Cutting Edge Technology
Offers a New Look at the Story of Gettysburg
On the first three days of July, 150 years ago, a tiny south-central Pennsylvania town unwittingly became the theater for one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles in the nation’s history.
The clash between Union Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in 1863 forever marked Gettysburg’s soil as hallowed ground.
Most scholars of the subject look toward the Battle of Gettysburg, which resulted in more than 50,000 estimated casualties, as the turning point in the Civil War.
The stories of the bravery, the enormous loss of life, the victories and the defeats during the Battle of Gettysburg have been told and re-told on film and in books for the past century and a half.
But Jake Borrit, a Gettysburg-raised documentary filmmaker, has breathed new life into the aged story through the use of cutting-edge technology. Borrit’s film, The Gettysburg Story, will premiere at the Majestic Theater on June 16 at 3 p.m. as the closing event of the Gettysburg Festival (June 8 through 16). It is also scheduled for national syndication later this year on Public Television via Maryland Public Television.
Narrated by actor Stephen Lang, well known for roles in films like Avatar, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, Boritt’s documentary features radio-control, aerial-drone cinematography; motion-control, time-lapse footage; and dynamic digital geo-location graphic maps. The filmmaker and his team were also granted unprecedented access to the 6,000-acre battlefield – even being allowed to film overnight.
Now a Harlem, N.Y. resident, Boritt grew up surrounded by the location as well as the stories of The Battle of Gettysburg. He lived on an historic farm in Gettysburg, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and his father was a history professor at Gettysburg College. Boritt admits that he was not exactly a Civil War buff, but he could not help but learn much about the subject.
“I was surrounded by it, and I was exposed to the greatest people in the field,” says Boritt, 37. “Michael Shaara, writer of The Killer Angels, ate at our dinner table. Jim McPherson (a best-selling author) and Ken Burns (documentary filmmaker); I met these people at 12 years old. I also went on lots of battlefield tours and worked at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.”
The idea for The Gettysburg Story was born while Boritt helped his father give battlefield tours.
“One tour was for George W. Bush when he was the President in 2008,” he explains. “I realized that I knew the story well, but I knew it in a tight sort of way – just enough to give the tour. When you give a tour to the President of the United States, you start to look into the subject and learn a little more. That developed into an idea my dad and I had for an auto tour, which turned into the official auto tour for the Gettysburg National Military Park.”
At the time, Boritt was also working on another film called Boy Scouts of Harlem, but having just finished up work on the auto tour, Gettysburg was on his mind. With the 150th anniversary of the battle approaching two years from then, Boritt felt the timing was right for a re-telling of his hometown’s story with the aid of new filming techniques and technology.
“I’m a filmmaker by trade, and there is no video or film component to the audio tour,” he says. “There are pictures in a book along with three CDs of audio that you listen to as you go around the stops on the battlefield, but no video. So, while I was writing the script, I would go out to the battlefield and sit at the particular spot I was writing about. It was kind of like a cinema of place. It was powerful because it was the actual place where these events took place. As it developed, it became more and more of a film in my head.”
Boritt says his motivation for making the documentary was being able to utilize new filming technologies to tell the story of Gettysburg for a new generation of viewers.
“We’re not doing any groundbreaking new historical interpretation of the battle of Gettysburg,” he admits. “It’s very much – for the most part – the story that you’ve already heard. But what we’re doing is showing the landscape in a really innovative, new way, and it’s captivating.”
Cameron Michael, one of the cinematographers for The Gettysburg Story, worked on the film on and off for the past six months capturing time-lapse footage for different seasons.
“I definitely think a lot of people are going to wonder how we did it,” says the 26-year-old. “A lot of people don’t know the technology we’re using, and I think a lot of people will be taken back by the time-lapse and the aerial shots – it’s so well stabilized and so well-shot at such a high-fidelity.”
Like with many independent films, The Gettysburg Story was underfunded. This past March, Boritt turned to Kickstarter, an Internet-based funding platform for creative projects, to finish the documentary.
“The technology is getting cheaper and better, but you still need to pay your guys and eat,” he says. “We also wanted to do bigger, better stuff. Kickstarter was the first time we put out any of our footage to show what we’ve done.”
The response on Kickstarter helped Boritt and his team more than exceed their fundraising goal. “That kind of sense of community and belief in the project was really inspiring,” he says. “It really helped, and we surpassed our initial goal of $25,000 and ended with more than $66,000. Plus we got some additional money through public television. So we more than tripled our original goal.”
With The Gettysburg Story completed, what’s next for Boritt?
“One project that we’ve been developing is about a movement to bring modern cooking technology to women around the world,” he reveals. “A billion people still cook with stone-age techniques, like wood and stones. I’d love to do a feature film that’s internationally based, and you can see how simple technologies can be brought to people to change their lives. I’d love to implement some of the techniques we’ve learned here in other historical places. I’d also love to do a project on Harlem because that’s a fascinating community. But we’ll see – it’s a lot of work to get done, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.”
With the unique access to the battlefield and the new filming technology, The Gettysburg Story is certainly one documentary not to be missed.
Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling (717) 337-8200 or by visiting gettysburgmajestic.org.