The Gettysburg Story

An Interview With Jake Boritt

In conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, PBS premiered an exciting new documentary from filmmaker Jake Boritt. The Gettysburg Story utilizes the latest in digital technology and aerial photography to bring the individual experiences of those who lived through the battle to life like never before.

Jake Boritt
Filmmaker Jake Boritt

Civil War Trust (CWT): How did you become interested in the Battle of Gettysburg?

Jake Boritt (JB): I was raised in Gettysburg, and my folks still live on the old farm where I grew up. It was built in the late 1700s and later served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. During the battle, it was a Confederate hospital and burials occurred on the property; we still find relics — arrowheads, bullets, even a bayonet.  My dad, Gabor Boritt, taught at Gettysburg College for 30 years, founding the Civil War Institute and publishing many books along the way. So I very much grew up in the midst of Gettysburg history. Though I now live and work primarily in New York City, I’m extremely fortunate to be able to return to Gettysburg frequently. My wife and I got married in the big old barn on the farm last year.

CWT: In The Gettysburg Story , you use aerial drones to capture never-before-seen battlefield images. Tell us more about this technology.

JB: My initial idea for the film was to shoot the battlefield from a helicopter, a “Gettysburg by Air,” if you will. But I realized quickly that a helicopter wouldn’t be able to shoot below 500 feet, and the scale of the landscape needed a closer treatment. I wanted to capture the beautiful scenery and tell the human story of the greatest battle fought in this country. I began exploring using radio-controlled helicopters — drones — with mounted cameras. This ultimately led me to FreeFly Cinema, who are at the forefront of developing this technology. 

In the past few years, motion picture camera technology has become digital, allowing for amazing high-definition (and beyond) image quality from increasingly smaller, lighter cameras. With improved radio-controlled drone helicopters and electronic gyro stabilization, a new camera platform has been born. It allows filmmakers to shoot from a few inches above the ground to 400 feet in the air. It’s the perfect scale to allow us to capture the epic yet intimate nature of the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Gettysburg Fog

Mist covers Cemetery Ridge and the Peach Orchard.  (The Gettysburg Story)

CWT: Once you discovered how to get the shots you wanted, how did the film develop?

I began by writing a script based on the self-guided Battlefield Auto Tour I produced working with my dad and Stephen Lang in 2010, which has become a best seller for visitors coming to the battlefield. In June 2012, we got permits from Gettysburg National Military Park to bring FreeFly Cinema’s team to Gettysburg to shoot for a week, telling the story of the battle using the exact historical locations on the battlefield.

We weren’t shooting in South Africa or a Hollywood backlot — we had the real thing! The massive southern face of Little Round Top, the mile-wide expanse of Pickett’s Charge advancing to the narrow stone wall at the Angle. We could capture details of monuments that have never been seen before on screen — the intense likeness of General Lee’s face 30 feet above the Virginia Memorial, the beauty of General Reynolds riding into battle, even the flame atop the Peace Light — flying so close a flare nicked the landing skids. We did have challenges, of course — getting away from thousands of tourists and buses, telling this terrible story set against this bucolic, peaceful scenery.

CWT: What lessons do you think this story has to offer our modern society?

JB: Gettysburg is one of humankind’s great stories. It is, perhaps, the defining moment in the defining struggle of our country. The story of Gettysburg will be told as long as freedom and democracy are important to us as a people — and, hopefully, that is for a very long time! As a native of Gettysburg, I see it every year — from across the country and around world, millions of visitors come to this place to learn this story.

Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge and other events are depicted with a combination of stunning aerial photography and 3-D animation.  (The Gettysburg Story)

Over the last 150 years, the Battle of Gettysburg has become the stuff of legend, told and retold using the contemporary technologies of each generation: glass plate negatives, woodcut prints, massive oil paintings, black and white silent films, electrified concrete maps, best-selling novels and TV miniseries. Each new generation will come to this story in its own way. The story of Gettysburg is timeless; the means by which it is told are not. Storytelling tools will evolve and present new ways to tell the Gettysburg story. So we took advantage of new technology to tell a century-and-a-half-old tale.

CWT: What was your favorite part of working on this film?

JB: There were so many wonderful moments working on a film about my hometown. But I think getting to spend so much time on the battlefield — often at hours when no-one else is around — was the greatest reward. We are the first professional film crew to get permission to fly aerial drone cameras on the battlefield and the first to get to shoot after-hours nighttime time-lapse. I will always remember shooting the Devil’s Den time-lapse on a summer night, as a nearly full moon moved across the sky and disappeared behind the Appalachian horizon. Alone on the battlefield, with just my camera and billions of stars far overhead.

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