Thank you very much to Nicholas Jellicoe for this guest post in our ‘Disciplines and Maritime Studies’ series. In this post, he discusses the process of creating an animation for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, the reaction and lessons learned for his future projects. One version of the animation is embedded at the bottom of this post.
As the grandson of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, I grew up in the shadow of the battle of Jutland. Early in 2011, I was asked to help communicate a clearer picture of what really happened on May 31st 1916. In one way, I was the obvious choice. I had spent years working in communications, the last decade of which was heading Rolex’s worldwide communications out of Geneva. Nevertheless, the centenary year of 2016 was approaching and I was not comfortable that I knew enough to accept the responsibility.
It took 48 hours for me to change my mind. Most importantly, I felt that the task was to communicate the significance of the battle to a much younger audience. Partly to keep our general history alive with a new generation, but specifically to see if I could bring about a more balanced national debate on the battle, the war at sea and my grandfather’s role. In communications, I was well-equipped with 30 years of corporate experience, but I also knew that – so far as knowing what happened and who John Jellicoe was – I had a very steep learning curve ahead of me. He died in 1935, twenty years before I was born.
Right from the start, I was excited about using the latest tools of communication across different media platforms. I did not know what I could achieve but I knew I had to aim as high as possible, be as persistent as I could be and move fast to achieve something solid. Looking back, 80% of what were set as objectives, was delivered. And where it failed, it was not for lack of effort. More, because the strategy was wrong.
I didn’t have to tell a different story but I had to tell the same story differently. I set up the Battle of Jutland Centenary initiative, developed the branding with my daughter, Francesca, got some cards printed and set to work. To write the book, build the site, design the animation and start co-ordinating volunteer resources. I now needed to do myself what I’d previously been able to ask others to execute. That was both a challenge but also a hugely rewarding learning curve.
Assets and resources available
Jutland and was always there but we rarely talked about the battle within the family. Had I asked, of course, my father would have only been too happy. I certainly knew that I carried a name that was well-recognized but did not know much more than that.
There were no good film- but quite abundant photographic-materials around, when one started to dig. Materials started to come my way once I started working with the museums, like the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), the German Naval Museum (Wilhelmshaven) or with the German Naval Association (Laboe). Written materials on Jutland were abundant. Overwhelming, in fact. Around 500 books and articles have been written on the controversial battle. Maps and charts were plentiful but I was lucky in that an almost pristine copy of some of the early charts from the Harper Commission were found to be in the family’s possession.
In putting all this together I had my own experience. Both in the computer gaming industry as well as running communications in luxury brands. I started with a central idea: the poverty of the average museum experience. Exhibitions with dusty artefacts behind glass cases usually fail to really engage. I wanted to bring educational animation into the museum. As ‘edutainment’.
In 1994 I’d been working for a direct marketing agency in Baltimore, USA, doing communications for Citibank. It had not worked out. I took a flyer and applied for the job of Head of Multimedia at a PC game developer called MicroProse, wanting very much to get into something different. It was well known in the gaming world for being where Sid Meier developed the Civilization series. I did not get the job but joined the marketing team. After a few months I saw the potential to expand what could be delivered to game players. The ‘Interactive Battle map’ was conceived of as an add-on product sold alongside the game, targeting the same audience and using much of the same digital content. While the concept never saw the light of day, I always retained the idea. It seemed to me that it was a more appropriate platform that could deal with multiple parallel events while the printed page has to follow one story and then swing back. Even after reading many books on Jutland, I often found myself losing situational awareness and wondering where I was, who was to my left or right in the scenario I was reading.
Selling the concept
At the end of May 2011, five years before the Centenary, I began knocking on the doors of the major institutions telling them that the time would go fast. My idea was to create a digital corpus of materials that many museums could use. Share the costs, make content accessible, share artefacts to complete stories. I organized a meeting between some of the major museum directors in the Munich offices of a friend’s ad agency in May 2014. Most had not met each other before. Rupert Wild gave me his agency’s full support to develop a prototype animation which I then used as a presentation aid to illustrate the direction of the idea.
The National Maritime Museum (NMM) at Greenwich came to my aid with initial funding and the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) in Portsmouth followed. I owe a great debt of thanks to both museums. I also approached naval and maritime museums in Germany and Denmark. I continue to work with Stephan Huck from the German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven and with Gert Normann Andersen whose quite spectacular SeaWar Museum in Thyborøn now houses many of the family’s artefacts. He decided not to use the animation (as he had his own film materials) but he gave me a unique gift: an invitation to join his archaeological survey of the Jutland wreck site with marine archaeologist Dr.Innes McCartney in April 2015. Great friendships have been made and new closer relationships between British, German and Danish museums strengthened as a direct result.
How the animation idea was born
The first prototypes proved too complex; the visual narrative of the opposing fleets’ movements involved simply too much detail. This idea was also too ambitious, and did not reflect the actual availability of sources. There was not the same level of personal history available for both British and German sailors’ memories. Very little existed in Germany. The idea of continual interactivity with the data was dropped. First, because it interrupted the narrative flow and secondly because a more filmic approach was faster-paced. It had the engagement needed to keep people’s attention. I no longer believe in theoretically defining the expected dwell time for museum visitors. It’s more a question of making what’s presented as exciting as possible and as fast-paced as possible.
