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Monster Mash

Reprinted from the May 2014 edition of British Cinematographer - Subscribe

Camera Creative - Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC / Godzilla

Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC is well-known for his gentle and artistically sensitive work on films like Anna Karenina, Atonement and The Soloist, writes Valentina I. Valentini. However, as the cinematographer on the newest version of the Japanese monster legend Godzilla, he thoroughly enjoyed witnessing and being a part of what he says are “visual effects that I’ve never quite seen to be so integral in a movie.” 

Director Gareth Edwards is known for his multitasking roles as writer, director, cinematographer and VFX supervisor on the $800,000 post-alien invasion film, Monsters (2010), which returned $4.2m at the box office. However, he made a good-enough impression to the point that Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. trusted him enough to helm the $200million Godzilla blockbuster with stars Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. 

“He’s in no sense an ingénu,” offers McGarvey in regards to Edwards’ slim but growing CV. “Quite the opposite, in fact. His one-man-band work ethic from the Monsters experience made it clear that he is someonewho has the spurs needed to carry a film like this. He was one of the most prepared directors I’ve ever worked with, beginning months prior with extensive previsualisation that was completed even before I joined the project.”  

McGarvey hadn’t worked with Warner Bros. before, but was introduced to the film’s executives by Patricia Whitcher, with whom he had worked on The Avengers, his first VFX-weighted film. Initially, there was another project he was scheduled to shoot, but from the very first moment of meeting Edwards, McGarvey knew this was someone with whom he was keen to get on set. 

“I found it so impressive that Gareth had already done so much work on the production,” says McGarvey. “And even then was willing to bring me on as cinematographer for an extensive prep period, almost four months. I’ve never had that luxury before.” McGarvey professes that it made quite the difference, giving him time to get into Edwards’ head and spend considerable time with the art department for the design of the huge sets. He was able to weave practical lighting into the building of the sets because of his early presence with the team. 

According to McGarvey, Edwards wanted the film to be a terrestrial story, “a really immersive experience making the audience feel like they are right there on the ground,” he explains. “A lot of big effects movies tend to be roller coaster rides of objectivity that are spectacular to witness and are bombastic events. But from the outset, Gareth wanted something more firstperson than that.” 

Even though there was pre-visualisation by Third Floor before shooting, much visual effects collaboration with VFX supervisor Jim Rygiel (who has won three Academy Awards for his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and his team during shooting, and an exponentially larger number of visual effects credits after shooting, McGarvey is sure that this is the least VFX-heavy VFX movie he’s heard of.

“Gareth and Jim understood so well how to play with light to add to the mystery of this creature,” he says. “Through mutual discussions between us all, we were able to use light and distress flares to reveal the beast through the techniques within VFX that are intrinsic to lighting and photography. Cinematography is morphing into the digital realm and we apply these tools at our disposal. Necessarily we have to get into each other’s rice bowls, and I don’t mind that. My responsibility, as it always has been, is to make a welltold story with a camera.”

McGarvey maintained a very close relationshipwith Rygiel during the 96-day shooting schedule atCanadian Motion Picture Park Studios in Vancouver, British Columbia. He’d learned a lot about the VFX–cinematographer collaboration while on The Avengers,and claims he’s not afraid of the fact that VFX and cinematography are so superimposed on each other. 

“I’m a great fan of collaborating with the VFXdepartment,” he notes. “And it’s absolutely essential if we’re to hold on to the cinematographic through-line that begins at the conception of filmmaking. That has proven itself now more than ever.” 

With pre-visualisation, McGarvey realises that many creative minds go into that process. He sometimes finds that it can take the film down a different direction from what he might have intended when conceiving the visuals in terms of camera movement or the miseen- scene. “I love having a pre-viz,” he clarifies, “but I hate to rely on it slavishly.” 

At Edwards’ wishes, McGarvey went for a more naturalistic and handheld aesthetic, and due to that, pre-viz became more of a guideline to the team. “It gave us an indication of the amount of effects each shot might have, and helped us to communicate between the different departments on how best to achieve them. We still would come up with our own shot list and didn’t feel beholden to the pre-viz that way.”

Godzilla is 650-feet tall though, so they had to use their imaginations on set when filming scenes with the monster in them. Regardless of others wondering why they weren’t shooting in 1:85 in order to have at least a chance of getting him in frame, McGarvey chose to shoot in Anamorphic. 

“Godzilla’s scale is so huge though, that even had we gone with a wider aspect ratio, the only way you could see him was elliptically tilting up or down, or to show him in separate sections,” he says. “Actually, Gareth loved that notion – that Godzilla could only be seen in bits and pieces. That’s an old horror tradition in fact, just seeing glances of the villain.” 

