Chasing Authenticity

One of the delights of making The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham is the chance to shoot historical recreations. Our production team is made up of acknowledged experts at re-creating historically accurate scenes filled with props and costumes that hold up to the scrutiny of professional and amateur historians alike.

From George Washington’s Mount Vernon to the battlefields of the Civil War, Vietnam and World War IIwe’re constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance our creative work with historical accuracy, and trust us, that kind of initiative can take us in some very interesting directions.

Churchhill Clark (on right in pink shirt and liberty cap), one of his handmade dugout canoes and the Wide Awake Films crew on location for The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham.

For instance, during production of this film, we knew we needed a hand-made dugout canoe to recreate Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, one of Bingham’s most famous paintings.  Our Director, Shane Seley, is also a Civil War re-enactor with a large network of other history nerds on his Facebook feed.  So, he reached out to them to see if they might know of someone with a dugout canoe.   

Within 2 hours someone posted a link about Churchill Clark, an actual descendant of William Clark - ya’ know Lewis & Clarke.   Church, as he’s known, happened to be paddling his way down the entire length of the Missouri River, all 2,341 miles of it - in a dugout canoe he had carved himself!   

So, Shane reached out to Church via his Facebook page, Dugout Canoe Love.  Each day Churchill would answer email and messages after getting off the river.

Incredibly, Church was arriving in Kansas City (he was going down the river) the same day Wide Awake Films had scheduled to film the dugout canoe scenes. That’s serendipity!  

Church and Knotty, his dugout canoe, did an excellent job standing in as the Fur Trader and we were fortunate to meet such an amazing soul.  (Churchill’s an interesting guy to say the least, and we’ll revising him in a later, more detailed blog post about the man and his craft.)

Our luck in meeting Churchill’s aside, most often our quest for accuracy follows a less dramatic but no less fortuitous process.

Sources and Inspiration
The process begins in our in-house library and scouring the Internet for vintage photographs, period illustrations and other historical references. We cast a wide net for inspiration because you never know where a good idea might come from to create the most authentic backdrop, set or costume possible.  

And most importantly we look to the historical documentation itself. Too often, filmmakers believe they can heighten history with their own narrative twist, when in most instances a little digging reveals that the actual history is far more compelling.

Archival materials are a key starting point in Wide Awake Film's process for producing historically accurate re-creations.

When it comes to creating a historical re-enactment for a specific time period, there are a number of considerations that can help elevate the look from a simple costume to a historically accurate re-enactment ensemble.

The Undeniable Rightness of Being Accurate
The first differentiator begins with the person in the clothing. Whether a principal or an extra, the visual record of the era you’re trying to recreate should be your guide.

If casting for an industrial scene in the early part of the 20th Century, study pictures from the era and know the history. European immigration was especially at a peak at the time. The faces and body styles should reflect this.

And don’t forget the personal hygiene habits of the era you’re recreating.  A daily shower or bath is still a fairly modern luxury.

The real thing? Or a detailed re-creation? Even a history geek would have trouble telling the difference.

The real thing? Or a detailed re-creation? Even a history geek would have trouble telling the difference.

Next, it’s important to create the right silhouette. For the ladies, that means having the proper foundation garments (petticoats, stays and corsets) under the clothing to create the right form and drape.

Fabrics, trim and textiles chosen for the clothing should rely on choices that include quilting cotton, handkerchief linen and quality silk. Modern fabrics, especially when not used in large enough quantity, cannot produce the right historical profile and the clothes will lack the necessary presence.

For the men, in any recreation pre-1960’s, it’s the hat that makes the silhouette. Spend your money on getting the right headgear and the rest of the re-creation costume will fall into place.

Also, look to the tailoring of the time. For example, if your actor is thin, then accent it with close-fitting clothing versus putting them into oversized baggy duds.

Historical re-enactments are not only about getting the clothing right but also the hair, accessories, facial hair and probably most important, the attitude of the era. Even with all the right clothing you can’t fake character and swagger.

Another thing that’s hard to fake is clothing that has the age, character and wear and tear that can only be earned over time, creating an outfit that not only looks like you’ve worn it out but also possibly died in it, too.

And, most importantly, always have experts on set. We always involve people with decades of study and interest in the material culture, household goods and history of the time we’re trying to depict.  

Our true secret is hiring the best re-enactors of the history we’re portraying. These are the people that come on set ready to shoot with thousands of dollars of their own equipment and a brain full of knowledge about their historic era.

Wide Awake is really lucky to have some amazing folks in this regard who like to come out and “play” with us on our historic recreations! Here are a few tips and tricks for adding legitimacy to a re-enactment costume:

  • Work, exercise and sleep in it so it looks like it’s yours
  • Use sandpaper on the elbows, knees and cuffs to give the stress points a worn-in look
  • If called for, stain your outfit with mud, oil, dirt, grease or tea
  • Leave clothes out in the sun to fade the color – this can take months
  • Replicate the hairstyles and facial hair of the time period
  • Avoid wearing cosmetic make up, fingernail polish, non-period wrist watches, modern glasses, etc.
  • Leave your cell phone at home

Finally, below is a picture from one of our favorite reenactments. It’s a favorite for many reasons: the subject, the result, the awesome talent we were fortunate enough to work with on this project.

We created a Negro Leagues Baseball dugout (circa 1940s) in honor of the All Star Game held in 2013 in Kansas City. We did this with a wardrobe budget of $100 and about a weeks’ notice.

Amazing what can be done with $100, great actors and a tight deadline.

To read more about our baseball re-enactment, click here.

NOTE: A version of what appears above appeared on the Wide Awake Films web site, which you can find here.

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Posted on February 10, 2016 .