Sam Mendes’ war epic is presented as one continuous shot. To make the illusion work required rethinking the entire visual effects production process
There’s a moment in 1917 – the First World War blockbuster which hit cinemas on Friday – where a plane comes crashing down from the sky. Normally, in producing such a scene, the director would have a very important tool in their arsenal in convincing the audience that what they’re seeing is real: the ability to cut to other footage.
As the aircraft approached the ground, they could cut away to the faces of shocked bystanders, cutting back to show the flaming wreckage, and so on and so forth. By doing this, the brains of viewers never have time to really scrutinise the scene, because it’s only in front of them for a few seconds at a time.
But in 1917, the camera never cuts away from the action. The film – directed by Sam Mendes and inspired by his grandfather’s memories of the war – is presented as a single, frantic shot. It tells the story of two soldiers tasked with delivering a crucial message, and follows them throughout – over minefields and through trenches, with the chaos of war all around them.
The visual effects team had to maintain the illusion for two hours, which meant totally rethinking the way films are made. “The one shot thing has been done before,” says Guillaume Rocheron, an Academy Award-winning visual effects artist at studio MPC, and VFX Supervisor on 1917. “But it’s always been done in environments that have been closed off.”
In a film such as 2014’s Birdman, for example – the most recent high-profile example of a ‘one-shot’ film – cuts are made when the protagonist is obscured by a wall, or walks around a corner. In 1917, where the majority of the action takes place in open spaces, there were far fewer opportunities to do these kind of cuts – which meant a greater reliance on complicated digital cuts.
“From early in production we looked at how to make it so that it looks continuous and so it’s absolutely imperceptible in terms of the look and in terms of how the camera is flowing,” says Rocheron, who worked alongside Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film. “Every transition is a bit like a magic trick.”The most exciting new films coming out in 2020
There were myriad different approaches used depending on the type of shot. For the plane crash, the team created a digital plane crashing into a digital barn, which was then blended with a physical replica of the plane shot on location. “It requires incredibly sophisticated rendering and animation and blending to go from take to take,” says Rocheron. “One scene could be shot in Shepperton Studios and the next scene in Glasgow and you have somehow to blend that completely seamlessly.”
The task was made harder because the movie was produced in native IMAX – a widescreen, incredibly high-resolution format which meant the digital painting work of the VFX artists had to be even more precise and intricate. But the biggest complicating factor was the way the film was shot.
On a normal movie, shots generally range from a few seconds up to about 20 seconds. “Oners” – shots of 60 seconds or more – are notably rare. In 1917, some shots ran to several minutes. “VFX is all about fooling the audience, through the quality of the computer graphics, the movement and the perception of reality,” says Rocheron. “As soon as you have a cut, your brain resets – but in our case, you can really study everything. Your brain has time to look at things and analyse them, especially in IMAX format.”
That also presented a technical challenge. Generally, VFX artists will work during their day, and then leave the hardware-intensive rendering of the high-resolution footage to run overnight so that it’s ready to review in the morning. But it takes all night to render a ten second shot, so doing one that’s several minutes long would take days.
This meant that Rocheron’s team had to work slightly differently. Instead of rendering the whole shot in full detail before showing it to the director, they split the work into smaller sections and engaged in what he describes as “rapid prototyping”. They might, for example, in a river scene, look only at the water simulations and get those right before rendering the entire scene. “You have to somehow look at things in layers, not at full IMAX resolution,” Rocheron says.
Ultimately, it’s only new technology which has made a ‘one-shot’ film like 1917 possible at this expansive scale. “Five or ten years ago we could do a lot of things, but we couldn’t be as precise and sophisticated, which is really the heart of the movie,” says Rocheron. “As you soon as you feel you’re being tricked it breaks the illusion – and you have to sustain it for two hours, not two seconds.”
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