Behind the Lens: In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen
Denton Adkinson and Bryan Williams formed Bryton Entertainment, LLC, a video production company, in Augusta, Georgia in 2006. Their documentary, In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen, documents the first-person accounts of this trailblazing African American pilots in World War II who fought valiantly and were pioneers in integrated the armed forces. Bryan Williams and Denton Adkinson tell their story exclusively to Creative COW.
When Denton and I formed the two-man production company Bryton Entertainment, we focused on commercials, corporate-training films and weddings. There were those really enjoyable jobs that allow us express creativity, such as music videos. Producing a music video in late 2006 for gospel recording artist Jimmy Hicks, for his hit song Born Blessed, really opened up the floodgates for us to work on music videos. It helped that Born Blessed was nominated for a Gospel Music Stellar Award.
During a record-setting heat wave in August 2007, we made a somewhat poor decision to concurrently shoot two music videos, with a majority of both productions being shot outdoors. After the second day of shooting, we went to a local Huddle House restaurant to relax and recuperate. It was there that I mentioned to the group that my wife, Annette, had stated a few weeks earlier that she saw the company moving into producing documentaries.
We all sort of looked at each other and laughed, saying we don’t really do documentaries. But we started thinking about the possibilities, and moved our conversation to what the subject would be. It was obvious the heat sapped any creativity and gave us tunnel vision. We honestly thought that every subject imaginable had at least one or two documentaries already produced.
We didn’t give up though. After a few minutes more of excuses and bad ideas, I said, Let’s just give it to God. After all, we are a Christian company. So we sat back and gave God approximately 13 seconds. He gave us nothing. Well, patience is a virtue…that I do not possess. Our food appeared and we had nothing. This time, we decided to give it to God for real.
|That first interview with Charles Dryden lit our passion for the project. Click on image to zoom.|
As soon as we uttered those words, the front door of the restaurant opened and in walked an elderly black gentleman wearing a Tuskegee Airmen hat, shirt and jacket. We didn’t know it, but it was retired Navy Lt. Col. Alfonzo Jackson, then president of the Augusta Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc, an organization that promotes and preserves the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. Towards the end of the meal, we realized Col. Jackson had turned around in his seat, and was smiling towards the group.
Unsure if he had been listening to our conversation, I walked over to him and presented him with a business card asking to arrange a time to speak with him within the next few weeks about the Tuskegee Airmen. It was after that meeting that we embarked on a daring path of a self-funded documentary.
Through Lt. Col. Jackson, the first interview was scheduled after a banquet honoring Lt. Col. Charles “A-Train” Dryden. This first interviewee was not only a pilot from the Tuskegee program, but he was the flight leader on the first mission during which black military pilots engaged the enemy in combat. In short, Col. Dryden was perhaps the best possible person to speak with first on the importance of the Airmen’s story.
We are huge fans of history, and this was our first time shooting an interview with a significant person from history. We hung onto his every word. When we asked him about his first mission, he sort of lowered his head a little, and his eyes began to glaze over. He was back in his P-40 cockpit. Seeing him recall both good and bad memories, really inspired us to make the documentary the best it could possibly be. However, we knew we had to change camera operators for the next shoot, because I was so enthralled that I let the camera pan down to Col. Dryden’s belt buckle during the interview.
|Above left: Lt. George Hardy 1944. Image right: Naomi and Lt. Frederick D. “Fred” Funderburg|
|Above left: Captain Roscoe Brown, who served as a squadron commander and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, seen here in 1944. Right, Cadet Leroy Eley in 1945. He was just 17 when he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943.|
|Above left: Hiram E. Little, who trained with the U.S. Air Corps and became an instructor at Maxwell Field in Alabama. Right, Spann Watson dreaming of flight.|
Next, we traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama and were able to interview Herbert Carter and his wife Mildred Carter, who was the first black woman in Alabama to receive a pilot’s license.
Herbert Carter and his wife Mildred Carter, who was the first black woman in Alabama to receive a pilot’s license.
