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Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC brings to life an extra-terrestrial sc-fi thriller



Whilst his private passions for astronomy, space and manned space travel were amongst the lures for Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC and his cinematographic attraction to Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi thriller Life, he was under no illusions as to the creative and technical challenges he would meet in bringing the script to fruition on the big screen.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s $80m production focuses on the crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) who encounter the first proof of extra-terrestrial life in a capsule returning from Mars. However, the seemingly benign organism, nicknamed ‘Calvin’, proves to be a lethal adversary, threatening not just the crew but life on Earth.

“I loved how taut and tense the script was – a rich seam of human emotions distilled into a pressure-cooker environment,” says McGarvey. But I was highly aware of the challenges regarding the photography, lighting and camera movement – given the limitations of size and space within our ISS sets – as well as the task of visually creating the impression of zero gravity.”

The production of Life was based at Shepperton Studios, UK, where multiple ISS-replica sets were built on the H and R Stages. Two short additional shoots were conducted at ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ studios in New York, and on the backlot at Pinewood Studios.

McGarvey says that initially Espinosa was keen to shoot Life on 35mm, but he convinced his director that, because of the low-light levels on-set, plus the cramped and awkward ISS sets, a more compact, digital camera package would be the most practicable solution.

“Although I had tested the ARRI ALEXA 65, I never used the camera system on a production before,” explains McGarvey. “I was attracted to the ALEXA 65, not for what it’s known for – epic landscapes and wide vistas – but for how the sensor mimics medium-format photography - its depth-of-field, the lovely way it records skin tones, and the fall-off on faces. It is a great portraiture format, with minimal distortion, backed-up by fantastic colour science from ARRI and Codex’s efficient camera-to-post workflow.”

Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC on the set of Nocturnal Animals

McGarvey opted for ARRI Prime 65 lenses, incorporating Hasselblad glass, as the high-performance optics would enable him to use wide lenses without the same distortion produced by a camera with a smaller sensor, while delivering a forgiving photographic outcome. McGarvey framed Life in 2.39:1, rather than 1.85:1, as along with using the format for portraiture, the wider aspect ratio would enable him to place faces at the edge of frame, and use the empty spaces of the picture to create a dramatic, edge-of-the-seat darkness.

ALEXA 65 was the main camera on first and second units. ALEXA Minis, fitted with Primos, were used as B-cameras on both units. Both the Prime 65s and Primos feature Lens Data Systems, which allow frame-accurate metadata about focus, iris and zoom settings to be recorded within the uncompressed ARRIRAW image stream. This metadata and the pictures passed from the in-camera Codex SXR Capture Drives (used with the ALEXA 65s) and CF2 cards (used with the ALEXA Minis) to a near-set Codex Vault S, before being processed through Pinewood Post for the editorial and VFX post production teams.

McGarvey also shot other sequences – such as Calvin POV shots through air vents, plus the innards of the ISS – using Codex Action Cam and Flare 4K SDI cameras. He even used an Apple iPhone 6s for various VOIP call scenes between the ISS crew and Earth. All of these camera rushes went through the Codex Vault too, under the auspices of the on-set DITs: Francesco Giardiello on H-Stage – who helped establish a full ACES pipeline on the production, performed on-set grading with Codex Live, and who McGarvey describes as a “key cohort” in the cinematographic workflow; and DIT Sean Leonard on R-stage. Data wrangler Christine Davis supervised the passage of the digital negative to Pinewood Post, based at Shepperton Studios, which performed the ALEXA 65 processing, data cloning and image QC using Vault XL, before creating of the editorial/VFX deliverables.

A look at DIT Francesco Giardiello on Life is available here.



During prep McGarvey immersed himself in the practical logistics of the lighting of the ISS sets with production designer Nigel Phelps, supervising art director Marc Homes, prop master Barry Gibbs and gaffer Lee Walters. Because of the restricted space – such as the astronauts’ sleeping pods and narrow 40ft-long connecting tunnels – the interior lighting of the ISS had to be integrated into the sets. Along with the in-camera practical lights, Walters designed an array of bespoke LED lights – low-profile, diffused, linear and circular boxes – using ribbon strips, which were all carefully positioned or concealed. McGarvey’s enterprising gaffer also devised a small hand-held LED pad that could be used beside the camera to provide gentle, diffused fill on the actors’ faces. All of these lights were wired to a dimmer board, controlled from an iPad, to allow the relationship of the lights to be adjusted as required by the scene and time of day.

To emulate the effect of direct sunlight, and the sharp shadows it creates in space, McGarvey hit with actors and sets with a direct beam of light from a K5600 Alpha 18K. To create the ambient bounce of light coming from Earth, ARRI SkyPanels were arranged as large soft boxes, with silks and double egg crates to channel the throw of the light. These fixtures could be also changed within seconds from cool daylight to blue/green moonlight settings, making the lighting set-ups fast and organic.

Whilst the lighting requirement proved one challenge, creating a feeling of weightlessness was quite another. Various solutions lay in suspending the actors from vertical wires (painted out in post) that fitted through a small channel in the roof of the tunnel sets, with the camera travelling on the end of a telescopic crane arm in coordination with the action. At other moments the actors were inverted on wires, facing head-down towards the camera, or strapped into tuning forks. Occasionally the actors rode a platform on a GF-8 jib arm, moved subtly to create the feeling of zero gravity. At other times, the actors were seated on large yoga exercise balls, kept discretely out of frame, and used their performance skills to create the appropriate appearance of weightlessness. One set of the crew’s sleeping quarters was built on a gimbal, which could be pivoted around an axis to allow for different configurations of wire-manipulations of the actors, to helping them to float in and out of their sleeping pods.

During production, Peter Robertson operated A-camera on H-Stage, with Alan Hall as the A-camera first AC. Iain Struthers was B-camera operator, with Olly Tellett as B-camera first AC. The R-stage unit DP and camera operator was Carlos De Carvalho, with Paul Wheeldon his first AC.

To expedite production, two camera units often ran side-by-side on Shepperton’s H and R stages. Typically, R-Stage DP/operator De Carvalho would rehearse and prep the complex stunt and wire moves, whilst McGarvey and Espinosa were shooting on H Stage. When their shoot on H Stage was complete, the pair would then shuttle across to R stage, leaving H stage ready for the next set-ups.

“We were never idle and this way of production proved very efficient,” says McGarvey. “I have known Carlos for 20 years and it was such a bonus to have his great eye and expertise on this feature. Lee, Gary and I were always migrating between the two stages, jumping between lighting and shooting and vice versa.”

McGarvey concludes, “Life is the most intense and technical production I have ever worked on – setting-up the constructed environments, preparing the cameras, the lighting, the stunts and weightless choreography – as so much of the technology and the techniques were new to us. I hope that, like me, audiences will feel that Life is a poignant, cautionary tale about how we treat one another.”

Images courtesy their respective owners.

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