving the Private a British Army Salute.
2. A US Airforce Major General on guard and saluting an Airman First class as the Major General raises the barrier for him. .
3. A French prisoner of war given a sword and musket to walk past the camera with his captors when he’s supposed to be a prisoner.
4. A Royal Marine SGT who’s supposed to be part of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) walking about with just a fire extinguisher and no weapon or webbing during an incident in a hostile situation.
5. Fingers on triggers and missing magazines ( that old chest nut)
6. A US soldier from the 80’s sporting a UK issued diamond Jubilee medal.
7. Soldiers about to run in front of a firing friendly heavy machine gun during a big firefight scene. (Not only dangerous but would have been a very costly re-set)
8. Everyone trying to hold their issued weapon like they have been on lone Survivor ( but it’s a musket you plonker)
These are just the belt and braces mistakes and I could expand further, but by now I’m sure you get the picture. An advisor on set is a one man ‘Billy No Mates’ department and cannot be everywhere all of the time, but when they are there they will do their best to get as much right as possible within the constraints mentioned above.
Military Technical Advisers brought in early are a good spend and pay dividend when the cameras roll and on the cutting room floor. There is work still to be done to ensure that military advisors are brought onto productions from the beginning as a standard procedure and to do away with the penny wise and pound foolish attitude towards MA’s.
If you do see me on set don’t forget to give me a hug. Unless your from 3 Para Morters!
Feel free to share this blog and add your howlers on the comments box.