The Look Of 1917 – How Deakins achieved the Oner
- January 8, 2020
- Chris Haigh
Cameras: Arri Alexa Mini LF
Negative Format: 35 mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207,
Vision3 200T 5213, Vision3 500T 5219)
|ARRIRAW (4.5K) (source format
Digital Intermediate (4K) (master format)
Codex: Redcode RAW (8K)
Printed Film Format:
|Lens: Arri Signature Prime Lenses||D-Cinema|
Do you ever think about the movies that actively changed the way that we experience films?
Remember the first time you saw someone fly…
moved faster than a speeding bullet…
or felt the raw power of a dinosaur?
These, and many more, are the moments that changed filmmaking, that redefined how we make films. They raised the bar for what is possible to put on screen. They forged a new path.
|First Moving Picture:The Horse In Motion (1878)||First Film: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)|
|First Sound Film: Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894/1895)||First Color Film: Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894)|
|First Feature Length Film: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)||First Animated Feature: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937)|
|First film with scenes shot entirely by natural candlelight: Barry Lyndon. (1975)||First Feature-Length Animated CGI Film: Toy Story (1995)|
The list is endless! Take this from a man who just wasted most of his afternoon nostalgically trawling youtube for cinematic moments!
Back to the article at hand though, the point is Directors and Cinematographers are constantly inventing and harnessing new technologies and techniques, leading the way for the future of cinema. This “Look Of” examines the cinematography, directing and set-design of a movie that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, of lighting and set design further than ever before.
From the very outset, the marketing and buzz surrounding the Sam Medes masterpiece visionary opus has been the fact that it was all shot and cut to appear as one seamless take.
Often likened more to ballet and theater, the one shot or long take is a cinematography set-piece requiring the most intricate of planning and rehearsal. When these ‘special moves’ make it into the movie, they can can become filmmaking folklore, but regularly they are chopped up in the edit room for pacing and coverage. For example, the opening shot of Joker was originally planned as an establishing oner and was segmented for the final version of the movie…
It is important to note that there is a reason we don’t see oners creeping into every movie, with every cinematographer vying to outdo their predecessors and peers. The oner must be motivated by the story – if it doesn’t make sense to show a whole scene in one take then crowbarring one in could do more harm than good.
On this occasion, however, Director Sam Mendes saw the technique as imperative to his script, opening it with the instruction on the very front page…
Deakins: “I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is a gimmick. [One-shot] is not right for every story.”
Below are a few One Shot examples (CLICK ANYTHING TO VIEW):
For 1917, with a legendary cinematographer on board and an enigmatic director coming fresh off a 3 year break, one continuous shot could not have been a better or bolder option.
Mendes explains, “It felt like the best way to give you a sense of all this happening was in real time, I wanted you to feel like you were there with the characters, breathing their every breath, walking in their footsteps. The best way to do that is not to cut away and give the audience a way out, as it were.”
He was partly inspired to try the approach after watching his children play third-person-shooter games such as “Red Dead Redemption,” following the protagonist both in front and behind.
“I watch them with those games and I find them remarkably mesmerising, almost hypnotic,” Mendes says. “I just wanted to do something like that but with real emotional stakes.”
From the very first shot, when two young British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, are woken from napping under a tree, right through to the final moment (which I won’t mention due to spoilers), through trenches, along trenches, into bunkers and farmhouses, across enemy territory, this movie is incessant, leaving us breathless and captivated.
Of course there’s been “oners” in movies throughout the history of films before, even in some war movies… even in trenches in some war movies…
BUT, we’ve simply never experienced oners of this level before. Oners that were often 6/7 minutes at a time and peaked at almost 9 minutes long! And, in 1917, the oners come one after the other, absolutely seamlessly.
None of these feel like gimmicks, as Deakins would say. The oners act as perfectly crafted story sequences and to achieve this would required the most intricate planning…
This is where Production Designer Dennis Gassner came into his own. Building scale models of a meandering, sprawling set on a backlot at Shepperton Studios, Gassner allowed Mendes and Deakins to be able to choreograph performances and camera movements ahead of time. With the oners, every set had to be exactly the length of the scene.
“We spent a long time talking, just talking over the script and just talking about ideas, and we worked with a storyboard artist, and I spent a long time sketching ideas really. We went into a farm field with stakes and we marked out the trenches, marked out the walk down to the farmhouse and marked everything out and then rehearsed with the actors. We did it to get a sense of the time and how long between each piece of the action, how long to walk with a particular piece of dialogue. And just in that way like you would do on any film, we were figuring out how we were going to shoot this.”
