The art of making a historical documentary

Tomorrow we’re delivering the final master of The Story of the Road. A documentary that tells the story of the construction of The Great Ocean Road, built by returned soldiers from WWI. We’ve been working on it for a year and as they say in reality TV world, the process has been quite the ‘journey’. The ups and downs have been on par with the Matterhorn roller coaster. And at times it has felt more like a sprint than a marathon. But we’re currently staring down the finish line and we’re bloody excited to see our work on the cinema screen in a few weeks time. We’re also very proud of the story that we’ve been able to tell. Here are some of the lessons we learnt on this ‘journey’ they call documentary making. 


How the heck do you make a historical documentary interesting? 

When Clothesline Content began the project we knew our research window was limited, due to the timeline, and so we had to start digging to find the story gold right away. We wanted to find the untold stories about the people who built the road, we didn’t want our film to be a straight-up historical documentary. You know the ones, where they’re a linear story and a whole lot of dates and facts. We wanted to make this personal. Bring to life the stories of all the people, not just ex-servicemen, who helped construct The Great Ocean Road. We wanted to entertain our audience. And also get them thinking. So the next time they’re driving along the iconic stretch of road and they’re getting annoyed at the person going 10 kilometers an hour around the windy roads, they take a minute to think about the people who built the road. 


What do you do when everyone is dead?

We faced a few hurdles with that one. Construction on The Great Ocean Road began in 1919  so we knew that we’d struggle to find anyone alive from that time period. We knew that the majority of our information was going to come from books or stories that had been passed down from generation to generation. This was going to give us a few more hurdles (with all this hurdle training we should be in the Olympics, right?) Our main issue being, how are we going to bring to life the stories of people who aren’t alive? 


Enter, our researcher and film contributor Dr. Katti Williams. Her area of expertise is World War One Memorials. Bingo. Because fun fact, The Great Ocean Road is the longest war memorial in the world, dedicated to the people who lost their lives in World War One. We reached out to Dr. Williams and it turns out her other speciality was uncovering and researching ancestry. So her knowledge base was perfect for the film. Together we began the research of uncovering the stories of the ex-soldiers who fought in World War One, survived, and came back to Australia and worked on the construction of the road. Dr. Williams dug through war records, Trove and hundreds of books to uncover stories about these incredible men that had never been heard. Through her research, we were able to bring these stories to life. 


Where are we going to get factual information from (because everyone is dead)? 

There have been a handful of books written about the history of The Great Ocean Road, but there isn’t a heap. We’re talking less than ten. So we knew the best information we were going to find would be from the people who have lived in the coastal towns along the road for generations. We began by meeting with the stakeholders who were invested in the documentary and they gave us great leads as to where to start. But the main direction was you, “you have to speak to the historical societies.” 


What is the historical society you may ask? They’re vaults of local historical information run by dedicated and engaged volunteers. We’re talking photos, newspaper articles, books, and archive films. We spent a lot of time in these societies, with volunteers sharing their knowledge and resources with us. To be honest, we were so fascinated with the historical societies we started thinking about doing a documentary on them, but one documentary at time. 


We need a story.

We met Peter Spring through the Lorne Historical Society. He’s the Vice-President. We first me with him to go through construction history and he started to tell us this story about how all the names of the soldiers had been lost in a fire or misplaced years ago. We were intrigued. So he and another bloke had started their own investigation to find the names of the missing soldiers ten years ago. We were really listening now. He said they had been searching for more names for years and wanted to complete the missing list of the 2,500 soldiers who built a section of The Great Ocean Road. We were in. This was our story. 


One team, one dream. 

Our production company, Clothesline Content, is a small team. There’s me. Hi! (thanks for reading this far) I’m Claire, Co-Founder/ Director/ Producer. Jacqueline Tonks, also Co-Founder/ Director/ Producer. So, yeah small. We scale with the size of our projects and this was going to be a large one so we got some people involved. And when I say people, I mean the best in the world of broadcast TV. We got Stu Heppell on board as our Director of Photography. We met Stu when we all worked at The Project together many moons ago. Stu was originally a photographer and has an incredible eye for framing. He’s also a slick drone pilot and we knew, being a documentary on a road that runs along the most beautiful part of Australia, that we were going to use a heck of a lot of drone shots. We also knew that we needed an incredible post-production team to bring this story to life. We wanted modern and engaging graphics to do the heavy lifting of the boring information and we wanted to bring to life the incredible archive vision and photos. The people for the job had to be Coolchange Creative. Run by Nick Cooper and Neil Sanderson, again former Project colleagues. Nick and Neil went above and beyond to really deliver. From Nick sourcing an actual cannon explosion from World War One as sound effects for archive war vision to keep it accurate. To Neil working his graphics magic to bring flat archive photos to life through 3D and projection mapping.   


Digging through the archives.

A major part of bringing this story to life was using photos. All black and white, many damaged (as some are over one hundred years old). But my gosh, some of them are incredible. Through some leads we were put onto a bloke called Peter Cecil. He is a Torquay local and wildfire instructor for the CFA. His dad wrote many books about The Great Ocean road and was an incredible photographer who collected photos from the local area. Peter invited us around for a cuppa and we began going through his collection of over 10,000 photos- a full time job in itself. But with his help we were able to find photos that had never seen the light of day and really helped tell the story. 


Archive film. We knew it had to exist, we just needed to find it. We started by looking through the catalogs of the National Film and Sound Archive and the Australian War Memorial. Gosh! there is some incredible archive vision out there. I absolutely loved this part of making the film. Looking through films from the late 1800s and early 1900s was such a cool experience and one you don’t get to do very often. We desperately wanted to find vision of the soldiers working on the road but were told that all the film, mainly filmed by Charles Herschell, had been destroyed in a fire in Richmond in the 1940’s. But that didn’t stop us. We ordered a bunch of films to look through at the NFSA. They digitised them for us and we got watching. Four hours in and we had given up all hope of finding just one single shot of these men hard at work with their shovels and axes. And then, bingo. One. Just one shot that ran about twenty seconds. We found it and it was magical. 



The Story of the Road will be showing at the Lorne Theatre on Wednesday 18th September and Apollo Bay Mechanics Institute Thursday 19th September as part of the I Am 100 celebrations. For tickets click this link.  

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