The fine art of cinematography – interview with Seamus McGarvey ASC, BSC

October 3rd, 2013

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m honored to welcome Seamus McGarvey. In this interview Seamus talks about his collaboration with the director Joe Wright and the production designer Sarah Greenwood that has brought us “The Soloist”, “Atonement” and the recently released “Anna Karenina”, the shifting digital world of modern cinematography and his roots in the world of physical film, his work on the sci-fi blockbusters “The Avengers” and the upcoming “Godzilla”, and the shifts he sees in the ever-prevalent use of computer-generated effects and, finally, his thoughts on 3D production from both professional perspective as a cinematographer and a personal perspective as a movie goer.

Seamus McGarvey
Photography by
Kimberley French

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Seamus: I’m Seamus McGarvey the cinematographer. I started as a stills photographer. It was interested in solitary photography, going off on walks and returning to the dark room at our house in a fairly small town in Northern Ireland. That sort of sparked my interest in cinematography because it gradually allured me from landscape shots towards developing photo sequences that told stories. I started getting really interested in photo sequences. The art teacher at school saw some flicker of talent, and he encouraged me to start shooting with a Super 8 camera. That really kickstarted me when I started making films on Super 8, and that led to being accepted into the Polytechnic of Central London where I studied cinematography for three years. It was called “Film and TV arts”.

When I graduated, I began to assist, work as a loader and as a focus puller, and at the same time I was also shooting short films and low-budget films for friends mostly. It was one of those that got noticed by Michael Winterbottom, and I ended up shooting his first feature, “Butterfly Kiss”. That was a little cult success, particularly in America. I was quite young at that point, having shot my first feature when I was 24. That was a lucky break, as they say. Then one thing led to another, starting to get feature films. “Butterfly Kiss” was my first feature film, and after that I did a series of low-budget films in Britain. And then I got a lucky break to shoot “High Fidelity” for Stephen Frears, and that changed everything for me. It was the first US-based film that I shot, and things took off after that. I started getting bigger features.

Kirill: As you build your portfolio, do you get approached directly by the producers or the directors to work on a particular production, or is it more of a competitive interviewing where a number of potential cinematographers are interviewed at the same time?

Seamus: Generally speaking, many of the projects that I’ve worked on have been with friends. Usually I’m the only cinematographer that is considered, as for example with Joe Wright who gives me the first call, or with Sam Taylor-Johnson with whom I’m about to start on “Fifty Shades of Grey”. I’ve worked with her for sixteen years. On bigger films, like for instance “The Avengers” or “Godzilla”, they are considering several cinematographers. It is a competition where you go in for interviews, because that’s how it usually works on bigger ones.

I like mixing it up. After “The Avengers” I was offered a lot of very big films, but it’s actually very nice to do smaller stuff as well. I still keep my hands doing short films and documentaries. It’s good to exercise your eyes in different directions, use different skills, work at different budget levels.

Kirill: Can you plan those smaller projects ahead of time, as you’re finishing your part on one bigger film and not getting started yet on the next one?

Seamus: I’ve just premiered a documentary called “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” that I shot and helped produce. It was released in LA this week, but that was an ongoing project, kind of a passion project that lasted over two and a half years. We were shooting it ad hoc whenever we could on a Canon 5D Mark II, sort of capturing it as best we could. The low-budget documentaries cannot happen over a long period. And I just did a commercial in Paris for Chanel. I don’t often do them, but it seems to be a regular thing over the last six or seven years that I’ve done these Chanel commercials with Joe Wright. They are great, high-end commercials.

From “There You Are” commercial for Chanel.

But I also like to take time off. I have two kids who live in Scotland with their mom; we’re divorced. After I finished “Godzilla” in July, I took time off and took the kids to my house in Italy. I like to balance it between holiday time and commercials whenever I can. Occasionally, with my little 5D camera it allows me to do passion projects, like the Harry Dean film or this one-day project I just did with Bella Freud which was a charity job. I think that camera has opened up things for me to do, like music videos for my musician friends.

Kirill: You mentioned that your first camera was a Super 8, and now we’re seeing a wave of digital shooting equipment available for the next wave of cinematographers as they are growing up. Are you a little bit jealous of this variety of tools that the younger generation has at their disposal?

