Extended one shots / one take – that weave in and out of locations with cast choreographed to within an inch are not uncommon in film with most directors having featured them. Scorsese’s camera in Goodfella’s followed Ray Liotta and his date through a restaurant into a nightclub is one take and decades before this Hitchcock had made ‘Rope’ in a series of ten minute one takes and perhaps most astonishing of all was Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 film “Victoria,” where the entire film was shot in a single 134 minute one take. Sam Mendes has featured one take notably in the opening of Spectre as he follows James Bond at a Mexican Festival of the Dead as he carries out an assassination.
Now he ups the ante with his latest film 1917 with the whole film seemingly shot in one take describing the making of the as ‘the most exciting job of my career’ which is quite a claim when he’s got two of the biggest box office earning Bond films under his belt (Skyfall & Spectre). 1917 tells the story of two young British soldiers at the height of the war, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) as they are given a seemingly impossible task. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow soldiers—Blake’s own brother among them. In this immersive cinematic experience, Mendes thrusts the audience into the immediate peril and vast scale of World War I, witnessing the conflict in an urgent and propulsive way.
The idea for 1917 was sparked by stories that Mendes’ grandfather, the late Alfred H. Mendes, shared about his time as a Lance Corporal in the First World War, as well as the colourful characters he met during his service. In the year 1917, Alfred was a 19-year-old who enlisted in the British Army. Due to his small stature, the five-foot-four-inch soldier was chosen to be a messenger on the Western Front. The mist on No Man’s Land—the unclaimed land between Allied and enemy trenches on the frontlines that neither side crossed for fear of being attacked—hung at approximately five and a half feet, so the young sprinter was able to carry messages laterally from post to post. His height meant he was not visible to the enemy, and he literally ran for his life. During the war, Alfred was injured and gassed, and was awarded a medal for his bravery. In his later years, the Trinidadian novelist retired to his birthplace in the West Indies, where he wrote his memoirs.
“Our film is fiction, but certain scenes and aspects of it are drawn from stories he told me, and ones told him by his fellow soldiers. This simple kernel of an idea—of a single man carrying a message from one place to another—stayed with me and became the starting point for 1917.”said Mendes. Mendes spent time researching first-person accounts of this era, many of which are held at the Imperial War Museum in London. As he took notes, Mendes began to compile fragments of stories of bravery confronting terror; in time, he began to dovetail them into a single tale. Mendes soon discovered what would become the backdrop for his tale. In 1917, the Germans retreated to what was known as Siegfriedstellung, or the Hindenburg Line. After six months of planning and digging a huge trench system of defenses and deep-lying artillery, the Germans placed a vast number of troops—once spread over the original, much longer, front line—into a new, enormously fortified, condensed line of defense.
“There was a brief period where, for several days, the British didn’t know whether the Germans had retreated, withdrawn or surrendered,” Mendes says. “Suddenly, the British were cut adrift in a land they had literally spent years fighting over…but had never seen before. Much of it was destroyed by the Germans, who left nothing of lasting value, destroying anything that might sustain the enemy. Anything of beauty was taken or destroyed; villages, towns, animals, food. All trees were cut down. It was made relatively impassible. The British were alone in this desolate land full of snipers, land mines and trip wires. . During the almost five-month battle in 1916, more than one million men were injured or died. By the end of the first day of fighting alone, on July 1, 1916, more than 19,000 British soldiers had been killed.
The only way to find a similar scale of landscape—a place with few trees and no signs of modern life in the United Kingdom—was to travel outside of London and the Home Counties to find open vistas. It was location manager Alison Pill’s job to look around the U.K. for locations that matched the scenery in France and discover where sets could be built. Her scouting brought the team to Salisbury Plain, in south west England and home to the renowned Stonehenge, to Northumberland, as well as to Glasgow, Scotland, for key sequences set in northeast France, and to Bovingdon in central England for the endless line of trenches.
Knowing that 1917 would have been shot in one take (or at last a series of them) it became clear to lead actor George MacKay that he was going to need to enhance his personal fitness training before filming began. “(They) are literally on their feet for almost the whole film,” MacKay says. “There may be only two or three scenes where they actually sit down. In addition, you might do a given run or a walk sixty times in a day. You think about that and you go, ‘Oh, God.’ You realize pretty quickly that you have to be fit for it, just the sheer physical labour of it.”
Co star Dean Charles Chapman agrees with him. “The camera never ever comes away from these two characters,” Chapman says. The actor also appreciated how every single member of his cast and crew had to be at the ready, waiting for the split second when the fickle weather gods would allow for shooting. “We’d be waiting around,” Chapman says, “and everyone would have their eyes up in the sky trying to see how long it would take for the sun to move behind the cloud. But when it all came together, it was pretty thrilling.