The Anamorphic frame allowed them to truncate parts of Godzilla, and they had aerial plates of wider shots around San Francisco where they were able to reveal the full battle of the lead monster and his nemesis later in the film. 

First camera assistant William Coe had first broached the subject of Anamorphic lenses with McGarvey on The Soloist. He had been working with Tom Stern ASC on Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling and had used a beautiful set of updated Panavision Anamorphic C-series lenses – close to the very set that five years later they would use on Godzilla. 

“Seamus seemed to be really pleased with the dailies,” says Coe. “He loved how sharp the C-series are, but tend not to ‘fall off the table’ focus-wise. There is a definite shallow depth-of-field, which most DPs love, but the C’s have a way of blending the images so they have less harshness. I’m not nearly as artistic as Seamus is, but I’d say that there is more poetry in the C’s than any other glass.”

The Avengers was Coe’s first digital film with McGarvey and they weren’t able to shoot Anamorphic because there was concern that the height of the Anamorphic frame wouldn’t accommodate the huge overhead sets. On Godzilla this wasn’t a problem because the height issue wasn’t the practical set pieces but Godzilla himself, which was all VFX generated. 

“This being our first time shooting Anamorphic digitally,” recalls Coe, “it became apparent during tests that our lovely old set of C-series – which looked so great on 35mm film cameras – just weren’t measuring up under the scrutiny of the 4:3 sensor. All of the traits that give the C’s character on film looked like mistakes on the Alexa.” 

After screening their first batch of tests and coming up disappointed, Dan Sasaki of Panavision told them not to worry and that it could be fixed. 

“He took all our lenses and optimised them for digital photography and we shot our second round of tests,” says Coe. “Just like old times, the C’s looked beautiful once again. The slight softness of the lenses took the edge off the harshness. I think we ended up with a great combination of the acuity of digital capture, humanised by the artistry of the glass created some fifty years ago.” 

Using his own ARRI Alexa XT shooting at full frame 4:3 to a Gemini recorder, McGarvey and his camera team had been happy with the offboard recording system in the testing phase, but encountered issues during production with dropped frames. His says his camera is now upgraded and that he now has a Codex recording system, which he used on the upcoming Fifty Shades Of Grey

The original Godzilla was really the only reference Edwards and McGarvey looked at for inspiration. McGarvey wanted a more classic look, like that one, and a more human story. With that being said though, there are visually startling set-ups and a symphony of occurrences, particularly at the end of the film. McGarvey argues that the effects are woven into it and gently embedded into the story so well, that nothing seems manipulative in those scenarios.

Part of McGarvey and Edwards’ inspiration, at least in a narrative sense, was Steven Spielberg. Both are big fans of the blockbuster veteran and McGarvey especially appreciates his “adroitness and emotionality of storytelling,” but they didn’t want it to necessarily look Spielbergian. 

“We just wanted to try and attempt to tell a story as well as Spielberg tells a story,” admits McGarvey. “We looked at Battle Of Algiers (1966) and a few ‘70s movies like Close Encounters and then Klute for Anamorphic references. Gareth really loved the feeling of those ‘70s and early ‘80s films. Ultimately, our Godzilla evolved into its own feel with a more modern sensibility since we were shooting on digital. That was also a big reason for using the older lenses so as to avoid that always crisp edge.” 

While shooting, McGarvey and his digital imaging technician (DIT) Brian Broz created a very basic LUT, as he didn’t want to be married to any certain intrusive look to the movie. They had what McGarvey describes as a starting point – a film print emulation that had a consistency in terms of contrast and colour and a particular look for their two types of night. The first was a more orange and warm street light look with sodium halides, the second he used a quarter plus green and half blue for the “EMP” – the force field created by the monsters which cuts off all the electricity.

There have been 28 Godzilla movies made since Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla, and Edwards’ is yet another chapter in the Godzilla story. It’s not a remake. It’s very much its own narrative and doesn’t allude to other films or stories about Godzilla. 

“The creature has a very different feel in this film as well,” explains McGarvey. “It was so odd not having our main character on set while shooting the movie, but this guy wouldn’t have fit in the trailer anyway. When I finally got to see the film with Godzilla in it, I was just gob-smacked. There was this behemoth of a character, an allegory for nature and nature’s anger at human’s hubris and destruction of the planet. All of those things are important thematically to the story and come through very deliberately in the film. It’s so interesting to be told in a monster movie, but a monster movie with some profundity and a great message, I think.”