Twenty years later, John Seale, ASC, ACS looks back on his work in this fundamental first entry in the fantasy series.
Harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone introduced the characters and set the visual tone for a film franchise that would become part of the cultural zeitgeist. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film, shot by John seale, ASC, ACS and directed by Chris Columbus.
When Seale was first approached by producer Duncan Henderson to photograph the 2001 project, he was still unfamiliar with author JK Rowling’s best-selling book series. The Australian cinematographer was in London looking for another project: “[Henderson] says, “Listen, have you ever read a book called Harry potter? ‘ And I had to say, ‘Well, no, I didn’t; but I have vaguely heard that it is becoming a pretty iconic book. He said, “Well, why don’t you do yourself a favor, buy the book at Heathrow on the way back to Australia, and read it as fast as you can and come back to me.” “
Seale bought the book, read it nonstop on his flight, and called Henderson as soon as he landed to sign up for the project. While no one knew how successful the film was going to be, there was pressure early on to pick the perfect child actor to play Harry Potter. âI think my admiration for Chris Columbus exploded because they tested thousands of children,â recalls Seale. âI helped with the preselection when I came to England to get the camera crew and lighting crew together, but I have to hand it over to Chris Columbus. He was the perfect man for the immense job. He was like, “What do you think of this boy for Harry?” and I would have my opinion, like everyone else. But he made the final choices.
The film presented many unique challenges to Seale. âA lot of our settings were real castles or real chapels in England,â he explains. âIn some places, we weren’t allowed to touch the walls, even when we were filming indoors. Normal equipment, like wall breakers in the roof so you could hang lamps, with a pole across from wall to wall, was not available. To illuminate, Seale often had to rely on exterior lighting, simply adding eye light to the interior. Frames were designed to hang outside windows for gels and ND filters, as these were not allowed on the windows themselves.
âThere was, as always, with a film in pre-production, especially one of this nature, a lot of pre-production, discussion and analysis. Where will the look go in future films?
How do we establish this? “
– John Seale, ASC, ASC
By working around the constraints of the place and creating the look of the magical world of Harry potter, Seale credits his collaboration with production designer Stuart Craig: âI had previously worked with Craig on The English patient and loved the way he worked. He too had a huge job establishing the look of what would become eight films. There was, as always, with a film in pre-production, especially one of this nature, a lot of pre-production, discussion and analysis. Where will the look go in future films? How do we establish this? “
âThis is the first film and it will introduce the whole series. The family where Harry started, how he gets to Hogwarts, what happens when he gets to Hogwarts. So I decided to keep it somehow bright and airy, more like the normal world, nothing really dark to begin with. As the storylines started to develop a bit, a thin edge of the corner begins to appear in darker tones, thematically and visually. But basically we went for a very healthy introduction to the series.
Seal shot Harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone with Panaflex Platinum and Millenium cameras, sometimes shooting six units at a time. Each was equipped with the same zoom lens. âI’ve always liked zooms, since the days when zooms weren’t as good as they are today. I always try to shoot movies with the same lens so that the image quality is the same. Plus, I like the free feeling camera – the slow zooms during emotional moments to get the audience in â.
Running six cameras at a time allowed for full coverage of the child actors in larger scenes and saved the production from continuity issues. âI’ve always wondered how to turn on multiple cameras. Covering all the kids was my challenge and I loved making it work. We would have six cameras on hydraulic heads, working almost like a sports blanket, because these kids would go where they wanted during takes and we had to cover it. Six cameras were mainly used in the great room where we had 600 children. The rest of the time, we narrowed it down to two or four cameras, depending on what suited that scene. “
For Seale, the challenge of working primarily with primary children was lessened by support actors. “What worked brilliantly Harry potter was that we had this panoply of seasoned actors: Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman. If any of the characters missed their mark and were covered, they could just flip over and allow the camera to see them and that performance would be saved.
The challenges of filming the first Harry potter did not end with production. âIt was an interesting time as the wheel of the digital revolution had started to turn and developments were advancing rapidly. Digital intermediaries existed back then, but they were expensive. I was told that the Harry potter, they didn’t have the money to be a digital intermediary. So I had to use negative intermediate films. With the time needed for the visual effects in post, Seale found himself with only a handful of days to work with a colorist on the film once the reels were sent to him.
Looking back, Seale wants to be able to bring the technological advancements of the last 20 years to the first Harry potter movie. âIt was the last film I did just on film negatives and positives, until the print came out,â he says. âI would love to do it again, digitally. What you could do would be amazing, but we didn’t have that. Seale is a perfectionist in his work; âWith most of the films I’ve worked on, they’re finished, released, released in theaters. Then I could pick it up, six months or a year later, and look at it, and I just want to die. I just want to do it again. I keep looking at him, thinking, “What was I thinking?” Why did I do this? ‘ ”
Twenty years after the release of Harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, Seale is able to see the merits of the film as well as what it would change now. âWhen I saw the film again recently, I said to myself, ‘It’s still pretty good. I’m a little proud that he did so well. Even though we only had four days to do the full color, it still cleaned up I think. ”
The image would earn $ 974 million at the box office, launching one of the most successful movie series of all time.
Oscar winner and ASC award winner for The English patient, Seale received the ASC International Award in 2011.
Photos courtesy of John Seale.