Of the praise directed towards Sam Mendes’s World War I adventure 1917, a lot of it focuses on the distinct style of filming, and how the film could be taken for one extended tracking shot. When cuts happen, it’s actually quite hard to tell, as most of them are incredibly well-disguised. So what really deserves an accolade there is Mendes’s ability to patch different shots together, which must have been the real pain of it. Plenty of directors have tried something similar, and it’s never been an easy thing to do – as we will see.
Mendes has been fairly tight-lipped about his actual processes, but has let on that the longest single shot in the whole film is nine minutes. With the entire film running at 119 minutes, the slightest hair under two hours, this equates to an absolute minimum of at least fourteen shots – likely a good few more – to make up the whole thing.
Even if the actual count is five times that, it would still represent a massive outlier. Tallying up the number of individual shots in films between 1997 and 2016 gave an average of a little over 1000 – and nearly twice that for cut-heavy action flicks. Even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, famously slow-paced and meditative, comprised fully 142 shots (with an average length of over a minute).
However, 1917 isn’t as unique here as you might think. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope is possibly the first example of a film made to look like a single tracking shot. It was set entirely in one room, and likely would have actually been all done in a single shot, if it wasn’t for the fact that in those days, film cameras could only record ten minutes in one stretch. So, hemmed in by technology, the master had to come up with a workaround, and the cuts in Rope are fairly obvious once you know what you’re looking for – every time that he zooms right in so the back of Jimmy Stewart’s jacket fills the screen and you can’t see things change, it’s a bit of a giveaway.
There’s nothing quite as ostentatious in 1917. The most obvious one, to the lay viewer, is the point when George MacKay’s character is knocked unconscious, with the standard cut to black. This transition also serves a narrative purpose, namely a jump forward in time, something Rope also had trouble with. Hitch’s solution was to rush through dinner, have the sun go down far faster than it had any right doing, and hope nobody was paying too much attention.
All the others, though, have to be squeezed in and around the events of the plot. There are a few moments of closing in on someone’s back, and lord knows camera magic has come a long, long way since the 1940s, but overall it’s remarkably seamless – and I was actually looking for the joins. Those who don’t go into the cinema looking for nits to pick would probably never have noticed most of the film’s cuts.
Every moving part makes a tracking shot more complicated. Martin Scorsese managed to get the Copacabana sequence from Goodfellas in the can in just eight tries, but he’s a world-class filmmaker and that was a mere three minutes. Edgar Wright, on his first foray into filmmaking with Shaun Of The Dead, bit the bullet and did the most elaborate parts, the two tracking shots of Shaun’s walk to the shop, on their very first day of filming. Despite being out on a London street, these were both clearly quite tightly choreographed, with the same random pedestrians from the first go-round returning zombified in the second – and apparently it still took the whole day to get it right.
The common thread with those two, though, is that they weren’t going for anything much more practically ambitious than simply following people walking. (Rope, our ur-example, was eight people in a single room, and quite visibly adapted from a stage play.) Like 1917, these tracking shots place the audiences’ viewpoint practically on the protagonists’ shoulders, and serves to transport you into their worlds, but they’re more like interludes than the main events. There’s nothing quite as lively as the people we’re following getting into a gunfight, or narrowly avoiding having a plane land on them.
As we touched on earlier, the average modern action film is incredibly cut-heavy, particularly when it comes to the actual action scenes. A few too many will cut after every single punch, kick, or blow – what made Jackie Chan such a master of the genre, both in front of and behind the camera, is that he staunchly avoided this. And that was with ordinary fight scenes, usually involving no more than five or six people at a time, so doing the same with the kind of large-scale scenes of a world war is nothing short of bold.
There have been a handful of films which actually managed to pull off a single continuous shot, though these tend towards the experimental and often low-budget end of things. The most ambitious of these is Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, a kind of mass-scale living history performance, which like 1917 was wrangling a cast of thousands all in period costume. And like Hitchcock before him, Sokurov was hemmed in by the practical limits of the hardware. Three fluffed takes left the camera with only enough battery for one more try – which was, presumably much to the relief of over 2,000 actors, a success.
This is an extreme example, especially in terms of choreography, but not something wholly different in practical terms from 1917 or any of our other examples. I’ve mentioned that Rope began life as a stage play, when it would have been three acts of continuous action. It’s less about the tracking shots in and of themselves, and more the performers – as well as the cameraman – having a pretty rigorous plan of what they’re doing and where they’re going.
Of course, it’s not just tracking shots that can get you enmeshed in the protagonists’ world. The 2005 film adaptation of the legendary first-person-shooter Doom had a brief sequence where the camera took on Karl Urban’s point of view as he blew demons apart. This was probably the most inventive part of a largely generic Aliens-alike, even though it was simply copying the style of the game itself – but, like 1917, it also wheeled out the editing wizardry to get it looking like a single cohesive shot.
At the risk of sounding like one of those ‘these days’ angry voices, this reflects a shift in the culture over the first twenty years of the decade. Games have been having their own goes at storytelling for a while now, and many of these are in the form of an unbroken string of events seen through the player character’s eyes. 1917’s presentation isn’t exactly like a third-person, over-the-shoulder shooter, but it’s not a million miles away either – and it goes without saying a huge chunk of their audience will know the world wars mostly as ultraviolent video games. It’s appropriate, then, that depictions of the world wars in film are now leaning towards the same continuous, close-in perspective of storytelling. Not too long ago the most famous examples tended towards a much grander scale, like the recreation of D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, or the attack on Pearl Harbor in Pearl Harbor. 1917 may lack some of the bigger whizz-bangs of its predecessors, but manages to present the same kind of spectacle from a more human perspective.
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