The American Society of Cinematographers

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Atonement, shot by Seamus McGarvey, BSC, lends stunning visuals to a novel’s impact.

Unit photography by Alex Bailey
Upon returning home to Edinburgh from a four-month stint shooting in Africa,
cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, BSC took his wife to see Atonement, his most recent feature, which had just opened in the United Kingdom. Midway through the movie, a shot revealed part of a beach expanse dotted with soldiers, and viewers seated in front of the McGarveys whispered, “Here it is! Here’s the Steadicam shot!” What followed was a 5-minute, 20-second uninterrupted take that, according to A-camera/Steadicam operator Peter Robertson, employed the full breadth of his “20 years of operating experience. And in the end, I knew it was probably the best shot I’d ever done.”  

Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement presents three periods in the life of Briony Tallis (portrayed at age 13 by Saoirse Ronan, at age 18 by Romola Garai, and as an older woman by Vanessa Redgrave) as she struggles to resolve her conflicted relationships with her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Cecilia’s love interest, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). The film was actually a reunion for McGarvey and director Joe Wright, who initially met at Oil Factory, a music-video production company. Later, after Wright finished art school in the mid-1990s, he hired McGarvey to shoot his short film The End.  

Wright describes McGarvey’s involvement in Atonement as “a dream come true, really. His enthusiasm and dedication were the same as on the short film, except [on Atonement] I got to spend more time with him.” Expounding on this sentiment, McGarvey says, “I had about six weeks of preproduction, and crucial to that was a two-week period when Joe and I just locked ourselves away in his house and pored over the script and worked out how to photograph the film.” The environment was one of “creative friendship,” as the cinematographer puts it, and this spirit was extended outward as other crewmembers, notably production designer Sarah Greenwood, entered the discussion. “There was no demarcation as such,” recalls Greenwood. “You’d put an idea on the table, somebody would top it and then you’d top it back. Things just got better; it was a very enthusiastic upping of the ante.”  

For the first section of the film, set in 1935, the filmmakers sought to evoke the hottest day of the summer while introducing the Tallis family and its sizable estate. “We wanted to get a sense of the heat as well as the insouciance that a lot of the people in the aristocracy and in Britain in general felt about the war,” says McGarvey. “There was no sense of the horror brewing in Europe.”  

Set in and around the Tallis home, this segment was filmed on location at Stokesay Court in Shropshire. Built in 1889, the house is privately owned, which benefited the filmmakers and limited red tape. “Fortunately, the woman of the house took a bit of a shine to us,” says gaffer Perry Evans. “She really let us have the run of the place.” This enabled Evans and his crew to keep lights rigged inside, which meant they could knock off interior scenes when weather precluded shooting outside.  

To maintain the look of a hot summer day indoors (even when rain darkened the sky outside), McGarvey used a number of daylight-balanced sources, mainly 18Ks and 12K Pars. “I would light the actors near the windows with soft, bounced sources, like a 4K bounced into foamcore and then through silks, creating a soft wrap on faces,” he recalls. “Then, to create a sense of searing sunlight coming through a window, I’d have pools of light in the background that were 4 or 5 stops overexposed.” When fill was required, “we used Kinos — Wall-O-Lites and Image 80s — because we didn’t want to build the heat up inside the house,” adds Evans. To match the HMI sources out the windows, daylight-balanced tubes were used in the Kino Flos.  

The filmmakers tried to stage exterior action in direct sunlight to emphasize the heat. For example, a crane shot that begins on the Tallis house and then descends into a rocky, weed-strewn area was lit with natural sunlight, but “we only got one or two takes before it completely clouded over, so I lit the close-ups with an 18K on Briony and backlit the grass in the foreground with another 18K so it sparkled a bit and matched the sunlight in the wider shot,” says McGarvey.  

To further emphasize the heat, the cinematographer shot most of the 1935 scenes with a 10-denier Christian Dior black stocking on the back of the lens. The only time the filtration came off, he explains, was “when we were shooting against very bright windows. It would bloom out too much and the areas of overexposure would start to corrupt the shadow areas. For those odd shots, I used Schneider Classic Softs — 1⁄8, 1⁄4 or 1⁄2.” While praising the stockings’ effect, McGarvey’s 1st AC, Carlos De Carvalho, notes that the material “reacts very differently if you have a lot of stop on the lens, so [McGarvey] kept things pretty much wide open, which made it more challenging for me — more exciting, actually!”  

Easing the damage to De Carvalho’s nerves, Panavision supplied a complement of RF (rear filter) lenses, with the exception of the 40mm prime. De Carvalho explains, “The lenses have a little screw-on adapter on the back, which allowed me to pre-net all of the lenses and have a separate ring for each lens. The longer the lens, the more you have to stretch the stockings, so we had to be careful to mark them all. But it allowed us to take the stockings off or put them back on quickly.”  

Working with Hugh Whittaker and Charlie Todman at Panavision London, the production assembled a camera package com-prising two Panaflex Millennium XLs and a PanArri 435, Primo prime lenses, three Primo zooms (a 4:1 17.5-75mm, an 11:1 24-275mm, and a 3:1 135-420mm), and a Lightweight Zoom (17.5-34mm). McGarvey often used two-camera setups, operating the B camera himself with 1st AC Rawdon Hayne. He tended to keep zoom lenses on both cameras: “They afforded us the ability to keep compositional integrity, to hold the frame when people didn’t quite hit their marks.” Likewise, he and key grip Gary Hutchings preferred using dance floor over laying track, which Hutchings says “restricts you and doesn’t let you adjust by a few inches. We’d only use rail if it wasn’t going to get in the actors’ way.”  

McGarvey often wielded a handheld light, as for a scene that shows Cecilia seated near a mirror, doing her makeup. As McGarvey moved with an HMI Pocket Par, he “was flaring the lens either in a bounce through the mirror or directly into the camera but just out of the shot. The editor was able to use these flashes as cutting devices.”  

The scene was captured by Robertson’s handheld camera. “It had to be quite a sensuous move,” recalls the operator. “The idea was to have a very loose camera, so I was always slightly behind Keira’s movements, finding what she was doing, which counterpointed a lot of the other camera movement in that part of the film. Briony’s world was much more metronomic and ordered, whereas Cecilia’s world was sensuous and languid.” De Carvalho adds, “I approached [the scene] with fear, really. Seamus lit that to T1.9 because he wanted a shallow depth of field, and we were using a 100mm with a 1⁄2 diopter so we could get really close focus.”  

To help link the various elements of this scene, Wright played music while rolling to give everyone a subtle rhythm to match. Having used this technique before, McGarvey and his crew refer to it as “jamming,” and Wright was keen to employ it regularly. In particular, the director recalls using music for a scene in which Briony walks in on Cecilia and Robbie making love in the library: “We were shooting something very intimate, but we used music that wasn’t sexy. It took our minds slightly off the sex aspect and led us more to an emotional realization.”

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