How Cinematographer Roger Deakins Lensed WWI Epic 1917 As One Shot

As Oscar fever sets in, it’s time to look behind the scenes at one of the most amazing technical feats of the year.

I was a filmmaker before I was a photographer. So, as a rule, I tend not to get too excited about the technical tricks behind even the coolest looking motion pictures. Generally, there’s a logical explanation as to how the filmmaker got that shot, and once you have enough knowledge to guess what it is, it can take you out of the movie.

But, while watching this year's Oscar contender, “1917,” a film centering on one soldier’s brave journey for survival during World War I, it was more like 119 minutes of me saying, “Wait, how in the heck did they do that?”

It was more than just the fact that the images were beautiful. It was directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, Road To Perdition) and shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Shawshank Redemption). So, of course it’s beautiful. But, what had me scratching my head was how it all appeared to be so seamless.

I mean that literally. Editing serves two purposes in filmmaking. One, it advances the story. Two, it allows directors to choose between takes and camera angles to decide how to best tell the story. So what happens when you take editing, at least editing in post production, out of the equation?

“1917” is not the first film to present itself as being shot in one long take. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” immediately comes to mind. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski took it a step further with “Birdman” weaving his way through the theater. But “1917” goes so much further. Again, I mean that literally.

Traveling miles and miles through no-man’s land between the trenches, the film unfolds across multiple terrains, times of day, interiors and exteriors, with thousands of extras, and a dizzying amount of 360 degree pans. Now, if you’ve ever even made a simple short film, it’s likely that at some point you’ve found yourself amazed at how hard it is just not to accidentally leave a Starbucks cup in the frame. Ahem, “Game of Thrones.” But how on Earth can you shoot an entire war in one shot with a camera that constantly changes perspective and not, at some point, see how it’s being made?

Well, this video from Insider takes us to the battlefield to show us how it was done. It turns out, the intense planning, the camera movements, and the choreography are just as impressive as you might imagine. And while this film might not be cut like a Michael Bay movie, that doesn’t mean that serious editing considerations weren’t taken into account as well by cutter Lee Smith (Inception, The Dark Knight, Dunkirk). Turns out, in order to make a movie that appears to take place in real time, it takes a heck of a lot of planning ahead.

Check out the video and prepare to be amazed.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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It was incredibly well done, I had my reservations when I went to watch it since I found f.e. Birdman absolutely unwatchable with the camera on wide angle constantly in a nauseating spinning motion, but in this case Deakens created pure magic, a mesmerizing masterpiece unlike anything I have seen!

Wow, an amazing technical piece of work. I haven't seen it, but the real test is how well it tells a story. The risk with something like this is the viewer is distracted by the wizardry.
Of course as they say, it isn't actually a single take, but several cleverly stitched together. Tho' that doesn't take away from what they achieved.