Indy Neidell from The Great War YouTube Channel
The Great War is a channel on YouTube that covers the 1914-18 conflict that engulfed a large part of the planet. A unique documentary with a massive scale that is filled with video clips and still images taken at the time, this show is turning out to be the definitive documentary on WWI. DVD Talk editor John Sinnott had a chance to sit down with Indy Neidell, the lead writer and presenter for the show and was able to ask him about his writing process, how he manages to cover such a huge topic, and what he's going to do when he gets to the conclusion of the war this November.
DVD Talk: Could you tell me a little bit about The Great War channel.
Indy Neidell: Sure! The whole point of The Great War, the online documentary, was to do the first global, free, real-time, interactive, documentary of a massive event (of any event really): The First World War's four years and three and a half months. We do this on YouTube so it's free and it's global. Each episode chronicles the war exactly 100 years later - one week of the war at a time. So it started July 28, 2014 the day that Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia, and it will all end in November 2018. (No spoilers!) Another reason we put it on YouTube is because of the interactivity when you watch it. If you watch Ken Burn's The Civil War, you could think was really good, but you may say to yourself "Oh we have all these things from my great great great grandfather, and he says he was actually at this battle. You said that this particular regiment wasn’t present at that battle, but he was in that regiment. That's great information! It's too late. It's never going to be part of the show. I mean obviously we have crew for fact checking but we get all kinds of information we would not have otherwise had from being immediate and from being on YouTube. The real-time aspect is the hook.
As you know, most World War One documentaries will talk about the Western Front or they might have one episode on the Eastern Front. We cover each and every week. So I might spend a month talking about the Mesopotamian Front because that's where all the action was. Or maybe the most important events that week were all political. You really see it explode. But that's what the show does.
DVD Talk: The channel started out with weekly episodes as well as three specials detailing the origins of World War One. It has grown a lot since then. Now you have "Out of the Trenches" where you answer viewer's questions and special episodes giving biographies of famous figures from WWI or the histories of countries involved in the conflict. Was that always the plan or did those extra segments just evolve?
Indy Neidell: No, we didn't realize the show was going to be so successful. We thought we'd run it as long as we could and hope that it didn't get canceled. Initially it was just the Thursday episodes that covered one week of the war and it was originally in three languages. There was a German version and a Polish version too. They would just translate the scripts I wrote into Polish and into German and use the same set but change the language on the map. Neither of those took off because it is sort of a niche project. There wasn't a large enough base of German speaking or Polish speaking people to really give it the kick it needed like it got an English. To be honest a lot of German and Polish people said they preferred watching it in English because they wanted to see it in language in which it was written.
It wasn't until we'd been going for three months or so that people suggested we should start having more than one upload a week because the series is starting to grow in popularity and we could actually afford the extra expense. So we started doing the odd special and the odd "Out of the Trenches." Now there are at least three installments per week. There's a special every Monday, "Out of the Trenches" every Saturday, and the regular episode every Thursday. Sometimes there will be more than that too, an "Out of the Ether" (where I read especially relevant comments and information the show receives), or an on-the-road special where we visit WWI battlefields, or something like that.
DVD Talk: The regular episodes are about ten minutes long. Does that short time frame constrain you order to keep you more on the point and focused?
Indy Neidell: Well that time frame is specifically because it is YouTube. It's a fact that once people get to the nine or ten minute viewpoint on YouTube, regardless of whether they're fans of the show or not, you tend lose a lot of your audience. We didn't want that to happen with our show, so the ten minute episode was something we decided from the beginning. It is harder to write shorter than longer. I mean I could easily write 20 minutes on every week of the war. It's a world war. There's 20 minutes of stuff that happens every week. You really learn to tighten things up. There will be stuff that I think "this is really interesting but there's no time for it." But we can actually address that when I answer this guy's question in "Out of the Trenches" or work it in somewhere in another segment, so that helps to fit if all in.
DVD Talk: You mentioned writing the other shows. What's your writing process like and how do you approach something as huge as a world war.
Indy Neidell: With trepidation... with great, great trepidation.
DVD Talk: (laughs)
Indy Neidell: I've got it down to a science by now, after over 4 years. I'll write five weeks of the war once. I use dozens of books, I use original newspapers from the period that you can find online around the world (those more opinions than actual fact), certain archives, and I'll also use what I can find translated into English in various places. I'll open five documents and I'll use several chronologies of the First World War and in each episode I'll have a date and a list of what actually happened. Then I'll start looking for the hook... each episode starts with something that hasn't happened before in the war. Sometimes it's obvious like 'Italy joins the War,' sometimes it's less obvious. You have to really think “what really did change?” because something did change every week, you have to find it.
I'll start writing blocks. If I write a block about a specific battle obviously that's going to be in a specific week. But the political things and the more general ideas and tactics those I can move around a bit. I then work to fit things together and to make the time right. Finally I write conclusions that relate back to the hook and always emphasize the horror of the war.
DVD Talk: What would you like people to take away most from the series.
Indy Neidell: It's really easy to look at the material and to watch things, particularly something so far away, (so much further back than Vietnam) and think it was cool or that it is awesome stuff. I think there are two things that people should take away. The first one is that there was nothing cool about the First World War. It was an absolute atrocity. It was... it was devastating. But the other thing viewers should take away is that in those four years the world went from basically 1870 to 1940. I can't think of another time in human history, that includes Second World War and all the other wars, when the world changed so much in such a short time. Obviously the Second World War was larger, more immediate, and you have a defined bad guy so it's more in people's consciousness, but the world changed a lot more in the First World War than in Second World War. People forget that and they shouldn't. So the two things I want people take away was this was a major, major turning point in our history where you really had before and then very much after an entirely different world. And also it's not cool. It's horrible. We should remember it, and see how we developed, see where we came from and how to prevent these things from happening again.
DVD Talk: For my last question (and this is probably the question people ask you constantly), what are you going to do after November 11th when the war is over.
Indy Neidell: Well I don't know how we're going to wrap up this channel. People want us to continue in 1919, 1920. We will end the regular Thursday episodes in November and we'll have specials that cover much of what goes beyond: the Russian Civil War, Greco Turkish war, Anglo Irish War, the four different peace treaties, the demobilization. But I'm loath to continue the series. In the beginning I wanted this to be the biggest documentary that's been done in this specific way and I wanted it to have a specific beginning and an end. I don't want to be like some 80s TV show that the star is left but they're still going on. "Why are these guys still going on the air?" It could still be good and you could still call it The Great War and go through 1919 and 1920.
This channel, The Great War, I do with with Media Craft, a German YouTube network that finances our work. With a company I started in Munich, called Time Ghost, I've started to create other programs. There is no regular schedule, we're only two people, but we have started doing a series called Between Two Wars which covers the interwar years. If you go to TimeGhost.TV search for TimeGhost on YouTube you can find that. We're going to start doing World War 2 on September 1st.
DVD Talk: Awesome!
Indy Neidell: You say that but I'm going to be writing World War I and World War II at the same time for a couple of months! So my plate is rather full.
DVD Talk: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Indy Neidell: You're welcome!
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