John Seale was retired. Then George Miller dangled a “Mad Max” movie in front of his face and, well, how can an Aussie say no? The 40-year veteran jumped right into the maelstrom Miller and his team were conjuring in the desert of west Africa and, along with killer second unit teams, captured one of the most innervating experiences of the year in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Oh, and he turned 70 years old while doing all of this.
Seale won an Oscar for “The English Patient,” the first of a three-film collaboration with the late Anthony Minghella. He also partnered up with Peter Weir on a trio of projects (“Witness,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “Dead Poets Society”) and he's worked with many great filmmakers besides, from Sydney Pollack to Ron Howard, Rob Reiner to Wolfgang Petersen. In addition to the win, he has three more Oscar nominations to his credit and I must say, even with a considerable post-production process to achieve the look of the new film, he deserves some serious consideration for “Fury Road.”
With all that in mind, I eagerly hopped on the phone last week with Seale to discuss all of this. The new film is such a robust achievement that it dominated the conversation, but I could easily have gone on for hours. Hopefully he decides to keep working and I'll get the chance again, but as I cross this one off the bucket list, enjoy the back and forth below.
(And for a little more, I highly recommend watching the behind-the-scenes featurette embedded above. That quote from Tom Hardy – “You're not really in a movie. You're in George's head.” – says it all.)
“Mad Max: Fury Road” opens this Friday, May 15. SEE IT.
HitFix: First of all, let me just say it's a great honor and pleasure to talk to you. I'm happy I had a chance, since you were retired there for a moment! But congratulations on “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It's such a mind-blowing achievement.
John Seale: Oh, thanks a lot. Have you seen it?
I did and I was completely blown away. I can't wait to see it again.
Oh, that's great. I haven't seen it yet!
No? Well you've got something awesome to look forward to! How did that feel to be back in the saddle with such a massive project like this after being retired?
I “retired” after every movie for the last 15 years, you know? And people find me again. But I did come out for “Mad Max” because – the great Dean Semler shoots those for George, but suddenly they amicably parted and George got [producer] Doug Mitchell to ring me and I had a night to think about it. I'd worked with George before [on 1992's “Lorenzo's Oil”] and loved it. And it was a pretty iconic subject matter. I heard on the grapevine, over the years, how it was developing, and it was fairly exciting listening to all of the talk around town as they went into pre-production. So I thought, “I'll do that.”
And a “Mad Max” movie has to be a cinematographer's dream, particularly for an Aussie, because of that iconography you mention.
It was. I'd heard all the talk around town about how they were building their own 3D cameras from scratch so that they passed certain criteria that George requested and required to make the film. And that, of course, was the reason why he was building his own. I thought that sounded very exciting in itself, as part of our filmmaking process, actually building your own cameras. That's pretty unusual stuff. So all of that looked very exciting, plus the fact that it was “Mad Max” – there was no script. There were 3,500 storyboard drawings, I think. But if it was going to be George Miller it was going to be exciting.
What were the reference points for you beyond that? George has talked about how he didn't set out to emulate the previous films so much as create a new experience. How did that translate to the visuals?
There wasn't too much talk about what the film would look like. George is a great lover of the computer in post-production, having done animated films. And he knows what that can offer him at the end. So the image-making side of it wasn't that complex, to be honest. What was more complex was where the cameras would go to cover these scenes. And most of that had already been done by [action unit director] Guy Norris over years. I mean the film was basically in pre-production for 12 years.
So you got to show up and go for the ride.
It was sort of that. Exactly right. Because Dean Semler had done most of the hard yards in pre-production in Australia. And I just sort of, yeah, exactly, came along for the ride and tried to help out where I could. The neat thing that happened was that out in the desert it was basically all exterior, so we were at the mercy of whatever the weather threw at us. And George wasn't worried about it because he knew he could fix it in post. So we didn't stop for anything. There was no basic thought of continuity because George was going to fix it in post, which you can do now these days. But also George has an amazing idea of how the film should look. Technically, he asked us to center frame at all times. Whatever the point of interest was in every shot, whether a close-up or a wide shot, that had to be in the center of frame, so that as he cut it – and it's cut very fast, as you know; I think the average length of the shots in the movie is 2.3 seconds, George told me – he didn't want the audience to have to search for that point of interest. The cuts would occur and your eyes didn't have to move from one cut to the other. I found it fascinating.
That is absolutely fascinating. I suppose that pulls you into the immersive experience, a little trick of mind.
