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DP Chat: Carnival Row cinematographer Chris Seager

By Randi Altman

For British DP Chris Seager, BSC, his path to movies and television began at film school. After graduation, he found his way to BBC Television’s film department, working on docs and TV movies, including John Schlesinger’s Cold Comfort Farm, starring Kate Beckinsale, Ian McKellen and Rufus Sewell. Soon after, he left the BBC and started his career as a freelance cinematographer.

Chris Seager

Seager’s CV is long, and includes the films A Kind of Murder, Retreat and New in Town and series such as The Alienist, Watchmen and most recently Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row. In fact, Seager, who has been working on Season 2 of the series, received an ASC Award nomination in the non-commercial TV series category for his work on Episode 5, “Grieve No More.”

The show, which stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, follows a variety of mythical creatures who had to flee their homeland for the big city during what looks very much like a fantastical Victorian era. As you can imagine, tensions grow between the local humans and these magical immigrants, who are forced to live in a ghetto known as Carnival Row.

We reached out to DP Seager to find out more about the show’s look, his workflow and what inspires him.

Can you talk about the look of the show?
There had been many discussions — between the producers, writers, Legendary, Amazon, the production designer, costume designer, etc. — before I came on board. The production design team had produced some very fine concept drawings that firmly put the show in a, shall we say, “Victorian period.”

That decision led everyone to research that period, so shape, color and design of buildings, sets, costumes and practical lights. For me, that meant the use of candles, oil and gas lamps and the warmth they generated in terms of color and quality of the emitted light from each of those sources. The variety of locations — from The Row exteriors to government buildings, a brothel, bars, upper class establishments and more — gave me many opportunities to use light sources to full effect.

The nighttime streets in The Row showed dark seedy corners and alleyways intermixed with orange dancing flames from braziers, with the street people warming their hands. The streets were awash with rain and mud, horses and carriages, humans, faes and pucks, all fighting their way through the smoke from the fires. It was backlit with a sultry greenish moonlight that gave the cinematic images that brought the viewer into the period. Daylight was slightly cold and threatening and was mixed with the oil lamp warmth on interiors.

How did the showrunners/producers tell you what they wanted for the look?
It all starts with the scripts. I’m a firm believer that it is the words that conjure up the emotions within the script, and in turn they are echoed in the cinematography. And not only the cinematography but the production design, the costumes the makeup, the visual effects, the editing.

In prep, I really like to spend time with the director and production designer going through the script page by page. It’s those first conversations that begin to bring life to the script, the mood of the actors in a scene, their emotions, their fear or anger, are they happy or sad. Just gaining that information from the director plants a suggestion of the feel of that particular scene, whether it’s hard shafts of light, high sun, moody sunset, soft silky light or dark dingy light.

A mood begins to be set and a discussion will take place about the use of the camera — whether it’s still, fast-moving, reflective or perhaps angry. Then comes the choice of the lens package. There are many choices and collectively — through the collaboration with the director — a mood and style emerges, which the team can take on board.

How early do you get involved in a production?
The cheeky answer to that is, probably never early enough. In truth, it does depend on the complexity of the production. You nearly always think you need more prep time, but invariably you just about get enough. Most departments in the filmmaking process would say the same.

Certainly, prep time is very important. It’s when you formulate the style, look and feeling of the piece. It’s also when you have time to meet, discuss, ask questions and get the answers that start to put shape to the project. Then you begin to plan scenes with the director and all the relevant departments that make up the team. On Carnival Row’s first season, I got six weeks of prep before we started shooting.

Can you talk about working with the show’s other departments?
One of the joys of being a cinematographer on a production is working with the other creative departments. Collectively, we are all responsible for giving the show a look. My first contact with other departments is usually the locations team and the production designer. Typically, these two teams have been busy before I arrive on the show, so some locations and set designs have already been looked at or even chosen.

During the first few days of my prep, I get up to speed quickly with their ideas and plans. This is often done with meetings with the showrunner, director, production designer, locations, 1st AD and visual effects to talk through the show’s concepts and journey. Then we discuss script requirements regarding locations or set builds and set extensions (CGI).

