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JOHN SEALE ACS, CSA, CINEMATOGRAPHER

In the 20 years to the end of 1996, he has shot 28 feature films, won dozens of awards: universally respected, but at home, he is a shorts and T shirt man. Andrew L. Urban talks to cinematographer John Seale one of the Whizzards of Oz.

After making The English Patient , director Anthony Minghella described John Seale as the toughest man he’s ever worked with, a man with Samurai qualities. Sitting on his spacious terrace overlooking parts of Sydney Harbour, wearing his shorts and T shirt, Seale looks more like a yachtsman getting ready to load the boat with provisions than a Samurai. But for Minghella, it was John’s canny problem solving and gutsy determination that showed through.

"He’d always be ready to spend half his Sunday talking about the plans for the coming week, when Sunday was our only day off and we were all tired and shooting again at dawn. He was always there for me."

Seale shrugs this off: "There’s an awful lot of thinking goes on…You get a director like Anthony who’s so open to contributions from all other members of the crew, you give up four to six hours of your Sunday to talk about the film, organising the shots."

"It was a panic last minute thing, which is often the best way because it gets done then."

One of the many challenges facing Seale in The English Patient was a spectacularly romantic and visually exciting scene in an abandoned church. Kip (Naveen Andrews) takes Hana (Juliette Binoche) to the church to show her the frescos, and winches her up a makeshift rope harness with a flaming flare in her hand to illuminate the artworks.

"That was a total drama…because we couldn’t use a real one, we would have killed everyone eventually with some carcinogenic process. The special effects boys were in fact very busy and they weren’t listening to my problems, that I needed to build a special light that had to have smoke running through it, and Juliette swinging around on the rope. In the end, by pounding the table at meetings, we finally all got together - by which time I’d already designed what I thought would work with my gaffer electrician. But we had to have special effects team in there so the thing didn’t heat up and burn her hand. Pipes had to be run down her arm, and run smoke and electricity wires up through the rope that Naveen is holding. It was like an umbilical cord with power and smoke…It worked in the end, but it had me thrown for a long time. We haven’t got that, we haven’t got the scene. It was a panic last minute thing, which is often the best way because it gets done then."

Seale was determined to shoot The English Patient through two years of constant re-schedulings: "It was like a wild horse; it was going this year, then it went back, and then it didn’t have any money…my agent was going crazy. She said forget that movie, it won’t lock down. I said ‘I’m doing that movie.’"

It was his 27th feature film, and a fully satisfying one. "I’ve never gone out to make a film to win an Academy award. You go and make the film the way you - with the director and so on - want to make it."

Seale’s early years in feature films taught him what he calls "poor man’s process" - inventing solutions when there was no money to buy them. He had learnt his trade first as a camera assistant at the ABC in Queensland (he was born in Warwick), then as a freelance camera operator (on films like Picnic at Hanging Rock) and then from 1976 as director of photography. Australian features are always on a tight budget, and he found solutions to creative and technical problems by necessity, on films such as Fatty Fin, BMX Bandits, Silver City, and Goodbye Paradise, for which he won the Golden Tripod; he was also voted Cinematographer of the Year (1982) by his peers.

His next two films earned him the next two of his numerous awards: Careful He Might Hear You and Witness, his first American feature, but with an Australian director, Peter Weir, with whom he made two more films; The Mosquito Coast and Dead Poets Society. In between them, he shot Rainman and Gorillas in the Mist: John Seale had become one of the most in demand DoPs in the world.

it didn’t work at all for anybody, but I enjoyed the process. I’d direct again

His wife Louise and two children would travel with him on several occasions, until the children started high school. "Now they’ve finished high school, Louise and I are finding more freedom as a couple and that’s great. Louise will be able to come with me again."

In 1989, John Seale made his debut as a director, making Till There Was You for Australia’s McElroy and McElroy Productions, starring Mark Harmon, Jeroan Crabbe and Deborah Unger. "I thoroughly enjoyed doing that…it didn’t work at all for anybody, but I enjoyed the process. I’d direct again…yes, and like everybody in the film industry I’ve got a couple of stories jangling around in my head…"

After The English Patient, Seale shot Ghosts of Mississippi for director Rob Reiner, and in mid 1997, Seale is shooting City of Angels for director Brad Silberling (Casper) in Los Angeles. "Very smart, very latched on director…his ideas are just fantastic. It’s very similar to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire - but has a totally different ending and it is for that ending that I thought the film was interesting."

If you ask him which of his films he considers his best one, Seale will say "the next one…because the ones we’ve done, we always thought they were the best."

Filmography and Awards:

Year - Film - Director

1997 City of Angels - Brad Silberling

1996 Ghosts of Mississippi - Rob Reiner

1996 The English Patient - Anthony Minghella

Best Cinematographer 1997, ACS (Aust)

Hall of Fame ACS (inuagural induction, 1997)

Best Cinematography, 1997 Academy Awards (Oscar)

Best Cinematography, ASC (US)

Other Best Cinematography Awards:
Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Florida Film Critics associations;

1995 The American President - Rob Reiner

1994 Beyond Rangoon - John Boorman

1993 The Paper - Ron Howard

1993 The Firm - Sydney Pollack

1992 Lorenzo’s Oil - George Miller

1991 The Doctor - Randa Haines

1990 Till There Was You - as director

1989 Dead Poets Society - Peter Weir

1988 Rainman - Barry Levinson

ASC Award

IATSA 659 Award

Nominated in Academy Awards

1987 Gorillas In The Mist - Michael Apted

Film Critics Circle of Aust - Special Award

Premier Magazine Cinematographer of the Year

Nominated in British Academy Awards

1987 Stakeout - John Badham

1986 The Mosquito Coast - Peter Weir

1985 Children of a Lesser God - Randa Haines

ACS Golden Tripod Award

1985 The Hitcher - Robert Harmon

1984 The Empty Beach - Chris Thomson

1984 Witness - Peter Weir

ACS Milli Award -Cinematographer of the Year

ACS Golden Tripod for Witness

Nominated in Academy Awards (Oscars)

1983 Careful He Might Hear You - Carl Schultz

AFI Award

1983 Silver City - Sophia Turkiewicz

Nominated in AFI Awards

1983 Fighting Back - Michael Caulfield

1982 Goodbye Paradise - Carl Schultz

1982 Ginger Meggs - Jonathan Dawson

1981 Doctors and Nurses - Maurice Murphy

1980 Fatty Finn - Maurice Murphy

ACS - Australian Cinematographers Society

ASc - American Society of Cinematographers

AFI - Australian Film Institute

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