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Often associated with the work of Peter Weir, both as a camera operator and director of photography, John Seale first earned his reputation as one of Australia's leading cinematographers before garnering international attention as one of the world's best directors of photography. His reputation is based on his striking feel for textures and colors of nature, as evidenced by such films as Peter Weir's "Witness" (1985), for which he was nominated for the Best Cinematography Academy Award and Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient" (1996), which earned him the Oscar. The former possessed striking contrasts between the big city of Philadelphia and the fields of the Amish Country, yet each created a full-bodied environment. For the latter, Seale had to accomplish the photography on three levels: the desert in which Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas have their romance, the war-torn zone of Italy, which required darker, bluer lighting, and the re-emergence of life within Juliette Binoche, which had to be gradually worked into the palette. (In 1988, he earned a third Oscar nod for his clean work on Barry Levinson's "Rain Man.")
Seale had wanted to make "National Geographic" documentaries, but began his career as a camera assistant in the film department of the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1962. By the 70s, he was freelancing as a camera operator and first crossed paths with Peter Weir when he was hired as camera operator by cinematographer Russell Boyd on "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975). Seale went on to perform similar duties on Weir's "The Last Wave" (1977) and "Gallipoli" (1981). By then, he had graduated to director of photography, earning those stripes on the children's film "Deathcheaters" (1976). It was not until after working on several other Australian features, though, that Seale was tapped by Weir to shoot "Witness," which brought both to the USA. The cinematographer's flair for capturing the lyric qualities of the outdoors was tested and he certainly proved himself. Not only were the sequences of Amish farmers in their fields like movements on a warm quilt, but the barn-raising sequences possessed near poetic qualities. At the same time, when the evildoer is suffocated by corn cascading into a silo, the audience felt the noose of the grim reaper while simultaneously admiring with awe the majestic power of the corn.
Seale remained in the USA and was hired by Randa Haines for "Children of a Lesser God" (1986). He reteamed with Weir and star Harrison Ford for "The Mosquito Coast" (1987), again capturing the natural environment in such as way as to make it a character in its own right. The same was true of "Gorilla in the Mist" (1988), the cinematography helped explain why Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) fell in love with the highland jungle. But it was Weir's "Dead Poets Society" (1989) where he displayed some of the best photography the screen has ever known. The idyllic, cloistered and protective world of the prep school boys was seen not just in the enveloping safety of the grounds, but in wonderful sequences in which Josh Charles was biking through field as birds fly away from his path. Another key sequence depicted the youths' initial decision to enter the woods to form the titular organization. Dressed in black school sweats, they run into the mist of night and disappear, as if leaving the known world for a more ethereal one from which one cannot return unchanged. Seale went on serve as director of photography for Haines' "The Doctor" (1991) and George Miller's "Lorenzo's Oil" (1992). He shot two films for Rob Reiner, "The American President" (1995) and "The Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996).
Seale has also directed one film, "Till There Was You" (1990), a visually stunning, but ineffectual thriller in which Mark Harmon's saxophone player is called to aid his brother in the South Seas. The cinematographer has also occasionally worked in TV, most often in programs shown on PBS, like two 1987 episodes of "Trying Times," "Drive, She Said" and "Get a Job," and the Australian-made "Top Kid" (1987), which aired on "Wonderworks."
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Cinematography (TV Mini-Series)
Was camera assistant in film department of Australian Broadcasting Company
First worked with director Peter Weir as camera operator on "Picnic at Hanging Rock"
Had first credit as cinematographer, "Deathcheaters"
Did second unit cinematography on Weir's "The Year of Living Dangerously"
Received first Oscar nomination for "Witness", directed by Weir
First film with Randa Haines, "Children of a Lesser God"
Received second Oscar nomination for "Rain Man"
Directed first feature, "Till There Was You"
First collaboration with Rob Reiner, "The American President"
Had banner year as director of photography on both "The Ghosts of Mississippi" (directed by Reiner) and "The English Patient" (directed by Anthony Minghella)
Served as cinematographer on "City of Angels", a loose remake of Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire"
Reteamed with Minghella on "The Talented Mr. Ripley"
Served as director of photography on "The Perfect Storm"
Was cinematographer on "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
Served as cinematographer for the film "Dreamcatcher"
Teamed again with director Anthony Minghella for the film "Cold Mountain," received an Academy Award nomination for Achievement in Cinematography