Cinematography of "Carnival Row" by Chris Seager. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Cinematography of “Carnival Row” – interview with Chris Seager

December 22nd, 2019
Cinematography of "Carnival Row" by Chris Seager. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Chris Seager. In this interview he talks about the changes in the world of storytelling in feature films and episodic productions, the transition of the industry from film to digital, various facets of the role of a cinematographer, and choosing his projects. Around these topics and more, Chris talks about his earlier work on “Game of Thrones” and “The Alienist”, and dives deep into what went into the first season of “Carnival Row”, for which he was recently nominated to the American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Chris: My passion for this industry probably started when I was about 11 or 12. My parents were reluctant to have a TV at home for some years, but eventually we got our black-and-white set. It arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and it was put into the corner of the room where the famous plant stood. That night the Billy Cotton Band show was on, which was a variety program that was popular at that time, followed by the Last Night of the Proms, a BBC TV classical music show from the Royal Festival Hall in London. It was in full swing, and all of a sudden the TV just blows up. We saw a blue flash, smoke came out the back of the set- and that was the end of that TV.

I was fascinated by it. I was always interested in art, painting and drawing. My mother was quite artistic, and that November for my birthday she got me a paperback book – which I’ve still got – on how Television works. I was eleven back then, and I would do pretend TV shows using cardboard boxes for TV cameras and the inside rolls of toilet paper for lenses.

That fascination with television took me to Art School. My school Art teacher encouraged me to go into photography. My father disapproved of it, saying that it wouldn’t be a proper industry. He would have preferred me to go into Insurance or Banking. While at Art School, at the other end of the corridor from the Photography department was the Film department. There seemed to be this constant noise coming from the editing Steenbecks where film and sound rolls were being wound back and forth as they edited their shots. When I would go there, I would find students who were obviously enjoying themselves and working in groups. In the Photography Department I was surrounded by students who were mostly ‘loners’ who were locked into their moment, just doing their thing!

I started thinking that, in a way, I would prefer working in a film department where there’s collaboration and there’s people working together. I was good at photography, and my tutor was dismayed when I decided to go to film. It was, obviously, the right move for me.

After Art School at the age of 21, I joined the BBC. That was back in the days before the freelance world that we know today. The BBC employed a vast number of staff and all technical operation staff did a 3 month training scheme. After training I worked in live television for a bit, then joined the film department, and off I went.

Chris Seager (center) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: When you join a new production, is there anything that still surprises you?

Chris: I started at the BBC, which gets the money from TV licenses. Everybody pays money for that service, and they have done some amazing programs over the years. Their budgets were quite small and they probably still are that way.

If you look at what has happened in television over the last few years, you have these big players like Amazon, Netflix, Sky, Disney or Apple getting in, and the budgets have suddenly gone up. I’m constantly surprised how much money companies are prepared to pour in. These productions tend to get bigger each time.

If you take “Carnival Row” as an example, it was like making a quite expensive feature film. I have all the filming toys to make my job easier and to be expressive. Obviously you have to stay on budget, but if you are saying “This is what we need for this particular job”, to get what the director wants or make it interesting or explosive”, then you’re most likely be getting a positive answer. I just wonder if at some stage this streaming bubble is going to suddenly go bang.

There’s going be so much television made. Will the audience get fed up of having to look through a library of millions of programs? Will they go through them, or decide to read a book instead? Ha. I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t do that, because I’m thoroughly enjoying this revolution [laughs]. It’s fantastic.

Kirill: I look at how much technology has changed in the last 10-15 years, even as most of these changes are happening gradually. If I could somehow transport my younger self from mid-80s all the way to 2019, he would be amazed at what we have today. If you could do the same for the younger version of yourself from 30-40 years ago, what would be the reaction?

Chris: Television has changed rapidly. Funny enough, there’s a lot of people who are quite negative about technology. I was brought up in the film era, and in my early days I worked on film. I love film. But equally, I adore my Arri Alexa. It gives me a lot of artistic freedom. I can believe in it. It seems to do what I want it to do.

If I somehow had missed the last 35 years, and dropped from mid-1980s straight to 2020, I would actually be shocked. It’s just exploded. Going from film moving through a camera gate to be exposed and being chemically processed to see the image and now to a solid chip. It compares to going from steam power to nuclear power

I do a little bit of teaching every now and then. I talk with my students about me at Film School having a Bolex camera with 100 foot of film which would personally cost me money. We had to pay towards the cost of the film. You used that film like gold dust. Every shot you did had to be thought out. Sometimes that shot would work, and sometimes it didn’t. That’s the whole point of learning. But you had to be careful with how you used that film. It was yours. You held onto it. You tried your best to make every shot count.