Do you enjoy working with the design team?
I love it. Lots of sets had to be built during the shooting of Carnival Row. Some were the mainstay sets, like the Constabulary, Spurnrose House, Balefire, Parliament and the boarding house. Then, of course, the backlot street set and numerous location sets, as well as real locations. Six stages were used at Prague’s Barrandov Studio. Discussions with the production designer were mostly about the size of a set, number of windows, entrances and ceilings, or whether to have them or not. And if you do have them, what’s their height, the set texture, color and darkness, etc. Not a day would go by without a discussion with the design team.

I would also talk the with costume and makeup departments about the colors of the costumes and hair styles, all important aspects of the show. There would be lots of “show and tell” with costumes and props. The makeup effects department was a fun place to visit. It was here where the wings of the fae were designed and built, along with the pucks’ horns and numerous dead bodies.

Can you talk about your camera team?
My A camera operator, Jakub Dvorsky, was a dream to work with. He somehow seemed to instantly understand what I would require with a shot. My gaffer, Enzo Cermak, was also exceptional, as was his team of talented friendly electricians. Thanks to Enzo’s help, I was able to effectively paint a scene.

Earlier you mentioned using candles, oil and gas lamps for lighting. Can you dive into that a bit further?
I liked the idea that the poorer streets of The Row had a cold daylight look to them, interspersed with firelight used for roasting chestnuts, cooking food or just for warmth. That, along with smoke from the fires, gave it a particular look. This cold light was used for the interiors scenes as well. For the Burgue, or well-off areas, we used warmer light with more contrast, and windows on sets were larger. This allowed more light in.

What about the nights?
Night shoots on The Row backlot were backlit or cross-lit with a blue/green moonlight, as referenced earlier. I used ¼ or ½ or sometimes full Wendy lights (tungsten) depending on distance from the set, with ½ blue and ¼ plus green gels. Invariably, if I used a ½ Wendy, one section would have ¼ or ½ diffusion filter as well as the moonlight gels. This gave me options to have a softer moonlight if needed, and I also had the ability to switch off sections of the Wendy lights to get the exposure levels that I wanted.

I would also use an LED tube balloon from a crane over the mid sections of the street set to allow a soft top moonlight. On the busy Row streets, I made use of brazier fires where street sellers cooked food. This gave me the warm light that contrasted with the moonlight. I would then add smoke and the scene would be set.

For interiors, I used a mixture of candles and oil lamps and, occasionally, gas lamps. Candles were used in the Haruspex set to great effect, and also the brothel set. Oil lamps were used in houses and the Constabulary.

Real oil lamps?
Some were real oil lamps and others were look-alike oil lamps. For these I used 650W lighting bulbs dimmed down to around 18% and then a slight flicker was added; the result was a very convincing warm glowing oil lamp look.

You mentioned that the show was shot in Prague?
Yes, Carnival Row was shot in the Czech Republic. The production base was at the historically built Barrandov Studio in Prague. Locations in and around Prague were also used.

You shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini. How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses this project?
Our frame size was a wide-screen format 1: 2.40. and the lens package was the ARRI Master Primes. The cameras gave us 3.2K upscaled to 4K picture quality. The wide-screen format gave us the ability to use the wonderful width of the frame to our advantage. The Master Primes give us the solid look that they are known for, with solid frames with little to no distortion and with good contrast.

Why the Alexa Mini?
I’m a fan of the ARRI Alexa range of digital cameras. I was always keen to use ARRI film cameras when film was at its height. When digital cameras started to become the vogue, ARRI brought out the D21 camera. It was a heavy, rather large camera with what would be described today as having limited digital prowess. Strangely, I liked the “look” this D21 gave me and used it on quite a few TV shows up until the ARRI Alexa hit the scene.

The Alexa was a game changer for cinematographers. I believe that the Alexa Mini was designed to be used as its name suggests: as a compact camera to be used in tight corners or on weight-limited camera rigs, like Steadicam and stabilized rigs. However, it was soon being used as the studio camera on many productions, and thanks to upgrades over time, it has become my “must-have” camera. It has a wonderful look, and when used in low light, it seems to have a different life. You can push it and pull it into different exciting looks. It’s my friend.

