Tom Eblen: Attorney turns passion for history into documentary film enterprise

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 22, 2011 

  • Witnessing History LLC

    What: Produces films about American history for public broadcasting and DVD sales. The company also does guided tours of Civil War battlefields.

    Who: Lexington attorney Kent Masterson Brown and WTVQ-36 anchor Doug High

    Online: WitnessingHistoryOnline.net

    Most recent film: Henry Clay and the Struggle for the Union, now showing on Kentucky Educational Television. Next showings on KET's Kentucky Channel are 10 a.m. Sept. 19, and 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., Sept. 24.

    Previous films: Retreat from Gettysburg, Bourbon and Kentucky

    Next project: Two-hour documentary film about Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone, to be completed by summer 2012.

Kent Masterson Brown thinks more people would love history if only they could see it as he does: fascinating stories about interesting people and momentous events that shaped today's world.

Brown, a Lexington attorney, has written or edited five history books and dozens of magazine articles. But in 2007, he found a new way to bring the colorful past alive to a wider audience.

Brown and Doug High, a news anchor for ABC affiliate WTVQ (Channel 36), created Witnessing History LLC to produce documentary films about historical subjects and distribute them on public television and through DVD sales.

"I've always been interested in documentary films because I love history," said Brown, who grew up in Lexington and spent much of his childhood going to battlefields in Maryland and Virginia while visiting relatives. "I absolutely became enamored with the Civil War."

Witnessing History's third and latest film, Henry Clay and the Struggle for the Union, has been showing on Kentucky Educational Television since June. A DVD will soon be sold on the company's Web site, WitnessingHistoryOnline.net.

"Our object was not just to do a biography of Henry Clay, but to frame it in the context of the Civil War," Brown said. If not for the compromises over slavery that Clay negotiated in Congress, the Civil War might have come decades earlier — and the union might not have survived.

Witnessing History's first film was Bourbon and Kentucky: A History Distilled. It tells a fascinating story of pioneer Kentucky, an abundance of corn, clear spring water and a ready export market down river in New Orleans. The film was originally made for KET, but also has been shown on television in every state and Canada, Brown said.

The next film was Retreat From Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics & the Pennsylvania Campaign, based on Brown's award-winning book of the same name. It traces the massive retreat of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's army in July 1863. "That film was made for the hard-core buffs," Brown said.

Witnessing History's business model is to raise production expenses from corporate advertisers and sponsors, such as the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, and to sell the films for television broadcast and as DVDs. Most of the films cost about $100,000 to produce, with much of that going to buy rights to use historical photographs and paintings.

"I love the imagery of the early 19th century and before, the portraiture and paintings of great events," Brown said. "Most people aren't familiar with them anymore, but that's how they chronicled events before television."

Brown writes and narrates the films, chooses the historic images and manages the business. High directs the films and oversees an audio/visual team of contractors. In some films, actors are hired to recreate key scenes.

In his spare time, Brown leads Civil War tours in Kentucky. His first out-of-state tour will be next spring at the Shiloh battlefield in Tennessee. "The business keeps expanding," he said.

Brown is writing another Gettysburg book, focused on Union Gen. George Meade, and working on several films, including one for HRTV about the horse's role in the Civil War. It will air in November.

Witnessing History has raised about half of the $200,000 needed to produce a two-hour documentary for public television about the life of Daniel Boone. Thanks to John Filson's best-selling "autobiography" of Boone, which was widely published in America and Europe in the 1780s, the frontiersman became one of the world's first pop culture icons.

About 40 actors have been enlisted to recreate key scenes of Boone's life that will be filmed in Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Missouri. Scott New, who portrays Boone at Fort Boonesborough State Park and in Kentucky Humanities Council presentations, will play the lead.

Long-range projects include a proposed high-tech animated film tracing the battle of Gettysburg, which could be shown at a private visitors center near the national park in Pennsylvania. That film could cost $1.5 million to produce, Brown said.

"In this day and age, there's a huge gap in the presentation of history, and the public is kind of starved for it," Brown said. "People really do want to understand their history, and this is a handsome way to present it."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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