Picture Perfect: A conversation with cinematographer John Seale

Trevor Hogg chats to the Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Seale…

“I came out of the Outback using a little 8mm camera to record all of my family activities,” states Australian cinematographer John Seale whose experience in making home movies led him to his calling. “I wanted to get into the ABC because I met a guy there who took me through and was very excited by it all. That’s when the Australian Broadcasting Commission, being a government-run station, had a lot of money. They had the best Steroflex cameras, and the latest of this and the latest of that, whereas the commercial companies were using old Second World War combat cameras.” After 18 months of persistence, the aspiring filmmaker was hired by the public broadcaster; he was mentored by a group of ex-World War II combat cameramen who taught him the fundamentals such as how to “pan and follow [racing horses] right round the whole circuit without the frame starting to wobble off crazy as you’re trying to keep your balance.” The ABC afforded Seale the opportunity to cover a wide variety of subject matter which he would be able to draw upon when making movies. “You end up doing a couple of medical films like The Doctor [1991], which spent a lot of time in an operating theatre; I actually had been in an operating theatre with the ABC working on a documentary on a heart valve replacement when I first started.” During his seven year career with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Oscar-winner was able to move beyond news and into the drama department. “Not only could you go out in the Outback as a documentary maker, you could go out and put actors in that background; that I found was very exciting.”

“In the early days of Australia film, people would come up and say, ‘Oh, my God. That film was so incredible; it looked gorgeous.’ And I would look at them and say, ‘What about the film?’” recalls John Seale who was part of the cinematic renaissance that swept over his homeland. “We had Peter Weir [Picnic at Hanging Rock], Bruce Beresford doing Breaker Morant [1980], [and] Gillian Armstrong coming in with My Brilliant Career [1979]. We had directors and writers emerging out of the woodwork who were able to combine with these brilliant cinematographers to make films.” Seale forged a creative partnership with an Oscar-winner by serving as his camera operator. “I did some work for Russell Boyd [The Way Back] on The Man from Hong Kong [1975] which he photographed with Brian [Trenchard-Smith] directing.” The project led to the native of Warwick, Queensland becoming a cinematographer in his own right. “I did some secondary stuff on that with Brian and we got on well. Death Cheaters [1976] came along which was very much a lower budget film; he asked me to step up and do the filming.” The opportunity was an unexpected one. “It was terrifying. I was so enthralled with operating that I hadn’t thought too much about lighting.”

After being the camera operator on Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (1981), all helmed by countryman Peter Weir, John Seale was recruited to lens the filmmaker’s Hollywood debut Witness (1985). “I got a bit of a shock on that; after we shot a scene I had to dig everybody up,” remembers Seale. “I said to the First AD [Assistant Director], ‘Come on. The sun is dead right. We can shoot this now. Where are they? They should be on set. We’re finished lunch.’ In Australia once you’d finished lunch you were working. This had a Hollywood lackadaisical thing where lunch was not three quarters of an hour it was done in an hour and a half.” When Seale began to have doubts as to whether or not he was up to the task, Peter Weir told him, “‘As far as I’m concerned this is an Australian film. It’s just that most of the guys have funny accents. You shoot it as you would in Australia.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Peter.’ I shot it that way and we all got nominated [for Oscars].” The two colleagues would subsequently work together on The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Dead Poets Society (1989).

The Australian filmmaking experience of having to work with a limited budget (overtime was paid with cold cans of beer) and a tight production schedule taught John Seale the art of the quick camera setup. “I remember Richard Dreyfuss [Stakeout] came up to me and said, ‘Man, I never worked this fast before.’ I asked him, ‘Is that bad?’ He said, ‘No. It’s fantastic. I haven’t got time to get out of character.’” The cinematographer was pleasantly surprised. “If the actors love it, my theory is that you’re making a better film.” Seale made another significant discovery – the use of multiple cameras. “It all started on Rain Man [1988] when we setup the camera on scene where Dustin and Tom were down on the floor with matches; we only had one camera and they were adlibbing.” The technique is a controversial one. “Some DPs [Directors of Photography] don’t use multiple cameras because they can’t light each camera as perfectly as they want.” The cinematographer has developed fans amongst film editors for his ability to cross-shoot images of different sizes and angles. “A couple of the editors have come up to me and said, ‘I love it because I can cut for emotion. I can cut where I want to cut. I don’t have to wait for a hand to drop away or a cigarette to be puffed on.” However, approach has made life more difficult for those involved with the sound department as it is not always possible to deploy the necessary number of microphones needed to record the sound properly. As for the performers, there is no period of rest for them. “I don’t know if I’m on or I’m not,” Helen Mirren (The Queen) enthusiastically informed Seale. “So I’m acting 100 percent all the time!”

