Striking new World War II series blurs the line between past and present

National Geographic’s World War II: Secrets from Above uses modern photographic techniques to create an illuminating view of the conflict – against a present-day backdrop. Here's how.
By Simon Ingram
Published 20 Sept 2022, 15:51 BST

In addition to the unprecedented loss human of human life, the Second World War left a deep legacy on the landscape. The aftermath of the ‘total war’ of 1939 to 1945 was a continent in ruins. Some 60 million civilians had lost their homes. Once vibrant towns and cities were lethal, bombed-out husks. Bridges lay ruined in the waters of the rivers they once spanned. Railways were impassable, roads unnavigable, buildings uninhabitable. Upon entering Berlin in 1945, General Lucius Clay, American Deputy Military Governor of Germany, noted: “Wherever we looked we saw desolation… it was like a city of the dead.”

World War II: Secrets from Above

As the continent began to pick up the pieces, the question emerged of what to rebuild, and what to preserve for future generations to memorialise and remember. Infamous sites like concentration camps, or the sites of massacres such as Oradour-Sur-Glane stand still as meticulously preserved lessons as to the horrors of war. Ruined relics such as Hiroshima’s blasted Genbaku Dome, Coventry’s roofless cathedral or Cologne’s defiant one are enduring reminders amidst rejuvenated surroundings. But there are many thousands more sites where the lines between the past and the present are less defined – where everyday landmarks and streets witnessed the war close at hand, and whose proximity is only revealed from obscure snapshots of a time rapidly losing its links to living memory. (Read: this photographer travelled a haunting pathway to genocide.) 


A modern frame is blended with an archive image of Allied troops awaiting rescue from Dunkirk, on the French coast, during the infamous 1940 evacuation. 

Photograph by Windfall Films / National Geographic

Framed against the modern backdrop of the Normandy coast, a computer visualisation shows the anti-tank and anti-lander defences used by the Nazis during Operation Overlord, the ’D-Day’ Allied offensive of 1943. 

Photograph by Windfall Films / National Geographic

World War II: Secrets from Above is an arresting new documentary from National Geographic that seeks to visualise the scenes of the conflict through the eyes of the present. Using impactful rarely-seen archive film blended with modern photography to visualise what has – and hasn’t – changed, it’s an informative and frequently chilling visualisation of some of the war’s most pivotal moments.These include the D-Day assaults on Nazi-held Normandy, the machinations of Hitler’s secret weaponry sites, and the fall of Berlin.

“We were keen to employ a fresh approach to bring these extraordinary stories to life in a unique way,” says series director Johnny Shipley. “For the visuals, it can be split into a few different ‘devices'.”

Shipley explains the first of these involved ground shots – images taken from street-level – wherein the crew photographed modern locations from the exact position of original wartime imagery, then blended the two “using 2.5D image manipulation.”


Photographic or video ground shots – modern images taken from the exact position where historic scenes, such as this still from the Battle of the Seelow Heights in 1945 – were one of several techniques used by documentary makers to bring the scenes of the conflict into the modern day. 

Photograph by Windfall Films / National Geographic

Soviet troops celebrate the fall of Berlin, 1945. Where key landmarks existed, such as the Brandenburg Gate in the right of this image, archival imagery and modern imagery could be blended seamlessly. 

Photograph by Windfall Films / National Geographic

Also called ‘parallax effect’, this technique is used to give two-dimensional images the illusion of depth using a combination of digital layering and forced perspective. When aligned precisely with archival photographs, the effect is uncanny, bringing a near-seamless bridge between the past and present. “When there weren’t any unique objects in a photo to enable an exact match, we matched the framing and elements within original photographs,” says Shipley. “For instance some shingles in the foreground on one of the D-Day landing beaches.”

A similar process was employed using aerial photography, which was overlaid and blended with up-to-date satellite imagery, and lastly – perhaps most strikingly – film reels, which was paired with modern day video footage.

Interspersed are historical insights and audio accounts from witnesses to the original events, all of which, Shipley says, allow “a unique glimpse back into the past – and a reminder that we continue to live in and around all these sites where the epic events of World War II took place.” 

Occasionally the effect is so convincing the viewer isn’t entirely sure whether they’re looking at is archive and what is modern. A reminder if any were needed that, though almost 80 years on since its end, millions live alongside the war's physical legacy to this day – even if they don’t know it.

WWII: Secrets from Above - Road to Berlin

World War II: Secrets from Above airs 8PM Mondays from 19 September on the National Geographic channel, available on Sky (129) and Virgin Media (266).


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