Seamus: I’m very glad that I trained with celluloid. It has produced a discipline in the way I shoot, whereas I noticed that people that shoot digital have a style that is more throw-away. Things certainly changed on the set, as directors just let the camera roll, with no inner sanctum, doing take after take after take. I’ve spoken to the editors about this, and they’re saying that they’re snowed under, with most of their work just sifting through endless material.

Kirill: Is it also about the immediate feedback loop via the attached monitors, not only for you but for pretty much everybody else on the set?

Seamus: That’s true. There is less mystery, that’s for sure. It does erode a little bit your power as the cinematographer, because there is this convention that happens around the monitor, all the people looking at it. It’s effectively a graded image that is what you’re going to get. That’s something that I don’t like.

But I know there are some directors like David Fincher who shoot raw without digital. They don’t even have monitors for the producers. They just shoot as though it was negative. I think that’s a good discipline to have.

Kirill: Do you see shooting on film as a vanishing craft, to be relegated to the “artsy” fringes, with everything else done digitally?

Seamus: I think so. It’s sad to say, and I’m a diehard celluloid cinematographer. I’ve shot thirty films on celluloid. The problem is that you simply cannot get the stuff processed reliably anymore. “Anna Karenina” was the last film I shot on celluloid, and it was a nightmare with the laboratory. It was a reputable laboratory – Deluxe in London, and we had endless problems with scratching, wavering chemistry of the lab, particularly towards the end of the week as the film baths were getting weaker leading to milkier images. I got all my gray hair as a cinematographer in the era of film, but I must say that I really embrace the possibilities of digital as it’s getting better and better.

I have Arri Alexa camera, and particularly in dark sets it allows me to light in a totally different way. For instance, on “Godzilla” we did a lot of stuff that was at the very lowest register, and the director kept encouraging me to be brave with it. Had I been shooting on film, I wouldn’t have been gone quite so dark. But that gave me confidence, witnessing it on screen and seeing how far you can take it, because you see exactly what you’re getting.

Kirill: Shooting on film had all the imperfections of the analog medium, from the lens distortion to all the mechanical parts to the grain of the film itself, while capturing on digital sensors is much more exact and, to a certain degree, lifelessly perfect. Do you see it as a certain magic that will be gone from the moviegoing experience?

Seamus: It is, and I did like those aberrations. We can still preserve this with lenses, for instance, that are now more vital as we put them in front of the sensor. On “Godzilla” I used the old C series anamorphic lenses, and for the section in 1954 I used really old vintage lenses from the early 1960s. They took the edge off of the very vivid, sharp sensors, and gave it a distant period feel. That’s exciting as glass is coming back in terms of lending difference to each project that we do. It’s nice to be able to interfere with image, to sort of mess it up a bit.

There’s a lot more that we do now in digital intermediate [DI]. That becomes a much more important part of my job because of the possibilities of the manipulation. Now I try to have my contract include that they keep me on to DI. You used to do it physically with film stock, pushing and pulling different processes, and now it’s done entirely digitally. In some ways you have a lot more control in the digital realm, and it’s not baked in either.

I still conceive of something of how I would do it on film, so I’m not just sitting in the DI trying this and that. I still have the same disciplined approach to imagining what the image might be. For example, for the 1950s section on “Godzilla” I knew that they look I wanted was a peeled look with muted colors and diffusion on the highlights, a sense of period distance. I found a lot of photographs and magazines, and I knew that I wanted the blacks to be imbued with a tint of magenta. I assembled a lot of references, and I was able to show it and do some tests in advance. We nailed the look when we established a lookup table which we applied every time we shot those section. It was the same pre-conception of what we were going to do on the day.

Kirill: Does it mean that you need to stay abreast of the technical hardware and software advancements in the entire digital pipeline?

Seamus: That’s something that I do regret. I try not to get into the electronics of that, because that’s something that I simply don’t understand. When I was shooting film, I could take a camera apart and put it together again. I knew those cameras inside and out, and on a number of occasions I did have to do that when we got into trouble and something broke. But with digital, it’s a complete mystery to me. Behind that panel I just don’t understand it. Luckily, the Arri camera has a very user-friendly interface. I can understand it at a very basic level, but in terms of what’s going on inside it, I have no idea. In some ways it’s an act of faith [laughs].