The remaining interviews with the Airmen took place from November 2007 to December 2008. The reason for the delayed production was not story development but finances. I funded the documentary by continuing to make corporate videos, weddings, commercials and music videos. Since we did finance this ourselves, we could only work on it as time and the bank account would allow. For one of the trips, we even had to pull money out of our own houses, something we agreed we would never do.
What followed was nearly a year of production to bring In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen to life. By December 2008, sixteen of the original Airmen had been interviewed, countless hours had been spent combing through transcriptions of interviews, electricity bills sky-rocketed with the ever-running computer, and an hour and forty-three minute version of the documentary was the showpiece of Bryton Entertainment. We also gathered together a lot of photos, most of which came from the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency located at Maxwell Air Force Base. They have a huge system where you could look up photographs and we spent two days searching for photographs, especially of the Tuskegee Airmen’s 332nd Fighter Group. We did get some photos from the gentlemen we interviewed, including photos of the Tuskegee Army Airbase as well as class photos and the like.
The animations, which we created in NewTek Lightwave 3D, were basically re-creations. What we didn’t have in stock footage or photographs, we did with animations, such as the P-51 Mustang with a red tail. We used probably 15 or 20 of these 10-second animations to illustrate various points. We used Shake to do rotoscoping. For one shot, we got footage of Hitler on a German airfield. We rotoscoped him and put the German Me-262 jets in the sky behind him. The History Channel will wonder how we got that shot, but we created it. We use that for a moment when one of the airmen says that Germany had just introduced this Me-262 jet, and Roscoe Brown shot down one of them. We did this to show the introduction of this jet and what it meant for the Luftwaffe.
|Lightwave modeler: Specifically, of the B-25, bottom left; bottom right, the German Me-262
Click on individual images to zoom.
Using Final Cut Pro, we tweaked and cut down a few scenes and ended up with 103 minutes. The last edit, in 2011, we trimmed about 20 minutes out of it and added in a few other stories we’d always wanted, and now it’s 91 minutes. That’s the version that you can walk into Walmart and pick up.
Denton did most of the audio mix. George Myers did the narration recording and M.D. Stokes, a pretty well known producer, produced it. Then Denton and I mixed it, using Adobe Soundbooth.
In the midst of the production, we learned that George Lucas was in the preproduction phase of Red Tails, a movie based on the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen. We were filming interviews in Philadelphia at the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. yearly convention, using our standard-definition Panasonic DVX-100B. We felt a little embarrassed by our camera gear when we ran into researchers from Lucasfilm who had much more sophisticated camera gear. But the Panasonic DVX-100B worked out for us. We did a simple lighting setup for the interviews using ARRI softboxes. It got the job done and was easy on the aging Airmen’s eyes.
Lt. Colonel Spann Watson (August 14, 1916 — April 15, 2010)
After the documentary was completed in December 2008, we wanted to premiere our documentary in our hometown at the historic Imperial Theatre, a venue once played by Charlie Chaplin during World War I. In our minds, it made perfect sense to invite the crew from Lucasfilm to attend the premiere since we had all been in Philadelphia at the same time. So Denton wrote the most professional business-like letter he could to Lucasfilm, inviting a crew to the showing.
|With Roscoe Brown and Lee Archer. Click to zoom.|
Imagine how many beats my heart skipped when I looked down at my phone, saw an unfamiliar area code, and picked it up. The woman said she was calling from Lucasfilm, and wanted to request a copy of our documentary. After I clarified that she was calling from George Lucasfilm, and that they had, in fact, produced Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I was happy to fulfill her request.
We went on to premiere our documentary to a sold-out crowd at the Imperial. But after that first showing, the trail went cold. We tried contacting acquisitions managers at various TV networks, but to no avail. Most of the network representatives viewed it as a Black History Month program, and suggested we contact them later in the year.
In late 2009, I received a phone call from two of our Airmen friends, Lt. Col. Lee Archer, and Dr. Roscoe Brown. They had just returned from Prague, Czech Republic, where the bulk of Red Tails was filmed, and had brought back some interesting news. Apparently, the cast and crew had been watching our documentary on the set of Red Tails, sometimes as many as two or three times per week.