Mendes’ vision to capture the story in real time in one take – a way that plays as 1917 one continuous shot requires the audience to join the characters and immerse themselves in their turbulent journey. To be clear: 1917 was not shot in one take, but was filmed in a series of extended, uncut takes that could be connected seamlessly to look and feel as if it is one continuous shot – the one take. As there is no cut within a scene, the viewer, much like Schofield and Blake, is not able to step away from the mission that lies in front of them. Although Mendes had shot the opening scene of Spectre as one take in a continuous shot, shooting an entire film this way was a new experience for everyone, including Mendes. “I’ve never been in a situation where we’d start shooting on Monday, and I knew for a fact that what we shot on Monday would be in the movie,” Mendes says. Shot in this way, the audience gets an authentic, tangible sense of what these boys would have gone through. “The reason I chose to do that with this material is, from the very beginning, I felt it should be told in real time,” Mendes says. “The sense of distance travelled is very important. By the emotional decision, that I hope connects you even more closely to the journey of the two central characters. I wanted an audience to take every step of the journey with them, to breathe every breath. It wasn’t a decision that was imposed on the material afterwards. I had the idea alongside the idea for the story – style, form and content all came at the same time. You begin to construct the narrative so that every second forms part of one continuous, unbroken thread.”
With the one shot premise, it was imperative to block the scenes during 1917’s four-month rehearsal process, and to discuss the layout of the sets in great detail. Once it was established how the actors would move within the space for the scenes, it became possible to map out exactly where the camera would move. The cinematographer expands on this process. “Sometimes, you need to be close, and sometimes you want to pull away and see the characters within the space, within the landscape,” Deakins says. “So, it was getting a balance between that. A lot of the blocking was done in our heads, then Sam would rehearse the scenes, then we drew schematics and had a storyboard artist who gave different options within those basic ideas. It gradually evolved, but then when we worked with our actors on location, it evolved even further.”
The director reflects that with standard filmmaking, there’s always a “get-out-of-jail card” that allows fixes and changes in post. “Your normal thought process is, ‘We might be able to cut around this moment, or shorten this scene, or we might take that scene out altogether.’” Mendes says. “That wasn’t possible on this film. There was simply no way out. It had to be complete. The dance of the camera and the mechanics all had to be in sync with what the actor was doing. When we achieved that, it was exhilarating. But it took immense planning, and immense skill from the operators.” Deakins often needed to be with the focus puller and DIT in a small white van, remotely operating the camera even if it was being carried. As they were frequently operating the camera remotely across vast distances, it was very tricky. “Sometimes, we’d have a camera that was carried by an operator, hooked onto a wire,” Mendes says. “The wire would carry it across more land. It was unhooked again, that operator ran with it then stepped onto a small jeep that carried him another 400 yards, and he stepped off it again and raced around the corner.”
Due to the prep period and many lengthy rehearsals on shooting days for the one take, there was always a clear starting point and physical structure to the scenes, but this did not mean the filmmakers and cast were fixed entirely in their approach. Because the film needed to play as one shot / one take , primarily filmed outside, Deakins relied upon light that was as natural as possible, which meant Mother Nature was as much in charge of the shoot as the filmmakers were. Instead of blue skies and direct sunlight, which bring with it shadows that are difficult to shoot around and impossible for continuity, the production prayed for the days to be consistently overcast.
No location ever repeats in 1917, so the camera is constantly moving through landscapes. “Being such an exterior movie, we were very dependent on the light and the weather,” Deakins says. “And we realized, well for a start, you can’t really light it. If you were running down a trench and turning around 360 degrees, there’s nowhere to put a light anywhere. Because we were shooting in story order, we had to shoot in cloud to get the continuity from scene to scene. Some mornings the sun would be out, and we couldn’t shoot. So, we would rehearse instead.”
The challenge of joining the cuts for each one take in 1917 is that every scene had to be shot with incredible precision…so that two frames could be blended together seamlessly on screen. That painstaking attention to detail added another layer of continuity because the pacing needed to match, as well as other elements in the scene, such as the weather, cast and sets. As it was crucial for the takes to be tracked, it meant fully focused attention—and constant vigilance—from the script supervisor, visual effects and the editor. It was imperative for Mendes, Deakins and their fellow Oscar® winner, editor Lee Smith, to know the moment at which the shot would be stitched from one take to the next, as it could never be fixed in post with a cut to a different perspective.
In order to take the characters seamlessly from one take to the next, Mendes made sure that blends happened in a variety of subtle ways. That could mean travelling through doorways and curtains, or when the characters enter a bunker, or with a silhouette, or a body movement, or a foreground element or a prop…or even a 360-degree shot. Producer Jayne-Ann Tenggren walks us through the logic. “How we blended from one take to another was designed around the action, sometimes because of a change in lighting environment, sometimes because of a need to change the camera rig, and sometimes simply an emotional choice as to how long the scene should run,” Tenggren says.
