Cinematographer John Seale, ASC, ACS Talks About "The Tourist

Cinematographer John Seale, ASC, ACS, was born in Warwick, Queensland, Australia. His first credits as a camera operator included several films directed by fellow Australian Peter Weir, including “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” (1975) and “Gallipoli” (1981). Soon after Weir moved to the United States, Seale joined him on the project “Witness,” (1985), directed by Weir, and garnered his first Oscar nomination for cinematography. Since then, Seale has earned more than 40 credits as a cinematographer, and worked with directors such as Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain”), Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), Rob Reiner (“The American President,” “Ghosts of Mississippi”) and Michael Apted “(Gorillas in the Mist”) to name a few. His awards are numerous,  including four Oscar nominations and one win (for "The English Patient"), four ASC Award nominations and one win (also for "The English Patient"), three awards. Seale was recently honored by the American Society of Cinematographers with the ASC International Award, which was presented on February 13, 2011. Seale has been a long-time Panavision customer, so we spoke to him about his career. 

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?

JS: I was introduced to Panavision in the early part of my career at ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). We always used 16mm for newsgathering, since the PAL system could handle that small negative with an acceptable result. All commercial news gathering was shot on 35mm 2C Arriflexes, which was then screened in cinemas around the country. It was not until the late 1960s that the ABC went into a form of episodic television that they then felt should be shot on 35mm, so we started to shoot with a blimped Mitchell R-35. After I left the ABC, I began to freelance. I had to drop back to focus puller and then rebuild my reputation as an operator. In the early 1970s, the smaller and lighter PVSR Panavision camera made an appearance and it was great to have them. At the time, they were distributed by Samuelson’s of England.

Q: On what project did you first use Panavision?

JS: The film “Caddie” was the first. I was operator to Peter James, with Ross Ericson as the key/dolly grip and directed by Donald Crombie.

Q: What influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
JS: After I left school, I worked in Sydney doing various jobs, but ended up footloose and headed west, as young men do. I ended up on a 30,000 acre sheep station with a bunch of smelly horses and punchy co-workers. I was using an 8mm camera to record the country life and, after 18 months, this appealed to me much more than falling off horses, so I headed back to Sydney to pursue a career in film.

Because you shoot internationally, do you always work with the same crew, and who is that crew?
JS: Working internationally makes it hard to carry the same crew, because I had to adhere to local unions and/or country jurisdictions, i.e., the EU block, or the New York/LA regulations. Also, budget considerations were a factor: the production would only take in certain “keys” and the rest had to be local. I have been able to keep a crew together for a while, but not in continuous work.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip, operator and assistant? 
JS: Since it is not continuous, we tend to wander off on other projects and then meet again for the next. Mo Flam, for instance, has been my gaffer on 10 films and Steve Andrews on 17, but it has been over the years and mostly by good luck that we get together again.

Q: As someone who shoots internationally, what are the benefits of using the Panavision system?
JS: Panavision systems have been with me from day one (although I did shoot “Gorillas in the Mist” on the other system). The reason came down to a technical reason: i.e.,  Panavision has a filter slot behind the lens, which is simple, but it solved all of my desires to see a bright, sharp image thru a heavy ND filter while using hi-speed stock. The cameras were always camera-operator friendly, and as they developed the range, they listened to camera operators and DPs, so were able to help them design a very compatible system.

The film production then started to move offshore and Panavision had also moved offshore, so if we set up in another country then we were serviced by that country's facility. If that was awkward, Panavision London /LA /New York would happily service us where ever we were. Panavision has maintained an impeccable service record over the years.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic? 
JS: The decision to use a particular format can be controlled by a number of considerations. Anamorphic, whether by extraction from a spherical format or full cover, can often be a demand of the studios or it could be a consideration of the style of the film by the director and cameraman. There are a large number of variances that can influence that decision. Spherical (1:85) to me has always been more of a people format, whereas anamorphic is more of a scenic format.

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
JS: There has to be a different approach to the different formats. Anamorphic is a 2-shot format, i.e., the frame is so wide it is difficult to get a clean single. So sometimes it is best to go for the 2-shot rather than dirty singles, which means the film will be edited in a different manner as well, since the editors may not have to cut the film as much to get the scene. Sound is compromised with 2:35 digital extraction, especially if the studio wants to retain a 4-perf negative: for the negative to clear the boom is always kept well away from the actors, but less so if it is “full cover” (negative anamorphic that uses the full height of the negative).

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
JS: The approach to the different formats are basically the same regarding grip gear and lighting gear, although anamorphic does require a consideration of more equipment to cover the wider area and an increase in light values to take into consideration the slower lenses of full cover anamorphics. Not much else is changed other than the artistic approach to the film.

Q: The last film you shot, “The Tourist,” was shot in anamorphic. Do you find that with the increasing use of digital, it is easier, or harder, to shoot widescreen format? 
JS: “The Tourist” was shot full cover anamorphic. I had not done this for quite a number of years, as most films are happy to do a digital extraction of the anamorphic format, from a spherical negative. The anamorphic extraction of the image from spherical lenses can be very successful, although it has a perspective change from full cover or "squeeze" lenses (this can be an important consideration to determine which system of anamorphic will be used).

Q: When shooting “The Tourist,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph Angelina Jolie. 
JS: There is new technology in LED light that is incredible. That we can now handhold a small light --  self-powered and cool -- to use as fill light is extraordinary. Throughout “The Tourist” we used these LED “bricks” to fill all the actors in all situations. These were “fill” light and were supplementary to the overall lighting plan, which was designed to light the film to the director’s overall feeling of the look of the film. The versatility of these small "bricks" made it so easy to use in cars, on boats, and in small locations, to realize what we wanted.

Q: Are there any particular scenes in “The Tourist” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope on lighting? 
JS: There was a chase scene in boats through the Venetian canals at night that created some very worthwhile challenges. The prime lenses we used were around T2.6, but the zooms and others went to T4.5.  Shooting multiple cameras with a range of stops like that was very challenging. By unashamedly using everything we had (i.e., force development...200 degrees...and digital enhancement), we were able to match all the lenses through that range. Venice is very dark at night, so everything we wanted to see was lit by the gaffer and his crew. This entailed lighting hundreds of metres of canal, in both directions, so we could shoot the action with multiple cameras.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
JS: My favorite lens is the one that is shooting the shot, because it is the right lens for that shot. But I do love the 11:1 zoom lens. I think it is such a great piece of glass, has a fantastic range (24:275) and in spherical is a T2.8 lens. Some films have almost been shot entirely on that lens.