Behind the Lens: Anna Karenina's Seamus McGarvey ASC, BSC
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Anna Karenina's Seamus McGarvey ASC, BSC -- Cinematography Feature

Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSCSeamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC
Oscar Nominated Cinematographer
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Seamus McGarvey was born in Northern Ireland, where he began his career as a still photographer before attending film school at the University of Westminster in London. After graduating in 1988, he began shooting short films and documentaries including Skin, which was nominated for a Royal Television Society Cinematography Award, and Atlantic, nominated for the 1998 Turner Prize. He also photographed and directed over 100 music videos for U2, The Rolling Stones, PJ Harvey, Robbie Williams, Paul McCartney and many others. In 2004, he was awarded the Royal Photographic Society's Lumiere medal for contributions to the art of cinematography; over his career, McGarvey has won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Technical/Artistic Achievement, Irish Film and Television Award for Best Director of Photography, and Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Cinematography.

His credits include World Trade Center, The Hours, Sahara, High Fidelity, Wit, Enigma, The War Zone, A Map of the World, Along Came Polly, Charlotte's Web and Atonement, for which he received both Academy Award and BAFTA nominations. Most recently, he shot The Soloist, We Need to Talk about Kevin, and The Avengers as well as this year's Anna Karenina.

Seamus McGarvey talks to Creative COW about his Oscar-nominated cinematography on Anna Karenina.






Joe Wright directed Anna Karenina; in the past, I've shot other movies he's directed, among them Atonement and The Soloist as well as a number of short films. We're great friends and it's an ongoing collaboration for me.

Director Joe Wright on the set of ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release.
Director Joe Wright on the set of ANNA KARENINA.
The last film I shot was The Avengers, so Anna Karenina was a complete change in photographic terms from that film. I love the challenge of exercising different photographic muscles. It was the opportunity to go from a CGI-heavy digital film to do something more classical, on film, shooting with anamorphic lenses. With Anna Karenina, we had great fun devising a look for the film and -- as always with Joe's films -- it's a daily collective endeavor. It's great how closely I get to work with the production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. We all sit down and have very much a round-table approach to the creative elements.

Joe is an extraordinarily visual director. He usually comes to those meetings with quite a clear notion of what he wants to achieve. The basic starting point changed dramatically before I came on board. Rather than real locations in Russia, stately homes and so on, we decided to create this theatrical conceit, that the action was all taking place on the stage. This change came about because the money fell through for the film, and Joe had to think of a way to make the movie for a lot less money than originally planned. He came up with the idea of setting it all in a theater. Having grown up in a puppet theatre in Islington, he loved the idea of almost a music box he could play with. Joe and Sarah, his closest collaborator, brainstormed their way through the script and found a way of changing gears. I felt really excited by this idea that we could embark on a film that was more experimental and artful in its approach. It allowed me to be bolder from a photographic point of view.

Very often Joe would embark on these meetings talking about color or texture or the meaning of the screenplay that Tom Stoppard had written, and then we'd all chime in. Something I was trying to do with the film was to be more expressive with the lighting. Because of the theatrical milieu, I was able to push the boat out a little more and use more dramatic, theatrical lighting techniques. I applied lots of dimming and moving sources. There was a lot more camera movement itself because of the choreographic movements.

I never considered shooting digitally for Anna Karenina. We always wanted to shoot it on film, with anamorphic lenses. I shot the whole film with a single Kodak stock, 5219, and a Christian Dior 10 denier black stocking on the back of the lenses to give it an opalescent glow and a period feel. The stocking is from the 1970s and they're discontinued, but I have a stash of them that I use for special occasions. For lenses, we shot with the Panavision G series anamorphic lenses. They're beautiful lenses, newer lenses and on Anna Karenina, I wanted more truth and less distortion from the lenses.


Photo by: Laurie Sparham. Seamus McGarvey ASC, BSC and Peter Robertson
Photo by: Laurie Sparham. Seamus McGarvey ASC, BSC and Peter Robertson


Using the concept of the theatre is a bit of a metaphor and an allegory, the way it is kind of dilapidated and frayed at the edges mirrors the rottenness of the aristocratic society of the time. We also tried to show a glimmer of hope in Levin's rural world, which is a cipher for Tolstoy, in that his camera movement was freer and the lighting was more exterior. We went into real locations and the light was more optimistic in Levin's world whereas in the theatre, we reinforced the artificial elements. In Karenin's house, we took a kind of a rectitudinous approach. There's more symmetry, starker lighting and the colors as well were rather pared back and starker.

