Join me for a look behind the scenes of a Border Watch Films production which I’ve had the privilege of seeing crafted into a presentation by various contributors. Although at times the project seemed a lost cause, perhaps it was fitting for it to reflect the very subject being discussed…..
In 1940, the British Expeditionary Force is stationed across the channel in support of France and Belgium. Winston Churchill has only just become the Prime Minister when Nazi Germany launches their attack westward. The nightmare of a second world war has become reality.
When advancing forces threaten to encircle the British Expeditionary Force, their best chance of evading defeat is the strategic withdraw to Dunkirk. The bulk of British forces continue the fight, caught between either surrender or rescue. The risks of evacuation are great and time is growing short as a national call to prayer sounds across England.
The extraordinary evacuation from Dunkirk which was code-named “Dynamo” is described from a biblical worldview in this new documentary film.
Narrated by Stuart Burgess, “Operation Dynamo” features animated maps and original war-time footage. Reenacted scenes dramatically bring to life the meaning and emotion of that time in history.
Stephen Keller, an expert on operation Dynamo, adds insight by pointing out significant details around the famous evacuation. Military Historian, William Potter describes the events of this pivotal beginning of World War II and points to the moments of Providence. While the evacuation was not a miracle, God’s hand of mercy is evident, as people around the world turned to God through prayer.
Small events, over the course of a few weeks in 1940, influenced decades of world history.
England, along with the other nations that would later be allied together, learned important things from the Dunkirk evacuation, as well as, the later BEF evacuations. These lessons would be applied to various aspects of the war, most notably for the D-Day landings. The LST landing ships and other equipment used for D-Day were informed by experiences like Dunkirk.(photo: a Normandy beach, 12 June 1944)
The project began by interviewing Bill Potter in the spring of 2015. We wanted to tell the story of Dunkirk from a Christian perspective and Mr. Potter is known for such explanations. That interview was then shelved, however, while other projects became priority.
After doing a basic edit of our interview footage in 2016, I could see more content was needed for a meaningful presentation. And simply adding some narration didn’t seem like enough. But when a friend told me about an upcoming movie about Dunkirk, I knew it was really ‘now or never’ for our project.
As we considered adding a period story element into the documentary, Levi Sherman stepped up to coordinate the things needed for reenacted scenes. Levi posted a call for help and many people responded by loaning out their props and costumes. Others extended their knowledge toward keeping everything as historically accurate as possible. However, we still needed a house for filming. This need was filled when Melissa Lenczewski volunteered her house, along with the many props she had stored inside. Melissa had furnished the entire house with antiques, and we only had to rearrange some of her things before filming. Then she introduced us to her neighbor who also allowed us to “invade” for a couple days and film. Both houses are seen in the film. On set, Levi kept up with material culture while playing the character of Myles in his own uniform.
Additional props and costumes were loaned to the production by other individuals in the reenacting world. Levi worked hard to contact the various sources and assemble a reasonably historical environment within a short budget, and short deadline. Some even mailed items to Levi and trusted that he could return them after production.
You may have noticed the strange “X” shapes on the windows. Well, England was in real danger of bombing from the start of WWII. So people taped their windows to keep glass from flying if bombed. They also had to use “blackout curtains” to avoid giving any bomber planes navigational markers. These scenes from Operation Dynamo reflect both features at the windows. You may spot similar “X” patterns in other movies about wartime England, if you pay attention. This fun fact required a few of our crew members taping windows, and then taking it off again before leaving (it went on easier than it came off).
Another unique element were headphones for listening to the radio. At that time, it seems, many people didn’t have built-in speakers on their radio and instead used headphones. This “fun fact” caused multiple scenes to be changed, affecting camera motion and scripting.
The dates for filming the narrative scenes were scheduled ahead of time, and then we simply had to prepare best we could. Props were still being collected as everyone traveled to location. If memory serves, I was barely keeping my thoughts coherent when we arrived in town the night before filming. Costumes were being adapted and scenery prepared. Despite tense circumstances, all of the crew members worked very professionally and actress Rachel Marley was patient as always.
Two copies of the letter Jean writes had to be created – a new copy just written and an old copy supposed to have been carried through battle. The letter from Myles also had to be hand-written in a period style.
