‘Midway,’ ‘1917’ DPs on Unique Challenges War Movies Present

Roger Deakins 1917 Movie Cinematography
Courtesy of François Duhamel/Universal Pict

Cinematographers who set out to shoot war films like “1917” and “Midway” face a bigger challenge than navigating explosions or running alongside the actors in the midst of a special effects battlefield. They have to find a way to tell the combat story that will captivate audiences that have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the genre.

Sometimes a helmer like Sam Mendes comes up with the sort of single-shot strategy that makes “1917” a gorgeous challenge for a DP like Roger Deakins.

“It’s all right having the idea of it being one shot, but what is that?” says Deakins. “I mean, is the camera just following somebody? So we talked about it a lot, and then I went to work with a storyboard artist, sketching out ideas. We started sketching out different kinds of ideas of shots and how we could move the camera. Then we started rehearsing with the actors, and I had a point-and-shoot camera. We just got a sense of ‘We want to move the camera.’ I think there’s a delicate balance between staying connected to the characters and seeing things from their perspective, and then actually allowing the audience to see the context and see where they are — to see the landscape and see the characters within the landscape. So it was quite an interesting process.”

Deakins had grips running with camera equipment in order to put the audience in the war with the characters. 

Meanwhile, for DP Robby Baumgartner, “Midway” presented a set where he needed to make a replica of a famous aircraft carrier look realistic for audiences who’ve seen it all.

“It was almost two-thirds of a full-scale aircraft carrier — meant to be the USS Enterprise — and we wanted to make it look like it was out on the open ocean. [Director] Roland [Emmerich] and I were never quite sure we could do it, because it felt like we were in a cramped space, even though it was a huge set,” says Baumgartner. “But then we realized that we could use a 17mm lens to see everything, and it worked out.”

Baumgartner’s hardest day was shooting in an actual submarine, for a multitude of reasons. “It was incredibly confined and hot, so I had to take control of a lot of the operational issues with the equipment, and we had to plan where everyone would stand,” he says. “I used 100% LED lighting, but 95% of what shot there that day made it into the movie, so it was worth it.”

Deakins had to develop special rigs that would allow him to travel with the actors through battles and carefully orchestrate all his shots so that it appeared as though everything was one continuous take.

“It’s a little bit more like shooting a documentary, [except for] the fact that you have ultimate control over it and you know you’re constructing everything,” says Deakins. “But within a documentary, you’re trying to do the same thing: You’re sensing what’s happening in a scene and trying to move the camera to inform the audience without cutting.”