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Beyond the Viewing Seat: A Closer Look on that "1917" Scene

The amount of effort put into producing a scene of a film or a show can determine whether it will favor the audience. It sounds like a stretch, but in truth, the quality of a scene determines the viewer’s amount of attention is willing to invest in the show or film. Suppose someone pays full-price to see a famous musical like Hamilton or Newsies. That individual already expects the show to be a delight since it is an award-winning show. However, during the show, an actor forgets their lines, the sound system crashes, and many technical difficulties. You, the individual, are disappointed and want a refund—but there are no refunds. You were expecting a great show, yet the show’s quality was a flop. The same thing can be said about films and television shows. When it comes to cinematography, acting, lighting, direction, camera shots, sound, editing, and color all determine the value of a scene and the film or show.

The film 1917 (2019) is set during the First World War and follows two British soldiers through a single camera throughout the film’s entirety as they journey to prevent an attack that could risk the lives of 1,600 soldiers. The cinematography was well-executed by Roger Deakins, who claimed in an interview with The New York Times that he did not know the plan for the film was to have it set like a real-time story until he had received the script. Thus came the idea to shoot the film with a single camera. The most notable scene from the award-winning film is the battlefield running scene where the main character, Lance Corporal William Schofield, runs through an active battlefield to deliver a message to Lieutenant-Colonel Mackenzie. However, the scene that captivated my interest the most, delivering the most intense and creative cinematography, was the “Death in the Shadows” scene. Schofield encounters two German soldiers and runs for his life through debris and rubble from demolished buildings to survive.

The lighting within the scene is quite distant from the actors, empowering the intensity and suspense that lingers as Schofield encounters one German soldier. Nonetheless, the lighting does remain warm-colored to give the illusion of buildings still burning, despite it being completely dark outside—which is revealed at the very end of the scene when Schofield escapes. Thus, everything feels natural, and the set itself mimics destruction from wars without exaggerating. The set is not a complete wasteland, but some buildings are destroyed. However, parts of the buildings remain intact along the sides and the bottom. Thus, the scene feels like a maze as the camera follows Schofield from behind, the sides, and the front view.

The costumes were accurately designed in the colors and style that both Germans and the British wore during the First World War. Nevertheless, because of the warm lighting and the shadows, the uniforms on the soldiers appear to look the same. However, the shadows shape the actors’ bodies distinctively, allowing the viewers to tell the characters apart, even though the shadows and dim lighting swallow up the facial features of the actors.

Additionally, with the music as the cherry on top, the actors manage to put on a performance that upholds the scene’s intensity. The German soldier is pushed up against a pillar by Schofield, desperate for the soldier to remain silent. When the soldier calls out to his colleague, Schofield and the soldier start to wrestle to the ground. The camera goes from a medium shot, capturing both Schofield and the soldier eye-to-eye, staring at each other intensely while also remaining quiet. Nevertheless, once the soldier calls out to his German colleague, Schofield and the soldier are on the ground, and the camera then sets up a clear wide shot. The wide-shot captures the two men fighting in the shadows as Schofield manages to dominate and kill the German soldier.

Meanwhile, the viewer can see the other German soldier waltzing in, drunk while remaining in the background. The camera starts to close in on Schofield as he runs for his life, and gunshots are fired at him from behind. The entire chase scene is captured in various angles and shot sizes, going from medium to close-up to wide. Nevertheless, the various shots were taken only empower the scene, making the viewer feel present within the moment along with Schofield. Also, because the entire film is shot continuously with a single camera, there are no scene cuts, which upholds the continuity of having the film done in “real-time”.

1917 was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama .

The film is watchable on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

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