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The Making of History: 1917

By Isobel Chambers

1917 is the most recent film directed by Sir Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) and was a front runner for ‘Best Picture’ before Parasite made history. The film shadows the journey of Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) on their mission across enemy territory to deliver a message to save 1,600 troops from certain death. With short cameos from A-list stars such as Colin Firth (The Kings speech) and Richard Madden (Rocketman), the film features outstanding performances from lead and supporting roles. However, the most distinctive, captivating element of the film’s phenomena, and the element that left me in total awe after my first screening, is the one-cut style editing making it feel like one, two-hour long scene.

One of the smartest moves made by Mendes, was installing the talent of Roger Deakins, a celebrated cinematographer whom Mendes has worked with on Skyfall. The filming of this movie began six months prior to actual shooting, gathering the actors to rehearse and map scenes across fields. Scenes were filmed in 6-8 minutes sequences through carefully measured sets and choreographed camera movements, seamlessly tied together through post-production editing. However, this style of filming doesn’t give leeway for mistakes, Mendes stated on the troubles of shooting,

"You can have seven minutes of magic, and then if someone trips, or a lighter doesn't work, or if an actor forgets half a line, it means none of it is useable and you have to start again."

The filming and camera operation of the seamless structure meant that operators mid-take were hooking cameras to drones, running with actors and riding in jeeps in front of them. Meticulous planning along with 360° camera panning also meant that specific camera operators and explosive technicians were in the same costumes as extras, in case they could be seen on camera. In addition to this, the set needed to allow the tracking of the camera without obstacles. For an example, without spoilers, angled pathways through barbed wire the characters crawl through to ramps from no man’s land to a trench.

Lighting was imperative in assisting the transition takes. Using studio lights could be accidentally seen in one of the 360° shots, though the use of natural lighting would prove to be problematic too. If lighting one day is overcast and the next sunny, visible differences would ruin the effect.

Production were under constrains ensuring all filming was done in cloudy, overcast conditions to keep lighting constant throughout the film, even if this meant filming in an eight-minute break where the sun was behind the clouds.

Going into this war epic, you should be prepared to be confused. Though it’s fundamentally a simple story, the petrifying turns and horror of detail reveal a cinematic beauty, leaving audience members aghast and bewildered. A must-see.

A side note, if you are interested in the one-shot cinema style, I suggest Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.


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