John Seale, ACS, ASC Feted at 2011 Plus Camerimage

Published on website: November 21, 2011
Categories: Awards , David Heuring , The StoryBoard Blog
John Seale, ASC, ACS. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

John Seale, ASC, ACS will receive the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Plus Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The festival will show a special retrospective of his films representing some of his greatest professional achievements.

Seale photographed Peter Weir’s Witness, and earned his first Academy Award® for the film. He earned his second Oscar® nomination for Rain Man, which was also nominated for an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award in 1989. Seale won the Oscar and the ASC Award for The English Patient in 1997. He earned Academy Award and ASC nominations again in 2004 for Cold Mountain. Earlier this year, Seale received the ASC International Award for his incredible images.

Seale has earned more than 40 narrative credits as a cinematographer, including such memorable films as Children of a Lesser God, The Mosquito Coast, Gorillas in the Mist, Dead Poets Society, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Firm, The American President, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Perfect Storm, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Poseidon and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and The Tourist.

Below is a conversation with the celebrated cinematographer:

Where were you born? In Warwick, Queensland, way up north, on the east coast side near the Queensland/New South Wales border. It's a country town.

Were you interested in photography while you were growing up? No. I started to find it during my middle teens, when I was 15, 16 and 17. That’s when all young men go through the worries about what they will do with the rest of their lives, and school pressures are saying that they should be a plumber, or categorized into a certain job. Very luckily, I went further west into the Outback in Australia, and ended up in a place called Jackaroo, which is sort of like a cowboy town with sheep. We rode a lot and had 30,000 acres we had to run. It was early hours and hard work during the day. It was hard riding, and fixing things like fencing. I loved all that, but couldn't see myself living there for the rest of my life. I decided then that photography might be a career. The interest I had in it was purely superficial. I bought a little 8 mm camera and I started filming. It was mainly to show my parents and family and friends. Then, I suddenly thought it might be a great life to travel around the world filming things that other people might then enjoy, people who've got jobs in banks or something. This was well before television in Australia.

(Far right) John Seale, ASC, ACS on the set of "Poseidon." Photo by Claudette Barius SMPSP

So there was nobody who inspired you? Not really. One of my father’s friends, who was a photographer, talked to me at great lengths about it. We had a very philosophical discussion, saying that whatever you do, you should like, otherwise you won't do it well. That was good advice, because it sets you on track with attitudes and approaches. There were no film schools in Australia then. There were fledgling television stations getting going. There were about three commercial houses and people like Dean Semler (ASC, ACS) Russell Boyd and Peter Weir – all Australians – were working internationally, mostly out of the commercial houses. I went into the government-owned television station, ABC, and worked there for seven years. I literally learned what I think was a good grounding for cinematography. It was all 16 mm.

Was that documentary filmmaking? I covered everything, including news gathering for a weekly 60 Minutes-type of news show. I also worked on big-budget documentaries, and then I moved into being the photo support for little drama series. They bought 35 mm Mitchell cameras and we learned to use them on the job. At that time, I was one of the few cameramen in Australia who was actually was working with 35 mm film on dramatic stories. The commercial houses were shooting all the newsreels for Movietone and other companies on 35 mm film using Arriflex and other cameras. But we were the only ones that were shooting dramas on 35 mm film. There was an occasional feature film, which would come through from America or somewhere else. It wasn't long before Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and a couple of other directors started to work their way through to the international scene. They were the people who shot Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and The Road Warrior films. Peter Weir was at Film Australia, which was a commonwealth government film unit that mainly did documentaries. Bruce Beresford was going to be a cameraman at one stage. That was very funny, he always says, ‘I could have been one of you blokes,’ but he said he was never good at it, so he decided on directing.

Did you start out shooting, or did you ever work on anybody's crew? I was an assistant for a while but I moved up into camera operating very quickly – I was the only person who knew how to spin the wheels. As they wanted to stay on schedule, the cameraman said I should do it. I reluctantly agreed to move up to operator for about 17 years.

Were you working with any particular cameraman?No. I moved around a lot. I worked with Russell Boyd on a number of Peter Weir films, including Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli. I also worked with Peter Jameson on two or three films, and was a camera operator for Don McAlpine on two or three features. I was also a camera operator for Peter James (ASC) and Russell Boyd. Then, one day I started lighting and shooting my own films.

What was your first picture?The first picture was a 16 mm blowup of a stunt action drama. It was such a shock I went back to operating and I actually ended up operating then for three or four pictures, one of them being Gallipoli.

What was your first feature as a cinematographer?The first picture I photographed was a funny little Australian low-budget film. It's about a comic strip character in Australia. It was a very nice story made into a feature film that was wonderful.

What was your first big film?The first picture I came to the States for was Witness. That was in 1984. It was the first film I photographed for Peter Weir, so it was an all around breakthrough.

John Seale, ACS, ASC. (C) Miramax Film 2003

That was also your first Oscar nomination. How did that affect your career?After Witness, I went back to Australia and shot a feature with Brian Brown. Then, I went back to the United States and shot a number of films, including The Mosquito Coast, Stakeout, and Rain Man.

You've had a pretty eclectic career. How do you approach these very different types of films?
I really don't want to be typecast if I can help it. My thoughts are different with every reading of every script. Every picture calls for its own style or look. I've often used different negatives while shooting a feature to give different scenes a different look or grain structure.

One common denominator in films that you have shot is the personal involvement between the audience and actors. Can you share some thoughts about that?
That's true. When I read the script for Gorillas in the Mist, I thought it was a good movie. It's about one person who dedicated herself to saving a species of animal. I thought that was a film worth making. We shot it in Africa with real gorillas, not fake ones. It was a very hard shoot with the volcanoes and all, but I enjoyed every minute, mainly because it was about saving something. I had done enough films about blowing people up and killing them.

What is it about some actors and actresses that make them come across on film?You can see it through the lens when you're operating. You can see an actor working very, very hard. William Hurt, for example, is a very disciplined actor, who is very controlled. He can give you such beautiful subtle differences between each take that you almost don't notice, but he's telling it in a totally different way. He is dedicated to acting and is very fierce about it. I have also been privileged to work with Harrison Ford and Dustin Hoffman. They are fantastic. Someone once asked me if actors have a good side of their faces. They do, but a lot of the dedicated actors whom I’ve met don't care and don't want to know. They can be photographed from the ground up their nostrils if it helps the picture.

Were there cinematographers whose work influenced you early in your career?I am a movie fan, and I really love watching all other cinematographers’ work. We're all different. That's what I think is magical about it. Everybody is different. Some people seem to have a style they like to hang on to and take from film to film. I don't agree with that. I think that every film should have a different style, but that is a challenge to you as an individual. If a director wants a different style for this film, then you work hard to get that style. Watching other people's films is incredible. A lot of cameramen were influenced by Jordan Cronenweth's (ASC) work on Blade Runner. I loved The Empire of the Sun. All of Allen Daviau's (ASC) work is gorgeous. I steal bits of it, but I certainly don't and wouldn't copy a whole film. But there are certain scenes in certain films that I admit were influenced by a scene in Blade Runner or something that Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC) shot with a single, very soft source of light. Other times, I might have borrowed ideas from old black-and-white films where the scene might have a lot more direct lighting rather than the modern soft light bouncing. I combine soft bounce with soft fill light a lot.

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