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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Explained: The cinematography of 1917, and its defining ‘single take’ experience

By most accounts, the long take is a means to enhance viewer involvement with what is playing out on the screen, an experience that would have been interrupted if there were frequent cuts from one scene to another.

Written by Kabir Firaque | New Delhi | Updated: February 11, 2020 12:34:36 pm
2020 oscars, the oscars, oscars winners, 2020 oscars winners, Roger Deakins Oscar, 1917, 1917 movie, 1917 making, how was 1917 shot, 1917 one shot movie, sam mendes, roger deakins, who shot 1917, 1917 awards, 1917 oscars 2020, oscars 2020, oscars news, hollywood news 1917 cinematographer Roger Deakins with his Oscar. (AP Photo)

In the 92nd Academy Awards dominated by Parasite, most of the awards that 1917 had been tipped for eluded the war film. Of the three awards 1917 did win, one was for what many see as its defining feature — the impression that the film was shot in one continuous take, which brought the Oscar for Best Cinematography to Roger Deakins.

Since its release, the filmmakers have made it clear 1917 was not really shot in a single take; the editing made it appear so.

What is a long take and what is the point of using this technique?

A film is typically made of a large number of camera shots, which are played out one after the other after editing. A long take is one that is uninterrupted for a longer time than a typical take would be.

By most accounts, the long take is a means to enhance viewer involvement with what is playing out on the screen, an experience that would have been interrupted if there were frequent cuts from one scene to another.

“The majority are filmed with cuts but of course but these days the journey fashionably has to be seamless to be convincing and that’s the difficult bit as modern audiences demand higher quality filmmaking. It’s certainly more immersive.” said cinematographer Barbara Nicholls, a lecturer in cinematography at Kingston University.

2020 oscars, the oscars, oscars winners, 2020 oscars winners, Roger Deakins Oscar, 1917, 1917 movie, 1917 making, how was 1917 shot, 1917 one shot movie, sam mendes, roger deakins, who shot 1917, 1917 awards, 1917 oscars 2020, oscars 2020, oscars news, hollywood news George MacKay plays Lance Corporal William Schofield in Sam Mendes’ 1917.

So, how much of 1917 was actually shot in long, continuous takes?

The film was shot in a number of takes, edited cleverly to make it appear as if the viewer is watching a single take. The two-hour film tracks two British soldiers on a perilous mission during World War I, with much of the journey taking place along a trench.

“I wanted to tell this story in two hours of ‘real time’. So I felt like it was a natural thing, to lock the audience into the men’s experiences,” director Sam Mendes told Vox. And cinematographer Deakins told The New York Times that once he was briefed by Mendes, “it seemed like an interesting way to tell the story”. About the number of takes actually taken, Deakins made it clear there were several: “I really don’t want to say, but we were shooting for 65 days. I never really timed it, but I think the longest shot was about seven minutes,” he told The NYT.

Why don’t filmmakers use this technique more often?

Out of many possible reasons, two are obvious. One is that shooting a long take is challenging. “Obviously it has to take a lot of preparation on the part of the director and his assistants to set up the whole scene that has to actually take place in that particular period of time, whether it is continuous, or whether it is half an hour, or five minutes…” said veteran filmmaker and cinematographer Govind Nihalani. “… Actors have to be ready with their dialogues; everything has to be controlled by the time.”

The other reason why long takes are rare is that earlier technology used to restrict the cinematographer. In the days of celluloid, “anything was limited by the length of the reel, which used to be 10 minutes. Now it is without any limit,” said Nihalani.

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So, are long takes more frequent now?

The trend has picked up in the last 20 years or so, film critic and historian Saibal Chatterjee said. “Because people now have the option of digital filming, you can actually do [an entire] film in one take,” Chatterjee said. He cited a number of examples, including Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002, 96 minutes), the German film Victoria (2016, 138 minutes) and the Norwegian film Blind Spot (2018, 102 minutes). Again, the second half of the 105-min Malayalam film Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game, 2015) was shot in a single take, Chatterjee said. And Birdman (2014), Best Picture winner at the 2015 Oscars, was, like 1917, edited in a way that made it appear as if it were a single-take film.

Didn’t filmmakers before the digital era experiment with long takes?

Orson Welles began Touch of Evil (1958) with a three-minute continuous take, while Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) includes a classic six-minute shot. And while Alfred Hitchcock did not have access to digital cinematography, Rope (1948) carries the appearance of having been shot in one take.

“Look at the film [Rope] and you’ll see the stopping points,” said Nicholls, the cinematographer. “The back of an actor or the lid of the chest James Stewart’s body is placed in. In the next roll of the camera it starts again on these points and editing makes it look seamless. It’s not ‘takes’.”

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