Camera Work and Cinematography: 1917

Camera Work and Cinematography: 1917

Rahul Chettiyar | 09 Apr 2020

Directed by Sam Mendes, 1917, starring George MacKay as Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake, is a World War I story about two British soldiers who have been assigned a seemingly impossible task of delivering an important message that will save the lives of hundreds of soldiers including Blake’s brother who are walking into an enemy trap.

The buzz surrounding this movie is that it was shot and cut to appear as a single long continuous take. In fact, it was the opening instruction on this script. In a Behind the Scenes featurette by IMDb, Mendes explained the reason behind the idea of the name and the concept. After the James Bond movie Spectre, Mendes started reading new scripts. He wanted to do something new. However, none of them really intrigued him. Eventually, his agent and Pippa Harris, his producer, asked him to try writing his own script. The idea came from his own grandfather, Alfred Hubert Mendes, who went to the First World War in the year 1917 and was a messenger on the frontlines.

Roger Deakins is the cinematographer for this movie and is best known for his work in the films No Country for Old Men, Skyfall (with Sam Mendes) and Blade Runner 2049. The idea behind filming 1917 as a Oner was to achieve an immersive experience. A oner is a take which is generally longer than the usual takes in movies. It involves a lot of camera movement and blocking. The blocking aspect of it is where the cut takes place which is edited and synchronised to add a new take thereby making it look like one long take. Mendes wanted to pull the audience into the film and felt that the best way to do that was to not cut away and keep the motion going without providing an escape for the audience. From the start of the movie until the very end, Mendes and Deakins stalk the two actors. From bunkers to rat-infested trenches to farmhouses all the way through the enemy territory, the camera follows them continuously putting the audience in the shoes of two British soldiers fighting in World War I.

Models and Planning

Achieving this required the highest level of planning. And planning meant blueprints and models. In order to rehearse and understand the layout of the film, the Production Designer Dennis Gassner built scale models of every set that was going to be in the movie. The models helped the crew understand how the scene should look. In an interview with Vox, Mendes said that the crew had to measure the distance and time that every scene took. None of the sets was built until they had measured the distance. They had to start rehearsing on plain open grounds before the trenches, farmhouses, orchards and such were built. These rehearsals included marking the journey and distance using flags and poles. Every set had to be exactly the length of a scene. In the scene where Schofield runs through the destroyed city at night, the only light source was flares. The crew had to perfectly time the moment the flares were fired since lighting and shadows were an integral part of this scene. This was tested on the models using a contraction to move around LED lights to check for lights and shadows which would assist in good shots and hidden cuts. For most movies, the rehearsals take place on the shoot day. But for 1917, it began well in advance.

Filming

After rehearsals, it was time to start shooting. Keeping the primary instruction for the filming aspect in mind which was the fact that the end result was supposed to look like one long continuous take, there were some rules set in place. One of the rules, as stated by an Insider interview with Deakins, was that the camera was never supposed to move backwards. Since the characters had a starting point and a fixed destination, it was supposed to keep following them forward. The solution was to move the camera 360 degrees following the characters and move forward without making a visible cut.

This sort of free-flowing movement including running and chasing the characters required a compact, lightweight high definition camera giving good picture quality while providing portability.

Camera

The camera used for this film was the ARRI Alexa Mini LF. In an interview with ARRI, Deakins mentioned that he likes his cameras to be small and intimate. He prefers things to be compact. The Alexa Mini LF provided the best overall image quality in theatre format in compact size when studying the picture. It also had a lower noise with higher usable sensitivity. The camera gave Deakins the freedom to move the camera whichever way he wanted. He also loved the LF format because shooting a close-up on a 40mm lens did not have the distortion of a 32mm or 35mm lens, but it had a field-of-view similar to that of a 32mm or 35 mm lens. He was looking for a balance being able to shoot a wide shot and a close up by maintaining the depth of field. The camera being small and lightweight made it easy to attach onto drones for overhead scenes while not losing stability or just weighing and slowing down the drone itself.

Lenses

The lenses used in this film were the Signature Prime lenses. In an interview with ARRI, Deakins said that he prefers lenses that show the world the way it actually looks. He prefers the sharpest look. He does not understand the ideology behind going for older lenses for some specific look. The Signature Prime lenses are a good choice for someone working with natural light sources while avoiding lens flares as much as possible. To top that off, these lenses are pretty lightweight, which was extremely helpful for shooting this film. 99 percent of the film was shot on a 40mm lens while some scenes like the tunnel scenes were shot on a 35mm lens to give a tunnel feel and the river scenes were sometimes shot on a 47mm lens to kind of distort and lose the background.

Stabilizers

Movement was an integral part of this film. And with that, comes stability. With this movie, Deakins decided to go with the TRINITY stabilizers. In the ARRI interview, Deakins mentioned that the idea of the film was to have a remorseless solid frame going across the landscape. He also mentioned that the TRINITY stabilizers were more lock solid and stable than a Steadicam. These stabilizers also made movement more fluid while keeping the image stable. According to Charlie Rizek, the TRINITY Operator in 1917, the TRINITY provided the fluidity that a traditional steadicam would provide combined with the precision of a remote head giving the operator the freedom to explore the entire space around. In this case, it helped the 360-degree movement by allowing the operator to push forward without losing steadiness.

Lighting

The primary light source for this film was natural light. This included scenes shot in the trenches and bunkers as well. Since the camera had to be moved 360 degrees following the characters, any artificial lighting would have shown up on camera. Deakins preferred cloudy days to sunny days since sunny weather would translate to more shadows. The lighting had to be consistent since the story was taking place in real-time. A sunny day with no signs of clouds showing up meant that the production had to be shut down for the day.

Artificial lighting was used for night scenes. The flares were tied by wires and pulled up and were supposed to last a certain time frame and brightness. This resulted in a noir-ish look due to the long shadows and the warm yellow hue from the flares. With complete control over the lighting, for the night scene, Deakins built a 360-degree burning church lit by 2000 1K bulbs set on dimmers. The CGI fire was added in post-production.

Editing this movie was not an easy task. Academy award-winning editor of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Lee Smith was in charge of cutting and piecing together this work of art. In an interview with Hey U Guys at the 1917 World Premiere, Lee Smith revealed that the assembly of the film was taking place as it was being shot and then being presented to Mendes each day with rough sound effects and music. Picking the wrong take from day one could result in the second-day clips to go out of synchronization when trying to match the clips. Using the blocking aspect as transition to stitch in a new scene was something new for him to try his hands on. He had to undergo a lot of pressure to finish this project since what he did while editing would translate on screen. In his words, “You either get it right, or you’re dead!”

The crew went through loads of hardships and demands in order to finish this film. Cancelling shoots due to wrong weather conditions, building miniature models and the editing to name a few. None of it went to waste. This movie pulled the audience into the movie by using the long continuous take, chasing after the main characters, keeping mistakes in to give a natural look and feel and the beautiful music. The story is about the two main characters and the cinematography stresses on that. Not the war. Just the two soldiers. Through this movie, Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins managed to tell a story that never stalled and kept moving forward while taking the audience along on the beautiful ride.

Director: Sam Mendes
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins

Sources:
IMDB BTS, Insider, ARRI Interview, ARRI Interview – stabilizers, Hey U Guys interview

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Rahul Chettiyar

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