In many ways, shifting gears with how Anna Karenina was conceived and shot was great, because it helped streamlined the ideas although there are incredibly elaborate set pieces and complicated ways that a scene morphs into the next one. We had to think very carefully about how design and photography intersected -- the way the sets would be wheeled in or come down from the ceiling -- and how they all slid together to create new environments and combined with camera moves and lighting changes.

Camera movement was used to help define the characters. Within the dancing, we used a lot of movement. As Vronsky and Anna come together, we wanted an abandon, a fluidity to the camera. For Levin, we had slow tracking, kind of a rounder feel to it. Then we had a static approach to the Karenin household, which had a darker, more brittle feel.


Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release.
The Karenin household was stark and brittle. Says Seamus, "There's more symmetry, starker lighting and the colors as well were rather pared back and starker." Here, the actress wears Chanel jewels.


It was all a choreography and, in fact, we did have a full-time choreographer on the set, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who worked very closely with the actors in rehearsal to create not only dances -- a modern approximation of a waltz -- but he also choreographed any movement from the lighting of a cigarette to the opening of a door. That was exciting for me. When you have an actor moving in a quite mannered way, with repetitive movements on the stage, it forces me to employ similarly grand camera moves.


(L to r) Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Vronsky and Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham
One shot stands out in particular, where Vronsky leads Anna onto the dance floor and they activate frozen dancers as they pass them by.


I've done dance films in the past, for the Art Council, but never in a dramatic context and that was the fun aspect of it. One shot stands out in particular, where Vronsky leads Anna onto the dance floor and they activate these frozen dancers as they pass them by. This was a Steadicam shot that evolved. Finally, Vronsky lifts Anna above him and the camera is swirling around them, the light changes and suddenly everyone in the room disappears, and they're left in the spotlight, and then gradually people move back into the floor. That scene involved 200 extras and was very difficult and a fun challenge. Peter Robertson, my Steadicam operator who did the famous long shot in Atonement, was the hero behind that shot of the swirling camera move in that dance scene. He was effectively dancing with the actors. That was hugely enjoyable, knowing the actors were steering the camera work. It created a dance between us.

There was another elaborate scene that leads Oblonsky from his office in the auditorium -- you see everyone packing up and the camera starts exploring the auditorium -- and the prop men slide in gilded panels to create the restaurant. I cue it with a big lighting shift and it becomes an event, a restaurant -- all in one single take. It was hugely complicated but it worked well.

Of course we'd plan these complicated shots out in advance. Joe is good at working with extras and actors to fuse together choreography, action, camera so it has a dynamism and logic. So we'd plot it with the first AD and do rehearsals and then off we'd go. But it was all imagined and devised before we started to plot it out physically. Working so closely with Joe and the ADs was really a treat.



(L to r) Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Vronsky and Alicia Vikander stars as Kitty in director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release
With regard to lighting, it was mostly tungsten lamps.


With regard to lighting, it was mostly tungsten lamps and I used a lot of theatrical lighting techniques. Chris Gilbertson, the lighting desk operator, used a Palm Pilot to remotely cue the lights; we had everything fed back to a board. So that's another rehearsal. All of it happens together. You don't have much time to luxuriate when you're plotting this stuff. Everybody has to be on their toes because it's all done at the same time.

Working with theatrical lighting techniques and choreography were new territory for me, photographically speaking. I learn something on every film, and I like to approach every film with fresh eyes. But of course there are things I learn and apply when appropriate to another movie; it's the setting and the directors that bring the difference. I enjoy diversity, and I love going on to a new project because of all the new challenges it brings.

That's true again with my next film, Godzilla, to be directed by Gareth Edwards. But it's a wee bit early to talk about it.












Aaron Taylor-Johnson (L) stars as Count Vronsky and Keira Knightley (R) stars as Anna in Joe Wright's ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release. ALL PHOTOS BY: Laurie Sparham

Title graphic: Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release.

(L to r) Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Vronsky and Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release.

(L to r) Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Vronsky and Alicia Vikander stars as Kitty in director Joe Wright's bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release.

Director Joe Wright on the set of ANNA KARENINA, a Focus Features release.