As a filmmaking duo, director Joe Wright and director of photography Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC have blended literature and motion pictures in the arrestingly beautiful Atonement and the innovatively theatrical Anna Karenina, both of which brought McGarvey Oscar nominations. This time, their approach to period drama was designed as a musical adaptation of the stage play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Peter Dinklage in the lead role and Haley Bennett as Roxanne.
In their previous feature film work together, Wright and McGarvey tended towards wide-angle lenses when appropriate, and showed an affinity for shooting film emulsion. For Cyrano, they opted for ALEXA LF and Mini LF digital cameras and large format Leitz lenses. The ARRI LF cameras record ARRIRAW images to CODEX Capture and Compact Drives, a process that results in the richest, highest resolution digital files. A “more observational and less theatrical” approach offered greater freedom to follow the movements of the actors and the rhythm of the music, and leavened the music’s theatricality.
McGarvey says that the experience opened his eyes to new possibilities in digital cinematography.
“When we started shooting with the early iterations of digital media, there was certainly a disappointment in the mundanity of realness,” says McGarvey. “Where had the magic gone? Celluloid had a structural signature or identity which lent something unexpected or accidental to the image that was not what you see with your eyes. It was something intrinsically different to the real, a transformative aspect. The magic, what is special about a medium, is in its specificity.
"FOR THE FIRST TIME IN DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, I FELT THERE WAS SOMETHING I HADN’T EXPERIENCED BEFORE..."
“On Cyrano, the detail in the faces was extraordinary,” he says. “It’s almost like going under the skin. For the first time in digital photography, I felt there was something I hadn’t experienced before, in stills or shooting film. I’ve always loved medium and large format still photography. It’s about the way the lens connects with the sensor. Suddenly, I’m looking at a face in a different way. There is something more romantic than earlier iterations of digital, and it’s about focus, and the sharpness in the eyes. Digital cinematography is finding a way of artistic expression.
“I think digital can now go into different realms,” he says. “For the first time, it’s moved into its own world. It’s wonderful for wide shots and landscapes, but there’s something more. For one shot, we brazenly ripped off Bergman and Persona with a shot of the two faces of Roxanne and Cyrano combined into one very long shot. There something in that – the audience wants to touch the face, and to see the myriad shapes and colors on the eyes themselves. That’s why I love the format. It’s exciting.”
These delicate considerations, and the seemingly endless series of choices that lead to superlative cinema art, are often made under the most difficult circumstances. Careful prep is crucial, as is frictionless communication, in this case facilitated by PIX, X2X’s end-to-end collaboration tool that allows filmmakers to securely share data from script to casting, through production, VFX and post. If everyone is working towards the same goal, McGarvey can focus on what’s before the lens at the critical moment.
“On the set, everyone’s running around like headless chickens,” he says. “And yet, you’re about to make a decision. When the clapper board goes down, it’s so silent, and there’s a contract between you, the director and the actor. It’s such a sacred moment. I think it’s the essence of cinema, the ability to think with confidence, knowing that what you decide is going out into the world and will hopefully survive. A seemingly small decision helps to create an atmosphere that somebody somewhere will feel osmotically, and when it’s right it can be as elegant as a soliloquy. We think about technical considerations like lights and cameras, but they become silent things that speak so vividly to people. The written word can have a similar effect – you can feel that you’ve been spoken to by a writer. But in cinema, you’re in there – you’re dancing with the image itself.”
"DIGITAL CINEMATOGRAPHY IS FINDING A WAY OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION"
McGarvey’s work takes him around the world – Cyrano was made in Sicily – and often his crew consists of local people recommended by producers. Again, communication is at the heart of the endeavor. While language may sometimes present a barrier, with film pros, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
“I’ve found that generally people who are recommended are top shelf,” says McGarvey. “I love finding out how they do it. I try not to impose my formula. We’re a bloody centipede on overtime. You’ve got to understand how people move. It’s like working out a weird kind of dance. You have to be quite elastic as a filmmaker. Those differences can illuminate so much if you’re open to them. Every artist is different. If you allow those disparities, it can embellish your idea. Multiple ideas distilled down through the head of the department can become iridescent, and be imbedded into the film, and I love that.”
On the other hand, McGarvey’s 30 years of friendship and filmmaking with Wright undergird their collaboration. “When you meet someone for the first time on a professional level, there’s a sense of propriety and a gulf you have to traverse,” says McGarvey. “With Joe and me, it’s all right there on the table. I can throw out an idea and if it’s deflected, there’s no sense of injured pride. It becomes a lovely merger, and that is the same for all the heads of department. It’s a democracy of ideas, and Joe sort of pans for gold in these thoughts. It’s exciting when you feel that the very essence of filmmaking, which is necessarily collaborated, socialist and communal, is embodied easily within our little troupe. There’s a sense that our contributions are valid. Speaking for all of his collaborators, it’s a privilege to see our work conjoined in Joe’s vision.”
McGarvey is currently in Rome prepping a feature film for director Angelina Jolie.
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