That was a big part of the boldness of George in recording a film and then putting it together. It would make his films far more enjoyable and easy to watch by actually shooting it in that way. It's always been a part of my work philosophy to try and record a film in such a way that you make it as smooth as possible for the audience to view it, because I feel if you can do that you're going to suck the audience out of their seat and go through that virtual window of reality you're creating and put them in the situation. And you've got to hold them there, you know? If you do something silly, like with lousy continuity or bad lighting suddenly, or make them suddenly think, “Well, that's not true. Why would that…” – they're out of the movie. You've got to get them back into the movie. So I think this was all part of George's philosophy, to get them in the movie in the first two shots and hold them there for another 112 minutes.
The location is interesting to me as it pertains to the lighting. I guess there's “lighting” that you can do in post as well but what kind of a challenge was it to just be out there in the desert, no real landscape as far as stuff in the frame, just kind of baking, the light falling flat across everything? Talk about the challenges of manipulating that.
Well it was pretty disconcerting at times because, you know, I can sense as a cameraman who's had to match light for my entire career that suddenly we weren't [doing that]. And it didn't matter to George. But I didn't have that confidence in the computer in post, that it would enable this to happen. So I was the babe in the woods there, wherein George just kept putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “Don't worry, Johnny. It'll be OK.” Because when you think, he knew how fast he would cut the picture. He knew that the weather situation didn't matter because as he said at one stage, the shots are short enough to simply tell the story. If people had the time to work out a problem or an error then the shot's too long.
And even within that, though, there are moments where it lets you catch your breath just to witness some spectacle that you've put together on the stunt side. I don't know if you shot it for slow motion or if those decisions were made in post but things get their moment to basically say, “Look at this awesome thing we did.”
Yeah. And the thing is that if you go into statistics on the post in the movie, you'll find that something like 50 or 60 percent of the film is not running at 24 frames a second, which is the traditional frame rate. It'll be running below 24 frames because George, if he couldn't understand what was happening in the shot, he slowed it down until you could, or he lengthened it two or three frames. Or if it was too well understood, he'd shorten it or he'd speed it up back towards 24. His manipulation of every shot in that movie is intense. It was a real eye-opener to me after 45 films in 40 years or something, that George has had this boldness to do what he researched in his mind and thought about and analyzed what an action film should be. He went out and did it and I love that. There was no hesitation. I could hear him on the coms yelling at camera operators, “Put Charlize in the center of the frame! Put the red dot on their nose!”
Of course, it was alien to all of us. But he knew. Early he really knew what he was going to do with that image in post. It would end up something like 2.3 seconds long and he didn't want the eyes to shift. The color was corrected – for eight months there was a colorist on the film, grading the picture as it was edited. As digital effects finished their imaging they'd send it down to [look development and supervising colorist] Eric Whipp and he would color that in and cut it in and check the contrast color and exposure on it. And he would roto[scope] in on the face. He did all the rotoscoping on faces and eyes and whatever George wanted there. And then George would look at that. I was off, you know, fishing or something! And there they were for eight months color grading the picture. So to me all of that is an amazingly modern way to make a film and I feel it's the way that we have to go in the future as well.
You're being incredibly modest, though. Even with all that in mind, you were there on top of that war rig operating camera and capturing those practical moments in camera. I understand you're a sailor. Did your instincts on the sea come back to you when you were strapped to this thing tearing through the desert?
The grip boys were trying to hang on to me on the top of the war rig. They said that: “God, he didn't fall over once! It must be all that racing around on yachts in the middle of the ocean.” I'm rock steady. So maybe it did help a lot, but I do love to get in amongst it. And also, George's other theory was that he would shoot the entire film with one camera. I was willing to do a four-to-six camera stage, and with an action film like that, I thought we should have at least a dozen, you know? And George did end up using multiple cameras. I think we talked him into an extra one or two here and there. And he was most complimentary in hindsight, after post, because they always run into a little bit of bother somewhere in there and suddenly think, “What have we got as a cut-away?” I think we managed to get that for him. He often used to say, “Oh, thank God that little camera was stuck behind the sleeve there. It caught us a little cut-away that helped us out.” So all of that, you know, our old-fashioned technique, George's new sort of bold approach to shooting a picture, I think all came together in what I hope is going to be a fantastic result.
Beyond just the practicality of having material to use, what do you think that decision to go with multiple cameras did for the overall vision for the film? What would a single camera version have looked like?
Well I was girding my loins to it, because in pre-production that's what happened and George was adamant about [using one camera]. Guy Norris was adamant about even the big stunts being shot with one camera. That's fairly unusual these days. So I just quietly moved in and kept hinting away. “I could put another one in there, George.” And [second unit director of photographer] Davy Burr on the action unit, “Guy, I could put another camera in there.” You don't have to use them, after all. If the one camera coverage works, that's great. But if there was a little editing problem, then the other cameras might save you. And I think that's what happened. And fom what George has said to me since post, I think in the future he would tend to embrace more cameras.