When my students today tell me that they don’t have enough time with professional equipment, I tell them to just go off with their iPhone and make it. You have editing equipment on your laptops. Just make films. If I had that facility back in late ’60s / early ’70s when I was at film school, it would have been unbelievable. To have this free camera in your hand that you can do things with – that sounds fabulous.

Technology has its advantages. If I decided to use 35mm film rather than use digital, I believe that would really test me now. You work so much with digital, and you get so used to working with the digital tools, being able to exactly see what you photograph right there and then. For me to go back to a system where you don’t know what you’re exactly getting until the next morning – when you see your dailies? It would be for me probably a backward step. I know some people would criticize me for saying that, but I’m so long down that digital road now that I’m more used to digital now than I probably would be with film. It’s hard to say, because as a cinematographer I was brought up with the passion of film. Film was phenomenal.

But it’s where I am now. You embrace technology, you utilize it, you test it and you push it.

Chris Seager (center) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: How has it changed your daily routine on set? You don’t need to wait for dailies, you don’t need to change magazines that often, and more people can see what the camera sees straight away.

Chris: First and foremost I would talk about the discipline of film, even as you can call me old-fashioned to bring that up. The discipline of film meant you had 10 or so minutes of a reel. You do the take, you stop, you evaluate and go for another take if need be. You wouldn’t just keep running.

What happens nowadays, at least occasionally, and it used to makes my mouth drop is that some people go into a panic mode and keep rolling camera. Does it make it any better? People have an adrenaline flow, yes for sure, and to go straight for another take can be positive move, I get it, but sometimes they’re actually not ready to go for another take or you keep rolling because you are behind time. Then it’s in danger of becoming the panic mode, and that gets you nowhere. The other way to look at it is that you cut camera after a take, you evaluate what you’ve shot, you decide to move on or possibly change or improve something, the action or perhaps move a light or change the camera movement.

I’ve always tried to light a set by eye. If it was on film, I would us my meter to get that first key back light that was important for me. That would be my parameter, and the rest of that scene I would light by eye. I would base that on the film stock I was using, the contrast levels etc – after that first meter reading.

Nowadays I hardly use a light meter anymore. I tend to go in and light it by eye, getting reasonable close to the level of light that I want. Occasionally I look at the monitor to see if it’s brighter or darker than I’ve anticipated. The advantage of a high-quality monitor is that I can look at it and know exactly what I’m getting.

Kirill: What is more important for you as a cinematographer – the technical side of things, or finding the right artistic expression for the story?

Chris: It’s all about art. Technology is there, but I always said that if a banana can expose an image and that’s what I’m told to use, I’ll find out what it can and can’t do, and then push it.

Going back a bit, there was a phase where people were making films on Hi8 that had a rather low quality video look to it. There was a conscious decsion to make the movie on Hi8 for artistic reasons. You would go into a movie theatre to see it on the big screen, and the quality was really atrocious. As long as you’re watching it and not comparing it to something like 35mm film, you live with it and accept it. It was used as part of the story telling process and as long as you get involved in the drama on screen, you were probably not that aware of the technology in front of you.

That Hi8 camera was used to tell a story. If the story’s good, you’ll watch it.

To be honest, I don’t really want to know exactly how the digital camera works, when people talk about bits and color spaces, it tends to go straight over my head. I’ll test it when I’m shooting. The real test is when you put it in sunlight and what it can do, what it can’t do, what it can expose. This unknown is exciting for me. You’re getting to know what it can do. It’s not in control of you. I’m in control of that camera. I don’t look at electronics or digits. I push it a certain way and see if it’s doing something I wanted it to do. I’m always aware of exposure, playing with under and over exposure is one of the cinematographers tools.

It’s exciting. Each camera system that comes out has its pluses and its minuses. Every time I look at a new camera, I think about how I can push it to do something dirty as opposed to clean. Let’s see what I might do to break it slightly, and get it to do what I want it to do. It’s like driving a car. You want to push the car and see how fast you can push it in say third gear before you go in fourth. If it says to switch to fourth when you get to 6000 revs, I’ll push it to 7000 revs to see what it does. That’s the same feeling I get with technology.

You did the same with film. As a cinematographer, you push film as you overexpose or double-expose it. You want to try and do something different with it. You want to make it expressive, and you want yourself to have that expression – rather than have the film tell you what you have to do.

Chris Seager (left) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: How do you choose your productions, and what brought you to “Carnival Row”?

Chris: Most years I tend to do TV series, and also a movie if I can. It’s slightly different, as on a movie you have the whole 90 minutes or so as your own effort as the cinematographer, whereas on a TV productions you’re mostly working with other DPs.

