Cinematography: <I>1917</I>
Issue: November/December 2019

Cinematography: 1917

It’s an impossible mission — two young soldiers during World War I are charged with delivering an important message to troops deep in enemy territory that will prevent an attack. Their success will stop the troops from walking into a deadly trap and ultimately save 1,600 lives (including one of the soldier’s brothers). And thus sets the nonstop action of Universal Pictures’ WWI drama, 1917, into motion.

The film, starring Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and helmed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), has been getting early buzz for its innovative shooting approach. Mendes explains, “From the very beginning, I thought this movie should be told in realtime. Every step of the journey, breathing every breath with these men felt integral. There is no better way to tell this story, than in one, continuous shot.” 

Weeks prior to the Christmas Day opening of 1917, Oscar-winning DP Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) sat down with Post to discuss Mendes’ vision for the film and the unique approach to shooting it.

“From the first moment I talked to Sam about the idea that it was a one-shot movie, I knew it was going to be really immersive,” he says. “Until you actually see it on a screen, you don’t really realize how immersive it is and how that technique draws you into it.”

According to Deakins, he first found out about how Mendes wanted to shoot the film when he began reading the script, “and on the first page, it says ‘this script is conceived as a single shot.’ That’s when I went, ‘Oh my God, really?’ I was concerned. I thought, ‘Is it a gimmick?’ Then I read the script and it was fairly apparent why he wanted to do it. But I didn’t want the technical side of it to get in the way of the conversation about what do you want to achieve? What do you want it to feel like? How do you want it to look? That’s what you talk about…not the technicalities. The technicalities can be worked out later.”

Throughout the film’s 110 minutes, viewers go on a journey along with the two soldiers, through a series of never-repeating exterior shots and constant movement over various landscapes. Behind the scenes, camera operators were on the backs of trucks, with the cameras on rigs, moving alongside the actors as they ran through the scenes. In other instances, the cameras were hooked onto wires and carried across the landscapes. 

“The dance of the cameras and mechanics all have to be in sync with what the actors are doing,’ says Mendes. “When you achieve that, it’s really beautiful and exhilarating.”

“You look at a scene and figure out, where’s the best place to put the camera for each part?” adds Deakins. “We had to figure that out well in advance, because we had to figure out how to make it in one shot. How to get the camera in the best place for one scene and then manage to get it somewhere else in the same scene without a cut, but also without taking the audience out of the moment. It’s a very fluid way of moving the camera. It’s not a technique you would use on every film, it’s quite specific to this story. It’s a very particular story, and Sam had this idea…this is how we could really bring the audience into the story with the characters.”

According to Deakins, he worked closely with Mendes early on in the pre-production stages, which took place over the course of several months, to properly prepare the shoot. “Sam and I kind of worked out the shots, saying, ‘Okay, we shouldn’t think about how we’re going to achieve these shots, we should just think about the shots — where do we want the camera to be? How do we want to move the camera? Don’t think about the technicality, just think about what we want it to be on-screen.’ And then we broke it down and figured out how we were going to do it technically. Once we came to the actual camera shoots, we were quite prepared.” 

Deakins says that one of the longest scenes, which lasted about eight-and-a-half minutes, was “a very complex piece of choreography. It involved a lot of cameras and choreography with the actors. It was quite complex.”

Being such an exterior movie, production crews were very dependent on the light and the weather. “We kind of realized right away that you can’t really light it,” says Deakins. “If you were running down a trench, and turning around 360 degrees, there’s nowhere to put a light anywhere. And because we were shooting in story order, we had to shoot in cloud cover, to get the continuity from scene to scene. Some mornings, when the sun was out, we couldn’t shoot. So we would rehearse and we would be waiting around for the clouds.” Some days, he says, there would be a small window for crews to shoot, and they would jump into action to capture a scene. “Luckily, we stayed on-schedule,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than if you’re behind schedule and you’re waiting for the light. But we got very lucky, which actually took a lot of pressure off the shoot.”

The film was shot on three Arri Alexa Mini LF cameras, which did not exist prior to the making of 1917. “When we started prepping the project, we talked to Arri and we said we have this film that we want to do in slightly higher definition than the standard Alexa,” says Deakins. “I didn’t want to shoot on a 65, because we also needed a very light camera, and at that time, the LF camera had come out, but only a studio version, which was too heavy. We couldn’t have done what we were doing on it. So we asked Arri if they were ever going to make a mini-version of the camera and if they could make one for us to use on this film? They came back a month or two later and said, 'Ok, we will guarantee three bodies by the time you shoot.’ And they did. We basically had three prototype cameras…we needed three because we were using different kinds of rigs, so, you didn’t want to have one camera and keep moving it from one rig to another. But Arri did come up with the camera, and now it’s on the market and it’s one of the most popular cameras.”

At the time of our interview Deakins was working closely with Mendes, editor Lee Smith, VFX super Guillaume Rocheron, as well as others on the post team, to complete the finishing touches on the film. He said he thinks about post when he’s shooting a film. In this instance, “When your set has an exterior of a trench line and you know your set is so big, you think about what’s going into the background. How is that going to work? There are elements that are CG in the film, so you have to think about that. It’s all discussed in prep and right now, we’re just looking at the last effects work, as they’re fitting into the film. I usually stay involved in the effects work on any film, because I think it’s conceptually part of the photography of the film. You can’t divorce one from the other.”

Prior to the film’s opening, Mendes had said that “the engagement is very important and that is behind the way in which we decided to shoot this film. I wanted people to understand how difficult it was for these men.”

Deakins agrees that while production crews may have been tested at times, "It was great. I obviously hadn’t done anything like it and it was a wonderful challenge.”