Any scenes that you are particularly proud?
There are many, but here is an example of one such scene. It’s in Season 1, Episode 5, directed by Andy Goddard. Philo (Orlando Bloom) revisits his childhood orphanage to investigate a murder. Between me and Andy, we set up a series of shots following Philo into his old dormitory as memories of his childhood come flooding back.

With no words spoken, we tracked with him through the numerous beds in this grey stone room, with haze-filled soft light coming through tall soulless windows. This gave the room a monochrome feel — a going-back-in-time look. We then devised a camera dolly shot that tracks and pans with Philo on the dolly and moving with the camera as if he is floating. As we tracked, we panned the camera along with Philo, and that developed into a flashback of him as a child with his friends. We then cut out to a wider shot to reveal just Philo standing alone, and the flashback has disappeared. We used this technique a couple of times within those scenes and they were both telling and subtle.

 

Is this like any other project you’ve worked on?
A short answer to that is no. Working on Game of Thrones (Season 3)is probably the nearest it gets, but Carnival Row is a very different beast. Each episode had a wonderment about it and is very magical in some way. The whole series was written as a fantasy world, set in a supposedly Victorian age, with humans, pucks and fae all thrown together. It was dark, mysterious, dangerous, intriguing and exciting.

How did you become interested in cinematography?
It all started when I was 11 years old. The family TV, one late September night, suddenly went bang, with a cloud of blue smoke and a flash. I was somehow fascinated by this event, and on my 12th birthday, my parents bought me a wonderfully illustrated book on how television worked from the television studio to the home. I was then on a mission to be involved somehow in the TV/film business. Art was one of my favorite subjects at school and my art teacher encouraged me to take up photography alongside my painting.

At 18 years old, off I went to art school to study photography. I enjoyed my first year, but I somehow became more interested in the team-oriented film and TV crowd. I moved from photography to cinematography, and the rest is history.

What inspires you artistically?
The obvious answer to that is art. Paintings inspire me. They always have. The way an artist uses light, shape, form, darkness, color, technique, composition, aspect ratio and sheer size or smallness of a canvas, how depth is created, senses of emotion, fear, happiness. Photography equally inspires me. Black and white versus color and that “decisive moment” when the shot is taken, a magnificent moment.

How do you stay on top of new technology?
Advancing technology comes at you from seemingly every direction today. The speed of that advancement during the 20th and 21st centuries is outstanding. I started shooting film at school with a clockwork wind-up 16mm Bolex camera with just two lenses, and look where we are now. I love the technical revolution. It’s important to embrace it, otherwise it overtakes you.

I seem to always be reading trade magazines to see the new developments. It’s also important to talk with other cinematographers to discuss their views and experiences on new technology.

Looking back, what technology has changed the way you work?
I suppose the biggest game changer, apart from digital cameras, is the advancement in LED light fixtures. For me, to be able to use light fixtures like the ARRI SkyPanel LED range — it offers low power and low-output heat, bi-color capabilities, dimming and effects… plus it has firmware that lets you produce gel colors across the spectrum — is just awesome. Camera and grip technology have also changed. The use of high-quality/small-footprint drones are an example, along with telescopic cranes with stabilized heads and cable camera systems.

Digital cameras have advanced over the last few years too, with 4K and 6K capability along with ISO changes from the base ISO of 800 to 2500 and 5000. There’s also the on-set color grading facility that enables the cinematographer to put his/her “look” on to the dailies.

What are some of your best practices you try to follow on each job?
For me, being well prepped and turning up on set early every day is a must for me. I have that nervous adrenaline hit within me at the start of the shooting day. A mixture of excitement and just nerves, which is the way I am. As soon as the rehearsal starts, I’m calm… well, mostly.

Getting into the director’s head [so to speak] is also important for me. Finding out what they like or dislike. We have to be a team and that includes the 1st AD, production designer, operator and many more. It’s important to remember that filmmaking is a team effort and I,  for one, encourage input from my team.


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 


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