1917: How VFX artists had to reimagine how films are made
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Sigh. There goes half our viewership.
What happens when a historical event is used to create history? Well, exactly that — history is created. In this case, the historical event was WWI, and the history that was created, 1917’s ‘take’ (pun intended) on how war movies can be made. 1917 is perhaps the first war movie since Saving Private Ryan to have completely reimagined war movies, and to an extent, movies in general. Only this time, the ability to get the audience fully immersed into the moment was pushed up by quite a few notches by the Sam Mendes movie.
Inspired by his grandfather’s memories and stories from the war, Sam Mendes felt the need to tell the story in such a way that it felt “real-time”, and that, along with his previous work on Spectre, on a scene with a similar concept, gave him the idea to make a movie in ‘one-take’. This would allow the audience to feel the gravity of their surroundings and the rush of the battlefield like no other movie before. This was certainly not the first time someone took up this challenge, with the most recent high-profile ‘one-cut’ movie being Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, but there is a critical difference in the setting of these movies. The previous ones were set in closed environments, which allowed the filmmakers to use walls and corners as points for cutting the shot; but with 1917, which is set mostly in open spaces to represent battlefields, the makers had to use some nifty tricks and clever digital cuts so that the actors and crew could take well-deserved breaks in between.
The movie, strictly speaking, isn’t shot in one take, but that’s where the magic of all the brilliant minds involved in this movie, particularly the VFX artists’, comes in. That is not to say that the other departments weren’t at the top of their game, but there is a title to this article, you see, and I have to stick to it.
In a typical movie that has elements of VFX involved (i.e. almost every movie the last decade), the artists work through the day and leave the hardware-intensive rendering of the footage to run overnight. Come morning time, they have their footage ready to view and scrutinise. Typically, 10-second shots are taken at a time for rendering. However, with 1917, quite a lot of shots easily ran into a few minutes (“oners”), which in render-time would take days to complete.
This meant that Guillaume Rocheron, an Academy Award-winning visual effects artist, and his team had to approach this slightly differently. The team implemented what Rocheron describes as “rapid prototyping”, a process in which, instead of rendering the entire shot in detail for the director to see, the shot is split into smaller sections and rendered separately simultaneously. So, for example, in a scene that involves a digitally rendered river, the team would only work with the water simulations and get it right before rendering the entire scene in detail.
Another big hurdle that the VFX team had to circumvent was the fact that the movie was produced in native IMAX, which is a widescreen, incredibly high-resolution format. Since this format is so vivid and makes finding errors in the details easier, the painting work had to be highly intricate and precise to the dot, literally.
Truly, this movie is one spectacle that needs to be witnessed in its full glory to be fully appreciated, and cinephiles the world over will surely find that the one-take style used in this movie is no gimmick and that 1917 is a movie worthy of all the praise and hype surrounding it.