Lest you believe editor Lee Smith had it easy on the production, think again. “This has been a very complicated film to edit because the whole process of the blending, making it look like one shot—and doing the kind of the mixing of those shots—is so crucial, and has had to be done so fast, in order to give Sam instant feedback,” producer Callum McDougall says. “In the opening of Spectre, we created one long shot in Mexico City. But it’s nothing compared to what Lee, who’s our same editor, has had to do here.”
Although all films require preparation, the prep period for 1917 was even more important than on conventionally shot films. In fact, it was paramount. The technical demands of how the epic would be shot meant that every step of the journey had to be timed precisely during rehearsals. Mendes admits that the challenges of prepping were the challenges of getting ready for a normal movie…times five. “You have all the things you normally have to do,” Mendes says, “but here we simply had to work in much more detail. For example, we had to measure every step of the journey. It’s fine to write, ‘They walk through a copse of trees down a hillside, through an orchard, around a pond, and into a farmhouse,’ but the scene had to be the exact length of the land. And the land could not be longer than the scene! We had to rehearse every step of the journey, every line of dialogue on location.
The level of detail for each one take called for Mendes, MacKay, Chapman, Deakins, Gassner, supporting cast, key creatives and team members to rehearse not just on location, but on a huge soundstage at Shepperton Studios. There, they marked out on the floor the dimensions of the sets for each scene. Every step of the journey was rehearsed in this space. “We were in this massive room, the rehearsal room, with all these cardboard boxes stacked up around us to sort of map out the set shape,” Chapman says. “Sam already knew exactly how the blocking should look, but sometimes we’d come across something that didn’t sync right or didn’t look right. When that happened, Sam would just stand there, he’d close his eyes, think about it, and then just solve it. I’ve never seen anything like that. His ability to do that was amazing.”
Next, they went out on location for tech rehearsals for each one take. “This world had to be crafted around the rhythm of the script,” Mendes says. “You can’t just jump 100 yards in a cut. If your location is 100 yards too long, you’re not going to have the scene that lasts the journey; the two things are obviously interlinked. That made the prep much more complicated than normal. In many ways, it was more fun, because we had to do it very early and walk the land, and physically feel the reality of their journey. Then, we had to discuss and test the camera movement and positioning for every moment of every scene, long before we shot it.”
As well as storyboards, a schematic document of diagrams was created to accompany each one take in the script. This mapped out where each character was moving at any given time, as well as exactly where the camera would be during any given scene—and in which direction it would be pointing. By the time prep was finished, producer McDougall was confident that his team was more than up to dealing with the myriad complexities of the shoot. “When you have a film as well-prepped as we were—and with the expertise of the people we’ve engaged—with our locations, production team, special effects and other departments, we knew that whatever would be thrown that we were able to handle,” McDougall says.
During prep, Deakins and his crew were working on the camera moves and how they would be able to complete one take without cutting—all while constantly moving. At times, the camera would need to seamlessly interchange—using a variety of rigs during a take, which could involve a Steadicam operator, followed by a wire cam and back to the operator on foot or on a vehicle. During each one take, Mendes was in a customized “horse box” with co-producer/first assistant director Michael Lerman and script supervisor NICOLETTA MANI (Mission: Impossible-Fallout). Producers Harris and Tenggren, along with writer Wilson-Cairns and video operator John ‘JB’ Bowman (Skyfall) were alongside the director in another small trailer.
Due to the nature of the 360-degree shoot for each one take, those crew whom would normally be behind the camera often could not stand alongside the set. A small group of key crew would place themselves in a safe spot and all others, including the tech trucks and support, were based much further away. On occasion, it was not possible to keep everyone far enough away for the one take, which meant that, in post-production, VFX would need to paint out whatever should not be in the frame. Directly outside Mendes’ horse box was a large black rehearsal tent for playback. This allowed him to talk through the shot with the actors and Deakins, as well as other key head of departments. It was difficult to have a normal video village set up, as well as sound and checks areas for makeup and hair, costumes and other departments. Another large tent was set up with monitors and chairs to accommodate these crew members. The need to be in sync with the actors and the complexity of the camera movements meant there was no margin for error. Not only in prep was it vital to rehearse, but also on every single day of filming. Mendes, the actors, Deakins, the camera team and the rest of the crew would rehearse for a large part of the day—until the light was ideal and everyone was primed and ready for the take.
Because the story is linear, the weather needed to consistently match from scene to scene. While the production could control many aspects of the shoot, weather would never be one of them. Armed with a Farmer’s Almanac and weather.com, Gassner examined multiple weather forecasts—from long range to daily and hourly. At the mercy of the sun, clouds, rain, sleet and snow, the indefatigable crew members crossed their fingers and said respective prayers every night before the next shooting day. “You’ve never seen a group of people so happy for bad weather,” George MacKay says. “You get a bit of cloud of and everyone will be like, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ We’re going to get two shots today!’
As a war film 1917 was a massively complicated undertaking and its one take continuous shot is incredible so Mendes claim that the film has been ‘the most exciting job of my career’ is justifiable with 1917 looking to be an extremely strong contender at this year’s Oscars.