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The director of Skyfall made his new WWI epic with ‘one shot’

‘I wanted people to understand how difficult it was for these men and the nature of that is behind everything’

Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

James Bond director Sam Mendes wants to put audiences right in the center of World War I with his new war movie 1917. To do that, he shot the movie in one long, perfectly choreographed shot. In a behind-the-scenes featurette released on Monday morning, Mendes and some of the cast and crew go into detail on the challenge of shooting a movie this way, and why it was worth it.

1917 follows two soldiers in WWI on a mission to deliver a message that could save thousands of lives. However, to do so, they have to carry that message across some of the war’s most harrowing battlefields. And Mendes wanted to make sure that the audience got to see every single step of that journey.

“From the very beginning I felt this movie should be told in real time,” Mendes says in the featurette. “Every step of the journey, breathing every breath with these men, felt integral. And there’s no better way of telling this story than with one continuous shot.”

While filming in one long shot can make the horrors of war more real for viewers, it presents some challenges to the people making the movie. Cutting is often a way of holding the audience’s attention — for instance, editing out things like walking from one place to another that some might not think is particularly exciting.

An even bigger issue is that cutting and more traditional editing make the job of the actors a little less complicated. When two actors are doing a scene, their performances can be edited together from different takes, but when everything is filmed in one shot everyone only gets once chance at the scene.

“There’s always that sort of get out of jail card in a movie, ‘well we might be able to cut around this, or we might take that scene out,’ that’s not possible on this film,” says Mendes. “The dance of the camera and the mechanics all have to be in sync with what the actor’s doing. When you achieve that it’s really beautiful and exhilarating.”

To help sync up the actors and the camera, a variety of special rigs were created to help move the camera from one place or another. In the featurette, we see everything from the camera carried by two operators running across a field with explosions behind them, to specially made wires that can make the camera float over a battlefield, even cameras placed on cars, trucks, jeeps, and motorcycles, all designed to make sure that the audience never misses a moment of the characters’ journey across the battlefield.

Perhaps the most jarring detail of the filmmaking process behind 1917 comes from the film’s legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins, who’s worked on films like No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner 2049, explains that every day of shooting on the film was unpredictable because it was at the mercy of not just weather but things like cloud coverage, which could determine lighting.

“We realized for a start you can’t really light it,” Deakins says. “If you’re down a trench and turning 360 degrees there’s no where to put a light anywhere. Some mornings the sun would be out and we couldn’t shoot.”

1917 isn’t the first movie filmed in just one shot. Movies like Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance simulated a single shot with a bit of creative editing, while 2015’s fantastic crime-thriller Victoria follows a character through a few hours in Berlin’s seedy nightlife.

1917 will enter limited release on Dec. 25 and wide release in Jan. 10, 2020.