By Benjamin B
At the Plus Camerimage Festival last November, I had the privilege of organizing and moderating John Seale’s Master Class, which was sponsored by Panavision, as well as a Cinematographer Panel sponsored by Panalux.
Camerimage is renown as the most prestigious international venue for cinematographers, and will be 20 years old next year. The Polish festival took place in the city of Bydgoszcz -- a small, friendly northern city which is easier to pronounce (“bid gosh”) than to spell.
Above all, Camerimage is about camaraderie. Master cinematographers, upcoming cinematographers and student cinematographers from all over the world mingle easily and meet informally, along with other filmmakers and industry people, during an intense week of film screenings, master classes, workshops and equipment demos, all dedicated to the art of cinematography. Camerimage is also known for its informal parties, and the live bands and late-night dancing of its aptly named “Jet Lag Club”.
Plus Camerimage’s icon is the Frog. A jury awards Golden, Silver and Bronze Frogs for best cinematography and Tadpoles are given to the best student cinematographer. This year the winners of the main competition Frogs were Jolanta Dylewska for In Darkness by Agnieszka Holland, Mahmoud Kalari for Nader and Simin, A Separation by Asghar Farhadi, and Robbie Ryan for Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold (shot with a Panavision XL).
Frogs are also awarded for best first films, Polish films, music videos and documentary features. Every year Camerimage gives a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2011 honor went to Australian cinematographer John Seale, ACS, ASC. John's numerous previous awards and honors include an Oscar, an ASC and a BAFTA award for his work on The English Patient, as well as three other Oscar nominations, and the ASC's International Award.
7 DPs, 7 countries
Panavision and Panalux both sponsor seminars every year at Camerimage. This year's Panalux Cinematographer Panel featured 7 directors of photography from 7 different countries: Steven Fierberg (US), Martin Gshchlacht (Austria), Hoyte van Hoytema (Holland), Phil Méheux (UK), Phedon Papamichael (Greece), Timo Salminem (Finland) and Vilmos Zsigmond (Hungary).
I asked the panel to offer practical tips to the audience of young DPs, which were illustrated by examples from varied experiences with Hollywood films, American TV, European indies and commercials. Despite their differing backgrounds and projects, the cinematographers agreed on many things, and shared advice about the importance of prep, of keeping lights outside the set, of working with the director.
John Seale and I spent hours preparing his Master Class, and one of the challenges was selecting film clips from the forty-some features he has shot. We finally settled on half a dozen films full of emotional content, including some classics by two brilliant directors that are essential to John’s body of work: Peter Weir and Anthony Minghella.
The clips screened were from Witness and Dead Poets Society by Weir, Rain Man by Barry Levinson, Gorillas in the Mist by Michael Apted, and The English Patient and Cold Mountain by Minghella. Speaking to a packed audience of dozens of young cinematographers, John explained that “the films I’ve favored in my career are the ones with very emotional scripts, rather than action pictures.”
John spent 4 hours sharing anecdotes, techniques and cinematographic approaches with his audience. Among the many lessons:
"Learning how to operate is not about learning what you can't get away with, but what you can get away with. A few bumps can help give reality to a shot. Once you’ve learned what you can get away with, you start loosening up, and you become an operator who floats the camera to the actors."
“Actors are in a different world, they’re very sensitive and need a lot of help. Over the years I’ve learned that they need all of the help and comfort they can get. I want a camera crew who’s there, but not there, just quietly doing their job, not being detrimental to their performance."
"I tell my operators to never cut when a director says 'cut'... Keep rolling because it's after 'cut' that you can get that gem of a moment, or the change of tone for the editor."
“I’ve tried to treat each film as the first one I’ve ever shot. You’ve learned a bit, but you don’t take the last film you shot to the next film. Every script is a brand new film. I go into it with a clean mind, although I have stolen other guys’ ideas. But I always try to keep an open mind." John added that he will take several months off after each feature, "to clear the brain and try and get rid of that last film, of all the feelings."
"You want to search for any little way to heighten the reality without wrecking it, and taking the audience out of the film."
John recalled that he and Peter Weir were "a little nervous" about shooting Witness, their first American film with box office star Harrison Ford, and decided to try doing a storyboard. When they got to the set, Weir asked John to tear up the storyboard, saying: "That's what came off the top of our head, I want to go deeper than that."
Your own images
Towards the end of the session, we invited John's son Derin Seale to speak about his work as second unit director of the powerful battle scene from Cold Mountain. Derin explained that Minghella wanted the footage to seem like a scene from Dante's Inferno. It was inspiring to see the father step back and give the floor to his son.
At the very beginning of the Master Class, John screened an impressive show reel featuring clips from his award-winning films. When the lights came up John started by telling the young cinematographers: “You must remember that everything up there is in the past, and all of you will be looking to the future. Please don’t feel that the way I’ve done it is the right way, it’s simply the way I did it. As you go into your film careers, your mind’s eye will find your own images.”
thefilmbook by Benjamin B
Where Credit is Due
The Panavision and Panalux seminars were made possible by a number of people including Hugh Whittaker from Panavision UK, Darren Smith, Ian Sherborn, Steve Howard from Panalux, Phil Radin from Panavision Woodland Hills, Alicja Chrzanowska, Piotr Hermanowski, Marcin Studniarek from Panavision Poland and Patrick Leplat from Panavision France, along with Barbaros Gokdemir, the people from Lava Films, and Kazik Suwala from Camerimage.