Kirill: But on some level even before you were not doing the whole process, as processing and grading film stock was done in the lab by the technicians. So now you’re relying on a different set of people throughout the new digital pipeline.

Seamus: That’s right, yes. When you have something physical in your hands, it’s more like a spiritual thing. You can see the different stock in your hands, you can hear it when you open the gate, you can smell it. There’s something about that as an object, something that is going to transform that object through the canister. Digital pixels are invisible.

I suppose a religious analogy can go very far [laughs], but the digital realm is an act of faith. Film is Catholic and digital is Protestant [laughs], because digital has much more rectitude, and Catholic is about mystery.

Kirill: And you find the next morning what happened.

Seamus: [laughs] yes, exactly.

Kirill: Switching gears to the particular production that I wanted to talk about, “Anna Karenina” brought you back to collaborate with the director Joe Wright and the production designer Sarah Greenwood. As you already worked with them on “The Soloist” and “Atonement”, how was it to get back into this relationship?

Seamus: There’s so much that we learn from each other every time we work together. There’s fluency and fluidity to conversations and communications between us. And not only that, but we’re also not afraid to knock down each other’s ideas. There’s no pride, we’re all very close friends. It’s a proper democracy of ideas when we sit around the table and talk about notions. That was certainly true on “Atonement”.

On “Anna Karenina” I came in very late. I was on “The Avengers”, and I only had three and a half weeks of prep. When I started “The Avengers”, “Anna Karenina” was going to be a period piece in the conventional sense of the word, and as I’m sure Sarah told you, it all changed. I wasn’t involved in that discussion, as I came in when it’s all been done, but I thought it was fascinating.

Joe and Sarah are the closest of collaborators. Sarah’s got a lot of influence over his style of movie-making. And I’ve never met a production designer who’s more collaborative in terms of photography. There’s a lot of overlap, particularly on “Anna Karenina”. She thought a lot about light, how the light would be in particular sets, right down to practicals in how she builds the sets so that I can light them from above or from within. When you have a production designer who’s that thoughtful about cinematography, the cinematography improves. That’s a great asset really. She had such an enormous influence over the cinematography of “Anna Karenina”.

Kirill: How hectic were those 3.5 weeks, as you were getting into this quite unconventional production?

Seamus: I had to get up to speed very quickly. I was working 18 hours a day the minute I stepped off the plane. It was so bizarre, because I wrapped “The Avengers” on a Saturday night in New York, and on Monday morning I was on Salisbury Plain with Joe and a finder, pinpointing positions and working out when the Sun was going to rise. It was a jump-cut rather than a dissolve in terms of moving from one project to another, and you couldn’t find two more divergent photographic approaches.

Getting up to speed with the theatrical part was quite tough. Joe had actually prepped the film with Philippe Rousselot, a great French DP, and in the end Philippe had a very bad back and he underwent an emergency surgery which rendered him incapacitated, as I stepped into his shoes. Philippe has a very unique way of lighting, and I love the look of his films, but he used Chinese lanterns with a very low level of lighting. I arrived at this production, and they were starting to rig these lanterns, and I knew how Joe was going to work, and how the camera was going to move around, and I couldn’t have that soft top light, and I had to have something more elaborate. I increased the lighting by four times, which made me very popular with production. There was no other way I could have done it.

Things like that were difficult in the prep. Joe was freaking out at that point because there was so little time, and I said to him that luckily we didn’t need to shoot the whole thing on day one. We did the prep incrementally as we shot the film.

Kirill: Did you start in the theater and then move outside?

Seamus: We actually started outside first. Our first day of shooting was the scene where Levin wakes up on the top of a hay bale. We had to shoot outside to get the benefit of the weather, and we had beautiful weather on Salisbury Plain in England. It was a military installation.

Kirill: How was the theater itself in terms of the setup?

Seamus: We shot on Stage C in Shepperton, and it was a conventional theater, but built in a way that is very modular. It could be broken up very quickly and changed, and we had adjoining stages. The schedule was arranged so that we would go to a neighboring stage while they revamped the theater for a different scene. Those constant shifts usually happened through the night, as the art department came in to work. It was fascinating to witness, very exciting going from a theater show to an exterior at the day of the races. That was very exciting to come in and re-light everything for a different scenario.

