How '1917' Captures World War I in a Single Shot

1917 is an upcoming movie set in World War I, which follows two British soldiers as they race through enemy territory with a message that could save hundreds of lives. The first trailer for 1917 depicts the harrowing chaos of WWI trenches, but it doesn't reveal one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of the movie: messengers Schofield and Blake's dash across battlefields is presented entirely a single shot.

A new featurette reveals how 1917 director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Fargo) pulled off the astounding technical feat anchoring the one hour and 50 minute movie, which occurs entirely in real-time.

"I wanted people to understand how difficult it was for these men," Mendes said in the featurette. "The nature of that is behind everything."

"Until you actually see it on a screen, you don't actually realize how immersive it is and how that technique draws you into it," Deakins adds.

Starring George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones), the camera follows their journey, as they wade through the dead and dying to warn a battalion of an oncoming ambush.

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George MacKay in "1917." Universal Pictures

"It was like a piece of theater every take," MacKay said. "Once it starts, it can't stop. If something goes wrong, you just have to keep going."

The journey takes 1917 through miles of exterior locations, advancing across rugged landscape using every technical solution imaginable to keep the shot going and leaning heavily on new Arri Alexa Mini LF (large format) cameras, which were small enough to squeeze through tight spaces.

"The dance of the camera and the mechanics all have to be in sync with what the actor is doing. When you achieve that, it's really beautiful and exhilarating," Mendes said. "Sometimes you have a camera being carried by an operator, hooked on to a wire, and the wire carries it across more land and it's unhooked again and that operator runs with it and then steps on to a small jeep, which carries him another 400 yards, and he steps off it again and goes around a corner."

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Mounted on a wire rig, the camera follows the "1917" characters into a crater. Universal Pictures

Planning was also crucial. Mendes described to Vanity Fair a completely separate script for the movie, "made up entirely of schematics and maps — showing exactly where the camera would move and when, where the actors would be moving, which rig we would be shooting on and how we would move from one location to the next."

In the featurette, Deakins elaborated on the numerous challenges this posed during the shooting of 1917, particularly when it came to the lighting, which depended on cloudy weather for a consistent look from scene-to-scene.

"We realized, well, for a start, you can't really light it," Deakins said. "Because if you're running down a trench and turning around 360 degrees, there's no way to put a light anywhere."

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While mostly set outdoors, in natural light, Deakins deployed some impressive lighting rigs while shooting "1917." Universal Pictures

Left unrevealed in the 1917 featurette is how multiple takes are stitched together to create the illusion of a single, ongoing image, a practice that has proven necessary in other movies with lengthy, "single-take" shots like 2006's Children of Men. But regardless of whatever digital tweaks will be necessary to create the sensation of seamless immersion, the 1917 featurette reveals the extraordinary efforts taken by its creators in the field.

"There's always sort of that get-out-of-jail card that you have with a movie, 'Well, you know, we might be able to cut around this, or we might take that scene out," Mendes said. "That's not possible with this film."

1917 will be in theaters on December 25.