That little change may well have helped to make it a film of its own identity, really. It gives it a bit of a more modern, slicker kind of feel and not overly familiar in the “Mad Max” realm.
From what I've heard, yes, that's exactly what happened. So I'm very pleased with that and I'm pleased that George is happy with that end result.
Was this the first thing you shot digitally?
It was and it was going to be the first thing on 3D, too. So I sort of hit a big wall of technology there. But George, for some reason in pre-production, suddenly swung from 3D to 2D and that opened up a whole new gamut, because suddenly the cameras were very much smaller. They had a bit of range on their sensors. It eased down our balance lighting between interiors and exteriors of trucks and the hot desert. And then for a 3D version, they had a meeting about it and they just ended up saying, “We'll do it in post.” I was a little bit shaky about that because most of the 3D posts were unsuccessful. But in the time that it took us to shoot the movie, the three years between commencing and releasing next week, as the visual effects boys said to me, every day there's new software being developed that helps you do a post 3D. So a lot of problems two or three years ago that wouldn't have made a good 3D, they've been solved. And the little bit of 3D I've seen is pretty damned awesome, I've got to say, because when we were shooting 2D and we took no consideration at all for a 3D post. So we gave them hell. And George didn't want to give them anything. He said. “No, no, what we shoot is what we shoot for 2D and they'll have to look after themselves.” But from what I've seen it looks like they've done that.
That method of shooting with point of focus centered might actually be a little helpful in some instances. It sometimes creates natural depth in the frame.
That would be a discussion with the 3D post boys to try and work out whether or not that helped or not. But certainly they had problems creating either the right eye or the left eye for their perspectives. They had to build those and there are a lot of them to be built. But again, I think modern technology has probably shortened that product as well.
The change to 2D, was that for budgetary reasons?
I didn't really ever find out from George what it was, why he suddenly in one weekend – from a Friday night we were on 3D with his cameras that he built, and then Monday morning it was 2D. There was no real firm answer. It was like, “We're gonna go 2D and there'll be a 3D post.” And we all went, “Oh, OK. Terrific!” Because it did ease our pressure a whole lot, as you can imagine. The size and shape of the cameras – I think at some stage during the three years of their development, they probably were a state-of-the-art 3D camera for their size and ability. George was building enough so you didn't change lenses in them. You just changed the whole camera by unplugging cables, put a new one on with the 80 mil, the 50, the 35 mil lens already built in, already aligned. So there was no alignment time, down time. That was one of the criteria with the 3D and it had to go through the window of the truck and out again, things like that. So it was a pretty amazing piece of machinery they were building, but I think sadly sometime there also in the middle of that development, the R&D and other 3D camera builders around the world just shot right by them. And unfortunately the chip, the sensor in the old camera, that just wasn't very hot. I think Dean was in his pre-production, before I took over, sensing that that chip would give him troubles with balance. And immediately when I went in testing I found the same thing. That was heartburn material, trying to work out how to get around that. But the sudden change to 2D solved the whole thing.
We talked about the post-production for grading and things, but obviously you're still capturing these practical moments and stunt work as they happen. What was that like to get that amount of material in camera for a movie like this?
Pretty awesome. Davy Burr on the action unit did a fantastic job, obviously, getting them. The main camera for any stunts or dialogue with the main actors was always a positioned camera. Then after that we were able to work around extra little cameras as we added them in. But Davy, we had the same thing. We were shooting on the coast where it was sometimes very overcast with fog and cold, and Davy would be 20 or 30 kilometers inland and he'd be in 40 degree (Celsius) heat and blue skies and totally different. And we were shooting the same scene. But it didn't worry George. As George always said, “Don't worry, Johnny. I'll fix it in post.”
I'm dying to see the film. The VI colorist with the visual effects boys painting, replacing skies, the way they bent the final image with grain, contrast, crunching up the focus – it's taken away any continuity where there are problems, and probably a lot of other problems as well. I think it added a lot to the visual effects budget because George doesn't worry about dust in the foreground, whereas if you're going for a 3D post, they don't want it there. They'd rather put it in later. For George, “No, we're shooting 2D first and that's it. Dust goes in.” So he's very adamant as to what he wants and very positive. And very structured towards it. He doesn't want to change. So he laid down those parameters for us and we picked them up and ran with them. I think a lot of his theories are really very advanced for an action movie.
Absolutely. Well, again, it's a pleasure to finally have a shot at speaking to you about your work. And please don't retire after this one! Keep going if you can.
[Laughs] Alright, Kris. I'll take your word for that.
And enjoy the film when you finally do see it. I think you're going to love it.
Thanks a lot!