When “Atonement” helmer Joe Wright told his main camera operator, Peter Robertson, of his vision of an extended Steadicam shot for the film’s Dunkirk sequence, Robertson’s first reaction was, “Oh my God, no.”
The shot would cover a longer distance than any Steadicam shot Robertson had ever attempted, and would ask him to walk endlessly on soft sand while carrying the heavy camera and rig.
“There are so many things that can go wrong in a shot like that,” Robertson observes.
But he dived into planning how he could do it, arranging various aids to get him around what amounted to an obstacle course.
“As a camera operator,” Robertson says, “I have to be inspired by the shot, because I’m the first person, before even the audience, who has to see and make the shot work. It was an idea that challenged the gods, but once we got used to the idea, I said, ‘We’re going for this, and it’s going to look great.'”
Robertson was already tired from rehearsals when takes began for real. Producer Tim Bevan admits now that “walking across the beach holding a Steadicam is physically and mentally exhausting. And the one thing we hadn’t thought of doing was having a second Steadicam.”
Happily for Robertson, the third take was good. He really didn’t get excited, though, until the following day, when he saw the results in dailies.
“That’s when I felt pretty euphoric,” he says. “When (novelist) Ian McEwan came to see rushes and expressed his amazement with the shot, it hit home what we’d actually done. To get the praise of the author of the book was really something special.”