Random thoughts on a rainy day: What do World War II, Apple v. Microsoft and the Republic of Armenia have in common? Recently, they've all been reminders that technology -- and the people who create it -- are always moving on, and forever upending the status quo.
I'll begin with World War II: We've all grown so jaded about technological change, and the miracles big and small it brings, that's it pretty rare these days that something comes along that actually makes us sit up in amazement. But this week, I had that experience while watching, of all things, the History Channel.
I don't know what's lately gotten into this cable channel – just a few years ago derided as the "Nazi Channel" for its endless run of cheap war documentaries – but it is doing some amazing, landmark, work. Coming up is "The Beatles On Record," which promises to be both terrific and timely. And next spring will bring "America: The Story of Us."
But both will have a tough time improving on this week's extraordinary five-night, ten-hour production of "WWII in HD." This series is the product of two years of work by producer Frederic Lumiere (whose name sounds like an homage to the pioneers of cinema) and his team, who combed the world in search of 1940s footage, some of it never publically seen before, then used state-of-the-art digital tools to clean it up and present it in HD. (Coincidentally, the Smithsonian Channel is showing an equally stunning WWII documentary series at the same time – though its technical achievement is not quite as great.)
The footage itself is stunning, not least if you've spent your entire life watching footage from the War and assuming that you've seen just about every clip four times. In some episodes of "WWII in HD" it seems that at least three-quarters of the footage is seeing the light of day for the first time in 60 years. And some of that footage is horribly gory – which may explain why even the official copies have been hidden away for so long.
But the glory of this series is not just the footage, or the music score (which, though not original, is the best I've heard for such a production since "Victory at Sea"). It is also the incredible technical achievement of putting these old – and, I'm sure, delicate and brittle – films, most of them in color, into high-definition digital video.
The result is mind-boggling. And disorienting: At first the clarity of the imagery is so good that it doesn't seem real, but rather like outtakes of a really high-budget war film. This, of course, is a legacy of how we've always been taught to see that war: black-and-white footage is authentic, color footage is staged. But once you get past that perceptual hurdle – for me it was in hour three – something extraordinary happens: In a strange way, for the first time World War II seems real.