With the digital release of 1917, Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan speaks with Academy Award winner Guillaume Rocheron (Best Achievement in Visual Effects) about winning his second Oscar and the best way to watch the film at home.
It’s hard to talk about visual effects in war epic 1917 because it’s hard to determine what’s a visual effect and what is real. This feat is thanks to the Outstanding Visual Effects team that took home the Academy Award for the film, a team which includes Greg Butler, Dominic Tuohy, and Guillaume Rocheron.
Coinciding with the digital release of the film, I had a chance to chat with two-time Academy Award winner Guillaume Rocheron (Life of Pi, 1917) about George MacKay’s unplanned fall, how they achieved a crucial death scene, and the best way to watch the film at home.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your Oscar win. And you’re two-for-two at the Academy Awards, where you’ve been nominated twice and won twice. What was it like to win again?
Guillaume Rocheron: It really is an incredible honor. When you work on the movie, you never really think about the awards. You’re so focused on doing a great job and just getting the film finished and [it] looking great. It’s a race to finish a movie, so it’s always a great surprise [to win an award]. It’s just a really great honor. But not anticipated for sure. We finished the movie at the end of November, so it was literally a couple of days until the movie premiered. It was definitely a race to finish it. The awards are just the cherry on top, for sure.
AD: There are so many scenes I want to talk to you about in 1917, but the first one that comes to mind with visual effects is when a particular character has been stabbed, and the blood is draining from their body, causing their skin to pale quickly. What kind of research did you do for this scene? How did the decision for this visual effect come about?
GR: Yes, yes. We obviously looked at references, people that are dead and the skin color. Blood is not flowing anymore. It was really driven by [director] Sam [Mendes] to get this emotional impact of losing a character and really showing the stabbing as not a spectacular death. It’s not a grand shoot-out or something like that. It happens off-screen. But I think it was really powerful and touching to see this slow transition from being a living being to [dead] in the eyes of his friend. We took a bit of creative license to make sure that emotionally we had the impact Sam was after.
AD: You totally did. I cried during that scene. Was it intimidating to come in and do special effects for a war epic shot like it’s all in one take? Basically that’s one big visual effect, right?
GR: Absolutely. Because it’s never really been done before on that scale and in that type of film. And yeah, it’s intimidating but exciting where you’re like, I don’t really know how we do this. Then you surround yourself with talented people and tackle it bit by bit and really try to crack the code. But yes, it’s definitely a challenge. Obviously the visual effects make it appear as if it were one shot. But also any other type of visual effects that we did became exponentially more complicated. I’ve been working on visual effects for 20 years or so, and through the years you learn a bag of tricks to work with shots and cuts. The role of visual effects is to suspend disbelief, to fool your audience into thinking that what they’re watching is real. On a normal movie, you cut and move onto the next shot and pull another trick. In 1917, you have scenes crossing No Man’s Land, which is seven and a half minutes long, or you’re watching digital terrain, and rats, and then planes, and all of these elements. You’re watching seven and a half minutes of uninterrupted visual effects. You have to make sure it looks real and at no point for your audience to think, ‘Ah, that’s computer generated background’ because you break the movie if you do this. We had to relearn how to design our work, because if you move a tree at second 35, it’s going to be there at the two-minute mark because sometimes the camera goes around. You have to design everything that way.
AD: What kind of specific visual effects do viewers probably not notice while watching? In many ways, you’re an unsung hero, because we don’t know when it’s a visual effect. You mentioned the rats. Were they a visual effect?
GR: Yes. And there’s No Man’s Land, which is also a real set and also a visual effect. There are visual effects on 90 percent of the movie. For an hour and 50 minutes, you’re watching visual effects. Like a lot of movies that are done in the past, where things are fantastical or spectacular, the whole bottomline in 1917 was to be absolutely invisible. So the best compliment is when people don’t actually know there are visual effects in the film. That means we’ve been successful in immersing you in that journey. That’s the interesting part of the movie. Unlike a lot of movies that are being made now, where your audience is aware you’re watching visual effects and you have some license to be a bit more fantastical and push things over the top a little bit, 1917 was the opposite. It was really trying to be as invisible as possible in the way we stitched the shots, so we’d never betray Roger’s camera work [Oscar winner Roger Deakins). You have to make sure it looks like it’s lit by Roger, and that was a great challenge because you’re working with a great master and have to really be conscious of never betraying that. It’s really about making sure your audience never thinks, ‘Oh, there’s a transition there.’ That’s what we really tried to do.
AD: There was so much planning for this film. How much planning did your team have to do?
GR: It has to be a collaboration between everybody. When it’s a transition from the scene that was shot in London in a studio to shot in Glasgow which we have to do, you have to make sure, ‘Where did we leave off with the transition?’ We have to work with the production designer to make sure the size of set is the required size of the scene. With two guys walking and talking, the set has to be exactly so many feet long and nothing happens for a couple of seconds, so you have to make sure everything is built to the correct size. And then with Roger’s camerawork, you have to make sure everything’s OK, so the camera work can flow from one scene to another very nicely. There’s a tremendous amount of planning and collaboration that started in pre-production and that lasted all the way through post-production, to make sure [the film’s] as unified as possible, which was our goal.
AD: I want to talk about the climactic scene where George MacCay runs alongside a trench in the middle of battle. What was it like shooting that?
GR: It was a really exciting and big moment. We had Dominic Tuohy, our special effects supervisor, who did all the practical explosions, and we had 500 extras running. It was high stakes. What’s really cool is that George gets hit by a soldier and falls down and gets back up and keeps running—and that wasn’t planned at all. But that’s what makes it feel absolutely real. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, no’ and then he just got back up and kept running, and that stayed in the movie. It was pretty awesome.
AD: Everyone talks about how this film is meant to be viewed on the big screen. But with it coming out on digital and Blu-ray, do you have any suggestions for how to properly view it at home?
GR: It’s a movie about immersion, in sound and image, and I think it really is a movie that should be viewed uninterrupted. Turn off the phones. It’s two hours, so it’s not impossibly long, but it’s a movie that requires uninterrupted viewing to fully appreciate it.
1917 is available on Digital on March 10 and available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on March 24.