(Right) Lieutenant Colonel Lee Andrew Archer Jr. (September 6, 1919 — January 27, 2010) in 1944
We didn’t really know what to think when they told us that. It was very humbling and exciting at the same time. We both grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and to know that we played a very small part in the production of Lucasfilm’s Red Tails was an honor.
Using the euphoria from that phone call as fuel, we pressed on with our attempts for a TV broadcast in February 2010. But we again met opposition and we decided to focus our efforts more on public showings and the possibilities of a distribution deal.
We planned a public showing in a town near Augusta, booking the venue, and inviting Airmen to attend, including Col. Lee Archer. We even aired TV commercials promoting Col. Archer’s presence as an incentive to attend the showing. But three days before the showing, he passed away. We lost someone we had come to know and love. We respected him for his service to our country, and we had grown very close to him from talking on the phone on holidays like Christmas, and Fathers Day.
|The February 2010 letter from George Lucas. Click to zoom.|
It was through Col. Archer that we were introduced to Anthony Hemingway, the director of Red Tails. Once we learned that Col. Archer had died, we called Anthony to let him know. About a week later, we talked with Anthony again, and he reiterated what Col. Archer had said about our documentary being watched on set. So I decided to write Lucasfilm another letter, but this time to ask if the rumors were true about their documentary being watched on the set. Much to our surprise, about a week later, a letter arrived with Lucasfilm’s logo on the return address. After carefully opening the envelope, we slowly removed the letter and saw a signature in blue above the typed name George Lucas. We must’ve examined that letter twenty times, for no real reason, but I guess to make sure we weren’t dreaming. In the letter, Mr. Lucas actually said the documentary was watched on set, and thanked us for sending the DVD.
Then, through a contact at our local civic center, we met with comedy legend Bill Cosby before a show to talk about the project, and the significance of the Tuskegee Airmen to American history. Mr. Cosby has had such an impact on both of us. He is absolutely hilarious and a comedic genius with his timing, while remaining clean with the work he produces. What surprised us the most about the meeting was that at the end as we were leaving, he thanked us for producing the documentary.
Dr. William H. ‘Bill’ Cosby Jr. with Denton Adkinson (left) and Bryan Williams
After that meeting, we really pushed to find an avenue for distribution. We had a newfound sense of urgency to get the story out there, especially with Red Tails somewhere on the horizon. We sat down and brainstormed and then realized that Wal-mart is almost as essential as gaffer’s tape. So we picked up the phone to call and find out the process to have our DVD considered. They put us in contact with the merchandiser that handles the entertainment product placement in the stores. She knew who the Airmen were, and she said our documentary sounded like a great fit for Wal-mart. We sent one of her lead salesman a copy of the DVD.
We ended up having to get a distributor, and Wal-mart gave us a connection that worked for us. The deal was simple and fit neatly on a two-page contract. It was a consignment deal, in that I fronted the cost for the DVD duplication and set the wholesale cost for the stores. Once the DVDs are shipped to stores and sell, we receive the wholesale price, with only a nominal amount added by the distributor and retail stores.
We sort of panicked when we saw that we would be buying the bulk DVDs, but our distributor calmed our fears by saying he would only order what the stores had requested, and even then, he said we could negotiate the size of the order. We signed the contract four years to the day of that Huddle House meeting that started our path to making the documentary.
Once we signed the contract, we set out to improve the documentary. We combed back through notes and transcriptions, sped up pacing in a few places, added stories, photographs and even animations we had always wanted. As we were preparing the documentary for stores, we contacted Anthony Hemingway and see if he would grant a quote for the front cover of the DVD box, and he happily obliged the request, with “This documentary is an invaluable piece of American history that proved to be extremely helpful with research for the film.”
In early December 2011, the first of the purchase orders arrived — six copies deep for 2,500 stores — and we borrowed from friends and family to raise the necessary funds to duplicate the DVDs. In late December, Wal-mart upped their promotion of our documentary and asked for another 5,000 copies ASAP.
The documentary is available for sale in Walmart and Meijer stores, as well as Walmart.com and Amazon.com.
Now, we are both ready for some sleep and relaxation. Neither one of us has taken a vacation since 2009. After that, we’ll go back to the Huddle House and see who walks in!