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How 1917’s single-shot style changed the game for visual effects

George MacKay as Schofield in a trench | 1917 VFX
Universal Studios

Director Sam Mendes’ award-winning drama 1917 takes its audience on a journey through the battlefields of World War I alongside a pair of young soldiers who must journey behind enemy lines to deliver a message that could save thousands of soldiers’ lives.

That premise is enough to make it a harrowing adventure, but Mendes presents the film as a single, seemingly continuous shot that makes the pair’s journey an experience unlike any other war film ever made. Integrating the film’s complicated, effects-driven sequences with Mendes’ single-shot format — including a mid-air dogfight that comes crashing to Earth and a dangerous voyage on a raging river, among other elements — was tasked to a visual effects team led by Academy Award winner Guillaume Rocheron (Life of Pi).

With 1917 being one of five films nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Visual Effects” category this year, Digital Trends spoke to Rocheron about his work on the film and the process of making the film’s CG elements indistinguishable from everything captured by the camera along the characters’ journey.

Digital Trends: What were some of the ways the single-shot style of the film affected your approach to visual effects?

Guillaume Rocheron: Well, it was certainly a very unusual request for visual effects. The movie is continuous, but it’s very important that it’s a journey. You follow our young heroes from point A to B and it never stops. The world never repeats itself. So you have to rethink how you design and approach the work.

The duration of the scenes also changed the way you think about visual effects. When you speak to visual effects supervisors, they usually tell you, “We’ve done a hundred shots on this movie,” or some other number like that. The shot is the unit we use to measure what we do. But with 1917 we had to forget the concept of shots and embrace the idea of scenes, because even though we were stitching the movie together to appear continuous, at the end of the day, whatever work you do on the movie is spread across an entire scene, not just a shot.

Filming a trench scene | 1917 VFX
Universal Studios

For example, there’s a sequence when they cross No Man’s Land that’s seven-and-a-half minutes. There’s a lot of digital environment there and it never cuts away from it. So the execution of that is difficult, but also the design, too — because typically you can create a beautiful composition in a shot and then cut to another shot and move on. We didn’t have that luxury, because the camera stays in all of those places without ever cutting, so you have to review your work in extremely long chunks. That was really unusual for us.

It sounds like one, long marathon instead of a series of sprints…

Exactly. Visual effects is always a bit like a magic trick. Your goal is to try to make the audience believe what they’re watching is real.

Universal | Moving Picture Company

We’ve been trained to make magic in four-second shots. If you’re very ambitious, you can make it 10 seconds or even 20 seconds. But then you cut, and that creates a chance for the brain to reset so you can create another illusion. We had to forget everything we’ve learned — all the tricks — and learn a set of new ones.

Did the film being shot in IMAX add another level of difficulty?

It did. To design a one-shot movie, you have to be absolutely invisible at all times. I’ve been doing visual effects for 20 years, and you often get called to create things that are out of the ordinary, like an alien in a science-fiction movie or superheroes doing extraordinary things. In this case, it was all about creating an illusion of a world that never repeats itself. If at any point the audience detects we’re transitioning from one shot to another because the camera work doesn’t feel very fluid, you break the illusion — and you kind of break the movie in a way.

Director of photography Roger Deakins (left) and director Sam Mendes on the set of 1917.
Director of photography Roger Deakins (left) and director Sam Mendes on the set of 1917. Universal Studios

We had the great [Oscar-winning cinematographer] Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, True Grit) shooting the film, and his camera work is incredibly fluid. That’s something we had to incorporate in our work as well, because no matter how we did the transitions — sometimes with simple techniques and sometimes with very complicated techniques with digital characters and digital environments and things you have to light and render — we had to be mindful of that and make sure it flows with the rest of the movie and the camera work. That was the great challenge for us: To be as invisible as we could.

Is there like a particular scene that was really challenging for you?

The plane scene was interesting because it encapsulates a lot of our philosophy on this project. We had to show the dogfight in the air and the plane crash into a barn without ever looking away. Sam insisted, “No tilting up to the sky,” and “No looking at the wall to create a transition.” So it had to be smooth and fluid. It’s what our characters are seeing.

The dogfight in the sky we created digitally with CG planes, and as the plane crashes into the barn, it’s a mix of digital simulation. We transitioned to a replica of the plane we created with our special effects team, which we shot against a blue screen, and put it on a ramp and crashed it into a replica of the barn. We then took that combination of the digital plane and the special-effects plane and blended them seamlessly, then added that to the shot with the actors where there was no plane at all.

Universal | Moving Picture Company

So we eventually got to the point where we crashed the plane and it looked real with the combination of CG and special effects, but then we had to get the actors to interact with the plane. [They had to] touch it and extract the pilot from it. So we shot the scene in two chunks — once without the crashed plane so we could animate the plane and crash it. And then we said, “Cut!” and reshot the end of the scene with the practical plane on the location. Finally, we blended the shot that had the CG plane with the photography of the actors and the plane on location.

That seems like a lot of moving pieces to manage.

Yeah, and it’s moving pieces that you never have to deal with on a normal movie. Normally, you would create your planes in CG, then cut to your actors reacting to what they see, then do a nice action shot of the plane crashing into the barn, then cut to the actors reacting, then cut to the practical plane on the set so they can interact with it. For us, that all had to happen without cuts and without ever looking away. I really like that sequence, because it really was a magic trick. If you don’t think about it, you’ll just accept it for what it is.

Were there any other scenes that were really indicative of how unique your process was on this film?

We did some interesting work with the river scene that runs from the burning city at night to the river, and then over the bridge. We shot the river in an Olympic water park that was a canoe training center. It’s a man-made place with concrete walls and not in nature at all, but it gave us the ability to put the actor in some rapids and rushing water. For that scene, we kept the water around the actor and created more digital water to make it look like a full river with digitally created cliffs and the bridge and made it an environment in nature.

George MacKay as Schofield running through ruins of a bombarded city.
Universal Studios

We then connected that to the city, but every scene was shot in a different location. The burning city was shot in Shepperton Studios, and the river scene was shot in that canoe training center. They’re 150 miles away from each other. There are no cuts, so our actor basically runs from one location to the other and jumps over the bridge into the river without really ever cutting. It was really fun to work on that, because we had to bring these parts together and make it look as seamless as possible.

As always, your job is to make it look like you didn’t do anything at all.

Exactly. If people respond well to the movie and respond well to the journey they’ve been through, and don’t realize they’ve been watching a lot of visual effects, then I think we’ve done our job well. It’s not a visual effects movie. You don’t go see this movie for the explosions and the spectacle. You see it for the unique way it has you accompany those two kids through that incredible journey.

We touched 90 percent of the film, whether it’s from stitching things together, environmental effects, crashing a plane, or creating a river. There’s an incredible variety of work that was done, but it was all designed in a way where if you ever feel that you’re watching a visual effect, we’re breaking the film. It’s about using visual effects to create something that, hopefully, audiences have never experienced before.

Director Sam Mendes’ war drama 1917 is in theaters now. It is one of five films nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Visual Effects” category this year.

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