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Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey has worked with Joe Wright since a 25-year old Wright made the 1998 short film “The End.” Since then the British filmmaker has become one of his generation’s most notable directors and McGarvey has been along for the ride every step of the way.
In 2007, McGarvey earned an Oscar nomination for lensing “Atonement," which led to higher profile features such as last year’s “The Avengers.” It was only near the end of shooting “The Avengers” that Wright asked McGarvey to join him on “Anna Karenina.” And is McGarvey ever glad he did, with the journey culminating in his second Oscar nomination.
Wright’s talent was always apparent, McGarvey says, “a precocious talent.” But he’s also amazed at how he has developed that gift. “Obviously maturity and wisdom comes with life,” he says.
Wright pushed his talent, as well as that of his crew, to the edge in “Anna Karenina” with its unique theatrical framing device and visual style. McGarvey nonetheless did not doubt his director. When McGarvey came aboard the film, Wright had radically changed its visual conceptualization, moving from a relatively standard approach to shooting to the very stylized and theatrical take on Tolstoy’s epic we ended up seeing on screen. While many members of the crew were alarmed with this approach, McGarvey was confident it would work.
“There was a worry that it could have been made too ornate or camp," he says, "but I think it worked very well. With Joe, his imagination is so vaulting, but I’ve always trusted it. I had a blind faith it would work.”
McGarvey notes that the different styles of filming – on the stage, in a cramped apartment and in the fields – were chosen carefully, and the resulting different looks were deliberate. “What we wanted to express in the theatrical realm was a kind of ossified fading Czarist Russia," he says. "What we wanted to express in the landscapes was a more positive hopeful future, in line with the book and Tolstoy’s socialist cradle – a kind of hopeful view of an agrarian future.”
This clearly affected the photographic choices, as McGarvey tried to employ natural light or bring in sunlight to result in smoother camera movements in the landscapes. This conveyed a kind of idyllic sensibility. In the theatrical realm, and certainly in Karenin’s apartment, he sought contrast and a brittle feeling.
In order to work on the movie, McGarvey did need to use many theatrical lighting techniques, something he had never before done on a film. He uses the particular example of when Vronsky dances with Anna Karenina in the auditorium and the camera ends up swirling as he lifts her up in the air, a shot recently spotlighted (so to speak) in Kris Tapley's annual "Top 10 Shots of the Year" column.
“Lighting has changed throughout the scene and when the camera moves back, Anna and Vronsky are left with single spotlight – alone in their love," McGarvey explains. "Gradually people start peppering back into the auditorium. It’s a way of expressing inner emotion and making camera move from objective to subjective and back.”
One of the reasons McGarvey loves working with Wright is that the director gives his crew specific guidance on what he wants, but gives them great range to realize that. “He’s very adept technically but he trusts us to do our job," McGarvey says. "He knows lenses and knows about light but he isn’t prescriptive or didactic.”
This “democracy of ideas” extended to the heads of other departments, and he describes not only Wright but also production designer Sarah Greenwood, who has become a very good friend after also working on “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” as “co-cinematographers” of a sort. “We sit down and table ideas in a very democratic way," McGarvey says. "Most of the time ideas originate with Joe but we all chew over these ideas. It’s hugely enjoyable and I think that the visuals are stronger because of that collaborative approach.”
Growing up in a small town in Northern Ireland, McGarvey first became interested in still photography when very young. He used to shoot photos around his town. He certainly admits that technology has changed since then but he insists it has not really affected the core of what he does. “I don’t let the technique direct me," he says. "I like to get inspiration through other avenues and not worry about lenses and film and the like."
As for the Oscar race? “It’s really exhilarating," he says. "At the nominees luncheon I got to meet my heroes. I exchanged name tags with Janusz Kaminski and everyone was telling me how brilliant I was!”
This self-deprecating humor aside, it’s clear that McGarvey truly is awestruck by the honor – but not only that. “Apart from being such an honor, it’s fun," he says. "There’s an excitement that everybody feels and weirdly the camaraderie brings us together. Yesterday Ben Affleck came up to me and I nearly fainted. It’s very, very exciting. I’m glad that I’m actually working or else I’d get too worked up about it!”
"Anna Karenina" hits DVD/Blu-ray this Tuesday, February 19.
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