A couple years ago I worked on “White Princess”, and I did all the episodes, which was exhilarating and fun to do. From there I did four episodes of “Alienist”. That was set up by another DP, P.J. Dillon, and he had set the style of lighting, the show’s ‘look’ which I felt was fair for me to copy. All I did was to push it in a slightly differently direction but always maintaining the show’s ‘look’. That was good to do, because you have a discipline from somebody else.

I shot a couple of movies with director Andy Goddard, and when he got contracted to do two episodes of “Carnival Row”, he called me to ask me to read the scripts.

I loved the scripts. I quite like this genre, which is fantasy horror with something quirky and different. It’s dark, it’s Victorian, you have scariness in it. You can go anywhere within that genre, which is really exciting for a cinematographer. You start invariably with the dark room, and then you have to light it for what’s in the story. That’s fun to do.

Kirill: You mentioned “The Alienist” and “Carnival Row”, and you’ve also worked on a few episodes of “Game of Thrones”. How much visual consistency do you want to maintain across the arc of the whole season for me as a viewer?

Chris: To me it’s quite important. If you have various DPs doing a series, I would like to think that they should talk together and try and get a consistent look. That doesn’t mean that it’s a simple copy process. Each cinematographer will add their own flavor to what the story is. Bear in mind that the lens package stays the same, and some of the sets are the same. If you watch other people’s dailies, you get the gist of what they’re doing. That is where you go.

When I joined “Carnival Row”, there were two other DPs at the time before me. I would go around and watch their work on the stage, ask lots of questions on colors, lenses, etc. You get a short hand knowledge of what they’re doing. Then you talk with your director and you put your own style into it.

The two episodes that we did were slightly different to the other episodes. We didn’t have big stunt elements in there. There was a lot of drama, and a lot of space for those stories to come out. We were concentrating on making the emotion of that story come through. There’s a lot of flashback sequences. “Grieve No More” which was episode 5 has Philo going back into a dormitory where he was as a kid. It was poignant, it was fun, it was drama at its best.

We had four or five common locations where all the DPs worked in, and some were doing completely different things. Same thing happened on “The Alienist” where different DPs had different takes. And when you look at the whole series, it probably works for that story. Every angle is different.

I’m sitting here talking with you. Now ask five or seven cinematographers to light me, and you’ll get completely different setups from each one. And who’s to argue which is the best one? It’s a private thing.

It’s important to have synchronicity. I’m working on the second season of the show at the moment and sharing it with Sam McCurdy, and we have constant discussions. We look at each other’s rushes, we’re meeting and chatting, and we’re trying to maintain a consistent look. We’re sharing all the episodes on this season, and we quite like the idea of trying to make it look similar.

Chris Seager (center) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Things have changes for me as a viewer. Before we had DVRs or streaming networks, you had to watch it one episode a week, and take those long breaks between sweeps periods. Now I almost always wait until all 8-12 episodes of the seasons are out and watch them back to back. So I probably won’t want to be taken out of that longer story by having completely different styles.

Chris: I agree. Some things should be consistent. If you have things happening at night, you should have a consistent color of moonlight, for example. On “Carnival Row” it’s a slightly colder look in the Row itself, and a slightly warmer look in the Parliament. That’s been there from the beginning, and we’re maintaining it on the second season.

When you’re streaming, you’re not waiting a whole week for the next episode. You are not watching anything else in between. But discerning people will see the difference, and that can be problematic.

Kirill: There’s some criticism out there that some episodic productions are too dark – not from the story perspective, but from the point of view of how dark everything is on the screen. It’s getting close to that “cinematic” look, but some are complaining that you can hardly see anything.

Chris: That one particular episode of “Game of Thrones” recently [laughs]. There was some criticism on that episode, but I loved it. It depends on how you set up your TV. Most people have their TV set too dark or sometimes too bright.

Just think about what happens to what I shoot on set. I put my look on it, and then those dailies go to production. The editor looks at it and might decide to make it brighter/darker. Then the director and the producers, and they might be playing with the brightness as well. Then it goes to color timing, which sometimes happens well beyond my involvement with the show because I’m working on something else, so I can’t do anything with it. They can play with brightness some more, or they can shift colors. When you have multiple DPs working on the same television show, you don’t actually have that chance to get it to where you want it to be.

You have more control over it when you’re working on a film. But then people watch it on different platforms, their iPhones or iPads or the big 65″ TV – and each one is going to look completely different. And if we go and see a film in the cinema, three different cinemas will have different projection systems. So one will be brighter and another will be darker. It’s very difficult to argue this point about how dark it is.

