JOHN SEALE ON MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

“Johnny, what kind of cameras are you going to use?”

That question from George Miller momentarily caught veteran cinematographer John Seale, ASC, ACS off guard because the director, unbeknownst practically to everyone attending the preproduction meeting, had just scrapped his plans to shoot Mad Max: Fury Road in native 3D and instead opted for digital 2D.

For three years, Miller and his Mad Max series regular DP Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, along with designer/builder and fellow cameraman Paul Nichola, had been developing a custom 3D camera to capture the return of road warrior Max Rockatansky (this time played by Tom Hardy) to the big-screen apocalyptic wasteland. But, the stereoscopic camera rig had contrast issues—an important technicality for a film with so many scenes set inside the dark cab of a truck against a hot desert backdrop. Semler, however, had to withdraw shortly before production. Miller brought Seale aboard and put him on the spot with that question. The cinematographer, despite having never photographed a digital film, responded in the only way he knew how.

“All I could say in front of 30 people at a big, high-pressure meeting was, 'Well George, I'm a Panavision man and have been all my life and I'll ring them,'” Seale recalls. “(Producer) P.J. Voeten leaned over and whispered, 'They handle Alexas,' and I said, 'Probably Alexas, George.' I'd read enough to know that Alexas had been battle proven all over the world. So Panavision, just as always, swept us up and looked after us for the entire movie.”

Seale had been in the filmmaking trenches with Miller before on Lorenzo's Oil. He's also photographed such films as Witness, Rain Man, The English Patient (for which he won an Academy Award), The Perfect Storm and Cold Mountain, among numerous others. And all of them were on celluloid. He found the transition to digital rather easy. “I'm not as enamored with the technicalities of the camera as I am with what the cameras are shooting,” he notes. “My testing was a simple contrast range test of the cameras.”

The selection of the more light sensitive ARRI Alexa solved the contrast issues, and Seale had plenty of cameras supplied to the production:  four ARRI Ms, six ARRI Pluses.  “The ARRIs were just fantastic for the interior of the cab, where 40-50 percent of the film takes place,” he says. “It was crazy how much latitude we had with them.”  Numerous Canon 5D and Nikon D800s DSLRs and Olympus PEN E-P5 cameras also found their way into the filmmaking fold, as did Blackmagic Cinema Camera.

Securing enough lenses for the popular Alexas was a chore, but through Panavision's global network, enough Panavision Primo primes and lightweight zooms were pulled. “This is where Panavision is amazing,” Seale emphasizes, “because if L.A. hasn't got it, England may or South Africa or Sydney. We were able to drag equipment and lenses out of any one of those major cities around the world and have them supplied through Panavision South Africa.”

“This is where Panavision is amazing,” Seale emphasizes, “because if L.A. hasn't got it, England may or South Africa or Sydney.

Seale also dispatched coordinating camera assistant Michelle Pizanis and 1st AC Ricky Schamburg to Panavision Woodland Hills to scour the shelves for lenses—shorter, wider lenses with close depth of field suitable for shooting in and around the tight confines of a truck cab. “They found odd little lenses on the shelves covered in dust that hadn't been used since what seems like the silent film era,” Seale remarks. “Dan Sasaki refurbished them so that we had these beautiful short-length lenses.”

Explains Dan Sasaki, VP of Optical Engineering:  “It was requested that we develop a set of small wide-angle lenses that were rectilinear and capable of focus closer than two feet. At first, this seemed like an easy task until they added that they wanted the lenses to have a certain grittiness to them. The solution to this was to start with some compact SP lenses we had and change the mechanical transport to allow them to achieve closer focus. Once the mechanical portion was complete, we added some additional optics to induce small amounts of aberration to 'break the image down.’ The focal range was 14mm-20mm, and the lenses had an overall length of about 3 inches.”

This optical grittiness was part of the visual aesthetic that he had envisioned for the film, one that he further accentuated in postproduction. “For some of the main-package Primo lenses,” Sasaki adds, “we purposely violated the nominal spacing of select lenses to achieve a small degree of additional spherical aberration. This was prompted by a request from the cinematographer and camera crew to create a look that would help define the raw look they were trying to achieve.”

With a desert-experienced camera crew of 27, the production ventured from South Africa to the Namib Desert for a nearly six-month stay.  Under such punishing conditions, the camera gear naturally needed some special attention. For this, Pizanis found the indispensable Neville Reid, a technician in South Africa who looked after the cameras. “He was an absolute gem to have,” Seale exclaims. “We would give him a long list of stuff we'd broken that day, and he'd sit out in his motorhome in the desert by himself and fix them brilliantly overnight. You ought to see what he can do with a Swiss Army knife—magic!”

The filmmaking process was slow, averaging three shots per day because of the elaborate, visually striking stunt sequences that Miller had envisioned. Seale could cover these scenes with up to nine cameras. At the forefront of the camera arsenal, he had the Panavision 11:1 Zoom leading the way.  “I think that Panavision 11:1 Primo Zoom is the best lens ever made in quality, range and speed,” Seale advocates. “I've never done a movie without one, and I said to the boys, “Let it rust there, because it's not coming out.' I used that for the entire movie to get little cutaways.”

Mad Max: Fury Road is in theaters now.