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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Sunday November 3, 2019 

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Australia's Oscar winning cinematographer, John Seale, is in the middle of a Hollywood storm - and has been for seven months, helping to make Wolfgang Petersen's dramatic recreation of the century's Perfect Storm. Seale calmed the waters for a Saturday afternoon chat with ANDREW L. URBAN.

It's late Saturday afternoon in Santa Monica, and John Seale has just returned to his apartment off swish Montana Avenue, a couple of blocks back from the ocean. He's spent the day, from 7 am until 4 pm, waiting to get his US driving licence. It was more agitating than what he is doing Mondays to Fridays, shooting the US$100 million action drama, The Perfect Storm, either on the giant sound stage at Warner Bros studio in the valley, or at the cyclone-prone East Coast location off Gloucester.

"A combination of reality and extensive digital effects"

It's been seven months of work so far, and he'll be lucky to be home for Christmas. But for a change, his wife Louise is with him, free of the children (they've grown up) and free to commute from their northern Sydney waterfront home, where Seale moors his yacht.

The Perfect Storm, says Seale, is "like a re-enactment" of the Halloween Storm of 1991, which scientists have dubbed the Storm of the Century. It packed three giant weather systems into one furious fusillade of wind and rain in the Atlantic off Gloucester. Exactly eight years later, Seale and the rest of the crew are recreating it in a combination of reality and extensive digital effects (created at ILM) which he describes as "awesome".

The film is based on Sebastian Junger's book, and Seale is aiming to make it look as real as possible. "I've seen some of the footage where my pictures and the computer generated pictures are combined, and it's fabulous," he says. Is he having fun, though? "Oh, we're like a bunch of boys having a great time…" But with the discipline of an army. Seale's biggest challenge is not with the camera; "it's co-ordinating with all the other departments. It's so big, we all have to be sure everyone is going in the same direction. You can't slew off…" And don't think that US$100 million is a slush fund, he says. Many in Hollywood still don't believe Petersen can pull off a film of this magnitude within that figure.

"We're on schedule and just a little over budget"

"So far," says Seale, "we're doing it, we're on schedule and we're just a little bit over budget. Not much." And it's half way through the 20 week shooting schedule.

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Diane Lane and Karen Allen play some of the real characters who were caught by the storm, their lives changed.

The director is Wolfgang Petersen, the German filmmaker who has big water experience from his much acclaimed war drama set on a German U boat, Das Boot, and plenty of action film credits, such as In the Line of Fire, Outbreak and Air Force One. That's why he is also producer; it's the sort of film where the budget could itself turn into an uncontrollable storm. "Wolfgang is very disciplined," says Seale. "And experienced. He knows how to stay within reasonable bounds. And he's balanced with working with the actors; he knows what he wants to get out of the scene and also knows enough to leave the actors to create the atmosphere; it's a lovely balance."

George Clooney plays Captain Billy Tyne, skipper of a 70 ft swordfishing boat that went 900 miles East of Boston, and "like everything else in the film, it's all based on fact. The book is very accurate and we've tried to be as accurate as possible," Seale explains.

"Mary plays Linda Greenlaw, who took out a swordfishing boat, and managed to get out of the storm. But Billy Tyne, because his freezer went down and he had a boat full of fish, decided to blast straight through the middle of the storm. But he didn't realise, I don't think, the magnitude of these three storms developing into one."

"To convince the audience that this is real - is pretty awesome"

Seale's camera department of eight is working with the special effects department which is creating the storm on the sound stage, "and we also work with ILM, which is creating the computer generated imaging of the storm. And to be able to shoot a film about 70 foot fishing boats and 32 foot yachts in a storm that created 80 to 100 foot seas and 100 - 120 mph winds, and do it on a sound stage in Los Angeles - and to convince the audience that this is real - is pretty awesome."

Several items of special camera equipment were designed and built over months of pre-production, says Seale, including soft waterproofing for cameras. Some of it was vital for a sequence shot by the second unit, on the actual site of the real storm. "We knew it was hurricane season and in pre-production we gambled that a hurricane would come along and we geared up for it. And it did: Hurricane Floyd came up from Bermuda up the East coast, exactly as the one in our story. We were ready and second unit took both the swordfishing boats out to sea and a camera boat, and got some magic real material; they had a whale of a time for a whole day." It must be a yachtie thing; Seale wished he'd been out there instead of shooting the actors on land, telling part of the human story of the fishermen and their lives and the euphoria of commercial fishing.

