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American Cinematographer Magazine
A Wizard Comes Of Age
Michael Seresin, BSC lends his magic to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which takes J.K. Rowling's heroes into darker terrain.

Whether on page or screen, Harry Potter is a huge phenomenon. Book sales have turned its author, J.K. Rowling, into the highest-paid writer in history, and she's only halfway through her seven-book series about the bespectacled wizard-in-training. The latest installment of Warner Bros.' motion-picture franchise, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, offers some sizable statistics of its own. Production entailed some 180 shooting days for first-unit photography; more for second unit, which utilized up to 12 crews at a time; and 15 weeks for the model unit. Visual effects took over a year and kept more than 500 people busy at eight facilities in London and California. Virtually everything on this production was massively scaled - from the 200' bluescreens, to a Hogwarts set designed by Stuart Craig and modeled after several English locations, to castle miniatures that towered 30' in the air, to the legions of personnel involved.

"It's a bit like getting an army moving," observes Michael Seresin, BSC. As director of photography on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the New Zealand native was part of a new team commanding the troops led by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron brought along his long-time editor, Steven Weisberg, but when his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, was unavailable, he tapped Seresin. "Michael makes amazing wine, and that doesn't hurt!" Cuaron says with a laugh. (In fact, Seresin produces wine and olive oil at his estate in New Zealand.) More to the point, says the director, "I've been a fan of Michael's work for a long time. I always like his reliance on a single light source, and the fact that he's pretty uncompromising - he doesn't embellish things for the sake of embellishing them. He believes in a certain aesthetic of respecting the sources of light, and I thought that would be an interesting thing for Harry Potter."

The choice was unexpected but inspired. "I'm so happy with what Michael did," continues Cuaron. "He grounded the whole film in reality. It doesn't have a storybook kind of look; it's something a bit grittier." Indeed, Seresin is known for dark, moody features like Midnight Express, as well as other projects with Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, Angela's Ashes) and Harold Becker (Domestic Disturbance, Mercury Rising, City Hall). The sunny world of children's stories didn't seem to be this British emigre's cup of tea. But The Prisoner of Azkaban is less cheery than one might expect, which is why Cuaron and Seresin make sense. The film focuses on Harry's third year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He and his best friends, Ron and Hermione, are now 13 years old (as were actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). They are beginning to experience the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, and anger, rebellion, depression and paranoia are part of the emotional palette.

Harry, in particular, has a weight on his shoulders. A dangerous wizard, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban Prison, and it appears he's searching for Harry and wants him dead. Legend has it that Black was in league with the evil Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry's parents. To protect Harry, the prison has sent some guards to Hogwarts. Called the Dementors, these black-hooded creatures are hardly reassuring, for they can suck out one's soul. Harry responds particularly badly to his encounters with them, falling into a faint and hearing the ghostly death cries of his mother. 

It's a dangerous world, even for a wizard, and the film's look had to suggest that. At the same time, believability was paramount. "The lighting is moodier, with more shadowing and cross-lighting," says Seresin. "In the world of Harry Potter, there's no electricity; in the Great Hall, for example, the lighting comes from candles or flambeaus. I'm fairly literal in my interpretation of where light comes from. If I have any strength, it's that I light as naturally as possible," and the goal was to be "as dramatic as could be without it starting to look like Seven." Seresin also steered away from the strong orange and blue tones established in The Sorcerer's Stone, shifting instead to a more rain-drenched palette.

This atmospheric change was augmented by the weather in western Scotland, where Hogwarts' grounds and Hagrid the Giant's hut were shot. Sun was expected because extensive research had determined that May normally has only two days of rain. But the predictions proved wrong. "In 30 days, we had 28 or 29 days of rain," says Seresin. The crew forged ahead anyway. "We had that soft, gray light, which dramatically is incredible. And the continuity was amazing." More importantly, a mood was set. "Alfonso and Michael were brave - they let the weather in Scotland influence the look of the film," notes Nigel Stone, the model-unit director of photography. That decision affected everything, right down to the model of Hogwarts castle, which was sprayed with a very fine mist. "Suddenly, all of the mosses, lichens, tiles and stone took on this different, darker look," says Stone. (All of the show's miniatures work was done by Cinesite London and shot at Shepperton Studios.)

Although The Prisoner of Azkaban retained the franchise's Super 35mm format, its look evolved in other ways. New elements include a very mobile camera and a predominance of wide-angle lenses. "We were on the 14mm, 18mm, 21mm or 24mm the whole movie," says Seresin. The reason, he explains, is that "where everybody is [situated] is really important," especially when conjuring up a world of wizards. "In the Great Hall, you might have a close-up of somebody, but you're aware of 200 kids behind him, as well as the Gothic windows, flambeaus and so on. Any time you move the camera, which Alfonso really likes to do, you're revealing where you are and what's going on." Employing a multitude of dollies and cranes, as well as a Steadicam, Seresin used very few fixed-camera shots. "That's true in Alfonso's other films as well," he notes. "He's a master of it."

Unlike earlier Harry Potter films, the main units on The Prisoner of Azkaban used only one camera, an Arricam ST, about 90 percent of the time. Although multiple cameras make sense when working with child actors, who can only work for four hours per day, "it's harder to make something look dramatic if you've got cameras covering even 90 degrees of a shot," Seresin explains. "One or two angles might look okay, but the rest is a compromise." Nonetheless, the number of cameras did mount up. That made consistency a concern, which was one reason that Seresin fitted all of the cameras with Cooke S4 prime lenses. "Sometimes we'd have up to 15 or 18 cameras on first and second unit, and with Cooke S4s, everything matched," he says. Plus, "they have a stunning quality that I just love. They're sharp enough, but not too sharp."

Cooke primes also served the model unit well, according to Stone. "They don't fall off on the focus very fast," he says. "It would be disastrous if Harry was sharp in the foreground, and then the leading edge of our model was soft and then went into sharpness. It would look very strange."

One of the greatest challenges a Harry Potter cinematographer faces is making sure the real and digital worlds integrate well. This time around, the ante was upped because more characters than ever are entirely digital. In addition to the Dementors, these include a werewolf, a flying hippogriff (half eagle and half horse), and a giant dog - all recurring characters with central roles. Whole environments were also digital, such as the school's Quiddich stadium. The sheer volume of effects shots kept half of London busy, employing artists at FrameStore CFC, Moving Picture Company, Double Negative and more, plus Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in California.

Ironically, neither Cuaron nor Seresin had a notable track record with special effects. "Alfonso had no experience with CGI, and I had next to none," Seresin admits. Though he'd done bluescreen work in Mercury Rising, the cinematographer had never tackled anything on Harry Potter's scale. "In our way, we had to discover how to do it for ourselves - with enormous help from the production designers and effects people," he says.

The duo had numerous Harry Potter veterans from whom to learn. Returning to key positions were Stone on model unit, production designer Stuart Craig, visual-effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Tim Burke, special-effects supervisor John Richardson, and creature- and makeup-effects designer Nick Dudman, to name a few. Meeting three to four times a week during preproduction (which, for Seresin, lasted more than four months), they collectively envisioned the elements of Harry Potter's world.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.