When Australian cinematographer John Seale got word of the Sisyphean development of Mad Max: Fury Road in its early stages, he was just glad that it wasn’t his cross to bear, not realizing that he would soon find himself working on one of the most infamously challenging productions in recent film history. He was happy, though, to come back to work for George Miller, having previously collaborated with the director on Lorenzo’s Oil back in 1992, and finding him an ideal collaborator, for the versatility of his mind and the way in which he pushes his collaborators to their farthest limits. It’s not the first time Seale conquered the desert: He won an Oscar for his d.p. work in 1996’s The English Patient. Mad Max: Fury Road brings Seale his fifth Oscar nomination after earning recognition for Rain Man, Witness and Cold Mountain.
How did you come to work on Mad Max: Fury Road?
They’d been doing pre-production for, well I believe it was around 10 years. The movie had been started, stopped, and they had been slowly putting it together and honing the whole picture, but I certainly did come in a bit late due to the amicable departure of George’s normal cameraman, and I took over and walked into an amazing setup of a film. George was building his own 3D cameras to record the film, so technically, it was quite a challenge, I must say. It was my first digital film and it would’ve been my first 3D film. It was quite a big bag of technology that I came blasting into and I was finding it a bit awesome, but always accepted the challenge.
You’ve worked with George Miller before on Lorenzo’s Oil. What made you want to work with him again?
I love working with George. George has the most amazing mind, a visual mind, but also an emotional mind. When you watch, Lorenzo’s Oil, some of the angles— the dutching of the cameras— was quite alien to me. But George pushes everything right to the boundary and then keeps going, and I love that. The challenges of dragging an audience into a story and holding them there and making it very emotional—He’s a genius at that.
And when they rang to say would you take over on Fury Road, there was no hesitation really. I knew it would be a reasonably iconic film. I didn’t think it would be quite as iconic as it’s turned out. But I also enjoyed working with George and his challenging mind, so it was an easy decision to make to come across and work with George.
You’ve worked on large-scale projects before but I’d imagine that Mad Max was incomparable in that regard.
It was. I was hearing in Australia on the grapevine, as it was developing, the problems that were there, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what a nightmare that must be.’ And then all of a sudden, I’m on board and the nightmare was real for about a week, and once I got to talking to George in the conference room and completely sucking everything in and analyzing what was being required, the challenge became mine, and away we went. I think in Mad Max, I put together the culmination of a lot of other films I helped to make. There’s a lot of emotion, there’s a lot of action—there’s a lot of all the films I’ve ever helped to make in that film, and that’s why it’s quite an exciting film, not only to make, but also to watch.
You’ve filmed in exotic locations before. How do you feel about shooting in Namibia, now that it’s all said and done? I’m sure it presented many technical challenges.
Deserts didn’t worry me, but I’ve always worked on film negative and the crews that I’ve put together were always very quick to put together equipment that would protect those cameras from dust and heat and whatnot. In the digital world, that was a different bag. But we did have overheating elements built into the cameras. Those digital cameras can tend to heat up, so when you add a desert, then you do need to have specialist equipment.
But luckily, even though I hadn’t done a digital film before, most of the crew had. I put together a crew that basically came from the other cameraman, Dean Semler, and I added a couple of my own. We put together the most amazing international crew from South Africa, England, Australia, New Zealand—27 people, I believe. Amazing people. But all of their capabilities had already been used in digital protection, so they quickly swung into building cases with little fans in them and air circulation holes, cooling the electronics. We didn’t have any problems.
When we speak of the challenges of continuity in film, last year’s Birdman inevitably comes up. Was achieving continuity a difficult aspect of this job?
It is, because the film is totally opposite to what Birdman’s criteria was—a single camera, seamlessly edited, that would make the film feel as though it’s done in one shot. George did have much the same theory at the beginning of Mad Max that there would be one position for one camera that would be the perfect spot, and it’s a lovely and a great theory and worked maybe on certain films, but my experience with action films was to throw in as many cameras as possible, which was a little bit different to what George’s feelings were at the beginning of the film.
As we went on into the making of the film, we started adding cameras, and in the end we were running with three or four most of the time. We added crash cameras in, we could have anything up to 10 or 12 cameras running on each scene to cover it completely, and I think later in post, George found that that was a very wise idea.
Miller designed his own 3D cameras for the film. What else should we know about that technology and the way you approached lighting the film?
George and the studio decided they would shoot 3D and there wasn’t a camera in the world at that stage that could record the film that George wanted to make. One of the main criteria is that the 3D camera had to go through the window of the truck and then maybe come back out, and there wasn’t a camera small enough to do that, so George said, ‘We’ll make our own.’ It’s an extraordinary piece of equipment.
The 3D cameras had a fairly low contrast chip in them and I found that a lot of fill light was needed to light the wides in the back of that truck for forty percent of the movie. That became a lighting challenge of extraordinary magnitude because of the smallness of the windows. George subsequently decided very late in the pre-production to go 2D. That was a breath of fresh air because the Arri Alexa cameras that he opted to go with, I knew were already battle proven in filmmaking in deserts and cold climates. I knew that. So we quickly swung into those and I fully tested those as my “digital film”, and I found them very compatible to negative.
I also knew that George wanted to bend and shake the final image of the film and degrade it. I agreed that we should not have a squeaky-clean, good-looking movie. It should be a post-apocalyptic, grainy, contrasty, raunchy mess, as though somebody had put a laboratory out in the desert and managed somehow to film and process the film out there in the desert.
But the lighting was a bit of a problem until we swung to 2D, and then slowly, we pretty well ended up with available light by virtue of the story; the truck starts to disintegrate, so more light came into the truck. We found, with the Arri Alexas we were able to use handheld LED battery operated lights and we could squeeze those anywhere, and as we increased the number of cameras, we had four cameras poking through each window of the truck. There wasn’t much room to put lights anyway. So that’s the way we found that we were moved more and more towards available light, and maybe just a very small supplement of light to enhance the eyes or the girls, things like that. But we did tend more toward available light than not.
It seems that George Miller is changing things up much in the way that James Cameron and Ang Lee have, in terms of exploring the possibilities of technology for storytelling purposes.
Oh, exactly. Not only with the technology, but actual filmmaking boundaries, which he did for Lorenzo’s Oil, and I think that Fury Road’s gone further than that. George stretches boundaries not only in the conceiving of the movie, but in the making of the movie, the post-production of the movie. He pushes everybody to the boundary and then expects them to keep going. And he’s such a lovely man about it. But his fingerprint is on most departments in the filmmaking process and I think he’s quite a genius for that.