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The immersive camera movement of “1917”

Video interview with Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC, his wife James Deakins, and TRINITY operator Charlie Rizek about how they used ARRI ALEXA Mini LF, ARRI Signature Prime lenses, and TRINITY stabilization to achieve the real-time camerawork of Sam Mendes’ technically audacious war film “1917.”

For its second video interview with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins about his work on “1917,” ARRI was able to speak openly about the visual approach of the movie—a subject that was still shrouded in secrecy when the first interview was published, three months prior to the film’s release.

The big idea, the secret, was that director Sam Mendes had asked for the film be shot in such a way as it appeared to comprise a single, unedited shot. In telling the story of two soldiers who are sent on a dangerous mission into enemy territory with a life-saving message to call off an impending attack, Mendes wanted the camera to stay with those main characters without interruption.

“It’s a real-time story and you’re following two characters who are always moving,” says Roger. “A couple of people have said about the film, ‘Wouldn’t it be just the same if there’d been some cuts?’ But that wouldn’t have had the effect that Sam was after. For me it feels like you forget about the technique, but because it’s there, you are totally in it. There’s no way the audience is let off the hook; it’s almost claustrophobic, they’re not allowed to look away…that’s what I feel is immersive about it.”

Watch the video interview

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Immersiveness is at the heart of the film. By taking the audience along for every step of the soldiers’ journey, Mendes aimed to make the viewing experience more visceral and powerful. But how could a camera travel uninterrupted through the practically impassable landscape of the Western Front?

James and Roger spent two months investigating different camera rig options, eventually settling on four basic methods of moving the camera through trenches, no man’s land, bunkers, craters, ruins, forests, and fields. A crucial one of these rigs was the ARRI TRINITY camera stabilizer system, which was operated by Charlie Rizek.

“What’s unique with the TRINITY is the hybrid design,” says Rizek. “It builds on the fluidity a traditional Steadicam would give you and combines that with the precision of a remote head…The placement of the camera used to be restricted with traditional systems, now with the TRINITY it really allows the operator to explore the whole space around you.”

Several of the camera rigs required a compact and lightweight camera, but Mendes also wanted very high-resolution images and Deakins was drawn to a large-format look: “I wanted a shallower depth of field and the feeling of—in normal terms—a longer lens,” says Roger.  What they needed was ALEXA image quality (which Roger has trusted on many movies), a large-format aesthetic, and a compact form factor.

Fortunately, ARRI was at the time finalizing its new ALEXA Mini LF and was able to rush some early prototypes to the set of “1917,” which became the first film to use the camera. “We were happy, obviously, when we got the first prototype,” says Roger. “I was getting so neurotic because I didn’t want somebody to drop it…we realized there weren’t that many, and we couldn’t just order up another if we dropped one or something went wrong!”

Since the camera stayed on the same characters throughout the film, there was little need to vary focal length. “I’d say 99% was shot on a 40 mm Signature Prime,” says Roger. “In the river we shot some of it on a 47 mm because I wanted to lose the background a bit more, and in the German basement we used a 35 mm because I wanted the feeling of the tunnel.”

Successful teamwork between ARRI in Munich manufacturing the new cameras, and ARRI Rental in the UK supporting the production, allowed “1917” to benefit from the advantages of the ALEXA Mini LF. “We couldn’t have asked for more than what we got from ARRI Rental,” says James. Roger agrees, and notes, “There’s not a single shot in the film we could have done with a bigger camera…It’s the sort of film that probably couldn’t have been made a few years ago.”

For more information please visit www.1917.movie and www.rogerdeakins.com.