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“1917:” How Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins Made Their “One-Shot” War Epic

Delivering a visceral, uninterrupted cinematic experience, the legendary cinematographer breaks new ground in Mendes’ World War I feature.

 

Already generating intense buzz for its creative and technical mastery, director Sam Mendes’ World War One epic, 1917 — which he conceived as one continuous shot — arrived in theaters from Universal Pictures on Christmas Day. This uninterrupted cinematic experience breaks new ground, made possible by rigorous preparation and planning by Mendes in collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049).

The Skyfall director previously worked with Deakins on Jarhead, since then collaborating on films from Revolutionary Road to Skyfall. The story of two British soldiers sent on a suicide mission across no man’s land, 1917 “has been hailed as the greatest war movie since Saving Private Ryan in no small part thanks to Deakins’ immersive, unrelenting and deeply absorbing camera work,” Brent Lang writes in Variety.

Read more: Why It Was All Worth It: Watch These Scenes from 1917

George MacKay as Schofield in “1917,” the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

1917 opens and closes on the calm of a peaceful field, but what transpires in the nearly two hours in between is anything but tranquil,” writes Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects. “While the carnage and chaos of war have been captured for the screen numerous times before, director Sam Mendes and friends — including, most notably, cinematographer Roger Deakins — deliver something uniquely immersive and powerful here with a journey through enemy territory captured in what amounts to a single take…. It’s an at times mesmerizing technical feat that pushes and pulls viewers along for every uncertain step, and it makes for one hell of an intense cinematic experience.”

The genesis of the film stems from personal experiences Mendes’ grandfather shared with him when he was a child. “This film is not a story about my grandfather, but rather the spirit of him — what these men went through, the sacrifices, the sense of believing in something greater than themselves,” he says.

“Our two main characters are sent on a dangerous journey through enemy territory to deliver a vital message to save 1,600 soldiers, and our camera never leaves them,” Medes adds. “I wanted to travel every step and breathe every breath with these boys, and cinematographer Roger Deakins and I discussed shooting 1917 in the most immersive way. We designed it to bring audiences as close as possible to their experience.”

Mendes was acutely aware that “while Hollywood has made many a World War II movie about hero soldiers fighting Nazis, the more muddled motivations and trench-warfare stalemates of the First World War would require a different kind of storytelling,” Kyle Buchanan notes in the New York Times. “That war was just a chaos of mismanagement and human tragedy on a vast scale,” Mendes said to Buchanan. “You could kill someone at 1,000 yards with a machine gun, but you couldn’t communicate with a soldier 20 yards away.”

Mendes held complete backstories for each character in his head as he was writing the script, he relates to Steve Pond in an interview for The Wrap’s Oscar Magazine. “You have to work out what the iceberg is if you’re just going to show the tip. [1917 co-writer] Krysty [Wilson-Cairns] and I knew exactly who they were, where they came from, how old they were, how long they’d been out there, how much fighting they’d seen, which part of England they came from, which schools they went to, which pubs they’d drink at. You have to do that in order to write a character that has some sort of inner life.”

Mendes’ vision to capture the story in real time in a way that plays as one continuous shot requires the audience to join the characters and immerse themselves in their turbulent journey. To be clear: 1917 was not shot in one take, but was filmed in a series of extended, uncut takes that could be connected seamlessly to look and feel as if it is one continuous shot. “This type of approach has been attempted before, notably Hitchcock’s Rope in 1948, which played out entirely in one room,” Anthony Breznican notes in Vanity Fair, “The 2011 horror-thriller Silent House and 2014’s Birdman pushed the technique further, one moving in and around a woodland home and the other circulating through Manhattan’s theater district. What differentiates 1917 is its epic scale, journeying across a vast and chaotic outdoor landscape while remaining intimately focused on its two central characters.”

“I had this thought, ‘Why don’t we lock the audience into the men’s experiences in a way that feels completely unbroken, in a movie that resembles a ticking-clock thriller in which we experience every second passing in real time?’” Mendes says to The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel. “It seemed like a natural way of telling the story. Albeit difficult.”

Read more: A Brief History of “One-Shot” Films (No Film School)

Read more: 1917 Isn’t the First (Supposedly) One-Shot Film. Here’s a Timeline. (The New York Times)

“I wanted to tell this story in two hours of ‘real time,’ Mendes tells Alissa Wilkinson in an interview for Vox, “So I felt like it was a natural thing, to lock the audience into the men’s experiences. In a movie that operates more like a ticking-clock thriller at times, I wanted an audience to feel every second passing and take every step with them, and also be aware of geography and distance and physical difficulty. The feeling that you are going to have to live through the story with them is accentuated by not cutting.”

1917 was produced using two separate scripts, one for the dialogue and story points, and a second one noting precise camera moves, Adam Chitwood observes in Collider. “Granted, this is a feat that has been attempted before, as recently as Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman, for which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won the Oscar. But that movie took place in a theater. With 1917, Deakins and Mendes are pulling this off with exteriors, special effects, etc. It sounds impossible, but if anyone can do it — and do it with an eye towards beauty — it’s Deakins.”

