Scene Is Believing: Atonement


In a surprise move, it was recently announced that Christopher Nolan’s next film, Dunkirk, due to commence filming in May 2016, will be a large format (Imax, super 65 mm) wartime epic based around Operation Dynamo, the allied withdrawal from the eponymous French town’s beaches in 1940. Slated to star Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, it shares its name with an earlier film of the British rout that ended up snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, directed by Barry Norman’s father Leslie (not a lot of people know that!). This is therefore an opportune moment to look at the impressive 5 minute tracking shot from Atonement set around the evacuation.

In Atonement, based upon the novel by Ian McEwan, James McAvoy plays Robbie, the housekeeper’s son on a country estate, and lover of the upper crust Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Erroneously accused of a terrible crime by her younger sister, he is released from prison when war breaks out, on condition he enlists. We join him and two comrades, Tommy (Daniel Mays) and Frank (Nonso Anonzie) who stumble upon the chaos of the British (with some French forces) retreat to the sea, where soldiers await evacuation across the English channel on the flotilla of vessels.

Director Joe Wright had to juggle his budget – whilst the sprawling narrative of the novel follows Robbie across France in the company of thousands of demoralised men, money was shaved back for the beach sequence. Originally it was to have been a series of montages, but realising they had only got 1000 extras for two days, with changeable weather, and a tide that was coming in and out, the decision was made to do it as a risky single, one-take sequence.

Between them, Director Wright, production designer Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and camera operator Peter Robinson rehearsed on the first day when the tide was out, and shot it the following day when the tide was again out and the light was better. Operating a Steadicam, Peter Robertson shot the scene by following McAvoy on a small tracking vehicle, then walking off it to a bandstand after rounding a boat, up a ramp, stepping onto a rickshaw, then finally dismounting and moving across the pier and into a raucous bar. The extras were inexperienced locals and had to be relied upon to not look into the lens. Safety shots were also taken in case the coverage wasn’t good enough, but the rushes confirmed they’d captured magic.

Sarah Greenwood's production sketch

Sarah Greenwood’s production sketch

Very little CGI was used in the scene – only additional soldiers wading into the water for evacuation. Everything on the sand and the beachfront was real – personnel, vehicles, bombed buildings, even the ferris wheel. Sarah Greenwood reasoned:

“If you knew that you were going to do it digitally, you’d’ve done something massive and bigger. Instead of having a thousand people on the beach, you’d have a hundred thousand. But having a hundred thousand CGI people on the beach doesn’t make it better at all, actually. What made that shot work was the human drama, and the pain, and every little moment of that sequence told a story. And that was the combination of everything being there on that day… It could’ve been torrential rain and zero visibility, but if you’d not even attempted it and said that you’d do it in CGI, you would’ve ended up with a very different moment in the film… the whole thing was that it came out of the physicality of that set, and that moment, and that tide, and that light and everything.”

Camera operator Peter Robinson was the hero of the hour (or five minutes) and justifiably won an award in 2013 for best historical shot from the British Society Of Cinematographers for his work here. Click the link here to see him discuss it alongside the finished footage, then watch the finished shot below.



Originally posted 2015-12-31 00:24:59. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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