Though this year’s Oscar ceremony may be Seamus McGarvey’s first as a nominee, the cinematographer is certainly no stranger to awards buzz. As one of this year’s most nominated films—and the Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture—McGarvey’s been riding Atonement‘s wave of success and collecting his own share of accolades along the way. In addition to his Oscar nod, McGarvey’s work behind the camera has been singled out by the American Society of Cinematographers, BAFTA, Chicago Film Critics Association, Irish Film and Television Awards and the Online Film Critics Society. Only time will tell if he’ll walk away from the Kodak Theatre with a golden statue come Oscar night. But as he prepares for his night in the spotlight, MM got the lowdown on how he’s getting ready.
Bob Fisher (MM): How and when did you meet Atonement director Joe Wright?
Seamus McGarvey (SM): Joe and I met about 15 years ago in London, when I was shooting music videos and documentaries for Oil Company Films. He directed some music videos and a short film called The End that I shot for him. We remained friends over the years.
MM: What is the story about?
SM: Atonement is based on a novel written by Ian McEwan. The story spans three periods in the lives of Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), who was a servant at their family estate. It begins in England in 1935, when 13 year-old Briony falsely accuses Robbie of committing a crime. The second period begins in 1940 with England at war. Briony is working in a hospital and trying to mend her relationship with Cecilia. Robbie is on the beach at Dunkirk with thousands of other British soldiers who are waiting to be evacuated as the Nazi army approaches. The third period takes place when Briony is an elderly writer being interviewed about her career.
MM: Did you look at and discuss visual references during pre-production?
SM: [Production designer] Sarah Greenwood had a huge collection of decorating magazines, including Country Life. We referenced pictures from the period and places in those magazines. We also looked at various films, including In Which We Serve, a David Lean movie from 1942. One of the stars was Celia Johnson. Joe was interested in the sensibilities of her performance, the cinematography and production design. Later, Joe encouraged me to listen in on his discussions with the actors. That gave me a broader appreciation for how he wanted to depict them during the three periods.
MM: With the three diverse period looks, I imagine that a collaborative relationship with the production designer must have been important.
SM: It was absolutely vital. Sarah and set decorator Katie Spencer were wonderfully collaborative. They created sets with the right environments that also facilitated the motivated lighting we did.
MM: Why was Atonement produced in Super 1.85:1 format?
SM: We wanted to be on the edge between objective and subjective imagery. We spoke about framing images in 1.33:1 or 1.66:1 aspect ratios, but decided that wouldn’t give us the space to put characters in their environments. We also discussed shooting the Dunkirk beach scenes in anamorphic format (2.4:1 aspect ratio), but decided that the perceived grandeur of this format wouldn’t be appropriate. When we scouted locations, Joe and I agreed that a squarer, more vertical Super 1.85:1 frame felt right.
MM: Why not shoot in straight 1.85:1 instead of Super 1.85:1format?
SM: With the Super 1.85:1 format, you use the entire frame, including the part of the negative that was once reserved for the sound track. I knew that we would be shooting some scenes with high-speed stocks in lower key light. Using the greater negative area of Super 1.85:1 allowed me to keep the grain to a minimum, which was the right for this film. We also knew that we were going to do a digital intermediate (DI) on the film, so it made sense to give ourselves the larger negative.
MM: Tell me about the visual grammar at the beginning of Atonement.
SM: The opening sequence has kind of a nostalgic quality with a sense of what life was like for people in the upper class in England in the looming shadows of the coming war and the reality of all that was happening in the world at the time. Many of those scenes were filmed in a house on an estate which was built in 1898. There is kind of a staccato visual rhythm at the start of the film. The audience meets Briony when she is 13 years old. She is a mischievous person who uses a typewriter to write her stories. Dario Marianelli composed and recorded a score mimicking the sounds made by typewriter keys as she walks around the house and skips down the stairs. The interior of the house was on the dark side. We lit daylight scenes through windows with 18K and 12K PARs. It looked like hot summer sunlight. Sometimes I let that light go four to five stops over-exposed. The hot, blown out sunlight and the luster of glimmering reflections contrasted with shadowy darkness in the house. I used filtration behind the lens made from a black silk stocking, which softened the look a bit.
MM: How did you differentiate the look in part two?
SM: In different ways. For instance, I didn’t use the silk stocking behind the lens, and I overexposed the negative just a bit to make the black tones slightly darker with a little more contrast. We enhanced that look a bit during DI timing.
MM: Were you typically covering scenes with one or multiple cameras?
SM: We were using two cameras most of the time, particularly when we had children in scenes. Our goal was to get shots with children in the first take. Sometimes the cameras were side by side covering scenes from different angles, or maybe one was on a close-up and the other one was on a medium shot. We were on a tight shooting schedule, so we did a lot of leapfrogging.
MM: What you mean by “leapfrogging”?
SM: Joe and I would plan what we were going to shoot the next day the night before, so there was a shot list in the morning for all departments, including our plan to leapfrog from one shot to another. The B camera grips were setting up the next take while we were shooting, so we could finish a shot and leapfrog to the next one.
MM: There are wonderful close-ups that remind us of faces in Ingmar Bergman movies that were shot by Sven Nykvist where the eyes of characters revealed their souls. How did you approach shooting those close-ups?
SM: Every shot was different, but we generally lit faces with a 4K or another lamp bounced off of foamcore through silks, so skin tones are natural looking, and the audience can see the light in the character’s eyes.
MM: What was your palette for recording images?
SM: I used three Kodak Vision 2 color negatives, (100T) 5212, (200T) 5217 and (500T) 5218 depending upon the scene.
MM: The word “collaboration” has come into this conversation many times.
SM: Joe was the leader of the pack; he was absolutely collaborative. That extended to having everyone watching film dailies together, including the editor, Paul Tothill. We had an ARRI LocPro projector and a screen in a tent wherever we were shooting. It was a relaxed environment and communal experience that bonded us together and kept everyone excited and feeling like we were doing something special. It brought people together in a primal way which resulted in a more organic feeling.
MM: You timed Atonement in digital intermediate (DI) format at Capital FX, in London, which is affiliated with EFilm, in Los Angeles. Share that experience.
SM: After the film was edited offline, the conformed negative was scanned at 4K resolution to preserve all the details on the negative. Joe and I approached timing the DI the same way we shot the film. We were making decisions in real time just like we did on the set in collaboration with DI colorist Adam Inglis.
MM: Did knowing there would be a DI affect how you shot scenes?
SM: I believe that it is important to do whatever is necessary to get the look you want on the negative, including flagging light and using the proper filtration.
MM: What is next for you?
SM: I am working with Joe Wright on The Soloist. It’s an uplifting story about a schizophrenic, homeless musician and his friendship with a journalist from the Los Angeles Times.