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Interview with Seamus McGarvey, DOP for ‘Godzilla’
15 May 2014 : Deirdre Molumby
Seamus McGarvey is a renowned cinematographer from Co. Armagh who has produced a wide portfolio of critically-acclaimed dramas and blockbuster films. He has worked in several genres, from popular comedy features like ‘High Fidelity’, to moving dramas such as ‘The Hours’, ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ and ‘World Trade Centre’, and for action movies like ‘Sahara’ and sci-fi hit ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble’. Also well-known for his work with director Joe Wright, who he has collaborated with for ‘Pride & Prejudice’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, McGarvey’s latest work sees him return to big VFX in one of the most highly-anticipated films of the season – ‘Godzilla’.

How did you come to work on ‘Godzilla’ and to work with director Gareth Edwards?
“I initially got the call from Patricia Whitcher, one the executive producers of ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble’. She said she was involved with Warner Brothers and this film with Gareth Edwards. Patty invited me along for an interview with Gareth in Los Angeles. I had been hugely impressed when I saw his directorial debut ‘Monsters’, not just by how great a film it was but also by how meagre his resources were, and that he’d shot and done all the visual effects himself. It had been made for so little money and it was a moving film too. I hadn’t seen a monster movie like that since classic monster movies, when the monsters were more suggested.

“I could tell that here was a director who was a very upright storyteller and somebody who knew about cinematography and who I could have a cinematographic dialogue with, not only in terms of the effects that we were going to do but also in terms of storytelling. So often with these sorts of movies with big special effects, the directors can get carried away with the toy box of effects that are open to them and actually forget about telling a story coherently.”

Between this and ‘The Avengers’, you’ve produced incredible work on features with big special effects. How closely would you have worked with the VFX team through Godzilla?
“It was a very close, symbiotic collaboration. I think the way cinematography is evolving in these sorts of movies is very much hand-in-hand with visual effects, it has to be. A lot of work gets done in post, and it’s really essential I think, from both a cinematographer’s point of view and from a VFX point of view, that there’s a kind of cohesiveness and a sense of making a film in tandem.

“Post used to be just pasted on and stood out from the rest of the film with its different feel and different texture, and that often led to a lack of believability. What was intrinsic to the photographic philosophy of this film and what Gareth wanted was a very palpable sense of veracity, a truth to the image that this was actually happening. From that perspective, we used a lot of handheld work, we shot a lot from the human’s perspective on the ground and when the monsters appear, there’s a kind of frantic search for the monster. When we see things from the human’s perspective on the ground, there’s a sense of urgency and anticipation about what is going to happen, so the camera has a kind of personality as it too is in shock and awe at it all. There wasn’t grace to the photography, it was panic.”

What were some of the bigger challenges in shooting ‘Godzilla’?
“One of the biggest challenges was the lacunary presence of the beast, in other words, he wasn’t there! Our main character didn’t exist and couldn’t be seen, so that’s a challenge when you’re setting up shots and having to think in your mind’s eye, trying to triangulate his height in any given space and time. For example, if he’s half a mile away, he’d be about 355ft, so you’re constantly making these projections.

“Even when we were in close proximity, we were shooting anamorphic via a letterbox, cinemascope frame, which prohibits a tall shot of close quarters of Godzilla. But Gareth really loved the idea of having Godzilla truncated in pieces so there was a lot of mystery. For the night photography, we actively employed fuse and smoke, lighting effects, fire, so that Godzilla was revealed elliptically and sporadically. The big reveal of the beast actually comes relatively late.

“Another of the biggest challenges was a sequence that takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Obviously we couldn’t film there, because Godzilla tears it to shreds, so the art department, led by Owen Paterson, who designed ‘The Matrix’ among others, built the service of the bridge and the straits in Vancouver, where we shot most of the film. The set consisted of 450-500ft of bridge, and we surrounded it with green screen. Interestingly, for a lot of the film, there was not a huge amount of green screen. This is unusual for me because VFX films often employ a lot of it, but in this one, more rotoscope and roto work was done.

“So Gareth really wanted green screen for this particular scene because of the amount of movement, people running around, rain, etc. This huge set had a V-shaped green screen running the length of it. It was the biggest green screen scene I’d ever worked on. So that was a big challenge but it looked fantastic in the final film. I was at the premiere in the Odeon Square the other night and it was startling to see the sound, the music and all the effects come together. It’s incredible when you film something and then you see it with effects added in.”

What advice would you give aspiring cinematographers?
“I think a good cinematographer is a great companion to the director. Also, the visual strength of the film is greatly enhanced by a cinematographer who has sensitivity to light and to story. I think people just see cinematography as being about photography and innovative shots and beautiful lighting. We all want our movies to look great visually, to be beguiling and enticing, but I think that what really defines a great cinematographer is one who loves story.

“The talented Chris Menges [cinematographer and two-time Oscar winner] once said “I simply point the camera at the story.” It’s a bit trite, and not to diminish innovation or craft or the beauty of light, but I personally have tried to live that as a cinematographer because it’s really important that the camera cradles the story and brings it to the audience in a way that isn’t selfish but is right for the film.”

Can you tell us anything about your work for the upcoming films ‘Pan’ or ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?
“I am subject to not give away too much, but I can tell you that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is going to be incredibly sexy! I had a great time working on the film because it was with [director] Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is an artist that I have worked with for 25 years now. She is a great friend so there’s an immediate creative bond between us. Working with Jamie Dornan was also a pleasure; we had a great cast overall. I think it’s going to be a wonderful film.

“As for ‘Pan’, I can’t say much, but it’s with my old friend, Joe Wright, with whom I’ll have done four films with now. I love working with friends, and when you do several films with someone who you’ve known for a long time, it expands your creative horizons. I also think when you’re working with people you’re friends with outside of work too, you can be honest whereas when you’re working with a director for the first time, you might feel you have to tread carefully. Joe and I just have this conference of truth. We talk about different ideas and with other HODs as well. It’s just a joy to work with people like that, and I’m happiest when I’m working with friends.”

Seamus McGarvey is a two-time Oscar nominee and four-time IFTA winner.

A trailer for ‘Godzilla’, distributed by Warner Brothers, is available to view below. ‘Godzilla’ is out in Irish cinemas today, Thursday 15th May.

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