Can you shoot an entire movie that looks like it was done in a single shot? This is exactly the look that director Sam Mendes wanted for his epic new Hollywood movie – 1917, depicting the story of two British soldiers during World War I who was given an impossible mission to deliver a message deep in enemy territory in the hopes of stopping a German ambush and killing 1,600 men.
Turning this vision into a cinematic reality was the job of one of the best cinematographers living today – Roger Deakins who was able to carefully plan and orchestrate one of the most complex shots in cinematic history and help bring what might very well be (a well deserved) Oscar-winning movie.
This is not the first time that we look at Deakins’ amazing work here on LensVid. However, this movie will certainly be remembered as one of his biggest masterpieces (and that is from a director of photography who only recently one an oscar for shooting Blade Runner 2049).
For many of the shots in 1917 Deakins relied on two Steadicam operators which controlled a device called Stabileye which is remote-controlled and electrically stabilized and can hold a film camera. For the movie, Deakins and his team developed a gyro post for the Steadicam so that the operator can run forward with the camera facing backward.
There were other advanced camera stabilizing systems including the Arri Trinity rig which is a hybrid mechanical and electronic stabilizer that was also used in the film as well as many different fast-moving options such as techno-crane, wires, cars and even a drone controlled remotely. Since this was designed to be shot as one continuous scene it meant that the camera needed to be carried mid-scene from one device to the next and special carrying handles were developed for it.
The camera also needed to be smaller and lighter so that an operator can work with it in the narrow tranches and for those shots, every tiny movement was thought of in advance and rehearsed time and time again in the field.
Rehearsing was not only necessary, it was also imposed by the weather. Since this was shot as a oner – there were many scenes where there was no physical room to place lights and so Deakins and his team had to rely on the sun (or actually the clouds to create some nice diffusion). Waiting for the sun to go behind the clouds – sometimes for hours, provided a good time for rehearsing.
As for camera, Deakins was able to convince Arri to give him 3 prototypes of its new ALEXA Mini LF for the movie. This large-format camera has a really tiny body (compared to other Arri cameras of course) and it allowed Deakins and his team to shoot 1917 in a way that would have been much more difficult only a few years back.
On this video Arri interview, Deakins talks about his choices in terms of cameras and lenses for the movie and how they helped him shoot 1917.