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He’s shot dozens of films and won an Academy Award for his work, yet Australian cinematographer John Seale still learns something on every film – and Harry Potter is no exception, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

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 and humble"

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 similar stuff."

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 sound stage."

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 its audience.

Published November 29, 2001

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John Seale

Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone

In an unguarded moment, John Seale agrees to test the giant creepy vine that eats people...before the stars have a go, on the set of Harry Potter

Previous John Seale Interviews:
The Talented Mr Ripley
The Perfect Storm

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