Thanks to Gabriel Everson’s compositing work, we didn’t have to choose between period scenery and good camera angle. Replacing the modern surroundings made the wide exterior shot possible (see below stills). He even moved the street onto the front yard for a more compact English look. But clouds were getting dark as we completed a second exterior take. It was going to rain any minute. The crew had to move fast for a third take and only barely returned the car to its garage in time. That third take is seen in the final film.
It worked out for Josiah Burgess to voice the character of Myles by recording a few months later. Not only does Josiah live in England, he has also studied languages and knows multiple English accents. Sadly, the accent we asked of him wasn’t very colorful compared to others he could have done. Josiah demonstrated a great potential for voice acting during our short recording session.
We had an opportunity to film Professor Stuart Burgess when he was on a speaking trip in the United States. He agreed to narrate the film and found some extra time in his schedule. It was very rushed to secure a location suitable for the project, and we settled for a green screen studio setup last minute. It was not until this brief window of in-person time that we learned about his historic copies of prayer books. The extra videos Professor Burgess provided about the history of prayer in England adds such depth to the context of this film project. It brings to light a significant aspect of history that has been largely forgotten today.
The animating of geographical maps proved difficult – especially for Johnathan Schutz who was trapped between a director and a stack of history references. The position of battle lines had to match a particular day and then animate forward to another day in a accurate way, which viewers could still process quickly on a screen without pausing to study details. This meant switchable layers to hide elements that aren’t always important to the topic and avoiding fine print elements. Sometimes the camera would need to move from one place to another. If that wasn’t enough to consider, we also had to find a 1940 political map, since the boundaries between nations and even names have changed some since that time. We had to study a variety of WWII and Dunkirk references to find correct positions and correct dates. Lastly, the director insisted on a certain artistic style being achieved. Although it was difficult, Johnathan created some very nice animations that have been widely appreciated by viewers.
We were able to secure some much needed beach footage in Ohio, to fill some narrative voids. The original film concepts included scenes of Myles on the beach, interacting with boats. But we couldn’t accomplish everything in production, given our limits. The short clips from the lake in Ohio fit better visually than might have been expected. The visiting Canadian who volunteered as our extra BEF soldier that day is much appreciated.
Now all of these various pieces, recorded on five different camera types, would need to be stitched together. Some footage was HD and some was 4K in resolution. The editing was indeed progressing, but adding the music created by David Michael Hyde truly made the scenes feel completed. David is skilled at finding the subtle approach to emotion in a film and the unique elements of this project were a good fit for his style. He agreed to work on the project almost from the beginning and provided much needed encouragement during production.
I wasn’t very sure how people would receive this unusual documentary, but the initial response was encouraging, beginning with the Dove Foundation’s review. Although far from perfect, the film went on to receive a number of awards, and positive comments from different stand-points.
“Operation Dynamo makes a fine pairing with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) from last July and Joe Wright’s November entry Darkest Hour (2017). Through interviews and astonishing footage, the film seems to intend to fill in some of the historical and contextual cracks that could not have been covered in Nolan’s film.
The director weaves the story well between the interviews, authentic clips and audio, an even and underscored narrative within a brisk, 40-minute film. Yet the film digs deeper. Particularly from military historian William Potter, Operation Dynamo makes the case that this event during WWII finds parallels with the biblical story of Job. The film suggests that no matter what time we are born and no matter our circumstances, we are called to be courageous and overcome our greatest obstacles. To be able to extract this message from a well-known military operation is certainly a feat. Dove is proud to award Operation Dynamo with approval for All Ages.”
A number of people provided historical advise throughout, including Bill Potter, who took time to review what was being produced around his 2015 interview. Stephen Thurston–Keller was an advisor first, then we later found an opportunity to interview him. The details that he was able to bring out hint at the enormous complexity of people and resources involved. The slightest shift in events could so easily affect hundreds of people connected to that moment in history. And small shifts today also tend to reach farther than we realize.
The good news is that we are not left helpless amid seemingly small, random events. There is yet a God in heaven who created this world perfect, without death, and who does not change. God has not forfeited justice, mercy, truth or love — all are demonstrated by how He intervened in this dying world and offers eternal life.
We hoped to communicate in this film project that the living God has provided the “means of evacuation” in Jesus Christ. To look at the subject of Dunkirk acknowledging that God was present in history (people’s lives) then, as He is right now. Victory is in Jesus! You need only to ask Him.
“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” — Ephesians 3:20
Blog Post Written by Benjamin Owen, Director/Producer of “Operation Dynamo” | www.borderwatchfilms.com