Before he built a single set, Gassner worked with Mendes and Deakins to map out how each movement could be accomplished, how it would serve the story and could be accomplished. He then created the scale model of the village, complete with moving LED lights.
“The film is basically a piece of choreography. It’s an amazing brutalist dance, but also takes on a very dreamscape quality. But the practical side of it was inch by inch. We measured everything. Once we knew our journey, then we could start to plug in the architecture.”
It goes without saying that with a oner rehearsal is key! Cinema becomes theater. The whole production becomes a chess game with cast and crew becoming intricate moving parts. Everyone has to know where they move, when they move and how they move. But not just that; they have to know everyone else’s moves too.
Deakins: “We did a lot of rehearsals, so I mean, a lot of days the sun was out and we were waiting for clouds so that we could shoot, so we would rehearse. Not with the actors doing a full performance, but just rehearse to get the feel of the camera, know exactly when the camera was going to move in front of them or when it was going to boom up. I mean, that was the trick.”
Mendes: “The pressure was immense. There’d be times where you’d get seven minutes into the take and someone would trip or a bit of mud would get on the lens or an explosive device would be off and you can’t use it. The acting could be wonderful and everything else could be right and you’d have to start again.”
In order to tackle filming this substantial and with this level of ingenuity, Deakins had two skilled Steadicam operators working with an electronically-stabilized, remote-controlled head called a Stabileye (“I can’t understand how it works, but it’s very small and it’s fantastic,” Deakins said.). The crew also invented a gyro post for the Steadicam operator Peter Cavaciuti so the operator could run forward down trenches with the camera facing backwards. Arri’s Trinity rig – a hybrid camera stabilizer that combines classic mechanical stabilization with advanced active electronic stabilization – was also used extensively. In order to maintain the perpetual movement, the cameras were attached to and pulled from wires, taken for rides on motorbikes and 4x4s, and even flown on a drone over water.
DEAKINS: “There were key moments and keyframes that, as far as I was concerned, we had to get to. I’d say that to the grips and the operators, whether it was Pete on the steady cam or Charlie on the Trinity or Gary [Key Grip] and Malcolm [Grip] running around with the stabilized head. They all had these images in their head, in their mind, we had these frames and I said, “That’s where you need to be to get this shot.” Some of the shots we kept going as far as we could. Now and again, I had to say to Sam, “Can we break it here?” Because it’s on a certain piece of equipment and the operator’s carrying it for like six minutes and he does more than 20 takes. He needs a break. I mean, it just was physically really demanding, especially on Charlie Resick who is doing our Trinity work.”
While this was going on, Deakins was often controlling cameras remotely from a van some distance away. with one stunning shot was captured with a remote camera skimming across the water at the bottom of a crater captured by a remote camera on a wire.
One excellent example of this choreography of camera switching during a oner would be Schofield’s run down the front line:
“The camera starts off mounted on a 50-foot techno crane when he’s down in the trench and it brings him up over the trench…”
“Then the grips take it off, it’s on a stabilized head obviously, they take it off this one crane, walk backward with George (Schofield)…”
put it on another crane that’s mounted onto a vehicle and then track for like a quarter of a mile or more with George…
At the end, it booms out and goes down into the trench with him.
“You do a shot like that and there were like 13 grips involved and there was Brian, the camera car driver who had to keep it all in sync. So at the end when we got that, and it was really good, everybody’s on such a high because it’s such a huge collaborative effort to do that. And it was great to see because in the end, the grips and George would all be high-fiving each other and it was really quite a wonderful, great atmosphere.”
To put into context just how key the camera work and action was, the last 45 minutes of this 2 hour film boasts only 20 lines of dialogue.
Deakins shot digitally and convinced ARRI to provide three prototype miniature large format Alexa cameras, ideal for their portability, but, for a whole movie oner you may wonder what lens the cinematography leviathan would opt for. Typically you change lens focal lengths as you move in for coverage, but what lens can be used in a perpetual oner to capture huge war vistas and intimate closeups in the same take?
Deakins: I wanted to shoot everything on 40mm because it has the slightly shallow focus of a 40 mil, but obviously you’re in the larger format. So it’s equivalent to, I don’t know, like between a 32 and a 35 if you’ve been on a regular format Alexa. So we basically settled for a 40 mil. There are some scenes like in the German bunker we did on a 35, and there are some little scenes, the scene we did on the river, that’s on a 47, but our basic lens for the whole shoot was a 40.
