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Oscar winning Australian cinematographer John Seale feels rewarded by meeting the challenges of shooting Poseidon, where his inventive contributions had a significant impact on the production, as Andrew L. Urban discovers.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and the luxury liner, Poseidon is cruising in the North Atlantic; guests are celebrating in the ballroom, when a giant rogue wave hits the ship. While some survivors group together waiting for rescue, one guy (played by Josh Lucas) decides to try his luck on his own, and is quickly joined by a small group (played by Kurt Russell, Jimmy Bennett, Jacinda Barrett, Emmy Rossum, Mike Vogel, Mia Maestro and Richard Dreyfuss), who weave their way through many obstacles towards the bowels of the ship, hoping to escape.

Although the basic story is much the same as the 1972 original (The Poseidon Adventure), Wolfgang Petersen’s new film, Poseidon, is something of a novelty in filmmaking terms for several reasons, and one of them is Australian cinematographer John Seale, who introduced two major innovations into the production. “I studied the original film very carefully,” he says, “and I felt we could increase the tension quite considerably by the way we shot the film, with all due respect to the original filmmakers.”

"every frame has to say the ship is upside down,"

The first thing Seale chose to do was to make sure that after the Poseidon is turned over by the giant rogue wave, “everything is upside down – and lit from below.” In the original, several scenes had a studio look with lighting pointing down at the actors. In Poseidon, “every frame has to say the ship is upside down,” in the words of director Petersen, and Seale used waterproof fluoro lights positioned below the actors, “while avoiding the Hammer Horror lighting look,” he adds with a laugh.

The ship’s modern turbo engines would continue to operate under these severe conditions, so credibility wasn’t sacrificed. “The other thing is that in the original, the boat wasn’t continually sinking, like it is in ours. As the ship is sinking, so the water is chasing the escaping group, always coming up at them. So it’s really a ‘run for life’ movie, and the last hour and a quarter is just relentlessly exciting … continuous tension with virtually no dialogue.”

But with this relentless action comes the physical problem of actors “getting beaten up every day by the demands of the action,” says Seale. To minimise the problem of actor fatigue – bearing in mind the shoot took five months – Seale started a campaign of whispering into producers’ ears that “two cameras would be better than one …. Three cameras would be great …. Four cameras would be excellent …. Five cameras would be terrific … and six cameras would be absolutely fabulous.” And the campaign worked: Seale was regularly using four and five cameras, and sometimes six.

“I realised that having multiple cameras would reduce the number of takes required to get the various angles for each shot,” he says. “It meant the cameras had to be positioned very carefully so as not to get in the way of the actors, but the result was that a complex and tiring scene could be shot in one go. And the editor felt very happy, being able to use almost every angle at will. In some shots, there are cameras in the shot but nobody will notice them, because they just look like a pile of junk … well disguised!”

Neither lighting from below nor extended multi camera shooting are common Hollywood practice, and indeed, actor Kurt Russell was a bit reluctant at first to adapt to the demands of the multi-camera system. “It’s Hollywood filmmaking tradition to have eyelines as close as possible to camera, but with the multi-camera system, I needed the eye lines a bit wider, to avoid getting other cameras in shot. Kurt was keen to keep his interaction very close, but slowly he did loosen it up and eventually was highly complimentary of the system.” It was a new experience for the actors to go through a scene and find there were no reverses or close up shots required.

Shooting near or very often under water posed its own creative, logistical and safety challenges. Cameras were sealed in watertight soft housings and buttressed against the flow. Corrective ports (a domed glass piece fitted over the lens) helped adjust distortions in focal length caused by the way light refracts through water. Steadicam operators wrapped equipment in waterproof bags and carried on as usual, says Seale, “with water pouring on top of their cameras, they’d just walk straight through it. We got the shot every time. In fact, we only drowned one camera, which is pretty good for a movie with this much water and action.”

"Reloading film was like a NASCAR pit stop"

Additionally, cameras attached to jib arms were tracked and operated by remote control, to avoid having operators and dollies alongside the actors in the confined spaces.

Reloading film was like a NASCAR pit stop with crews hauling hundred-pound housings out of the water, moving them to a dry area, doing their work, re-sealing and getting them back into position as fast as possible.

One of the highlights for Seale was the scene in which the escaping group has to crawl through a near vertical airconditioning duct. Getting lights and cameras into the tight space posed its own problems. “We ended up using anything we could get our hands on, one of which was a little right-angle snorkel lens from Panavision,” he says. “It took up maybe three inches diameter of room so the actors could scrunch past us or come towards us. Most of the lighting was available.” Ultimately, Seale relied upon the actors’ own hand-held torches, “because with the shiny metal walls we found the torchlight bounced everywhere and did exactly what we wanted.”

But not everything you see on the screen is Seale’s handiwork. All the exterior shots of the ship and even many interiors, were built inside the computers. Like the opening of the film: “It starts under the water from the camera’s point of view, then rises to reveal the ship, rotates around the bow and down the side of the ship, then spots a figure running along the deck,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Boyd Shermis. “The camera comes in tight on him, dollying 180 degrees around him. We lead him up a flight of stairs, then pull back to take in the beauty and grandeur of the ship, the upper decks, people having fun by the pool, then climb high up to the smokestacks and beyond that to a beautiful sunset on the ocean.”

“It’s two and a half minutes,” Petersen says of the remarkable sequence. “The only real element in the whole shot is the jogger, Josh Lucas” – who was filmed against a green screen at the San Fernando Valley’s Sepulveda Dam, one of the film’s only two off-lot locations, then integrated into the virtual landscape. “It’s the boldest, most insane shot ever done in the history of CG, yet completely photorealistic. I don’t expect people will think, ‘what a great CG shot,’ instead, they might think, ‘what a great ship; where did they find it?’”

But there was still the need for extensive interiors to be built on Warner Bros. Studios soundstages, the old-fashioned way to accommodate practical effects. Most sets were duplicated in original and upside-down versions to depict, first, the ship’s grandeur and then, post-impact, its utter destruction – all balanced on platforms that could pitch and roll the action on its side. Combining practical sets with CGI, Petersen achieved the size and scope unlikely to be found in the real world yet scrupulously realistic: a ship not only ultra-modern but timelessly elegant in every way, from its sleek exterior construction to every detail of décor and atmosphere right down to the handcrafted initial “P” reproduced in the buttons of the staff uniforms.

Combined with John Seale’s strategies, the finished film combines the real world with the one created digitally. And the film was completed on time and under budget – and the studio loved that.

"once it was all oiled, everyone was excited"

Seale found the whole experience “exciting … once it was all oiled, everyone was excited. We’d turn up each day ready to go, and we’d bore holes in the set walls to peek through, put wide angle cameras on the floor, and work hard, but we’d always wrap by early evening, and the crew loved that.”

As he looks forward to hearing audience reactions to the film, Seale, back at his Sydney home but a Queenslander by birth, has one final thing to say about the production: “I must mention Australian actress, Jacinda Barrett, who plays Maggie, the young mum in the escape group. She’s terrific. Her dad, a retired fireman from Queensland, came to visit and we had a good chat.”

(Poseidon opens in Australia on June 1, 2006.)

Published May 18, 2006


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John Seale on the set of Poseidon

... on set with Australian actress Jacinda Barrett

John Seale (right) on set with Wolfgang Petersen

Photos: Claudette Barius

(Jan 15, 2004)
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Poseidon releases nationally June 1, 2006

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