Chug-a-Chug-a-Chugging Forward: Seamus McGarvey on Anna Karenina

Seamus McGarvey shot The Avengers, one of the biggest movies of all time and the most popular movie of the year. But if you've seen his work on Anna Karenina, the latest literary epic from director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), you wouldn't want to discuss The Avengers at all. The latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel about a tragic romance against a backdrop of the fall of Russian aristocracy is one of the most exciting productions of the year, telling its story in dynamic display of theatrical exuberance. Baz Luhrmann will be jealous of the elaborate choreography and sets that shift between several locations in a single shot through the use of sweeping camera moves and practical production design that transforms in front of your very eyes. 

We spoke to Seamus McGarvey about the unexpected decision to film Anna Karenina in a style that seems to directly contradict to the novel's realist origins, why it was a more complicated production than the mega-budget Avengers and just a little bit about his next project, Gareth Edwards' new reimagining of Godzilla

Anna Karenina opens in theaters on November 16, 2012.

CraveOnline: Your work on We Need to Talk About Kevin was really stunning. That was my favorite movie of last year.

Seamus McGarvey: Oh thanks, Will. That’s very kind of you to say. Yeah, that was a great one to work on. I love Lynne Ramsay. She’s such a visionary director, so it makes my job a lot easier when you’ve got a cinematographic collaborator that’s as adept and creative as she is.

But we’re here to talk about Anna Karenina. This movie is not what I expected visually at all.


Was this part of the initial talks you had with Joe Wright about the look of the film, that it would be this sort of living play with the sets constantly rearranging and such?

No, I mean it was quite the opposite in fact. The film was initially conceived as something quite different, and it only migrated into the theatrical approach much, much later in pre-production. In fact, scarily close to the start of principal photography, when there were some budget issues, and a number of things meant that the whole concept had to be reimagined. Joe came up with this wonderful solution which fitted the lower budget and also, in a strange, actually streamlined all the ideas that we were struggling with visually, and actually honed the imagery. It really afforded me the opportunity to be much more expressive […] I used a much simpler lighting package for instance on this film. I consciously wanted to establish that we’ve got this theatrical conceit, and wanted to use theatrical lighting techniques. To me, that’s interesting. I normally work in a more naturalistic way. If I have any style, it was naturalism, and here was an opportunity to be genuinely expressive and theatrical with the light and the camera movement. […] The theatrical area allowed us to, and actually encouraged us to use more dramatic camera movement, for instance, as well as employ theatrical lighting techniques such as dimming, spotlights, even footlights, all those things released a style, kind of an artifice, that we wholeheartedly embraced. That was just fun, because it was unlike anything that I’d ever photographed before.

That artifice is fascinating, because the book is considered this masterpiece of realism.

Yes [Laughs] I know, it’s true, that. However, there are universal metaphorical undertones to the book and to the script, and I think it is sort of expressed better when you’re not prone to the distraction of glittering palaces or grandiose landscapes. Here was something that was barebones in many ways. I know the design is quite ornate, but it was also… Sarah Greenwood employed a lot of aging and crimping to give a sense of crumbling. So the sets were actually quite spare and precisely thought out in terms of they meant. And the same was true of our lights. We pared it down in many ways, even though there’s an opulence there and ornateness to costumes and design and cinematography, but it has this notion of disappearing wealth and crumbling aristocracy.

You mentioned that some of your original ideas were streamlined when you came up with the look of the film. Can you give me an example of a before and after of a scene where the idea changed dramatically or got pushed together?

Well, previously the locations had been started in Moscow and St. Petersburg that were like big palaces, and this was something that would have been a challenge, lighting-wise. But I think that by suddenly distilling down to, rather than a whole corridor, we suddenly had a single flap descend out of the ceiling on cables. The light would change, we had the light on a dimmer from the previous scene, and it would come up, giving the whole pace of the film a sort of momentum. It almost felt like a train itself, chug-a-chug-a-chugging forward. Joe was keen to keep a sort of dynamism and impetus to the film, and that came about through our movement, through the linkages to the various scenes. I employed a lot more camera movement than I would have normally done on previous period films, for instance like Atonement. The camera had a lot more stasis. But here we consciously embraced lots of movement, coordinated movement. It inspired by dance choreographers […] and that [gave] a constant fluidity to the characters’ movement. Even the most incidental little close-ups were choreographed as well. The movement is mannered, but so to, the camerawork. For me that was like a cinematographic holiday. [Laughs] I normally work in a much more naturalistic realm.

Were all those ornate sets practical or was there a lot of CGI involved?

No, there was very, very little CG. It was all practical. But there are a couple of CG shots in the movie. For instance, when Vronsky falls through with his horse off the stage, that horse becomes at some point a CG horse. […] And the final shot of the movie, where field of flowers inhabits the entire auditorium. We shot the plates for that out in Salisbury Plain, and then in CG compounded it into the plates that we shot on the stage. So there were a couple of shots like that that employ CG, but for the most part there’s none in the film.

I never thought until I’d seen Anna Karenina that I’d have to ask this question, but was this a more complicated shoot for you than The Avengers?

Oh, unquestionably yes. It was seriously complicated, because every single scenario, every single set up started with… We were in a theater, you know? The onus on photography was significantly larger than on previous films I’d worked on. Also because Joe and Working Title run a very tight ship, so the crew was much smaller, so the pressures are bigger, and also the aspirations. Joe has got the most incredible visual imagination, more than any director I’ve ever worked with. The way his imagination conjures up notions is quite exhilarating to be around, actually, but having said that, coming with that as well is he pushes, and then he pushes you further and further. He’s incredibly demanding as a director, which is fantastic. I love that. He’s my best friend. […] He really demands the best of you, and when he feels that it’s not quite there, he’ll really push you harder. So it’s great because, for me, I’ve never been a better cinematographer than when I work with Joe because he really prods me to do my best work.

I’ve seen online that you are attached to Godzilla?

Yes, that is correct, yes.

I know you can’t talk much about that, but I’m curious what you thought about the other Godzilla films, and the way that they’re shot and their iconic look, and maybe looking at that in a present day context?

I must say I love the Godzilla stories. My favorite is the 1968 Japanese version. It’s just extraordinary. We’re not going to adopt that look for this film, but I’m very, very excited about working with a director as good as Gareth Edwards. But also just on a big budget film that has… the story of Godzilla’s such a depressing story, and I love its metaphorical relevance to the here and now, and humanity in general. I’m really looking forward to one hand, the spectacle, but on the other, just the meaning that’s translated visually.

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