For the all-important role of cinematographer for Harry Potter And the
Philosopher’s Stone, the filmmakers chose John Seale. "We had loved John’s
work in a variety of films from Witness to Dead Poet’s Society and we knew he
would give Harry Potter a fantastic look," says producer David Heyman.
"For instance, [director] Chris Columbus wanted low light in the interiors, as there
is no artificial light in Hogwarts [School of Wicthcraft and Wizardry]. John was
particularly attentive to this and lit the set with torches and candles. He has this
incredible energy and works at a remarkably fast pace, and yet he’s able to retain
tremendous depth and richness at all times."
"Generous and hard working, he is also down to earth
Fast but also effective – that’s John Seale’s trademark. There’s no
bullshit about John, a Sydney boy who loves his boats and has no pretentions about his
craft. Generous and hard working, he is also down to earth and humble. "I learn
something on every film," he confides during a phone conversation the day after the
film’s Australian public preview screening in Sydney. John had personally introduced
the film in the city theatre complex, and then drove to the airport to fly back to Los
Angeles. (He’d flown back to Sydney for family reasons only three days earlier.)
Now, in his temporary Los Angeles home, he’s getting ready for a hectic
pre-production on his next film, Dreamcatcher, starring Morgan Freeman, and directed by
Lawrence Kasdan, with whom John has wanted to work for some time but they never got
synchronised; until now. Dreamcatcher will shoot in blizzards 750 kms north of Vancouver
at a tiny outpost called Prince George, where temperatures will be a smile-fixing minus
25%. But that’s next; today, it’s still Harry Potter day for John. So what did
he learn this time?
"I was walking on new ground quite a bit"
"We used Super 35 mm film and although it’s been around a for a long while,
I had never used it. I learnt a lot … because of the amount of CGI and special
effects AND the Super 35 combination PLUS the perspective changing, I was walking on new
ground quite a bit on this film. And that’s new ground that will be useful for making
films of the future. In fact the next film, Dreamcatcher, I’m going to do is full of
On Harry Potter, John worked closely with director Chris Columbus and production
designer Stuart Craig – both of whom he praises enthusiastically. "Chris is
still like a big kid," he says, "and he’s got four youngsters himself, so
he relates to them very well. Craig did a terrific job, blending four different exterior
locations to create Hogwart’s, and linking the exterior shots to interiors using
doors. As the kids go out one door on location, they walk in to the interior – on the
But that was the least of the tricks: as John says, the producers are demanding secrecy
from the cast and crew about some of the special magic that went into creatring scenes and
effects in the film. "There are several shots they would prefer to keep secret
because they’ve still got another six movies to make so they don’t want to give
away how it’s done…" Like how Robbie Coltrane was made to look even bigger
than he is…
But John can talk a bit about the large amount of CGI work throughout the film,
especially for the making of the spectacular Quiddich game, in which young wizards
airborne on their broomsticks play a fast and furious game of … Quiddich –
combination football, basketball and a unique something else. "the background is
entirely CGI," John explains, "and the foreground action is live…but even
here, the actors move with speed and there are some shots where they have to be
re-morphed." The complexity in this sequence alone shows why the filmmakers used no
less than four different digital effects design houses to complete the film.
The briefing for the look of Harry Potter on screen was dictated by the need to create
a difference between the world of the ‘muggles’ (us non-wizard types) and the
magic world of Hogwart’s. "The main thing was to differentiate…so we ended
up using warmer tones and wider lenses for the magic world, and colder tones with longer
lenses for the real world," John explains. "And the other thing was that Chris
wanted to keep the film looking darker than most children’s films, which is as
written in the book."
In fact, says John, the film’s faithfulness to the book is itself eliciting
criticisms from some people, "complaining we were TOO close to the book…you
can’t win," he says with a chuckle.
"it never condescends to its audience"
Well, not sure about can’t win: the film broke all box office records on two
continents (US and England) and early indications are that it will do so elsewhere as
well. Popularity, of course, is not all; but the film stands up to critical scrutiny with
its earthiness and its darker edge. And perhaps above all, because it never condescends to
Published November 29, 2001