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

VFX: 1917

Director Sam Mendes’ 1917 takes a unique approach to telling the story of two World War I soldiers tasked with a nearly impossible mission. The film, which was shot by Roger Deakins, follows their journey across enemy lines in one long, uninterrupted camera shot, never losing sight of the subjects and never going back from where they came.

1917 is nominated for 10 Academy Awards this year. Both Mendes and Deakins are recognized for directing and cinematography, respectively, and the film is also in contention for Best Motion Picture. Not as obvious to the viewer are the film’s visual effects, which made its concept possible. Visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron, along with MPC VFX supervisor Greg Butler and special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy led the team that pulled off the feat.

MPC handled the entire workload when it came to visual effects, dividing the work between the studio’s numerous locations, including Montreal, London and Bangalore, India. Rocheron can’t provide a shot count encompassing their work. Instead, he says as much as 91 percent of the film employed visual effects to seam together the shots that made up each scene. 

“On normal movie, I can say we did 1,500 shots, or 300 shots and it gives you a measure of the work,” says Rocheron. “But the particularity of 1917 is that the movie is basically one shot, even through the movie is multiple shots, stitched together. It’s not really a good measure of the quantity of work. Some of shots would run for a couple of seconds, and others a couple of minutes. I think the longest shot ran seven-and-a-half minutes, which is very long in terms of visual effect shots.”

The one-shot concept that the film employs made the visual effect team rethink the way they typically work. 

“All of out tools and tricks are designed to work on shots that are four seconds. Ten seconds is really ambitious. Twenty seconds is really challenging,” Rocheron states. “In this case, we had to design and work on complete scenes that basically spanned several minutes.

“I’ve been doing visual effects for 20 years, and over the 20 years you learn your bag of tricks to get something to work across cuts and suspend disbelief, and create the illusion where the audience doesn’t see the CG. In a scenario where it’s going to have to sustain the viewers for several minutes at a time, you have to think differently about how you are doing to design the work. How do you ensure absolute photo-reality on something that never cuts.”

“Stitching” is a technique that helped the VFX team bring different shots together without distracting the viewer. 

“Roger Deakins was the DP on the movie and put a great deal of research and care and work into how the camera was moving through the scenes,” recalls Rocheron. “Roger designed the camera to not be the character. The whole exercise is to immerse the audience among our two young heroes and not call attention to what the camera is doing, or create spectacular moves. It’s all about how to be invisible and immerse the audience into the journey. For us, it was the single greatest challenge, and our measure [was], no matter what we do to transition from one shot to another, the camera has to always feel like it is flowing seamlessly from shot to shot or scene to scene, and never feel like we are forcing it to do something.”

Deakins and Mendes, on set

Some of the stitches are simple, where a natural piece of landscape or architecture was used to disguise and blend the transition. “Others were extremely complicated,” he recalls, “where we switched to a digital set with digital actors because it was the only solution that would give us the exact throw of the camera, and as a viewer, you would not question it.”

Rocheron points to the scene late in the film — where Lance Corporal Schofield is in the burning city at night — as one of the film’s more challenging sequences. Schofield runs through the streets and suddenly jumps from the bridge, ending up in a river. 

“There was no bridge, because the city didn’t exist,” he explains. “The city was built on a backlot at Shepperton Studios, and then the river sequence, which was tremendously complicated, was something like a canoe-training center in the north of the UK. We shot it there because we wanted to get rapid water. The whole environment was created digitally to make it look like it’s in a natural environment and not a man-made structure.”

Rocheron says that director Sam Mendes stayed away from more common camera techniques, where the camera tilts up to the sky and back down to cover a transition. The visual effects therefore needed to be effective and yet, invisible.

“Sam always reminded everyone: It’s not a visual effects movie. It’s a movie about following the journey of those people. You had to be extremely delicate with how you introduced an element and transition from shot to shot. And knowing how complicated that it, it’s all about how you never call attention to the visual effects.”

One of Rocheron’s favorite moments in the film involves a crash following a mid-air dogfight between two biplanes. After the German fighter plane is hit, it travels from the distance into the foreground where the lead actors have been watching the event take place.

“It really is movie magic,” says Rocheron of the sequence. “Obviously, we didn’t crash a real plane. To me, that was a great combination of CGI planes in the sky, and when it crashes, we created a blend — a stitch  — a transition to a practical plane that we built and put on a ramp, and launched from 20 feet in the air into the ground. We blend the two shots together. Obviously, we couldn’t do that with the actors, so the actors are in a shot where there is no plane and then we add the combination of the digital plane and practical plane that we built into the shot without the actors. And then when the actors stand up to go to the plane, we basically say, ‘Cut.’ Then, overnight, we dress the post-crashed plane on the location where the actors were and create another blend. We shoot the scene again, and when the actors stand up now we do a blend where the plane is.”

Reflecting on the film’s Oscar nomination for visual effects, Rocheron point to some of the category’s competition —The Lion King and Avengers: Endgame for example, along with 1917 — and notes that visual effects “are used in everything” now, even when the audience may not be aware of their importance. 

“It’s not really a novelty,” he notes. “There’s technical innovation required to do some films, but [it’s] also how you create unique experiences. You should give the viewer an experience that is unique and proper to a film. I think that is what makes the work stand out. It really is about creating experiences.”