The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
Page 2
Page 3
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Seale has received a certain amount of flak from other cinematographers for this habit. “I gave a talk on using multiple cameras once, and a cameraman said, ‘You must be compromising your lighting.’ Honesty is always the best policy, so I told him, ‘Yes, but never more than 20 percent.’ He looked at me, said nothing and walked off.” Camera operator Todd Henry, who worked with Seale on Rain Man and Spanglish, among other films, notes that many cinematographers refuse to compromise in that way. “Compromising your lighting is a remarkable sacrifice for a cinematographer, but John’s attitude is that he serves the director and the story, and sometimes that requires sacrificing a pretty shot,” says Henry.

Seale recognizes that using multiple cameras can be “daunting” for some directors and makes enormous demands on the crew. He has made 10 films with gaffer Morris “Mo” Flam, starting with The Firm (AC July ’93) and including The Tourist. “Mo is such a lovely guy, and I push him very hard,” reports Seale. “With multiple cameras and lighting reverses, he has to light almost 360 degrees. I make his life quite hectic.” Flam laughs when he hears Seale’s remarks. “I’ve adapted. John likes to work fast, and I’ve just had to figure out ways to keep up with him.”

The use of multiple cameras dovetails with another integral part of Seale’s philosophy, one that emerged during the filming of Weir’s Dead Poets Society. “Peter said, ‘I have seven boys and a girl, and I want to be able to cut in and out, so I need a lot of material.’ It taught me the absolute necessity of speed, even if that, too, means a little bit of compromise on the lighting.”

Other hallmarks of Seale’s shooting style today include shooting almost entirely with zoom lenses, using a single high-speed Kodak stock, and keeping the camera mobile. “I get into a lot of trouble with other cameramen for saying I don’t like using prime lenses,” he confesses, wincing slightly. “But using a zoom [gives me] mobility. I want to be able to change the focal length during a shot, although I always hide it in a camera move or an actor’s move. It can be as simple as an actor turning his or her head; you start when they start and stop when they stop. People watching never realize it’s a zoom; it’s just taking the mind’s eye closer.”

Although he has shot with Agfa and Fujifilm negatives and been very satisfied with the results, he has favored Kodak stocks since Rain Man. “I used to choose Vision 500T 5279, then Kodak switched over to Vision2 500T 5218, and now it’s Vision3 500T 5219. You just ND it back during the day to get a decent ASA; then, as the light fades in the late afternoon, you start pulling out the NDs. If the sun reddens things up too much, you can pull out the 85 filter.”

Seale started using Panavision’s Panaflex cameras — he’s partial to the Millennium — at about the same time, specifically because the NDs didn’t have to go in front of the lens. “You can put a magazine on the top or back of the Millennium and there’s a film slot in the back, so you don’t have to look through the NDs,” he explains. “Instead, you’re looking through a bright, clean lens.” He notes that he always has an Arri 235 with him as well. “It’s great for action stuff, for squashing into a corner, for handholding and for Steadicam.”

As his résumé suggests, Seale is partial to good stories that take place in exterior locations, especially foreign countries. Of all the films he has shot, he is probably most closely identified with The English Patient, for which he won several awards, including the Oscar, the ASC Award and the European Film Award. It was one of three films he made with British writer/director Anthony Minghella.

Minghella’s death a little more than two years ago was a devastating loss for Seale, not only professionally but also personally. They had become close friends while making The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley (AC Jan. ’00) and Cold Mountain (AC Jan. ’04), and were talking about their next collaboration. “Anthony was such a lovely person,” says Seale. “He had a real understanding of the crew, looked after them and treated them well. He loved everybody.”

Seale has made two films with director Wolfgang Petersen, The Perfect Storm (AC July ’00) and Poseidon (AC June ’06). Sailing and the sea are lifelong passions of Seale’s, as they are for Petersen. “We hit it off right away,” declares Petersen. “We got so excited, like kids, when we were out on the water for the few scenes in Perfect Storm that we could shoot in the actual ocean.” (The majority of the movie was shot in a giant water tank at Warner Bros.) Seale recalls, “I was really keen to make it work for Wolfgang. I didn’t want people to say, ‘I can see it was made in a tank.’ One of the greatest compliments is when people say, ‘It must have been rough, making that picture out there.’ And I say, ‘Yes, it was — Stage 16 at Warners!’”

Seale’s preference for “good stories that take place outdoors” means he has been away from Australia — and his family — for long stretches at a time. After Poseidon, he decided to go home and stay for a while. “I’d fallen in love with my grandchildren,” he says simply. He went back to shooting commercials, which took him out of town for no more than a few weeks at a time. His son, Derin, a commercial director who now resides in Los Angeles, even hired him to shoot a spot in Prague. (Seale’s daughter, Brianna, a former set dresser, lives in Sydney.)

Seale returned to features with The Tourist. “I thought The Lives of Others [Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature] was a great little film, and when Florian contacted me, I said yes.” One of the challenges on The Tourist was a long nighttime chase through Venice’s labyrinthine canal system. “There was no available natural light, and we had to light [all the way] down the canals if we wanted to see to the far end,” explains Seale. “And we were shooting anamorphic! The 11:1 [24-275mm Primo zoom] is crucial to an action sequence, but it’s an f4.5 lens, and we could barely get to f2.8! I used force development, a 200-degree shutter and a digital enhancement [in post] to pull it off.”

Those who have worked with Seale evince an unwavering respect, loyalty and affection for him. “John is a man of the highest integrity, an independent thinker, a fantastic storyteller and a joy to be around,” says Henry. “If you were stranded on a desert island, he would be the ideal companion because he’s incredibly resourceful and just so much fun to be with.” 

Script supervisor Dianne Dreyer, who has worked with Seale on six projects, says, “John has one of the keenest eyes I’ve ever encountered. The way he can find a frame almost immediately is a marvel. He makes things work that most people would say can’t be done.”

 

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