Screen action: Filming with military advisors
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.
Paul Biddiss (pictured) is one such expert, who has built on a long military career to advise on a multitude of high-profile films and TV series.
His production experience includes Brad Pitt’s tank drama Fury and the BBC’s lavish period drama War and Peace, as well as Jason Bourne and the upcoming superhero movie Justice League.
“In an ideal world a Military Advisor (MA) should be brought in as early into pre-production as possible,” Biddiss tells KFTV. “An MA’s knowledge 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.”
In the UK, the usual first step to securing Armed Forces assistance is to contact the Defence Media Centre at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Army will consider the request based partly on how the forces are depicted in the script, and may ask for changes.
If the screenplay is approved, a request for the use of military locations will be balanced against factors such as the likely impact on daily operational procedures, as well as liability insurance issues for civilians being on a military site. Then there are the standard security concerns.
Boot camps have become an integral part of many of the higher-profile war films of recent years.
Biddiss confirms their importance in helping actors portray either soldiers in conflict zones or civilians caught in violent situations.
“On Jason Bourne I ran a boot camp a week before shooting for Greek riot scenes (left).
"I was able to train the rioters and riot police in the actions, drills and emotions they should be expected to perform on the day.
“Such investment in boot camps allowed me to train supporting artists (SAs) in several different drills not necessarily shown in the script, but then gave the director Paul Greengrass more options on the day once he became aware of what they could do.”
War and Peace (below) was a very different kind of production as it featured weapons, manoeuvres and tactics from the early 19th century.
“On War and Peace I had a much larger training package to deliver and again I was able to provide the director Tom Harper with choices he did not expect the SAs would be able to perform – soldiers marching in columns, then forming a defensive manoeuvre, fixing bayonets and firing muskets while on the move.”
The BBC’s television adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic work took on an added dimension of risk assessment when the producers initially considered enlisting the help of the Lithuanian military to play background soldiers in battle scenes. However, the risk was more to do with the likelihood of these serving soldiers being called away during the shoot.
“There were tensions with Russia at the time and the Lithuanian army was on a 48-hour notice to mobilise – the BBC would have been left with no background [performers] at any time,” Biddiss says. “My advice on the matter was to not use them.”
Biddiss was also concerned for a more technical reason – that the Lithuanian soldiers were simply too good at their jobs. “We needed to portray a conscripted, under-trained Napoleonic army, [so] trained serving soldiers can sometimes make the worst extras!”
The US military tends to make its resources available to filmmakers more readily than the MoD, in Biddiss’ view. He believes this is partly because the Americans are more in tune with the recruiting strength of a powerfully represented on-screen military.
Biddiss adds there is work to be done to ensure that military advisors are brought onto productions from the beginning as a standard procedure.
“Only communication at the very beginning at all levels will avoid embarrassing mistakes that film critics and tabloids crave to exploit for headlines,” he says. “The wrong flags or medal, or a smiling face on an extra when just about to go into battle, might seem trivial but can make all the difference with the end product.”
Images courtesy of Paul Biddiss.