Kirill: Did you need to be more precise in planning and executing the camera moves?

Seamus: It was a challenging experience. We planned it very carefully with Joe, we would sit and storyboard. He storyboards fastidiously, and we worked out every frame. Some film makers that I work with leave a lot to chance and there’s a lot of elasticity, but with Joe his editors literally say that you cut off the clapper boards, put it together and every frame is in place. And it was particularly true on “Anna Karenina” because of the choreography. Joe had a very clear sense of the way the camera would move in synthesis with actors.

Kirill: Sometimes, especially as the soundtrack kicked in during scene transitions or changing clothes, and particularly during the dance sequence, it seemed as if the camera itself joined the choreography.

Seamus: I love that aspect. We were very lucky to have had our regular collaborator, camera operator Peter Robertson, who is a genius with Steadicam. There were a number of quite elaborate Steadicam shots, which are Joe’s signature long moves. That was fun to plan with a little video finder, which allowed me to work out the shifting of the lights as the camera moves around. I used a lot of theatrical dimming techniques on the film, particularly during the dance of Vronsky and Anna. As they dance, they kind of ignite all the other dancers that were previously frozen, and as he lifts her up in the air, the camera spins around, and as you spin around, everyone is evacuated out of the auditorium and then they come back. That was a single shot in camera, and at the end I’ve got them in spotlight, and then the lights come up again.

That was fun to plan, but the camera move is very complicated. It’s not only a complex move, but Peter’s a great operator in that he has an amazing sense of composition, and his movement is very sensitive to the actors’ movements. I love working with him for that.

Kirill: Is it worth it to spend so much time and effort on these single-shot takes? On “Atonement” you had this extremely long beach scene that took more than five minutes and seemed to last much more than that.

Seamus: I’d argued with Joe twice about this type of shots, and I’m glad that he won that argument because I’m sure that shot got me an Oscar nomination [laughs]. I felt that it set apart from the film, that it stood out too much, drawing attention to itself. But Joe argued correctly, in retrospect, that he wanted to express a kind of hallucinatory quality of the near-death dilemma, to explore the camera as a subjective and an objective device within the same shot. Sometimes you feel that you’re with Robbie, you’re in his head, and other times it feels like you’re witnessing it dispassionately. He really loves playing with the personality of the camera within a take. It was the same on “Anna Karenina”, and we had a big one – another five minutes – on “The Soloist” that got cut.

Kirill: Lighting is a very big part of what you do. There were quite a few inside shots in “Anna Karenina” with a lot of candles in the otherwise very low-light environments. Were those the primary sources, or do you employ other light sources in these situations?

Seamus: They were enhanced. If you light with candles alone, I find that the source itself is too bright. I wanted to keep the color of the candle flame, and to do that you have to bring up the light a little bit more. For those scenes we tended to work with paper lanterns dimmed down on the dimmer. I tried to keep the film tungsten for the most part, with no fluorescent lights, none of those modern sources. They were all glowing lamps usually down on a dimmer. That annoyed the sound man a lot, because they tend to buzz, but it worked out OK.

Kirill: Even though the overall unconventional approach was a forced move due to budget considerations, if you look at the final product, are you happy with the way it came together?

Seamus: It obviously came out of expediency, but I think it worked for the film. It distinguished it, set it apart from the other period movies. The sense of artifice that was created chimed very nicely with what he was trying to express about the disintegrating society of the time. I think it worked well thematically in the end.

Every film Joe does is so inventive. At the moment he’s planning “Little Mermaid”, and his approach to this visual effects production is fascinating, unlike anything else he ever shot before.

Kirill: Switching gears back to your other productions, I look at “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina” on one side, “The Avengers” and “Godzilla” on the other, and your next project which is “Fifty Shades of Grey”. These are very distinctly different types of productions. Are you setting yourself to not be pigeonholed into one particular genre or style, but rather remain versatile?

Seamus: I like the excitement of changing styles. I hate imposing a look on a film. I know that there are certain cinematographers whose work I admire, but you kind of get the same look on every film. Bob Richardson is a cinematographer whose work I really admire, but from the very first frame of his film you know it’s Bob Richardson’s film, with the lighting style he’s using on every job.

