When it was announced that 1917 would be shot to look like a single take, it quickly became one of the most anticipated movies of the year. While the performances and screenplay were both incredible, many left the theatre wondering the same thing. How was 1917 filmed? While there is no single answer to this question, there are various factors that contributed to the immersive 1917 one shot cinematography. Without further adieu, let’s dive into how they pulled this off.
Watch: Roger Deakins & 1917 Cinematography
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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.
So how did Mendes pull this off? Past films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) are among past films that also utilized the illusion of one shot cinematography, but 1917 posed a new challenge.
Its persistent character movement, terrain changes, and action sequences would make the cinematography of 1917 a daunting task. Sam Mendes needed the cream of the crop to pull this off. So he turned to none other than the inimitable Roger Deakins.
Deakins’ best films prove his masterful ability in creating beautifully convincing and immersive worlds through cinematography. However, in shooting 1917, Deakins was tasked with a challenge he never faced — shooting an entire film to appear as a one shot movie.
Nonetheless, Deakins' style and techniques served the story just as in all his other films and convincingly pulled off the 1917 one shot look. Check out a few of the key factors Deakins needed to pull off the 1917 one take in this interview.
While Deakins had the experience and skill to pull off the one take look of the film, there were logistical challenges the crew had to face as well. The first being equipment.
1917 Single Shot
The camera gear needed for a "oner"
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-Cinema
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.
1917 single shot performances
Four months of 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. This would require a tremendous amount of rehearsal for film blocking. Here's a quick rundown of film blocking from our Filmmaking Techniques Masterclass.
Before any sets were built, the 1917 crew began rigorous rehearsals for a whopping four months to fine tune the actors’ blocking and camera 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.
Camera movement was a huge part of the 1917 cinematography because the actors are constantly moving towards their objective. Here's a breakdown on the various types of camera movements and how they can be used in visual storytelling.
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. The lighting in this sequence is breathtaking, but then we can't really expect less from someone who wields it so effortlessly.
Here's Deakins describing his relationship with light, and where he draws his major inspirations from — namely painting and still photos.
And in Part 2 of the series, Deakins discusses some practical considerations in film lighting. Specifically, he explains mixing light colors, finding the right light for the job, and lighting the human face.
Creating the 1917 one shot
How they used 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. Here's a primer on production design.
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.
Not only did the sets have to look completely realistic to World War I, but they had to be functional and serve the 1917 one shot look of the film. In the trenches of no-man’s-land, the barbed wire fences had clear openings for the camera to pass through.
The window of the building in which Scofield is knocked out, actually opens up for the camera to pass through as well. Details like this were essential for production design to incorporate so because the shot could not cut and the camera movements were just as rehearsed as the actors.
Most importantly, foreground elements like wooden posts, trees, and fences were meticulously placed so that they cross the frame and allow editors to stitch together two shots to create the 1917 one shot illusion.
1917 one shot post-production
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.
Roger Deakins cinematography tips
Can’t get over how immersive the 1917 cinematography was? There were many useful techniques used to achieve the 1917 continuous shot look. Learn from the master himself, Roger Deakins, as we go over his tricks of the trade. From lighting techniques to camera work, we analyze Deakins' work and break down actionable tips.