Proto-typing approaches were executed with an animation house in Munich that was run by Peter Pedall and his wife Alissa. They used Adobe After Effects as the basic animation software. I brought the central idea to them, did the storyboards, searched for content, constructed the data visualisations and signal texts, wrote and recorded the voice overs (with a local Swiss freelance sound engineer that I tracked down in Montreux), found the musis and helped edit and refine the animation product that Peter and his wife put together.
Explaining concepts in another language over the phone or by email made the development very much more complex. The costs (which were around £20,000) would have been halved if I had been more experienced and been able to populate the development software’s ‘stage’ with the right content before handing it off. This will be part of the future approach which will also start with a recorded voice over against which to match visuals rather than the other way around.
What were the building blocks?
Before starting I wanted to establish a palette from which we could work: things like typography, sound effects, music, graphics look and minimum .jpg quality. We went with a blue washed out background but quickly got into trouble about deciding which would be the ‘Red’ enemy force. Actually, for the German versions we changed the colours around. We added a constant time reference, a sun dial and a wind direction although, to be honest, few people would have picked up the detail.
I had a great sound engineer working with me but it was still difficult finding good sound effects. There are few stock sound effects that can be used for naval gunfire so we had to ‘cobble’ together what we could. An important missing item was the idea of shells whistling over or the hiss and splash of a torpedo launch, a kind of ‘dtenggk’ noise. Even panicked voices or screams. The voice overs were done over a two-day period. We had to attain the same feel or ‘timbre’ in the delivery and that meant multiple takes – sometimes as many as a dozen – for seemingly simple sentences that were proving to be tongue-twisters. When we were absolutely obliged to re-record something later, it meant recording over a previous section while listening through headphones to get the pace, volume and tone right while not making an audible breath intake at the start of a line.
The creation of track charts was critical to the project. A track chart shows a battleship’s course during a battle. They show snapshots of course, speed and time. We added a ‘Harry Potter’ effect and bought the charts to life, creating an effect of little ships steaming over the page. It’s a perfect way to show the evolution of movements. We used German charts as the basis as they were visually richer than the British ones.
Sourcing photographic content is always a challenge, and often an expensive one. Bundesarchiv materials downloaded for educational purposes were without cost, however materials from the Wilhelmshavener Zeitung photo archive had to be paid for. The greatest cost savings came from the NMRN and from the German Navy who provided me with high def. images at no cost. Finally, for once, I had some good images from family archives. We tried – but it is clear we need to experiment much more, to mimic the Ken Burns effect – slow zooms and pans. Where we could, we used some of his techniques. Since there was no film available we had to use these techniques to create a ‘filmic’ quality. A little elementary by comparison but a start. Peter Pedell developed the battle scenes which I decided to keep in to keep materials that would engage younger people even if there were gross visual detail errors in the ships represented.
Graphics were developed to visually describe much of the technical stuff that can get in the way of understanding the wider sense of the story. Subjects like broadside weight, battleship design, turret flash. Too much talk of calibre, shell weight, magazine shuttles was likely to overwhelm most people.
Going Live and the Response
The Jutland1916.com website went live on November 11th, Remembrance Day. A technical glitch at the last minute delayed the launch time beyond 11:00. In April 2017 I was invited to a conference of alumni from the US Naval War College in Garmisch, Bavaria, just two hours from Munich where I’d been working on the final corrections with Peter and Alissa. The next day, at the start of my presentation on Jutland, I was able to announce that it had gone live in German and English. It was a resounding success in both locations and viewed in entirety by young and old alike.
The animation was incorporated into the German Naval Museum exhibition in Wilhelmshaven. The NMM adapted the video and used an 18-minute version as the starting centrepiece of their exhibition, while the NMRN used shorter 14-minute versions in subsidiary museums like the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Explosion and Hartlepool. Later It was used on the USS Iowa in Long Beach, California, at schools, smaller Jutland events that I was not able to attend and finally launched on Vimeo and Youtube where, combined, it has been played around 1.4 million. The animation was nominated for the First Sea Lord’s Digital award at the Maritime Foundation Media Awards in 2016 and has been used at the U.S. Naval War College where it was shown to all attending officers at the Jutland battle game in May 2016.
It was gratifying to get a lot of feedback on Youtube (although, less on Vimeo). Of course, there were people who wanted more detail. A couple of viewers caught some mistakes in the graphic visualisations which would have been prohibitively expensive to correct. But overwhelmingly the response was positive with 650 comments left online on YouTube, 4K liking the animation and only 65 disliking it. It achieved what it set out to do: explain a complex battle in a way that many found gave them the first understanding – strategically and tactically – what had happened that day on the North Sea.
What were always interesting were questions which allowed me to answer with additional materials or with greater depth.
Lessons learned and Future plans
I used to have access to very deep pockets and enviable resources at Rolex. Now, I have minimal budgets. The difference is passion, creative freedom and a sense of personal accomplishment. I learned much from the Jutland initiative and am trying to apply these lessons in the next product, an animation on the submarine war 1917-1918.
What were some of the main lessons:
- The script is the driver not the visuals. Tell a good story and then build it using different media: data visualisation, film, graphics, still photography etc.
- Don’t start till you absolutely love the script
- Record the sound track before any animation. The visuals and non-audio content must fit that structure
I hope that this kind of animation will become a standard from which other educational materials can be developed in the future.