"But we did go out the next day; the wind had veered 180 degrees and the seas were down to about two metres, so we went to sea and actually shot dialogue scenes with George Clooney on board the boat, with that storm backing." It was a great challenge for the yachtsman and the cameraman in Seale: "we had to have all that sailing represented in a 20 metre by 20 metre area, and then the computer paints in the rest of the ocean; so our reality is that little patch of ocean which is somewhere in the trough or either side of an 80 ft wave."

"Australia is home and that's all there is to it"

In the past 14 years, ever since shooting Peter Weir's Witness in 1985, Seale has been commuting to locations around the world, from Africa (Gorillas in the Mist) to Italy (The Talented Mr Ripley), Malaysia (Beyond Rangoon), and Los Angeles (City of Angels), working for a variety of directors from around the world - Anthony Minghella, The English Patient; Sydney Pollack, The Firm; Wolfgang Petersen, The Perfect Storm; George Miller, Lorenzo's Oil - but always on the Hollywood payroll.

"I've assimilated into the American system quite well professionally," he admits, "and I suppose socially as well, but I don't ever think of it as home. Australia is home and that's all there is to it." You get used to the commuting, he says.

In all those years, Seale has never bought a second home in the US. His only home is their large modern waterfront property, with the boatshed at the end of the garden that looks over an expanse of water. He tries to have a month or two off after each major film, even at the expense of passing up work on attractive films.

Before he began to work internationally, Seale won a number of awards for his work in Australia, and in 1982 he was voted Cinematographer of the Year by his peers. He followed it up with Careful He Might Hear You, which added several awards to his collection. Then, with his 27th feature film, The English Patient (1996), Seale won the coveted Academy Award.

"I feel I am lucky to be able to work internationally"

While Australia is immensely proud of Seale (and much liked for his easy going Australian personality), there are some who are critical of the fact that he doesn't bring his expertise back home to work on Australian films. Is he ever going to?

"It's a tough question," he says. "Over the last 10 or 15 years that I have been what I regard as an international cameraman, I have a policy on this - which has aggrieved some people but not others. Put simply, I feel I am lucky to be able to work internationally with a lot of lovely filmmakers who are garnering their money out of America but may make their own films elsewhere. And that includes Australians and English - and of course, some Americans.

"The other thing is that I don't want to take away the job from some young Australian cameraman who could use that job as part of his stepping stone for his career. And I belive that now more than ever, because I'm lucky enough to have the American industry hold me up [financially]. It means that I can leave the Australian films to the young guys coming up. The criticism is sometimes leveled at me that I'm not bringing the expertise back home, but I quickly point out that I do lecture extensively - as much as I possibly can - at the ACS (Australian Cinematographers Society) and the film school, wherever I'm asked. I happily give time to film students. And I think I possibly reach more people because of that, than I do by shooting a film, where I reach maybe two or three camera crew. In a lecture I can get to a thousand."

"the eye of the beholder"

And what is it that Seale can teach? How much of a cinematographer's ability is craft and how much natural ability? "That's a very good question, because the crucial point of cinematographic ability is not a technical one; I think you can learn the basics of cinematography in a week, or an hour if you're really quick," he says. "Some people laugh when I say that, but if you regard the lightmeter as having certain numbers on it and the camera lens has the same numbers on it, the technical side of photography may be putting the light meter up, and if it says '8', you set the lens at '8' and you have an image. But after that comes the eye of the beholder, and the continuity of light. That is the creative side of cinematography, which may take years and years to learn or nurture out of your own soul and inventive mind. And then you have to mesh the technical side with the variables presented to you by nature or the other elements of the filmmaking process."

On John Seale's current film, due to be released next year, it's a case of 'the eye of the beholder' in the eye of the storm.

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Photography by Claudette Barius




This article also appears in The Bulletin, on sale 20/10/99


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