I just like finding the script and discovering its photographic heart. Every script has a photographic signature hidden within it. It’s interesting to think about appropriate ways of describing the written word visually. That’s always a challenge. It’s not that I try to mix it up a bit, or try to shoot in a different style just for the sake of it. It sort of happens naturally because of the different subject matter.

I can’t talk much about “Fifty Shades of Grey”, and we haven’t even started work on it. I’m having a meeting on how we’re going to achieve it visually, and it’s very exciting, as it’s Sam Taylor-Johnson with whom I worked for sixteen years. We’ve got a rapport that’s so easy, and she’s also a very visual director. I’m looking forward to embarking on that one.

Kirill: Without any particulars of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, it’s a very intimate and erotic material. As a viewer, I only see what happens beyond the camera lens, but on the actual set in addition to the actors you have so many members of the crew. Is this part of the actors’ craft? Do you try to somehow make yourself and the camera recede or even become invisible in a certain sense, to not interrupt the intimacy of the material?

Seamus: It is very sacred place once the clapper board goes on. I’m very sensitive to that, and I’m also very keen on having a very quiet intimate set, no matter what the production is. Magic does happen in those environments, and it’s also out of respect to the actors. It’s very difficult to put yourself on screen. That extends not only to how I work on set, but to people that I employ in the first place. I like quiet intelligent people around me on the set, and I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve worked with that had those attributes. This one is going to be very specifically closed set, very intimate. Even without reading the script, I’ve read the book and it would make your eyes bleed to know the stuff we’re going to be filming [laughs].

Kirill: And stepping back to “The Avengers” and “Godzilla”, these big sci-fi productions take the usual trio of primary collaborators – the director, the cinematographer and the production designer – and bring in the visual effects supervisor. Call it the fourth part, the fourth leg, the fourth wheel, but it does bring at least some amount of initial imbalance to the discussion. Does it take away something from your creative power as some of the sequences are augmented or even shot completely in the digital universe? How do you approach such an extended collaboration?

Seamus: For that sort of movies, the visual effects (VFX) supervisor becomes very much a collaborator in cinematography. I’ve ruffled some feathers in the BSC and the ASC by suggesting that we should embrace that completely. Essentially it’s our responsibility to make the cinematography the best it can be, and it involves collaboration with the VFX department.

On “The Avengers” Janek Sirrs was the VFX supervisor, and on “Godzilla”, which is a very different movie visually it was Jim Rygiel. Their work treads on mine, so we have to go in hand in hand, because there’s so much lighting that happens in the CG world. First they start with pre-vis, and the die is cast then in terms of the photographic style and certain sequences, so I like to get involved in that. These kids are drawing the pre-vis CGI get carried away. There’s a tendency to go videogame-style with their visual approach, and if I can be involved at that early stage, I can make it cinematic and point out shots that are unachievable or very expensive to achieve. These kids just make the camera hysterical.

On the set I like the VFX supervisor to take their lighting cues from what I do. And to that end even now I’m in constant dialog with Jim as they’re compositing in backgrounds onto the already photographed plates. I’m advising on the lighting, when they put something outside the window that had green screen, on the level of exposure. Sometimes I find that when those things are composited, without the correct exposure for the exterior it looks just wrong to my eye. And he’s been great that way, as we’ve been able to collaborate.

Kirill: Do you get to stay into the post-production phase, or is that a budgetary decision left to the producers and the studio?

Seamus: I don’t really get involved in that. I obviously do the DI [digital intermediate], but beyond that it’s only occasional discussions with VFX supervisor about the comps and the colors and the exposure levels. I grade the film silent in DI, but I will do the final pass with sound. Sometimes it’s weird, it doesn’t form color until you see and hear it with music. Certain things can be enhanced a little better when I get to that stage.

Kirill: What’s been your experience so far in shooting 3D, and what are your general thoughts on adding one more dimension to the film experience? Does it have its place in the big-budget sci-fi productions, or even beyond that in what we’ve recently seen in “The Great Gatsby”?

Seamus: I think it’s very much a marketing gimmick. I saw “Gravity” last night, and I thought for the first time that it made really good use of that. “Hugo” looked pretty good in 3D as well.