How do you light an undertaking of this magnitude? Had Deakins been able to have cuts, he could have used hidden light sources that were just out of frame and manicured any light to his liking. BUT the camera had to see 360 degrees and often he’d be shooting in a bunker or a cellar with little more than a few oil lamps on a table.
With most of the movie being shot in exterior day time, in southern Britain, WEATHER played a key (possibly detrimental) role on the ambitious film. Deakins opted for flat and overcast conditions and therefore due to continuity, filmmakers often had to wait for cloud cover.
Deakins: “Most of the time I said no, because I didn’t want to be in a situation where you’re shooting a shot and the actors are giving it their all and suddenly the sun comes out. So that I found very stressful. I had like six weather apps I think I was looking at constantly, and I was watching the radar on them or just figuring when tiny bits of clouds were going to come. So I had to judge… if you’re doing a shot that’s five or six minutes long or the longest one in the farmyard that’s like eight or nine minutes, and it has to be cloudy for that whole time, you don’t want to start shooting in a cloud that’s not going to last.
During the night scenes, and with an opportunity to play with low lighting and silhouettes, Deakins really blew us away as an audience. Creating a stunning night time sequence of a french town that was undergoing bombing the lighting, Deakins delivered something special. Flares were fired over the town illuminating the ruins and producing shadows that changed grotesquely indicating the unnatural world that Schofield had wandered into.
“They were all on wires and they all had to be timed to last a certain length and they had to be a certain brightness so that I could shoot under them, and a certain color. Some flares are very blue, we didn’t want that, we wanted this slightly kind of warm look to them. We wanted the feeling of, ‘Is this his nightmare? Is it a dream? Is it real? We felt we could stylize it to a degree, make it a bit noirish — hence the idea of the flares and of the shadows coming off the shards of the broken buildings.”
This is only matched in terms of artistry, by a surreal oner sequence that culminates in the image of a burning church. With Deakins finally in full control over his lighting, he built a lighting rig for the burning church that was such a colossal rig that he described as…
“the biggest single lighting fixture I’ve had ever created”
What he was referring to was a 360-degree burning church lit by 2000 1K bulbs on dimmers.
The unconventional editing process that enabled Mendes and Deakins to continually build this oner, is certainly an unsung hero of this film’s look. Tasked with piecing together this mammoth project was Lee Smith, Academy Award winning editor of Dunkirk. Smith joined the movie in pre-production while Mendes was blocking and rehearsing the film. With an editor on set, Mendes was able to knit his film together in real-time while he was shooting…
Smith: “It was kind of (like) standing there butt-naked. All of my usual armor was stripped away. With conventional coverage, you look at things that aren’t working and think, ‘We’ll fix it in post. If a scene is a bit flabby or long-winded, you don’t panic because you have juxtapositions and cross-cutting and a thousand other ways to make corrections. But this shoot had to work from the get-go, without exception.”
Mendes: I had to make judgments about rhythm and tempo and the momentum of the story without cutting. And that’s something I do in the theater all the time. Judging shape and when the movie could breathe in and breathe out, that’s something that one does with stage productions. So that muscle I was using every day because there was no way out. And there was no way of taking a line out, let alone a scene or moving the order of something. Nothing like that. Everything had to be exactly as I’d want it in the final movie. So I was using that part of my brain that I would normally use in editing, in production.
Throughout the discussions for 1917, Sam Mendes has persistently referred ”the micro within the macro”. Mendes wanted his story to actually be very small, very personal, focusing intimately on the individual human experiences of the two young soldiers amidst this huge war. So the camera style is much more about their experience than the war as a whole. We are not cutting away to anything or anyone else, and we are experiencing every bit of their perilous journey in real time.
Mendes: “Through the keyhole of two men’s experience, you can begin to understand the scale of the destruction that happened over the course of four years and the greatest loss of life in any single war.”
With 1917, the filmmakers clearly underwent phenomenal hardship with demands unlike any movie before it. We could certainly say that the story and the subject matter, based on Sam Mendes’ own family stories of the war, warranted this level of artistry. Through this incessant juggernaut of a film, Mendes was able to tell an intimate, personal story, that never lags and is always on the move. And in doing so, even filmmaking itself, is perhaps driven forwards.
They had one shot and they certainly took it.