After watching Sam Mendes ‘”1917“, you must be feeling pressure of being in a battle field due to its immersing single take cinematography shots, the sets and color grading.. but if you understand the great levels behind work for its filming, it would be more jaw dropping and one can understand that why and how 1917 was the most anticipated movies of all the time.

How the 1917 movie was crafted? how it was filmed? What made the actors performances and the screenplay at its best? What made us feel incredible after watching the movie?

While there are several factors including its immersive one take cinematography, set designs, direction.. etc that contributed, so without further staying on words let us walk into the action.

Roger Deakins: 1917 Cinematography

Roger Deakins, 1917
Roger Deakins,1917

According to director Sam Mendes, for 1917 one shot was all he needed to create a gripping, real-time race against the clock. Roger Deakins was brought into the pre-production process early to work out camera rigs, storyboards, and just how to pull off a 1917 one shot movie. At least, that’s what it looks like. Even though the cuts are masterfully hidden, 1917 isn’t literally a one-shot movie but it certainly looks and feels like one.

As we look at 1917 behind the scenes, we’ll look at Roger Deakins’ cinematography techniques that he and Sam Mendes used to create an immersive experience. Filmmakers are always trying to find ways to bring the audience completely into the film and that’s what the 1917 filmmakers accomplished. Long takes are just the beginning of the 1917 cinematography plan — they also chose to stick with prime lenses that match the focal length of the human eye. In other words, the camera behaves and captures the events as close to how we would experience it in person. It’s no wonder that Roger Deakins won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In filmmaking and cinematography terms, 1917 is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that every filmmaker will be learning from for years to come.

How was 1917 filmed?

Let’s cut right to the chase and answer the burning question “Was 1917 filmed in one take?” The quick answer is no. But it sure looks like it was thanks to director Sam Mendes and his DP Roger Deakins. But knowing it wasn’t actually a single take only begs another question: how did they film 1917?

In fact, Mendes had known from the inception of 1917 that it would take place in real time and be filmed to appear as one shot. In fact, in this interview, Mendes speaks on how the 1917 one shot style was baked into the screenplay itself.

Check out a few of the key factors that Deakins needed to pull off the 1917 one take in this interview.

Challenges faced for filming:

The first challenge the 1917 cinematography team faced was the weight of the camera. The film’s appearance as one long shot is actually composed of numerous tracking shots stitched together.

To be able to operate a camera for these long shots, the camera had to be lightweight. So, Deakins turned to ARRI with a request to create a lightweight camera with the performance level that they needed.

Here are the tech specs of the camera equipment used in 1917 and an interview with Deakins on how it enabled them to shoot the 1917 continuous shot.

  • Camera: Arri Alexa Mini LF
  • Lens: Arri Signature Prime Lenses
  • Cinematographic Process: ARRIRAW (4.5K) (source format), Digital Intermediate (4K) (master format)
  • Negative Format: 35 mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 200T 5213, Vision3 500T 5219)
  • Codex: Redcode RAW (8K)
  • Printed Film Format: D-Cinem

This lightweight camera was often used on one of ARRI’s advanced stabilizers that allowed the operator to track, boom, and move in all the rehearsed camera directions. 

Sometimes, the 1917 cinematography team had to transfer the camera from a shoulder rig and hook it onto a wire rig in one shot. This portability of the camera was key in achieving the 1917 one take look.

All of these pieces of equipment were absolutely necessary for Deakins and Mendes to capture the film’s scenes and one continuous take. While equipment was being locked in, Mendes and the film’s acting leads Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay had to focus on rigorous rehearsals to pull off the 1917 one shot.

Rigorous Rehearsals:

1917 follows two soldiers on a mission through no-mans-land into enemy territory to call off an attack. Because of this, no location is ever repeated and the camera does not stop moving. Before the sets were built, a four months rigorous rehearsals were done by actors to fine tune themselves with the camera blocking and movements. Because the 1917 cinematography uses single shot coverage, sets had to be the exact length and size for action to happen without breaks or cuts.

These rehearsals allowed the art department to determine how long the bunkers would be and how the sets would be designed given the movement of the actors and camera. With so many moving elements in 1917, rehearsal was a necessity. On paper, a one shot movie might grow stale or lose momentum without the benefit of editing. Insider dives into the extensive rehearsals it took to coordinate the actors, camera, and the sets.

Rehearsals also allowed the 1917 cinematography team to test creative lighting rigs like the flares and burning church. These lighting rigs needed to be built and tested so that they could function precisely when production began.

Specifically, the flare sequence was a tricky scene to light because the flares had to be propelled at just the right moment to illuminate the character’s face as well as cast the shadows the desired.

Once rehearsals were locked into precision, the art department could begin building the film’s multiple sets. The sets, of course, would aid greatly in making it look like 1917 shot in one take.

Production Design:

You may be wondering “How did they film 1917 in trenches, farms, mud, forests, and rivers in one continuous shot?” Because the film is continuous, it cannot cut from location to location. This meant that they had to build every set. 

The production design for 1917 is impressive in both scale and detail. First, the team built models of each set to ensure the art direction and geography of each would serve the film. Determined by the length of dialogue and movement of the actors and camera, over 5200 feet of trenches were built.

To understand the sheer scale of the set building that went into the making of 1917, production designer Dennis Gassner dives into the details in this video.

Editing: How they combined long takes

1917’s editor, Lee Smith, depended heavily on the blocking and camera movement of a scene to pull off the 1917 one shot appearance. The making of 1917 depended on hidden match cuts that were made subtly. This could be when characters would cross the frame of the camera, the camera passed a foreground element, or darkness filled the frame. 

Smith stitched together numerous long takes at these points to create the cohesive 1917 one shot look of the film. Take a look at this video by Vox in which they break down the editing techniques that were used to achieve the 1917 continuous shot.

Was 1917 shot in one take? No. But how they made it look as if it were is all the more impressive. Creating the 1917 continuous shot aesthetic was not easy by any means. While many films have utilized these techniques to create their own long shots, many have also become forgotten.

This is because the long shot can be used either as a gimmick or as a storytelling device that makes a film more immersive. 1917 rises above the rest because it utilizes the “one shot” look to serve its story, making it one of the more engaging and memorable war films of recent cinema.

(Courtesy: www.studiobinder.com)

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