Urban Cinefile
".the sex symbol of geekdom and nerdiness, the pinup hunk of the losers' tribe - Noah Taylor.."  -The Bitch, in Urban Cinefile, about Australia's love of losers, viz Shine
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday August 14, 2019 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



As he prepares his acceptance speech, Australia’s first cinematographer to be honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Plus Camerimage Festival in Poland (November 16 – December 3, 2011), John Seale AM, ACS, ASC plans to make the point that “you can’t do this work by yourself – the award is a great compliment to the people I’ve worked with,” he tells Andrew L. Urban. 

For one example, he cites Mo (for Morris) Flam, a New York based gaffer (head lighting electrician) he was introduced to when shooting The Firm with director Sydney Pollack. “We were to shoot on the East Coast and I didn’t know anybody, so I rang fellow Aussie cinematographers Dave Gribble and Geoff Simpson for advice. They both suggested Mo …. And now they keep jibing me that I stole him from them.” Seale has used Flam on seven of his films.

The 19th Plus Camerimage, held this year in the unpronounceable city of Bydgoszcz, 270 kms North West of Warsaw, will not only present him with this significant award, but is also publishing a book dedicated to his career. The Festival is screening a retrospective of Seale’s films (a selection from over 40 he has shot) over one full week. 

"the premier Festival of its type in the world"

President of the Australian Cinematographers Association (ACS), Queensland based cinematographer Ron Johanson says “Camerimage is the premier Festival of its type in the world. It has universal appeal to cinematographers world wide and to all those associated with cinematography. It is the one Festival we cinematographers all aspire to attend at least once in our lifetime.” Finally, Johanson gets his wish, accompanying Seale to the event “for official moral support”.

Seale will also have personal moral support, his wife Louise, to whom Seale owes a debt of gratitude for keeping the family going while Seale was away on locations around the world. “I’d be gone for five or six months at a time,” he says, “and I missed much of the school years of our kids (Derin and Brianna). For Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone I was away for 11 months! Louise and sometimes even the kids would come over for a visit – it was hard, but we battled through it. It was a real test for our marriage. I give Louise a lot of credit for her support.”

His low key manner, easy sense of humour (with a cheeky grin) and an inventive, can-do attitude has endeared him to his peers and his friends. He is discreet with stories from the set and can tell them without betraying confidences.

"I don’t know anyone who doesn't admire John"

“I don’t know anyone who doesn't admire John,” says Johanson, “not only as a cinematographer, an operator, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a teacher, a mentor a mate or more importantly as a human being.”

Seale's early films include several directed by fellow Australian, Peter Weir, first as a camera operator on Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981), and as a cinematographer on Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), and Dead Poets Society (1989). Seale has worked with many acclaimed directors, including Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), Barry Levinson (Rain Man), Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Rob Reiner (The American President, Ghosts of Mississippi), Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist), and Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm).

His reputation grew quickly; after winning AFI nominations and awards for his earliest films in Australia in the early 80s, Witness was his first film in the US – and he earned his first of four Academy Award nominations for his work. The English Patient earned him the coveted Oscar statuette as well as a BAFTA. The ACS also honoured him for a second time with its Cinematographer of the Year Award, two years after the first, for Goodbye Paradise (1983). 

"Seale’s awards and nominations kept coming"

Seale’s awards and nominations kept coming, but it was not until this year that his entire body of work was getting recognition. Earlier this year he was given a standing ovation by 1,500 guests at the presentation of the American Society of Cinematographers International Award in Los Angeles for his outstanding achievements.

“It takes me a while for these things to sink in,” he says from his Sydney Northern Beaches home during a short break from working on his beloved yacht, “but that standing ovation made me realise how important it is.” He values all his many awards, and fully appreciates the honour of the Camerimage award, whose previous recipients include Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács and Dante Spinotti.

“It’s fantastic; I used to think this is an award they give to people shortly before they die, but it’s not. It seems to be given as recognition for a body of work and it’s lovely to think it’s appreciated. And I can still keep on working,” he laughs.

"It’s hard to find those nice projects like The English Patient or Cold Mountain"

Yes, but working in a rapidly changing cinema. “The film industry is going in weird ways,” he says. “It’s hard to find those nice projects like The English Patient or Cold Mountain. Most of the big films now are either end-of-the-world epics, comics or action sequels. Most of the work for real cameras is in second unit, and the rest is done with CGI. It’s not great work for filmmakers.”

He misses the “lovely, close relationships” with directors and actors which made his job richer and more satisfying. Seale recalls the start of production on Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), starring Dustin Hoffman as the autistic savant Raymond and Tom Cruise as his selfish brother Charlie.

