The Tourist: John Seale ASC, ACS

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In the new film The Tourist, which is adapted from a 2005 French film, Anthony Zimmer, Johnny Depp takes the lead playing an American tourist traveling abroad to mend a broken heart. While on a train from France to Italy, he finds himself in a flirtatious encounter with Elise (Angelina Jolie) an elegant English Interpol agent.  The pair is soon sought out by the police and criminals who mistake Frank for Elise’s lost, law-breaking love. Their whirlwind encounter quickly evolves as they find themselves unwittingly thrust into a deadly game of intrigue, romance and danger

The directorial effort of Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, who won the foreign film Oscar for The Lives of Others, was the visionary for this beautifully filmed movie. Though it took Von Donnersmarck five years to finish The Lives of Others, he was given only a year to complete The Tourist due to Depp’s busy schedule. The cinematographer tasked to help accomplish this was John Seale, ASC, ACS.

Seale was born in Warwick, Queensland, Australia, where he started off as a camera assistant in the film department of the Australian Broadcasting Company. At a young age, Seale always imagined himself working as a camera operator on documentaries, filming remote people and animals in the outback. Luckily for him, the ABC gave him that opportunity. Their system was set up a little differently than ours though. Australia didn’t want cameramen to stay stagnant, so they would move them around to learn different genres. One year you would be doing documentaries, the next, news stories and so on and so forth. It wasn’t until Seale landed in the theatrical department that everything changed for him. “The cameras bumped up to a 35mm negative and suddenly we were creating drama rather than documenting it. I fell pretty much in love with it from that very moment,” says Seale.

Seale on location

Needing to basically work backwards to get his chops as an operator, Seale started to freelance until he landed on a TV series called Wandjina. He eventually landed his first major camera operating role on Picnic at Hanging Rock with director Peter Weir. After working as an operator and getting recognition, Seale became a bit torn between staying as an operator or to begin working with lighting. His solution — he did both, and still enjoys being behind the camera to this day. When Seale started winning awards in Australia for his cinematography, Weir asked him to fly out to the United States to shoot Mosquito Coast, but that collapsed. A few weeks later, Weir and Seale went on to film Witness. The success of the Oscar nominated film gave them the finance to do Mosquito Coast. From there, Seale’s career took off and he’s gone on to do movies like Rain Man, The Firm, The English Patient, The Perfect Storm and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Working with all new directors, Seale really tries to find their bandwagon and jump on it in pre-production. With Von Donnersmarck, it was no different. For this film, Florian knew he wanted to reference an older style of film similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. He wanted to capture the warmth and film as much of the beauty as he possibly could for The Tourist. Thankfully for Seale, the backdrop of the narrative moves through Paris to the canals of Venice, a much friendlier place to capture breathtaking landscapes. Having worked in Italy before on The Talented Mr. Ripley, Seale decided to bring along most of the same crew from that movie and the Prince of Persia, including supervising gaffer Morris Flam. This way he knew he had a proven crew he could work together with and make the best possible film.

The straight-talking Seale explains the way he works is quite simple — he always uses multiple cameras, zooms, cross-shooting and high-speed Kodak stock. It’s the way he does all his movies. “It takes a while for some directors to warm up to this style of shooting,” mentions Seale, “The actors love it since eveyrthing they perfrom could possibly be used. The best part, it moves production along and keeps everyone working… one of the worst things on a big show is stopping and waiting for something to come together.”

Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany) & Frank (Johnny Depp) inside Interpol

Since Florian was determined to give life to every shot, up to three Panavision cameras were used at once with an 11:1 [24-275mm] zoom lens being their staple. This helped keep the “always moving, always working pace” Seale has grown accustomed to. “I tend to move along and have a respect and regard to the schedule and budget… something I never try to go over,” says Seale.

Most of the film was locked down with very little steadicam. The Venice canals, on the other hand, brought their own problems with lighting. The big action scene in The Tourist is a boat chase at night. The wide angle lenses they were using were too slow and they couldn’t lift everything up to 4.5 like they wanted to. As for placing lamps on buildings and balconies, it was too expensive. Using balloons became too windy, and the canal lights only gave about three feet of lighting. They had to boost every shot. Seale couldn’t thank enough the Italian crew that helped them get through everything. “They have a system put in place and they do an unbelievable job,” mentions Seale.

A lot of big lights ended up being in the shots and Seale relied heavily on the new fine grain negative and high speed film to help compress the flair out — which it did. With the anamorphic lenses, he relied more on the DI for exposure. By adding smoke to the scenes, it helped fix things up on the negative. Even if the DI started to gray out a little, it at least matched the smoke a bit.

During the five months of shooting, Florian really wanted to develop a very rich, surreal film where nothing was dark. He wanted the audience to see Venice all the time. “Jon Hutman, the production designer, was extremely helpful and did everything he could to accommodate Von Donnersmarck’s vision,” explains Seale. Hutman made things a lot easier for Seale as well. “They built us sets in such short notice that looked just as authentic as anything in the street,” says Seale.

The final result of the entire team’s efforts represents another example of how good people come together to make something great.  Coming from an Australian background of a smaller crew means more work; Seale mentions this show was no different. “Everyone worked extremely hard and without that taking place, they couldn’t have done it.”

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