The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
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A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
John Seale, ASC, ACS receives the Society’s International Award for his globetrotting contributions to memorable movies.


Photos by Bob Finlayson; Jon Cox; David Budd; Jim Townley; François Duhamel, SMPSP; Phil Bray, SMPSP; Murray Close, SMPSP; Bob Marshak, SMPSP; and Claudette Barius, SMPSP, courtesy of John Seale and ASC files. The Tourist photos by Peter Mountain, courtesy of Sony Pictures.
John Seale, ASC, ACS, who will be honored with the Society’s International Award this month, admits he was “terrified” when he came to the United States to shoot his first film on American soil. The year was 1984, and the film was Witness. “We looked up to America as the epitome of commercial filmmaking,” recalls Seale. “And I had Harrison Ford of Star Wars in front of my camera! I went up to [director] Peter Weir and said, ‘Peter, I don’t know whether I’m doing this right.’ And Peter, who also was making his first picture in the U.S., replied, ‘Don’t worry, Johnny. This is an Australian film, it’s just that all those other people have funny accents.’”

Witness (AC April ’86) brought Seale the first of four Academy Award nominations — he won the Oscar for The English Patient (AC Jan. ’97) — and he has been shooting films all over the world ever since. His latest feature, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist, spent a week in Paris and shot the rest of the time in Venice, Italy. When he came to Los Angeles to supervise the color timing of the picture, Seale sat down with AC to reminisce about his career.

Born in Queensland and raised in Sydney, Seale enjoyed movies as a kid, but he contends it was his love of nature and his 18 months as a jackeroo (wrangler) in the Australian Outback that ultimately propelled him into filmmaking. His primary responsibilities on the 30,000-acre sheep station were maintaining the property and taking care of 8,000 sheep. Although he was an active outdoorsman, having surfed and sailed, he had never ridden a horse. “I lost count of the number of times I was bucked off,” he laughs. “The horses were only ridden during mustering and shearing and ran free the rest of the time, so they were fairly wild. You pretty much had to break them every time you wanted to put a saddle on them, and they were always trying to bite you.”

After 18 months, 19-year-old Seale realized he didn’t want to spend his life as a jackeroo. He had been recording his experiences with an 8mm movie camera, and it occurred to him that “it would be great to have a camera and travel around the world filming places few people have ever been.” Through a family friend, he met a cameraman at the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Sydney. It was the early 1960s, and Australian television was in its infancy. “Bill Grimmond [ACS] took me through the camera department and gave me a non-blimped [16mm] Arri ST to hold, and right then and there, I fell in love with it.”

There were no film schools back then. “You just sort of fell into it,” says Seale. It took more than a year for him to land a position at the ABC, and when he did, it was in office supplies. Once in, however, he immediately began applying for other jobs within the company. “When I’m asked for advice on how to get into the business, I say, ‘Ring somebody who can give you a job every week until they finally throw their hands up in the air and give in,” says Seale. In his case, he called Bert Nicholas, ACS, an early pioneer in Australian cinema who had been brought in to head the ABC camera department. “I’d ring him every week. Ten months later, I was hired as a driver for the camera truck, which also entailed running sound for the news crews.”

Eventually promoted to assistant, Seale began rotating among daily news, weekly shows and various documentary divisions. Three years later, the ABC added scripted drama. “They purchased a gigantic Mitchell R35, with a blimp, that took four men to lift,” recalls Seale, who seems to remember every camera he ever touched. Tragedy elevated Seale from focus puller to operator when, two days before production began on a new drama series, operator Frank Parnell was killed in a helicopter crash and Seale was asked to step in.

He considers news “one of the greatest backgrounds you can have for going into film. You are taught to pre-set the lenses so you can jump out of the car running, and because film stock is expensive, you learn to be selective and conserve.” It was at the ABC that Seale met his future wife, Louise, a film librarian at the station. He left his job and went freelance when she was offered work in another city.

The early 1970s saw the emergence of a new national cinema in Australia that became known as the Australian Renaissance (or the Australian New Wave). At first, the movies were predominantly low budget and unabashedly raunchy. In the industry’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back production system, Seale had to drop back to focus pulling and work his way up again to operating. “We really should all be dead,” he volunteers, recalling the risks that crew members took during that era of “mad, mayhem filmmaking. We’d jump into a car, find a long stretch of road and go screaming down it with a handheld Arri 2-C and no seat belts, doing hairpin turns and smashing into other cars and just hanging on by our knees. We never got permission, and there were no safety officers.”

Seale leans forward and smiles conspiratorially as he recounts the story of the Valiant Charger: “The filmmakers went to Chrysler and said, ‘We need one of your cars for the movie.’ And Chrysler said, ‘Oh, that’s good for us. What are you going to do with the car?’ ‘Well, it’s sort of an action film, and the hero drives around in it.’ ‘Will the car be alright?’ ‘Sure.’ You should have seen that car when they brought it back: the suspension was held together with fencing wire, the front wheels were at an angle, and every fender was smashed. Our guys just left it in the Chrysler yard and ran away!”

By mid-1970s, high-quality, auteur-driven films started appearing in Australia, including Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. Seale served as camera operator on both under director of photography Russell Boyd, ASC, ACS. But “Ozploitation” comedies were still being produced, and in 1976, Seale was offered a job as cinematographer on the blood-and-gore feature Death Cheaters. With a laugh, he says, “I got such a fright doing it that I went back to operating! It was that analog meter; the needle just kept swinging around and I couldn’t get it to stop!”

The self-effacing Seale actually returned to operating in order to shoot a single film, again under Boyd: Weir’s World War I drama Gallipoli. “Peter had wanted to make the film for years and had a whole crew [in place],” Seale recalls. “A lot of professional people told me not to go back to operating, but life’s too short to worry about that, and Peter is an amazing director.”

Seale, who had actually been director of photography on several films prior to Gallipoli, returned to that rank with his next picture, Careful, He Might Hear You, and walked off with the Australian Film Institute Award. Two years later, Witness put him on the map in America. He considers that film’s success the most significant turning point in his 40-plus-year career. Suddenly, he was in demand in America, and he followed Witness with, in quick succession, The Hitcher, Children of a Lesser God, The Mosquito Coast (AC Feb. ’87), Stakeout, Gorillas in the Mist, Rain Man (AC April ’89) and Dead Poets Society, all in the 1980s.

Seale has become well known for using multiple cameras not just on action sequences, but as a matter of course. He developed the idea on Rain Man. “Dustin [Hoffman] and Tom [Cruise] started to ad lib. It was brilliant stuff, but getting reverses for editing was going to be difficult. I thought we should be covering the other side as well. Fortunately, [director] Barry Levinson agreed, and we started cross-shooting with two cameras. It gives the director and editor performance continuity.” Over the years, two cameras became three, and sometimes, as on last year’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (AC June ’10), he uses four or more.

 

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