I do understand what you’re saying. I tend to use soft lights and let the light fall off. I use a lot of haze and smoke to lift some areas of darkness so you can get something into it. If you look at films from the ’50s, they used hard lights. And almost invariably now, it’s all 20ft x 20ft silks producing soft light. It’s different styles, and it’s different technology. You might see it as a school of thought where a lot of cinematographers tend to get on the same truck and create the same look.

Cinematography of “Carnival Row” by Chris Seager. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: As you look at your episodes of “Carnival Row” from the first season, was there any particular scene that stood out as the most challenging or memorable?

Chris: The one I liked the most was in episode 5 where Philo is going back to his orphanage. I think it just worked really well. It had a style about it. It was classic, it was simple, it was gothic in the way we pushed soft lights through tall windows. The walls were gray and everything was monotone in color. Orlando [Philo] was dressed in a black suit, looking poignant.

As he looks at the memories of his past, we devised the trick for his flashback. We sat him on the dolly itself, and as he walks around, the whole dolly moved and he moved with the dolly. You hardly notice it because it’s quite a subtle movement. Then he comes around and sees the kids in the flashback, he becomes part of it. He’s looking over his shoulder, and as the kid falls on the ground and hits his head, we cut out of the flashback to the back of Orlando’s head where his scar is and we’re back in the present.

It’s one of those moments that I look back at and think that there’s some of my best work. My job is to get into what the emotion of the scene is. That’s what every cinematographer should be doing. It’s not about me. It’s about the script, and about what is happening with the script. You’re enhancing or supporting what is happening in front of you with the actor and what the director’s trying to get. It seemed to work pretty well in that scene.

One of the challenges was the Constabulary set. It was a fantastic set. I was talking to my gaffer today, and we were saying what a great set it was. It had steps that went up on both sides onto another open floor. It had desks with fantastic oil lamps on. It was all metal, it was dark, it was black. As you looked up and over at the back, there’s an open set at the top. The concept drawing had a glass atrium at the top which was never built, and we could light as if through that atrium. When I first went in there, I looked and I thought “My God, how am I going to light this?” It seemed like one of those locations I was going to get lost in. But in actual fact, it was one of the best sets we had – for me.

It had a lot of class to it. You could use big soft light from way over there somewhere, and it would fall down like it would be coming from windows. It was enjoyable to film in.

Cinematography of “Carnival Row” by Chris Seager. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: How do you prepare for digital extensions or visual effects in general?

Chris: I did additional photography for episodes 1 and 2 with a different director, and there was some of that. We had a great roof top chase at nighttime. They’re going up the scaffold, they go across the roofs – it was a mixture of location work with stunts. Orlando was sliding down on wire for those big shots, and then the two of them are climbing when they’re chasing each other. That was on two different stages and outside as well, over four days of filming. A lot of the rooftops were blue screen all the way around the side of the stage.

It was a written concept, and then we had to go and visualize what was quite simple writing. I sat with the director over the holidays going through our ideas. Then we involved the production designer, and after that we started with storyboard artists and visual effects for pre-vis. We had meetings to decide what worked well, what didn’t work well, what could be expanded to make it more dramatic, what lenses to use, how to frame jumps with high or low shots. You do a lot of prep, and then off you go filming.

I quite enjoyed working with the visual effects crew. You work with so many people. I see myself as a shepherd, getting all the sheep together [laughs]. I can ask all the questions, and we can make sure we get the best out of everybody and push every department in the right direction. If it’s going to happen on the screen, I’ll have an overall view of it.

It’s great to work with visual effects because they can they can make or bust that dream of yours. The great unknown is the budget of what they produce. Nobody seems to know how much it costs [laughs]. And most of the time it works. It works on “Carnival Row”. You sit and look at things, you discuss things. It’s a constant learning curve.

We’re doing the second series, and the visual effects are going to be bigger, probably more expensive, certainly more explosive and more exciting. We have big fights with a lot of wire work. We’re putting things together on the blue screen and designing the back plates for it. It’s a really exciting process.

Kirill: I like how you called yourself a shepherd. There’s the technical side of things, there’s finding the right artistic expression, there’s wrangling the budget and the schedule, and all the people in your department.

Chris: Many years ago my daughter came on set and she said “Dad, are you OK? You look so serious”. But I was just concentrated.

I enjoy my job tremendously, and one of the things I probably insist on is that everyone else enjoys it as well. We do have fun on the set. We work hard, and we are tested. We are pushed to the limit of our talents, and the hours are quite long. Conditions at times can be really hard – thick mud, rain, snow, cold or sun. I need a band a people around me who have a lot of talent, and I want to use that talent. I want to make sure those people feel that they can make a contribution and enjoy that contribution. I want them to enjoy the day just as much as I do.

