The American Society of Cinematographers

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Mad Max: Fury Road


Cinematographer: John Seale, ASC, ACS

 



In 1979, Mad Max, an independent film made for $200,000 by a first-time director, grossed over $100 million and roared into cinema history. It was co-written and directed by George Miller and shot by David Eggby, ACS. Thirty-six years later, Miller decided to reboot the story with Mad Max: Fury Road, this time teaming with John Seale, ASC, ACS.

Seale received his fifth ASC Award nomination for his work on the picture; he won for The English Patient and was also nominated for Rain Man, The Perfect Storm and Cold Mountain.

Fury Road was Seale’s first digital feature. He told American Cinematographer, “When George asked me what cameras I'd like to shoot on, I replied, ‘Well, I’m a Panavision man, George — always have been. I’ll see what they have.’ The producer and first AD, P.J. Voeten, leaned over and whispered, ‘Alexas.’ So I added, ‘Probably Alexas, George.’”

The filmmakers carried four Arri Alexa Ms and six Alexa Pluses, and they also used Canon EOS 5D MkII and Olympus OM-D E-M5s as stunt and crash cams. The lenses were primarily Panavision Primo zooms: 15-40mm T2.6, 17.5-75mm T2.3, 19-90mm T2.8, 24-275mm T2.8, 17.5-34mm T2.8 LWZ2, and 27-68mm T2.8 LWZ1. In addition, Seale made use of a 16mm T2 and a 15mm T4, both custom-built by Panavision’s vice president of optical engineering, Dan Sasaki. “Dan had refocused the lenses so that the hyperfocal distance at T5.6 was from the front element to 9 feet,” said Seale, who employed these lenses in the cabs of the massive vehicles speeding through the desert. “That way everything in the cabin would be sharp.”

Establishing what constituted a “correct” exposure with ArriRaw sparked earnest on-set discussions between Seale and digital-imaging technician Marc Jason Maier, as the cinematographer’s light meters were giving quite different readings than Maier’s monitors. “To my mind, the native ASA of the Alexa is closer to 400 than 800,” Seale observed. “Also, Marc was shifting the ArriRaw data up or down the waveform to ensure that the maximum information was being captured. I changed my meters to 400 ASA, and that seemed to address most of the issues we were having.”

Principal location photography comprised five months in Namibia during the southern hemisphere’s 2012 winter. After a hiatus, the opening and final sequences were shot in Australia in 2013. “Namibia provided a great variety of desert landscapes and certainly filled George's requirements not to see a single bit of green,” said Seale.

The film features hair-raising vehicular stunts, which were performed practically, without the aid of CG, at speeds of over 50 mph. All 10 Alexas and more than a dozen crash cams were used when the scope of the action and stunt work required a combination of the show's main and action units. The result was a huge convoy of crew — approximately 1,500 sat down for lunch on at least one of the “10-camera” days — with dozens of picture and support vehicles kicking up dust as they drove up to 5 miles through the desert for a single take, and then turned around to reset.

One of Miller’s requests was that the actors be framed squarely in the crosshairs of the 2.39:1 widescreen frame. This wasn’t Seale’s first encounter with such an idea. “Quite early in my career, I shot an episode of an Australian television program in which the director and I center-framed the actors’ eyes during a rapidly edited fight scene. The viewers’ eyes then didn't have to find anything — the fight was just presented to them, bam, bam, bam. So I was most intrigued with George’s idea. It was hard on the operators at first. It’s so against the grain! Whacking everything in the center and not worrying about what’s happening on the edges of the frame is counter-intuitive. Early in principal photography, the operators would offer up a beautiful composition, only to hear George on the comms yelling, 'Put the red dot on his nose! Put the red dot on his nose!' It was a great lesson, though, because as an operator, you have to always keep utmost in your mind what the essence of the shot is. What is the core moment? And George’s request [enabled] the rapid pace of the editing to unfold with total clarity. My overarching belief as a cinematographer is that I am helping the director keep the audience in the film, and you both use all the tools of your trade to do that.”

Excerpted from the June 2015 issue. Original reporting by Simon Gray.

 

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