“Studios often want to push things onto the stage to honour the schedule and the budget. A case in point was Gorillas in the Mist [1988] where they felt we should shoot that like a Tarzan movie on stage with guys in suits, and build the jungle. But Michael Apted wouldn’t do it. Michael said, ‘I’ve been to Africa and sat with gorillas. There’s nothing like it. We’re going to go to the gorillas.’” Lead actress Sigourney Weaver (The Year of Living Dangerously) was lauded with an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Dian Fossey. “She would come back and say, ‘Michael we’ve got Scene 83. Wait until you see it.’ It was before they turned around the dailies. When we saw it, she was dead right. She was wonderful. We’d still be there if it wasn’t for her performance.” Seale observes, “The problem on the soundstage is it never gives you the challenge or the lucky mistakes where the sun will suddenly shine through a cloud; you’re shooting and think, ‘I would have never thought of doing it on a soundstage.’” There is a big reason why a stage setting can appear flawed to an audience. “It’s lit too well to be natural. You have to relate back to reality and bring it into the studio; to do it you have to think of nature’s challenges that you would have to accept if you were shooting exteriors.”

“It’s essential that you find out from the director what they originally saw in that film,” instructs John Seale who mentally wipes the slate clean when commencing his next project. “It doesn’t matter if you did brilliant work on the last one. This is a new movie and it’s going to have new ideas for cinematography that should suit the storyline.” The attitude paid off for the cinematographer on Rain Man as he received his second Oscar nomination. “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon and they were trying this scene. Barry [Levinson] looked at me and said, ‘Wrap this up. These boys [Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman] couldn’t get their shit together.’ He made it loud enough that both actors could hear. I went, ‘Oh, geez the actors have just heard this. This could be a big blowup.’ But Dustin left it and went home. The next morning he came in and just knocked the scene over.” Questioned about the notorious antics of Hoffman, the Australian replies, “I love working with Dustin; he’s energy city.” Seale tells me a story. “There was a moment on Rain Man. It was the second or third day of shooting, where Tom has found him at the hospital and they’re sitting on a bench. Tom says, ‘Come on. We’re going.’ He walks diagonally towards the footpath and Dustin follows him. I thought, ‘Hang on. Is that really Dustin’s character?’ So I said to him, ‘Dustin would your character follow Tom or would he go straight for the path and turn right?’ To this day I’m Dustin’s best friend. He said, ‘My God! Somebody from the camera department actually thinks for you as an actor!’”

“The three films that I did were an absolute delight,” says John Seale whose collaboration with British writer-director Anthony Minghella resulted in his winning an Oscar for The English Patient (1996) and receiving a fourth Academy Award nomination for Cold Mountain (2003). “In some ways The English Patient [1996] was thrown together. Anthony was quite innocent to filmmaking; he had only done two films before, one in England [Truly Madly Deeply, 1990] and Mr. Wonderful [1993] in America. Sometimes that first film got a little bit lost but in the end, with the brilliance of Walter Murch’s editing it came together very well. The English Patient didn’t have enough coverage. Walter really proved to Anthony that you have to have coverage to be able to cut for emotion. Then on The Talented Mr. Ripley [1999], if I’m to be very honest, we over covered it. There was suddenly this reversal of thinking. Whether that was good for Walter is possibly in evidence in the film because it certainly is very potent. I noticed by the time we did Cold Mountain, the coverage was more economical.”

