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How Sam Mendes’s WWI film, ‘1917,’ was made to look like it was shot in one astounding, continuous take

A new featurette on ‘1917,’ out this Christmas, gives you an idea of how difficult it is to create the appearance of one long take.

How Sam Mendes’s WWI film, ‘1917,’ was made to look like it was shot in one astounding, continuous take

What: A featurette about a promising, innovative new war film, made to look as though it was entirely shot in one continuous shot.

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Who: Director and co-writer Sam Mendes.

Why we care: As we noted earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s legendary one-shot sequences are thrilling pieces of bravura filmmaking and innovative storytelling. A well-executed continuous take can take viewers’ breath away . . . or come off as gimmicky.

It’s been five years since Birdman, the last major movie to utilize this technique. That film rode out its early buzz to take home Best Picture at the Oscars before fizzling out in a delayed but seemingly conclusive backlash that persists to this day. (When was the last time you thought about Birdman?) The real-time element of Birdman helped to deliver a claustrophobic feeling and the sense of a man coming apart, but it never felt essential or justified and eventually grew tedious, which is perhaps why the film’s reputation took a hit over time. A newly released featurette on Sam Mendes’s 1917, however, suggests that the film might just deliver the complete package.

An immersive war movie made to look like its entire runtime unfolds in one take, 1917 follows two soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) on a beat-the-clock mission to stop an attack during World War I. The urgency of their mission, which finds the pair entering enemy territory, is the reason the camera stays on them throughout the entire film, which unfolds in real time. Working with master cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049), Mendes had to orchestrate incredibly precise timing between his actors and the special effects and camera work happening around them.

“There’s always that Get Out of Jail card with a movie, where we might be able to cut around this or we might take that scene out,” Mendes says in the featurette. “That’s not possible on this film.”

Watch the camera crew race around like soldiers on a mission to get their shots below.

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1917 hits theaters in limited release on December 25, 2019, and goes wide on January 10, 2020.

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