“There wasn’t a single camera indication in the screenplay,” Mendes notes in an interview with Steven Prokopy for Slash Film, “It wasn’t ‘We pan from such and such, across there,’ none of that,” adding:

“I don’t like that in screenplays. I want it to be a description of character, dialogue, moment. However, there was another script of about 45 pages that was made up solely of maps and schematics and diagrams of where the actors moved and where the camera moved accordingly, and what rig we were shooting on, what time of day, etc. So we did realize that we had to have a physical map for the physical elements, and we gave that to the crew.”

The film was shot on the brand-new Arri ALEXA Mini LF — boasting a large-format ALEXA LF sensor in an ALEXA Mini body — with Signature Primes in combination with the Trinity Rig. Especially for use on 1917, ARRI Munich had three cameras ready early. The size of the cameras was ideal for the epic film, as well as its large-screening format. Officially launching in mid-2019, the ALEXA Mini LF expands ARRI’s large-format camera system. Says the manufacturer: “ARRI’s large-format camera system is based around a 4.5K version of the ALEXA sensor, which is twice the size and offers twice the resolution of ALEXA cameras in 35-mm format. This allows the filmmakers to explore their own take on the large-format look, with improvements on the ALEXA sensor’s famously natural colorimetry, pleasing skin tones, low noise, and suitability for High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut workflows.”

Writing for CNN, Thomas Page notes that more than half of 1917 was shot on an electronically-stabilized, remote-controlled head called a Stabileye. “I can’t understand how it works, but it’s very small and it’s fantastic,” Deakins told Page. “The crew invented a gyro post for Steadicam operator Peter Cavaciuti so he could run forward down trenches with the camera facing backwards, while a Trinity rig — a type of hybrid camera stabilizer — was used extensively,” Page continues:

With only one spare camera, equipment was put through the wringer. “Pete and Charlie Rizek, who (operated) a Trinity, each of them fell over a couple of times in the trenches,” said the cinematographer. Cameras were attached to and removed from wires, taken for a rides on a motorbike and 4x4s, and on a drone over water at one stage.”

Read more: 1917: Every Kind of Shot Used

Deakins had a number of conversations about the film with Mendes “very early on… before most people came on board,” he remarks in an interview for Vanity Fair podcast Little Gold Men. “We just had sort of a general conversation about the concept and then we started doing sort of storyboards. We would work with a storyboard artist and just started sketching out ideas of how we felt the camera could move and just the ideas, And then other people came on board and it just became a bigger and bigger collaborative sort of process.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player below:

1917 “brilliantly re-creates” the physical and emotional terrain navigated by its unlikely heroes, film critic Peter Debruge writes in Variety: “In the two hours ahead, Mendes will follow the pair into the realm of nightmares, depicting WWI as we’ve never seen it: simultaneously horrific and beautiful, immersive and detached, immediate and impossibly far removed from our own experience. These paradoxes define the unique sensibility of 1917, which isn’t necessarily ‘better’ than such iconic WWI films as War Horse and All Quiet on the Western Front, but different. Mendes has found an original approach to a familiar subject, refreshing events from a century ago in a way that looks, sounds and feels absolutely cutting-edge.”

Mendes and Deakins are no strangers to the oner, as Phil Pirrello writes for No Film School. “See their collaboration on Skyfall and that backlit fight between Bond and an assassin against the neon-lit backdrop of Shanghai’s skyline. Spectre’s opening “Day of the Dead” sequence also serves as training wheels for what Mendes set out to achieve here, which is nothing short of a revolutionary act in the current blockbuster landscape where IP is king and so is the assembly line feel of its execution. If you’re gonna go big, might as well make it worthy of the biggest screen experience possible.”

Also a part of the equation was production designer Dennis Gassner, who had previously collaborated with Deakins on Blade Runner 2049. “Deakins served not only as co-dreamer, he also helped execute these distinct looks from prep to post, working with other department heads to coordinate the lighting and color of his cinematography. His collaboration with production designer Dennis Gassner was in particular impressive, as so much of the his lighting came from practicals built into Gassner’s sets and often appearing stunningly in frame, while each of the VFX background plates perfectly complements the image shot during production,” writes IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt, “Deakins’ early involvement and disciplined preparation on 1917 once again meant a next-level collaboration with Gassner, who built the battlefields and trenches to accommodate the demands of the frame and Deakins’ camera. The end result is images that maintain Deakins’ striking precision inside one of the most technically demanding shooting environments in recent film history.”

In a behind-the-scenes featurette, Mendes says, “From the very beginning, I felt this movie should be told in real time. Every step of the journey, breathing every breath with these men, felt integral, and there’s no better way to tell this story than with one continuous shot.” Watch the video, which discusses the film’s visual style, below:

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