“I’ve got to say that the toughest ones are the most technical ones. The first big technical film was The Perfect Storm [2000],” revealed John Seale who teamed with German filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen to cinematically adapt the seafaring tale. “They gave me three months prep and I used every single second of it. Every night I had to know exactly where every piece of machinery was going to go on that tank. There were four 100 mile an hour wind machines, a 45 foot-high dump tank that couldn’t move, a yacht, two floating camera platforms and 100 people involved.” The task was made easier by the director. “Wolfgang knew exactly what he wanted and that helped me. He edited the animatics, and once he was happy he’d say, ‘That’s exactly what we’re going to do.’ That’s what I started on.” Seale, who likes to ask himself and the director “What if?” when it comes to positioning the cameras, restrained himself. “We could change the camera coverage within those parameters to get what he felt was a moment that was better than anticipated during pre-production.” The camera crew, unlike the cast, was warmly sheltered in the “monitor village,” drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. “George Clooney [Michael Clayton] would stop every morning as he went out of wardrobe and makeup,” chuckles Seale. “He’d look up and say, ‘You guys have a nice day won’t you.’ We’d say, ‘Yes, George. You too. Get on the set.’ He’d laugh, go out there and get wet and cold. They were a great bunch of guys.” The director and the cinematographer reteamed on a remake that was also set out at sea, using multiple cameras. “We had six running on Poseidon [2006]. We were doing complete scenes in one hit.” Unlike traditional close-ups which are shot three feet away from the performers, a different method was deployed. “We were doing anamorphic close-ups from across the room. What we did was compress the atmosphere that was between the camera and the actors; it could be dripping water or the water could be jump floating in the air. The close-up had so much energy.”

“I remember Larry Kasdan on Dreamcatcher [2003],” states John Seale. “We weren’t doing a lot of multiple cameras. There were generally three. A couple of the boys were on two of them and I was on the third.” Once he saw the dailies, the cinematographer was concerned that the footage would annoy moviegoers. “I said, ‘Larry, I’m really worried about all of this.’ He asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘A lot of it’s not sharp.” Kasdan was unfazed. “He said, ‘Why I love it is because I feel the camera is there by invitation not by design.’” Dealing with Sydney Pollock on The Firm (1993) was a different matter. “He did at times think he could do everybody’s job better than they could, sometimes mine. But we got around that nicely. He once tried to do a difficult shot and as soon as he sat on the dolly I knew he wouldn’t be able to do it. He lost the shot. I said, ‘Go watch the monitor and I’ll have a go at this.’ I did the shot and his respect for me after that was quite good.” Some creative improvisation was required. “I used to work three days ahead with Sydney because if it was instantaneous; he’d say, ‘No. It’ll never cut.’ because he was in control. If you threw in the idea two or three days ahead, he’d use a big part of it or incorporate it into the way he was thinking. I thought, ‘I don’t mind that. If that’s the way you want to make the film that’s the way I’ll work.’”

“There were hundreds and hundreds of people and crew. I didn’t have a lot of cameras; I had five or six,” says John Seale who had to deal with 110 degree heat while shooting a Hollywood blockbuster. “Mike Newell on Prince of Persia [2010] would sometimes get to camera three and think, ‘I’ve got the scene with those.’ I had the others doing little pickups that I thought would help the editor. The actors were great because they all knew they could be on the entire time.” The scope of the fantasy adventure made things challenging for Seale. “There were a lot of scenes with a lot of actors. Trying to get cameras in there and make them profitable was the name of the game.” He believes, “Put the cameras in a position of jeopardy and you will get a better film.” The multiple cameras were a major asset during the principle photography. “We were able to continue the action because what became unusable on one camera, on a 180 degree reverse became usable on another.”

