CNN has up a fantastic article referring to the 5 1/2 minute tracking shot in Atonement as Robbie, a British WWII soldier (James McAvoy), comes upon France’s Dunkirk beach, where the final point in the British retreat from the Germans is portrayed as a grim circus of defeat and chaos. The scene tracks Robbie and his two comrades around all the action and has several moments in which things could have gone incredibly wrong during the shot causing for one hell of a massive redress, most notably the 360-degree shot around a large men’s choir. The shot is truly amazing and it is only one of the examples that can be given when campaigning for director Joe Wright to take home the Best Director Oscar.
CNN’s piece says how the scene in the Ian McEwan novel from which the movie was adapted is described in just a few pages, but the film version took a lot more work:
The scene was composed with 1,000 extras, a number of horses and vehicles on the beach, and (digitally added) ships off the coast. It all cost a sizable chunk of the film’s estimated $30 million production budget and had to be shot in one day.
That’s how long the hundreds of extras were available for, and that small time frame is what initially drove Wright and his director of photography, Seamus McGarvey, to stage the single long shot, rather than squeeze in a dozen separate setups.
Wright says of the scene, “It was conceived out of necessity… We had one day with the extras and then the small issue of the tide coming in and washing away the entire set.”
“For the actors, they really enjoy them because you’re in a situation where there’s a fourth wall created,” said Wright. “There’s no area on the set they have to imagine; it’s all in front of them.”
So how many takes did they do? Three-and-a-half is the answer as the fourth one finally exhausted Steadicam operator Peter Robertson and they ended up using the third one.
Go back and watch Wright’s Pride and Prejudice at Bingley’s Ball and you will see another impressive shot, as a matter of fact there are several impressive tracking shots in Pride and Prejudice, but none of them really compare to the one in Atonement.
However, while some folks loved the shot, much like myself, others did not including “New York Times” critic A.O. Scott who is quoted writing, ” ‘Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,’ when it should be ‘My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.’ ” Sounds like Scott forgot to take his critic’s hat off for a second and realize that general audiences are going to have the exact impression he thought they should have as most of them don’t care about tracking shots the way critics do, instead they are looked at as cool factoids after the fact. After all, is it impossible for Scott to feel two things for one scene? Sheesh… lighten up.
Wright and the article both go on to mention Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and it’s much discussed tracking shot where Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh walk unknowingly alongside a car with explosives in its trunk. Wright goes on to say, “One has to completely bow to the fact that when Orson Welles did the Touch of Evil shot, he didn’t have a Steadicam… Steadicams have totally liberated the tracking shot.”
I have actually never seen Touch of Evil, but here is the scene being discussed:
Wright’s final quote in the CNN article says, “Filmmaking by nature is about montage and in a way there’s something quite rebellious about the long tracking shot. I just think they’re a wonderful challenge and a wonderful game.”
To read the complete article click here or you can check out the video version by clicking here, but I warn you, the video caused my browser to crash twice. Also, for a little enjoyment check out this Top Ten List of Tracking Shots.
Get more on Atonement and the rest of the Oscar Contenders here in the RopeofSilicon Oscar Contenders Preview.