Long Take: The Cinematography Of 1917

Long takes are imperfect filmmaking. The choreography of cinematography over a scene or an entire film is a dance between the camera, actors, and the audience. Even though it can be viewed as a gimmick, it is a storytelling choice that dramatically alters the final product. When done well, the technique injects unique perspective into a story. In contrast, obvious interruptions stand out to even the most passive viewer. Extended shots are becoming more common due to advancements in camera technology, allowing for three recent films to present stories in dynamic fashion.

Three prominent contemporary instances of long take filmmaking are Children of Men, 1917, and Creed. All achieve varying levels of success in their storytelling goals. In each instance, the long take is the final talking point of stories that depict anarchy, war, and boxing.

Continuing with 1917, Philadelphia-area cinematographer Nathan Vitale discuses the cinematography of these movies over a three-part series. Vitale is a cinematographer and camera operator whose work has been used by VICE, Nike, and Budweiser. For more about Vitale, you can visit his website or following him on Instagram (@nathanvitale).

1917

1917 is one of the best war movies ever made. The Sam Mendes-directed film follows two British soldiers as they make their way through an incredible array of horrors. The pair are tasked with delivering a message to stop soldiers from falling into a German trap. By completing this errand, they will save 1,600 men from slaughter. The two slog through No Man’s Land, dodge airplanes, face snipers, and a myriad of horrors from The Great War.

A fantastic script from Krysty Wilson-Cairns and a terrific sound design team contribute to a tremendous theatrical experience, but the camera is the main takeaway from the movie. Genius cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Blade Runner 2049) threaded together continuous shots to create the illusion of one long take. The fifteen-time Oscar nominee won his second Academy Award for 1917. Many of the shots transition from breathtaking to dynamic as the movie balances the conflict’s horrors with art.

George MacKay In 1917
George MacKay In 1917

There are several notable scenes in the movie, but it is worth noting that the entire piece is a continuous stream of excellence. The two scenes through No Man’s Land are the most engaging. In the first, we follow the two protagonists as they slog through mud and carnage that serves as a time capsule for the war. In the second, one of the men runs parallel of a trench line as his fellow soldiers charge into battle. Both are emotional scenes that George MacKay described as “…the most collaborative and mutual experience I’ve ever had in a job. It’s like a dance when you’re doing the scene, because you affect the way the camera moves.”

Another powerful moment comes as one of the leads makes his way through a French town at nightfall. The long take is illuminated by carefully-placed flares that reveal the shattered town in breathtaking fashion. Unlike the No Man’s Land sequences, which show the horrors of war, the scene in the French town finds artistry amidst tragedy.

Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay in 1917
Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay in 1917

The emotional effect of the night scene is reminiscent of the climax of Road To Perdition. Another Sam Mendes film, the 2002 movie reaches its peak as the main character engages in a gun battle in the rain. The manner in which that series of shots is captured is a rare merge of terror and beauty. Pure cinema at its finest. 1917 constantly taps into the same duality and yields a movie that stands with top-tier modern war films like Dunkirk and Fury. 

1917: Long Take Scenes Breakdown

Flat Circle: There are endless exterior sequences in 1917. What are the challenges of shooting entirely outdoors, let alone in an epic that is supposed to detail a story that unfolds in a short amount of time?

Nathan Vitale: The biggest challenge to shooting exteriors is the lack of control over the conditions you’re working in. It’s common for shoots to get delayed anywhere from minutes while they wait for the sun to pass form behind a cloud to days or weeks if the weather turns bad enough and it’s impractical to shoot. In 1917 they had an added challenge of matching the general exposure and weather from scene to scene to create a cohesive experience that feels like it took place over the course of a few hours.

The cuts in 1917 appear to be fairly seamless. There is only one obvious break in the action (when the main character is knocked out). How well does this stand against films who use long take cinema as a primary storytelling device?

While there have been several films that were created and shot around the idea of telling a story in one single long take, it is rare for a film to achieve the goal without editing. For most of cinematic history, the limit of shooting an entire film in one take was the medium, 35mm film rolls come in 1000’ reels which run at about 11 minutes at 24 fps.

Now with digital cameras there are very little limitations to how long a take can be, which pushes cinematographers and directors to push the bounds of what’s possible. 1917 is a cinematic feat not only in how the story flows from each scene seamlessly but also in the incredible breadth of visual diversity that Deakins creates.

One breathtaking sequence is the night scene when flares provide the set’s lighting. What are some takeaways from this scene that stand out to you?

This was by far my favorite set piece of the entire film, our hero wakes up disoriented as the flares turn the war torn town into a funhouse with shifting shadows. I thought this was such a beautiful solution to how to light a scene while also conveying a sense of confusion which translates on screen while also taking our breath away.

Another incredible scene is when the main character runs through No Man’s Land. What do you notice when you watch this scene?

This is one of those cinematic moments that I thought was put beautifully to the screen. Deakins plays with the direction of on screen movement many times throughout the film, usually our hero is moving from left to right on the screen as he is getting closer to his goal and right to left as he is encountering setbacks. As our hero runs directly towards us though, it is the rest of the soldiers going over the top which are running right to left, against the way our hero came and against which way they should be going.

Are there any other scenes in the movie that stand out to you?

I think the beginning of this film is so well crafted in how it introduces us to our heroes. While learning about them and their mission we gradually lead our characters as they descend into the trenches, finally stopping at a muddy intersection where we can fully appreciate the contrast to the picturesque opening shot. We see that shot again as a bookending when our hero finally is able to take a rest.

1917 cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars 15 times. Do you have any favorite works from Deakins?

If I had a chance to see a couple Deakins films in the theater again Blade Runner: 2049, No Country for Old Men, and Fargo would be my first picks.

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