Putting my arms metaphorically around people is something I quite believe in. I think it comes from the top. People feel freer to be able to have an input if it’s being encouraged from the top. I’m only as good as the crew that is actually doing it for me, to be honest.

I rely heavily on my first AC – about equipment and scheduling equipment and extra crew etc. Once I used to load a film camera. If somebody gives me a film camera now, I could probably still load it. There was one important button on the film camera, on or off. Maybe there were a few settings for the shutter and the speed etc, but that was basically it. Now you look at digital cameras, and it has tons of programs. What I do is I tell my crew what I want to do, and they make it happen.

The same goes for grips. I rely on them for all sorts of questions. Can it go through there? Can it go at that speed? Can it go at that height? Is it going to be safe? How Long is it going to take to bring it? You have all that information, and it makes it a joy of a job to be working with talented people. I was talking with the first AD today, and we were both saying that we are enjoying this particular moment. And then I told him that if I wasn’t enjoying it, I wouldn’t be here.

Cinematography of “Carnival Row” by Chris Seager. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Do you have the definition of what success is for you?

Chris: We all have egos, and mine was probably bigger when I was younger. What I’m trying to do now is to use the experience I’ve collected over the years, and still keep pushing for that experience to grasp newer things and different things. As I said before, it’s important to be aware of everybody else’s input.

I got two BAFTAs from a few years ago, and some other awards. I’m proud of them. I’ve worked hard in this industry, and I don’t expect anything from it – because I don’t. When I got this ASC nomination, it completely blew me apart. I’m probably nearer the end of my career than the beginning of it, and I’ve just got a nomination from an organization which I hold in high esteem. I’m proud and honored, and it means a lot to me. I’m ecstatically happy. Win it or not doesn’t matter. It’s about my peers recognizing some work that I’ve done. And I wasn’t expecting them to do that. I was just doing what I love doing, and it’s come as a surprise.

Meeting other cinematographers is most of the time a pleasure. I see some of the top DP’s work and I think to myself that I’m not anywhere near as good as them. People tell me about my work, and how good it is, but that’s not as interesting to me as work that other people do. I look at it and marvel and how consistently good they are. Then I look at some of my work and I think it’s not that bad either [laughs]. There’s some nice stuff there. I can make it better. I’m never satisfied. I’ll go back and look at the dailies, and think what I could have done differently. That’s just the process that you go through. You can always get better.

If you’re a racing car driver and as you go around that bend, if you were 10 inches from where you should have been you get annoyed. We all have it. I’m not a perfectionist. I want to make it look good, but not to the point where it drives me round the bend ,so to speak. It can’t be totally perfect, can it? It’s an artistic interpretation.

Kirill: Do you ever see yourself retire, sail on a yacht around the world and never be on the set again?

Chris: I just had my 70th birthday, and I feel as if I’m about 45. Fortunately, I’m reasonably fit and pretty healthy. My wife is constantly saying to me that I’ll probably never retire, and I keep on saying that I should stop next year and do some things together. And then she says that she will just come and be with me wherever I happen to be, because if I stop working, I’d probably be really miserable [laughs]. She’s right.

I’ve been having a love affair with this job. It’s a hobby which I get paid for. I can make mistakes. I can have good days and bad days. I can continue to grow. I continue to have fun and continue to experiment with impunity. I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a fantastic job, and it’s a great industry to work in. There’s some fabulous people within it.

It is all consuming as well. You get up in the morning, you shower, you have breakfast, you get into the car and get to work. Then you have 30 minutes of panic about lighting the set. You have discussions about lighting and shooting. You do rehearsals. And as the day passes, you get back home and read the script for the next day. But each day is different. The formulation is the same, but what you’re painting on the set in front of you changes.

Somebody asked me years ago if I would get fed up with lighting a close-up. But that never happens. Every close-up, even with the same person, is different. They are in a different emotional place, and therefore the lighting is different each time. You can do it the same every time, but that won’t work for that particular moment in that particular story.

It’s all about the story. You have to believe in that story. And if you don’t believe in it, don’t do it. Somebody told me once that the first 30 seconds of meeting with the director are the most important ones, because that’s when you know if you’d be getting along. Some personalities work together and some don’t. I’ve been lucky most the time to have the privilege to work with great personalities and great people to work with. Collaboration is the fun.

Chris Seager (right) on the sets of “Carnival Row”. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

And here I’d like to thank Chris Seager for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography. I’d also like to thank Diana Peters for making this interview happen. The first season of “Carnival Row” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.