Director Sam Mendes’ brilliant World War I masterpiece 1917 features some of the best crafts work of any film released this year. Roger Deakins’ flawless and visionary lensing. Thomas Newman’s emotionally penetrating score. Editing. Production design. Every technical aspect pairs flawlessly with Mendes’ expert direction and the cast’s memorable performances (led by star George MacKay) to fully immerse the audience into the horrors of war. The top-notch technical work also includes that of Tristan Versluis, tasked with visually representing the great war through expert prosthetics work.
Working across film and television, Versluis received an Emmy Award for his work on HBO’s Game of Thrones, specifically the season six episode “The Door.” Working within a large team, Versluis designed some of the earlier iconic prosthetics for multiple incarnations of the Night King. The experience served as a precursor to his later work on 1917.
“Game of Thrones had such a scale to it with all the Wights and the White Walkers and the giants. It involved working on a level where you’ve got a big workshop and a big crew to manage and schedules to meet,” Versluis explained. “I mean Game of Thrones feels like something they’ll never attempt again because they shot for something like 10 months out of the year with two or three units filming at the same time. That kind of level of production and that kind of management was crazy. To be a part of that and in that mix, I learned loads.”
1917 elevated that earlier experience by layering in the now legendary “one take” camerawork and related logistics required by Mendes. Each prosthetic had to be flexible and able to be filmed from multiple angles since the camera moved so fluidly through scenes.
One of the more talked about scenes of the film takes place toward the beginning of our lead characters’ journey. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay) must deliver a message across a highly volatile battlefield to save over a thousand British lives. Taking cover in a ravine, one of the soldiers accidentally plunges an injured hand into the cavity of a dead soldier. It’s a cringe-inducing moment heightened by live rats scurrying around the actors. Thank the brilliant prosthetics work by Versluis and his team for making it feel so incredibly real.
“In 1917, we knew we had this big No-Man’s Land full of trenches and mud and dead bodies that we wanted to have face down and half rat eaten,” Versluis said. “We decided to use dummies instead of actors because there are things you can do with dummies that you can’t with actors. You can’t leave actors face-down in the mud all day during filming, obviously. We planned everything depending on what’s needed for the scene.”
Versluis and other teams used extensive research and the advice of an historian to render all props – bandages, injuries, medical tents – as accurately as possible. Even the dummies’ haircuts had to be cross-referenced with actual period photos to achieve an extremely high degree of historic accuracy. Obviously, dead Germans had to have different haircuts than dead British soldiers. It’s a minute detail that may not seem readily apparent or important to the casual viewer, but a detail rendered incorrectly could break the film’s spell on a viewer.
And what prosthetic provided the most challenge to Versluis and his team?
Toward the end of the film, a character crosses a river littered with bodies washed against a fallen log. The character must climb over the bodies to reach a safer shore. It’s an intense moment made even more so by the bloated and decaying corpses. Each corpse had to meet a certain standard of realism coupled with environmental safety, avoiding introducing harmful chemicals into the river. The bodies also had to hold the actor’s weight as he made his way through the scene.
“Every day, the level of the water was going up and down. We spent a couple of days ensuring the water was at the right level to film safely with the rocks covered, etc. I spent a couple of days pretty nervous that the bodies would get washed away downstream. Some poor member of the public would find this body on a rock downstream. So, we also had to anchor everything down. That was quite challenging because not only was it the level of artistic quality of the bodies we were trying to make but also the practicality and logistics of trying to keep the bodies in place and functioning.”
Fear not. No bodies were released into the wild as filming wrapped on 1917.
1917 is now playing in limited release. It opens nationwide on January 10.