Cinematographer John Seale joined the production of “Mad Max: Fury Road” rather late in the game, and when he arrived, everything was in a state of flux.
For starters, director George Miller was about to abandon a costly, longstanding plan to shoot the film in 3D. Also, the production was about to start filming in the crew-free African nation of Namibia, not at the originally intended locations in Australia’s Outback. Oh, and Warner Bros. was demanding a script.
What’s more, Seale was replacing fellow Aussie d.p. Dean Semler, who had shot the previous two installments of the revived dystopian franchise, and who had left the project toward the end of the film’s decade-long preparation period.
Then there were the storyboards. “When I came onto the project, they said, ‘Look, here’s a room full of boards. Start at the top left and finish at the bottom right on the other side of the room,’ ” Seale recalls. “I tried to work out the storyline, but I couldn’t.”
Apparently the studio couldn’t either. At Warners’ insistence, a script was finally delivered. It had little dialog. Once production began, principal photography took the better part of a year — most of 2012, to be exact.
During that time, an expat community of artisans from the U.K., Australia, South Africa, the U.S. and other nations converged on Namibia and toiled away in the harsh, arid country. Gradually they brought to fruition the film that will open in the U.S. on May 15, reviving the cult post-apocalyptic series that made Mel Gibson famous in 1979.
“I spent 10 months in Namibia,” says one of those artisans, costume designer Jenny Beavan, who hails from London. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s probably the most beautiful country on Earth, but it was a long time to be away. George simply takes his time. He’s a control freak, and rightly so, because it all comes out of his head.”
Beavan, best known for her high-profile period work (“The King’s Speech”), was ready to make the leap to Armageddon. “I always wanted to do something futuristic, and this was the perfect breakout,” she says.
She brought in collaborators from the U.K., and employed local workers to create (and distress) the film’s largely leather garments and masks. Although informed by the earlier “Mad Max” films, she updated the reboot’s look, making the people, in her words, “less sinewy, more manly.”
Seale, meanwhile, shot most of the film on Arri Alexa cameras, supplemented by far less costly Canons for the crash shots. It was the d.p.’s first digital experienced. “I was terrified when I first went into it,” he says.
His concerns diminished when the complicated 3D shooting rigs developed for the film were scrapped. Among the reasons: It would have been difficult to get the bulky equipment through vehicle windows. There were also questions about the cameras’ ability to weather the dust and pounding of the film’s heavy action.
The studio still wants a 3D version of the film, which is now being created in post-production. The stereo images, says Seale, look “awesome.”
Miller also used post techniques to degrade the footage, increasing its grain and contrast, and crunched the focus digitally. “He didn’t want clean shots,” Seale adds. “He wants the audience to feel like they have sand in their eyes.”