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Seamus McGarvey: I need to do big-budget films to do the smaller stuff

Twice nominated for Academy Awards, Armagh cinematographer Seamus McGarvey tells Jenny Lee about about his career in film-making, where he mixes working on blockbusters with his labour of love for low-budget movies and documentaries

Armagh man Seamus McGarvey is one of film’s foremost cinematographers. As part of this years' Cinemagic Festival he will be taking about his craft and offering advice to aspiring film-makers ahead of a screening of Avengers Assemble on October 15

FROM setting the tone of a movie to evoking emotions of fear, humour or mystery, the mastery of cinematography is a crucial part of the movie-making experience.

In charge of shooting the film, as well as heading the lighting department, cinematographers make some crucial decisions about the look and feel of a movie and support the director on set.

One of the best in the industry is Armagh-born Seamus McGarvey. Although renowned for his long tracking shots in films such as Atonement and Anna Karenina, which earned him Bafta and Oscar nominations, he describes his style as "invisible", preferring to let the story do the talking.

"I hate imposing a 'look' on a film", says McGarvey who certainly can't be accused of pigeon-holing himself into one particular genre or style.

Also Bafta-nominated in 2017 for Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, his further notable credits include The Accountant, Pan, Godzilla, Avengers Assemble and the psychological thriller We Need to Talk about Kevin, adapted from Lionel Shriver's novel of the same name.

He says he likes to keep himself "fresh" by working at different budget levels. Being honest, he admits he prefers low, or no budget films and documentary, but admits he couldn't afford to do them full-time.

"I’ve three kids and an ex-wife to pay for. I need to do big-budget films to allow myself to do the smaller stuff."

He even admits that his commitment to working on the smaller picture have cost him award success.

"After The Avengers I was offered, and turned down some really big ones. You see people stepping up to receive Oscars and you just imagine the road not taken. But I love the films I have worked on and don’t regret any choices. We Need To Talk About Kevin was quite playful, jumping between digital and anamorphic film, and I loved working on The War Zone, directed by the actor Tim Roth. I feel more in touch with the low-budget movies – it's good to exercise your eyes in different directions."

Passionate and excited by his trade, McGarvey has witnessed many technological advances working in the industry over the past 25 years.

"The very exciting thing about cinematography is it’s a developing art. With recent developments in technology and cameras you have to keep yourself in the know. It's an art form that is fused with technology."

For McGarvey, the film-making process doesn't start when he arrives on set; rather he begins thinking in pictures as soon as he starts reading the script.

"It takes me so long to read a script as I'm shooting while I'm reading, crystallising the pictures in my mind," he says.

And how does he feel when he watches the finished film and it's not as he imagined?

"Unfortunately there are scenes you shed tears to achieve that must be exiled in virtue of the story. It's great editors who are dispassionate about the pain that goes into making a film because if cinematographers were involved in the editing process, films would only be a series of self-indulgent images.

"Cinematography is very easy to make spectacular. What's difficult or interesting about my job is taking this medium and trying to tell a story with it and tell it eloquently with pictures – and not just pictures that excite the eyeball alone."

As well as a thick-skin, his job requires diplomacy when working with some of the industry's biggest stars. When Meryl Streep was not happy with how she looked during filming of The Hours, he had to compromise by using softer lighting.

I have to ask the director of photography on Fifty Shades of Grey, what was the secret of making Jamie Dornan's body look good on screen?

"You don’t have to try hard. Jamie’s attributes are not about his body. He's a gentleman and I loved working with him," McGarvey sternly replies.

McGarvey is currently shooting the thriller The Widow in Dublin. Written and directed by Neil Jordan, the movie is set in Manhattan and stars Chloe Grace Moretz.

Viewers can see McGarvey's latest work in cinemas on New Year's Day, with the release of The Greatest Showman. Tipped to be the new La La Land, it's a musical biopic about the origins of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, a movie in which the camera became part of the choreography.

So can McGarvey see it winning Oscars?

"Who knows? But the songs are incredible; the scenes we shot are really spectacular. And it stars Hugh Jackman, who is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. So, I imagine it will be a huge success."

As a film viewer, McGarvey's choice is as eclectic as the films he works on.

"Anything goes," he laughs. "I love psychological films, Westerns, the films of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. The beautiful thing about cinema is it’s a kaleidoscopic art form and there is something for everyone."

And does he watch them through a cinematographer's eyes?

"I watch them for the story. Only if I'm bored would I start looking at the photography."

He will be taking part in a Q&A ahead of a screening of Avengers Assemble on October 15 as part of Cinemagic Film and Television Festival. So what is his advice to young people looking to emulate his success?

"Look at the world around you with an artist's eye and be excited about light and framing. Follow your heart and eye and don’t think that anything you see is not worthy of the big screen. There is a lot of emulation and the people that succeed are people that do things are unusual or different."


THE annual Cinemagic Film and Television Festival programme boasts over two hundred films and diverse creative opportunities to inspire young people.

Guests from the world of film and television include acclaimed actor, presenter and writer, Sir Tony Robinson who will be In Conversation with festival audiences on October 19 to discuss his rich and varied career, and Golden Globe-nominated music composer Trevor Jones who will take part in a Q&A on October 11, ahead of a screening of The Last of the Mohicans.

Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

There are a number of different film strands, including world cinema, with highlights including Oskar’s America, a Norwegian adventure following a 10-year-old and his eccentric neighbour who plan to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat and The Lion Woman, an emotionally gripping story in the tradition of The Elephant Man and Mask.

Documentaries include Danish film The Wait, about a 14-year-old girl and her family who fled Afghanistan, and Born in Syria, filmed in 12 countries following seven children as they escape Syria for Europe.

A scene from Born in Syria

The Ulster Museum will host films and events for families including screenings of The Lorax with a recycled-arts-and-craft workshop, The Peanuts Movie accompanied by a mini-comic-making workshop and circus fun before a screening of the Disney classic Dumbo.

Fans of animation shouldn’t miss the Super Dark Tales thread of the film programme including a screening of Loving Vincent, the world's first fully painted feature film about the mystery surrounding the death of Vincent van Gogh in 1890, while the festival's closing movie, a preview of Paddington 2 is sure to be a hit.

:: For further information and booking visit Cinemagic.org.uk

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