film reporter

'Atonement' makers victorious in battle

The gorgeously rendered adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" — and one shot in particular — is generating attention.

The Dunkirk retreat at the beach during World War II is told through a continuous Steadicam shot that lasts five minutes and 20 seconds. The ambitious shot — which follows lead character Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and two additional soldiers as the enormity of the situation is revealed — was lensed in only 90 minutes with four takes (the third was used as the fourth was abandoned when the light began shifting). Between cast, crew and extras, the shot involved nearly 1,500 people and was the most expensive sequence in the production.

Director Joe Wright explains that originally a much more elaborate scene was planned that included a walk to the beach with bombings. But because of budget constraints, they were not an option. "We had to lose all of that," the helmer says. "We chose to take all our resources and put them onto the beach. We could only afford the extras for one day."

Says director of photography Seamus McGarvey: "Joe and I talked very carefully about the shot being in service of the action and emotion at that point. We had to experience the grandeur but also shift perspective into an objective point of view so that the camera would become a protagonist as well as a witness to the grander stuff. We wanted there to be a simplicity.

"We opted for Steadicam partly for expediency to get in to the right light, but also we realized that the Steadicam's floating nature would give it a ghostly perspective."

He says: "We were working at a difficult time — the light was best at the end of the day. We knew we had this window, maybe four takes at most."

Wright and McGarvey admit there was some concern as they didn't want the shot viewed as a display of virtuosity, but the pair explains that the approach was born out of necessity.

"There was no other way that we could have done it," Wright says. "I tried not to reveal the thing until the end. So we started with the men and the horses, the men with the boats, the men in the bandstand, the Ferris wheel. … You don't really see the whole picture until the end."

A miniature of the location — Redcar on England's Northeast shore — was built to plan the shot and figure out how to maximize the use of the extras. The sequence also was carefully choreographed before it was executed by A-camera/Steadicam operator Peter Anderson.

Wright notes it was a collaborative effort from the entire crew. "It's a testament to all of the people who invested so much of not just their time but themselves and their spirit into it," he says.

The helmer relates that after the London premiere, the team returned to Redcar for a local premiere. "They closed the town down and had a street party," he says. "It was a big event, and they erected a sculpture on the beach in commemoration of 'Atonement' shooting there. To give a community like that — which is very depressed economically — something to be proud of is as important if not more important than the final film or the premieres. That's what counts."