“We were in pre-production and Dustin was worried. He said to me, “I still haven’t found my character…” I said ‘Well, you’d better hurry, you only have a week before we start shooting.’ On the first day, we were doing a scene in which Dustin and Tom sit on a park bench and Tom says something like ‘Let’s go inside’ and they have to walk across to the building. Tom gets up and walks across the grass towards the building – and I say to Dustin, ‘Wouldn’t Raymond walk on the path, avoiding the grass.’ So he takes the path, a longer way, but it’s what his character Raymond would do, stick to the path. Well, Dustin was all hugging and grateful. He said “Gee, it’s so great to have a camera crew who think for you!”

Whenever he’s asked why he hasn’t worked on any Australian films back home (and he’s had lots of offers), he always answers that he is reluctant to take the work away potentially “from a young Aussie cinematographer on his or her way up”. 

He did, however, take a stab at directing a film that was partly shot in Sydney and Vanuatu (Till There Was You, 1991), with a result that he says “didn’t work for anybody.” But it did serve one purpose, to give him a different slant on filmmaking. “That was a big change, a big eye opener, showing a whole other set of complexities. I wasn’t overly joyed with it but it’s made me a better cinematographer.”

"I’m always trying to make the best film ever made"

In any case, he says, “I’m always trying to make the best film ever made.”

There is one thing Seale is self confessedly “anal” about when shooting, and that’s geographical continuity – or, not ‘crossing the line’ in filmmaking parlance, “to give the editor a flowing film. It’s old textbook stuff, but I believe it provides the psychological satisfaction for the audience, even if they don’t analyse it as such. Some directors don’t care, though. I was working with Rob Reiner (Ghosts of Mississippi, 1996) and at one point I said ‘We’re crossing the line here,’ but he looked at me coldly and said ‘I’ve got the best editor in the world’. So I replied, ‘Do you want to give him a break?’” 

Johanson is full of praise for Seale’s work. “He believes it’s his role as the cinematographer to put things in place to give the director the ‘right stuff’ to make the scene work. He is incredibly quick, resourceful and delivers material that is beautiful to watch.”

"The first Australian to be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award"

The first Australian to be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award, Seale follows in the footsteps of legendary cinematographers Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storaro, Witold Sobociñski, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács, Giuseppe Rotunno, Billy Williams, Owen Roizman, Freddie Francis, William Fraker, David Watkin, Tonino Delli Colli, Robby Müller, Stephen Goldblatt, Pierre Lhomme, Dante Spinotti, and Michael Ballhaus.

The Tourist (2010
Poseidon (2010)
Spanglish (2006)
Cold Mountain (2003)
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone (2001)
The Perfect Storm (2000)
The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)
At First Sight (1999)
City of Angels (1998)
Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
The English Patient (1996)
The American President (1995)
Beyond Rangoon (1995)
The Paper (1994)
The Firm (1993)
Lorenzo's Oil (1992)
The Doctor (1991)
Dead Poet's Society (1989)
Rain Man (1988)
Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Stakeout (1987)
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Children of a Lesser God (1986)
The Hitcher (1986)
The Empty Beach (1985)
Witness (1985)
Winners: Top Kid (1985)
Silver City (1984)
BMX Bandits (1983)
Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)
Goodbye Paradise (1983)
Ginger Meggs (1982)
Fighting Back (1982)
Doctors & Nurses (1981)
The Survivor (1981)
Fatty Finn (1980)
Death Cheaters (1976)

Published October 31, 2011

Email this article

John Seale

NOTE: Seale will be the subject of a career interview (with Andrew L. Urban) illustrated with several clips, on Sunday, November 6, 2011 (4pm – 7.00pm), at the ACS National Headquarters Level 2, 26 Ridge St. North Sydney. Pay at door $30 for reserved seats- book by EMAIL

John Seale - on the set of The Tourist (2010)







John Seale was awarded the A.M. (Member of the Order of Australia) in the 2002 Queen's New Years Honours List for his services to the arts as an Australian and internationally acclaimed cinematographer.

He is a multi-award winner. Here are a few of his many accolades.

He won an Academy Award for The English Patient (1997) and has been nominated three times for Cold Mountain (2003), Rain Man (1988) and Witness (1985).

He won the BAFTA Award for The English Patient (1996) and was nominated for Cold Mountain (2003), The Talented Mr Ripley (2000), Gorillas in the Mist (1990), Witness (1985)

He was awarded the America Society of Cinematographer's International Award in 2011, having won it in 1997 for The English Patient. (He was also nominated for Cold Mountain, The Perfect Storm and Rain Man).

He was inducted into the ACS Hall of Fame by the Australian Cinematographer's Society in 1997, having won Cinematographer of the Year in 1985 and 83 for Witness and Goodbye Paradise. He won the AFI Award in 1983 for Careful He Might Hear you and was nominated for Silver City (1984) and The Survivor (1981)

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2019