It took 14 nominations before cinematographer Roger Deakins finally landed the elusive Oscar for “Blade Runner 2049.” He’s the frontrunner again for “1917,” the bravura, single-shot-seeming World War I thriller, directed by Sam Mendes. But this time it’s different: he’s entering the realm of Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki with his technical feat.
“1917” is not only the tour de force of the season, but also the boldest movie of Deakins’ legendary career. On Friday, he earned his 16th ASC nomination, and is now on track to win his second consecutive Oscar.
Yet the concept of shooting “1917” as one continuous take (stitched together by editor Lee Smith) initially came as quite a shock to Deakins. That is, until Mendes convinced him that it was the best way to tell his story of two young British soldiers — Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — sent on a seemingly impossible mission to deliver a letter across No Man’s Land to prevent a German ambush of 1,600 men.
“When Sam and I first talked about it, we said we’re not going to think about why we’re doing it but how we’re doing it,” said Deakins. “What is it we want the audience to see? The trick was to make it feel like it was one camera move. Only after, did we start looking at all the ways we could shoot it and all the techniques we could use. We whittled them down to four different rigs and each had a specific use for a specific section of the film. We used a Steadicam, the Trinity [the three-axis hybrid stabilizer], a cable wire [remote-controlled from a vehicle], or hand-held with a stabilized camera.”
For Deakins, the best camera was the Alexa Mini LF, the lightweight, large-format version of the LF, which ARRI accelerated through development especially for “1917.” There’s no way the talented grips could’ve snaked their way in and out of the trenches without it. Indeed, the entire movie was a choreographed dance with the two actors.
“I like the Alexa’s image reproduction, but we wanted a slightly higher resolution camera,” Deakins added. “And I wanted the look that you get from a 40mm lens on a large-format camera, which is the same when I’m shooting stills with my Leica. You have a certain [shallow depth of field], which is like the period photography from the First World War.” Thus, most of the movie was shot with 40mm Signature Primes.
Mendes also had a few definite rules for shooting this very intense and immersive obstacle course: always move forward, keep it in present tense, and never stray too far ahead of what Schofield and Blake’s observe. For Deakins, coming up with the visual language was like shooting master shots without coverage: the interaction between the soldiers and the ravaged but sometimes beautiful landscape. The naturalistic lighting scheme consisted of overcast skies during the day and controlled lighting for interiors and at night. The experience took him back to doing war zone documentaries, “where you have to put yourself in the right position to reflect what’s happening in front of you,” he said.
“For instance, on No Man’s Land, how do we get the camera close over the horse to see the flies, and how do we have [Schofield and Blake] come back into shot? How do we go from one character to another in an elegant way without drawing attention to itself? We did a lot of that storyboarding and then we rehearsed the actors for months before we started shooting. We had to figure out the sets with [production designer] Dennis Gassner and the art department, the length of the trenches…and the front line. Everything had to be worked out before the first spade was put in the ground.”
However, naturalism gave way to surrealism come nightfall, when Schofield wakes up after being knocked unconscious (the only noticeable cut in the entire movie). “Sam and I said this was a moment where we could get very [dream-like] to create this very strange world of darkness,” Deakins said. “How much time has passed? Is this a nightmare? Is he alive even? And then we figured the camera can just go out the window in this punk moment. It doesn’t have to be connected to him. It’s like imagination.”
And what the camera reveals is the ruins of a French village (built at Shepperton Studios) with shadows cast by freaky flares. Schofield heads for the village, only to be pursued by German snipers in an action sequence reminiscent of a video game. The primary illumination (buttressed by the pre-timed flare set up) was a giant lighting rig devised by Deakins in the center courtyard, made to look like a burning church.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
When Schofield gets cornered, he ducks into a cellar, where he discovers a young woman with a baby. “In a way, that was one of the hardest moments,” said Deakins. “On the one hand, you’ve gotta see it, but, on the other, there wouldn’t be a big, roaring fire, there wouldn’t be any practical lights. so the art department designed a boiler that would light the set and the action that Sam had blocked out with the girl standing in the corner. And they sit by the fire and go over to the bed in the corner. So I put a little oil lamp over there. It was wonderful to have a real baby because it was so good for the actors.”
Schofield’s subsequent escape into the river and rapids (shot primarily at the Tees Barrage white water sports center in North East England) offered a completely different challenge. “Here we could control the flow of the water and construct our own course for George to travel down,” Deakins said. “We literally built a road out of scaffolding that ran alongside the water flow. This was so that we could use a tracking vehicle to follow George down the course. A 20-foot telescopic Technocrane arm with a three-foot drop down to a Libra remote head holding our camera under slung beneath it, allowed us to boom out over the water. We used a Hydroflex underwater housing to submerge the camera for a short section of the work.”
The slower sections of the sequence were filmed on the Upper Tees river portion called Low Force. This included the river bank and climb up through the fallen trees. “We also shot plates [of the rocky canyon] on the Upper Tees using a drone to track down the river at the perspective of our main unit camera,” added Deakins. “It was prep and the intense rehearse time that was put into the sequence that allowed us to shoot in such an efficient way.”
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
They saved the best for last, though, when Schofield runs for his life on the front line. It literally was a high wire act. “The camera starts on a 50-foot Technocrane down in the trench with him, then it booms up as he goes over the top,” said Deakins. “Then it’s taken off by the grips and they start walking backwards with it. And they hook it onto another rig that’s on a tracking vehicle; then that takes off. And then those two grips put on uniforms and they become extras and part of the action across the camera… as George runs. So it goes a quarter of a mile down the front line, and, then, at the end, George goes over the top of the trench, and the camera booms out on the arm and goes down into the trench with him.”
Deakins never lost sight of hitting all the important beats in one, fluid move after another. “I love my job, but it was a great thing to do these takes that were so long and get it all right,” he said. “Because you can’t say, ‘That all works, now cut away…I’m going to come back to it.’ You have to do it all the way through, so that’s a hell of a lot of pressure on everybody.”