This weekend I had the opportunity to see “1917,” the new film by director Sam Mendes. It’s an intriguing story about a couple of young soldiers sent to deliver a crucial message to troops on the front lines of World War I in France. Mendes wrote the story after hearing tales of his grandfather who himself served as a messenger during that conflict.
The movie has received a lot of press because it was shot in such a way as to give the impression of being filmed in one continuous shot. Mendes wanted to give his audience the sensation of moving through real time with the characters, experiencing events as they did without the safety of quick cuts or flashbacks for exposition. I was blown away by both the intimacy this approach achieved and the amount of effort it must have required to pull it off.
I’ve since watched several interviews and featurettes about the making of the film, and my amazement has only grown. I’ve seen movies with long cuts before, but never anything as sophisticated as this. Without giving away anything about the movie, here a few aspects of its production that really stood out.
First, there was an incredible amount of planning that went into this film prior to shooting. Because the camera follows the characters continuously, each scene had to be meticulously prepped. Typically, sets are built long before the actors show up on set, but this production necessitated a different approach. Rehearsals took place in an empty field so that dialog could be timed and camera movements could be choreographed. Once the precise movements of each element was nailed down, then the set was created to accommodate the desired experience.
Filming required an incredible amount of teamwork between the actors and crew. Cinematographer Roger Deakins interacted with the actors as much as Mendes did, in order to direct his team to support the nuances of the performance. Editors, typically brought after filming is completed, were on set from the beginning; building the film on the go so that one day’s filming could be blended seamlessly with the next.
The two actors at the center of the film, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, spent so much time in character prior to filming that when it was time to shoot, their movements were second nature. They didn’t have to worry about where the camera was or when to hit their marks, because they’d rehearsed each scene so many times. This enabled them to live in the moment, often embodying the characters so fully, they forgot they were acting.
Innovations in camera work were also at play. Because the camera doesn’t break away, transitions between key shots meant new techniques had to be developed. The camera might start off being held by hand, then smoothly hooked to a crane for a soaring aerial view. As it came back down, the camera was unattached form the crane and handed to another crew member on the back of a motorcycle for a thrilling chase scene. A staggering number of these hand-offs took place behind the scenes in order to create the seamless experience for the audience.
We often talk about customer service in terms of a seamless experience. Customers should interact with us in a way that appears fluid and effortless. Moving between in in-person interaction and our online presence should represent a single, meaningful story. At least that’s the goal. Watching 1917, and the work that went into bringing it to the big screen encourages me to seek out new ways to make that seamless experience happen. And I look forward to what 2020 has to offer, I’m excited about taking on that challenge with each of you!