As a cinematographer I absolutely despise it. To shoot native 3D is so complex. The machinery involved completely goes against any kind of fluidity to the camera. It takes so long to set up. We actually started shooting “The Avengers” on real 3D using Red cameras and AnimaTechnica rig. After one day of shooting the director said that we’re not doing it. Sam Jackson and Stellan Skarsgård said that we better get our act together or they are out. It really got that serious. Each lens change was 45 minutes, it was a disaster to align the cameras up. In the end we did it in post which is a much better way of doing it. You can dynamic shifting dimensionality during the shot, play with it quite a bit. But I really hope it goes away.

Kirill: But if you’re only talking about the technical sides, like the bulkiness of the equipment or changing lenses, that might get much better in five or ten years, as with any hardware technology that has a lot of money invested in it.

Seamus: I’m sure it will. But the problem is that aside from the technical difficulties of achieving a 3D shot, there’s something about the film in 2D. We don’t want an impression of reality when we go to the cinema, we don’t want that brightness, I mean I don’t want it anyway. I like the inherent flatness, and creating depth with lighting cues, with focus, with darkness and light. That is, to me, essentially cinematographic.

Then, when we get to the exhibition stage, everything’s darker. You wear the glasses which is actually a pain that corrals your vision and experience. It’s just not fun in cinema, and I always get a headache when I watch a 3D movie. Everything seems fuzzier. I don’t think that it looks as good, and I’m hoping that it will go away. 3D sales are dropping significantly, and kids in the cinema are not responding either. A lot of the studios are staying away from it now. In fact, “Godzilla” will get a predominantly 2D release, with a 3D version.

Kirill: Is there anything in particular in the way you set up or shoot a scene to make the post-conversion easier?

Seamus: We shot “Godzilla” as though it were a 2D movie. On “The Avengers” there was a stereographer involved. To be honest, that was a complete pain in the ass. He was telling us that we can’t do over-the-shoulder shots, and Joss [Whedon] was telling him that he was going to do them in any case because you have two people talking to each other. And he loves shooting through things, like Douglas Sirk, with stuff in foreground. The stereographer was saying that it was impossible to have grass in the foreground, and Joss was telling him to just make that a 2D shot. So “The Avengers” got a lot of 2D moments and they just chose when to make it 3D.

They did a beautiful job on the dimensionalization of that film. Marvel has a whole team of people who screened every day, looking at retinal rivalry, really fine-tuning every shot. Compare that to bad 3D conversions like “Clash of the Titans” went too fast. I’m just hoping that it goes away. I don’t plan to never shoot 3D again. I’ve done it a few times, and I’ve done it since “The Avengers” for a Universal ride, but it wasn’t fun.

Kirill: When you go to the movie theater to watch a movie (not your own ones), do you find yourself immersed in the story, or perhaps you start looking at the more technical aspects of your craft like lighting, lenses, camera movements etc? Can you just relax and enjoy the movie?

Seamus: I normally only look at cinematography when it’s really bad film, because then I get distracted. For me the experience of cinema should be all about the story. Cinematography and my approach to it is that you really shouldn’t notice it. It shouldn’t draw attention to itself. Naturally a big 5+ minute shot in “Atonement” draws attention to itself, and that’s why I argued against it on the day. I try to make my contribution invisible.

Sometimes, if I’ve enjoyed the film, I will go back and look at it specifically from another angle. For instance, I did that on “Skyfall”. I really enjoyed the film, and then I returned to it two days later to look at it analytically from a cinematographic point of view, because it was one that I really admired.

Kirill: Is there some kind of a personal rivalry between you and your peers as you have your annual get-togethers and congratulate each other on the work you’ve been doing, and secretly on the inside you wish that you did that shot that somebody else did?

Seamus: [laughs] A little bit. Actually, there’s great camaraderie amongst DPs. I’m a member of ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) and BSC (British Society of Cinematographers), and they have, as you say, get-togethers. There are wonderful exchanges. There’s a lot of mutual appreciation of each other’s works.

And here I’d like to thank Seamus McGarvey for graciously agreeing to the interview and sharing his time to answer my questions. I would also like to thank Sarah Greenwood for putting me in touch with Seamus. His next movie “Godzilla” is out in theaters in May 2014, and he is starting to work on the wide screen adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.