How Sam Mendes’ WWI Film 1917 Was Made to Look Like One Long, Harrowing Shot

Film edit­ing goes back to the late 1890s. The decades upon decades of tech­no­log­i­cal improve­ment and artis­tic refine­ment of the craft since then have tempt­ed cer­tain film­mak­ers to see if they can do with­out it entire­ly, or at least to look as if they can. Alfred Hitch­cock gave it a try in 1948 with Rope, a film typ­i­cal of his work in that it fit into the genre of the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, but quite atyp­i­cal in that its main action played out as a sin­gle long shot. But as we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­tureRope actu­al­ly con­tained ten art­ful­ly hid­den cuts. Last year saw the release of Sam Mendes’ 1917, which did more or less the same thing, but at a much greater length — and across the bat­tle­fields and through the trench­es of World War I.

As por­trayed in the Insid­er video above, the shoot­ing of 1917 must rank among the most for­mi­da­ble logis­ti­cal achieve­ments in film his­to­ry. It also had the good for­tune to be over­seen by Roger Deakins, one of the most for­mi­da­ble cin­e­matog­ra­phers in film his­to­ry. But even before cap­tur­ing the first frame, Mendes, Deakins, and their many col­lab­o­ra­tors had to plan every detail of the har­row­ing jour­ney tak­en by the pic­ture’s pro­tag­o­nists, two British sol­diers sent across the West­ern Front to deliv­er a mes­sage to anoth­er bat­tal­ion.

This entailed first build­ing and light­ing mod­els of every sin­gle set, and when con­struct­ing the real thing mak­ing sure to include paths (and strate­gi­cal­ly remov­able obsta­cles) for the con­stant­ly for­ward-mov­ing cam­era and its crew as well as for the char­ac­ters.

The war movie is among the old­est of film gen­res, but a “one-shot” war movie like 1917 entered the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty thanks to recent tech­no­log­i­cal advances. These include cam­eras light enough to be detached from one crane, run across a field, and attached to anoth­er all while shoot­ing; drones to cap­ture mov­ing aer­i­al shots impos­si­ble by more tra­di­tion­al cin­e­mato­graph­ic means; and advanced dig­i­tal effects to smooth — and indeed con­ceal — the tran­si­tions between one shot and the next. The Insid­er video shows an actor tak­ing a run­ning leap off a bridge and onto a mat below, fol­lowed by the seam­less-look­ing final sequence in which he plunges into a riv­er instead, and the cam­era unhesi­tat­ing­ly fol­lows him right into the water. This sort of visu­al wiz­ardry reminds even the most jad­ed view­er that movie mag­ic is alive and well, but also makes one won­der: what could Hitch­cock have done with it?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Sounds of World War I: A Gas Attack Record­ed on the Front Line, and the Moment the Armistice End­ed the War

Peter Jackson’s New Film on World War I Fea­tures Incred­i­ble Dig­i­tal­ly-Restored Footage From the Front Lines: Get a Glimpse

Watch World War I Unfold in a 6 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1914 to 1918

The Great War: Video Series Will Doc­u­ment How WWI Unfold­ed, Week-by-Week, for the Next 4 Years

The First Col­or Pho­tos From World War I: The Ger­man Front

The 10 Hid­den Cuts in Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Famous “One-Shot” Fea­ture Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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