“I know Dariusz Wolski has done most of his films either with Tim Burton or with the Pirate movies. I was ready to accept rejection on those grounds,” confides John Seale when referring to The Tourist (2010) which stars Johnny Depp (Sleepy Hollow) and Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted). “My track record and being the director’s choice was fully accepted by Johnny and Angelina. We got on well. We both like wooden boats and that became quite a conversation piece.” Seale was aware of the original French film Anthony Zimmer (2005). “I was sure it would be nothing like that so I didn’t pursue it in my own time in pre-production.” However, the cinematographer did eventually see the movie. “I did watch it because the script was still being written and I wanted to get a good idea of the unwritten parts.” Seale admires Johnny Depp. “Johnny is a great guy. I always loved his work.” The actor apparently liked Seale too as he approached him about another picture. “He wanted to reshoot the ending of The Rum Diary [2011] and so they asked us if we would do it on a day off. I put it to the crew. They all said, ‘Yup! We’ll do it.’ We all pitched in and did it. I haven’t heard whether or not it fitted in.”

“I appreciate the director and his job; I think that’s made me a better filmmaker,” says John Seale who directed Till There Was You (1991) featuring Mark Harmon (Freaky Friday) and Deborah Kara Unger (Crash). “I found the technical side of directing a film came not easily but it was familiar territory; therefore I thought I was able to handle that. But the actors were a different bag. They were a handful. I had not ever learned or seen what goes on in the backrooms between directors and actors. I found it very difficult, particularly with an actor who felt he knew exactly what he had to do and a young actress who was like a colt in the starting gates; she could give 18 different performances. Which one do you want?”

“We all knew in those early days that Harry Potter was going to be a burgeoning franchise but not to the degree [it became],” admits John Seale who worked on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), the first of eight movies. “I believe it pulled in over $6.5 billion in ticket sales. It was an awfully big surprise. You have to hand it to Chris Columbus. He travelled the world looking for Harry Potter, found him in England and the one he selected is still there.”

“We live in the days of the monitor system which came in and took away a very large part of the responsibility of the camera operator, which I feel really sad about,” reflects John Seale who worries that the art of his craft will be lost in the digital age. A positive sign is that renown colleagues such as Roger Deakins (True Grit) have been recruited to serve as consultants for computer animated pictures such as How to Train Your Dragon [2010]. “It’s a credit to the makers of those films to bring on a proper film cinematographer. I hope it continues so that the young guys coming up [using HD] can learn the parameters of film lighting.” As for the future of 3D, Seale is not completely sold on the current Hollywood trend. “I believe it has a lot of problems technically.” He adds, “The amount of money pouring out, the time and energy wasted on the set, with actors standing down, I hate that. I like working fast and furiously.” Seale is not a fan of another prevailing cinematic trend. “There are a lot of films being made that are extremely handheld and energetic visually; I’m not too sure I agree with those because too many people are saying it took them out of the film. George Miller, when he made Lorenzo’s Oil [1992], said this will be a hard hitting film. I want the audience to be emotionally washed out like the original parents [who sought to find the oil which would enable their child to live longer]. I thought, ‘Man. That’s fantastic! That’s really taking moviemaking to the heights of absorption.’”

Contemplating what makes for great cinematography, Seale remarks, “It’s cinematography that suits the story in completeness.” As for why Australian cinematographers have become so successful internationally, Oscar-winner Dean Semler (Dance with Wolves), upon receiving an AM (Member of the Order of Australia) along with Seale told The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Oh, I’m not too sure really. But I think Johnny Seale once said he thinks it’s something they put in the beer.’” Seale laughs. “The only thing I could think of back then was a humorous line.” The key is the gung ho mentality. “The Australian attitude to almost anything is, ‘Let’s give it a go.’” With 41 film credits as a cinematographer, Seale offers these words of advice. “I’ve always said to students that pre-production is the most important part of their set filmmaking; you must have it all in the brain so when you start shooting, the simple shot is a done deal.” He goes on to make an analogy. “As a cinematographer you’re like a boxer on the balls of his feet. You have to be balanced and ready to go in any direction so as to cover a scene in a way which will enable it to fit into the film.”

Many thanks to John Seale for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.

Read more from this interview in Visualizing Emotion: John Seale talks about Peter Weir.

Peter Weir Retrospective

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.