1917 was one of the most technically innovative and daring films ever made… but how was 1917 filmed? The production of 1917 utilized more than 500 extras in an effort to retain as much authenticity as possible – and it called for body exhuming, bird conservation, and stringent cloud coverage. We’re going to explore how 1917 was filmed by looking at a bunch of the production hurdles it overcame. By the end, you might have a newfound appreciation for director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, the 1917 cast and all the other members of the production team who worked tirelessly to make a war-film unlike any other. Check out this 1917 making of video to see the production in action!
Watch: Behind the Making of 1917
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How 1917 Was Filmed
How did they film 1917?
1917 is a 2019 war film that follows two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman), as they cross enemy lines during World War I in order to deliver a message that has the potential to save 1,600 lives. The film utilizes invisible cuts and other editing techniques to appear as if it was shot in one take. This next video looks at the hidden cuts of 1917 — obviously, major spoilers ahead:
Sam Mendes served as the director of 1917 and co-wrote the script with Kristy Wilson-Cairns. Roger Deakins was the film’s cinematographer; Thomas Newman was its composer. Now that we’ve reviewed what 1917 is and some of the chief people who worked on it, let’s jump into the production history to better understand the difficulties of shooting a military masterpiece.
How Was the Movie 1917 Filmed on Location?
Where was 1917 filmed?
For a movie like 1917, you can’t just go out into the country and begin shooting. Everything from cast and crew to practical effects has an impact on the local environment – and you need permits from the government to minimize your effect on the ecology. It’s of the utmost importance you manage shooting locations effectively.
“Normally with location movies, you’re in and out in a couple of weeks,” location manager Emma Pill said. That wasn’t the case with 1917 – which was shot for upwards of 60 days from April 1st through mid-June.
But where was 1917 filmed? Well, one reason why filming of 1917 took so long was because it was shot at multiple locations, including Low Force, on the River Tees, Teesdale. This next video by Andy Beck shows us some of the actual places where 1917 was filmed. Listen along as Beck answers the question: where was the film 1917 shot?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the river that presented the most challenging natural obstacle; it was the environment of Salisbury Plain (where a good portion of the filming of 1917 took place) and its local bird population, specifically the endangered stone curlew birds.
Nate Jones of Vulture reported that the production team of 1917 had to minimize its footprint so as to not upset the stone curlew birds and the chirocephalus diaphanus shrimps that lived in the sunken soil created by tank treads. In fact, some members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were actually on the 1917 set to make sure the stone curlews weren’t harmed – and not only did the production team not harm the birds, they unintentionally created a new habitat for them.
The barn that was built for production was supposed to be torn down after shooting was completed, but before it was able to be taken down, birds were discovered nesting there – thus making it illegal for the barn to be destroyed.
Another obstacle that production had to prepare for was the possibility of finding bodies that needed to be exhumed. Pill said “I had to get a license to exhume bodies… Obviously if they were modern bodies, you’re calling the police. But ancient bodies [3,000 years old], you have to have a license to have permission to exhume them from the ground.” In the end, production didn’t find any bodies. So, where was the movie 1917 filmed? 1917 was filmed across the U.K. in a variety of locations.
The 1917 Cast Was Thrust into the Fire
How was 1917 filmed with a big cast?
It’s reasonable to suspect that the weather in Salisbury, England in April would be dark and dreary, but for Mendes and the 1917 team, it was anything but what they expected. In fact, the first day on the shooting schedule was so sunny that Deakins decided they couldn’t film. If you’ve seen the film, you know that it's mostly overcast or dark – so for continuity’s sake it wouldn’t make sense if there was one shot in the sun and the next shot was under clouds.
The sun played a huge role in the production of 1917 because it served as the film’s primary light source. Roughly 80-90% of the film was solely reliant on natural lighting, but there are a couple scenes that were illuminated by fire and explosions. Watch this next clip to see Mendes break down “the desolate town” scene from 1917 – and read our article on how Roger Deakins shot a oner film for more technical details.
It’s amazing to think that Mendes and Deakins were able to manually control light and shadow to such a degree. How crazy is it that they measured the walls and vibrancy of light to calculate the effect of potential shadows? To me, that attention to detail is something that makes Mendes and Deakins some of the best filmmakers in the world.
A lot of people ask was 1917 filmed in one take. In this next video, we break down some of the key details and strategies Roger Deakins used to make it appear as if 1917 was filmed in one take.
The production of 1917 teaches us to always expect the unexpected. Star George McKay said that the 1917 cast began rehearsing and choreographing in January, three months before the April start. But even with all that time to practice, there were still a lot of obstacles that nobody planned for. In this next video, McKay explains how perhaps the most iconic scene from 1917 was full of mistakes.
I suppose it would be hard not to run into people when everybody is running in one direction and you’re cutting across them. Maybe McKay knew he was bound to run into some extras – but it doesn’t seem he was prepared to fall down and get knocked around as much as he did. Ultimately, this moment teaches us that nothing ever goes according to plan in filmmaking – and that’s one of the most beautiful things about the medium.
How Roger Deakins Shot a “Oner”
Now that we’ve broken down some of the production hurdles 1917 overcame, let’s move onto the cinematographic challenges. In this next article, we analyze how cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Sam Mendes shot a “oner” or a “one shot film.” We’ll show you all of their camera equipment and camera tricks so that you can attempt a oner of your own.