The Best Way to Grow as a Creative, According to This ‘Carnival Row’ + ‘Watchmen’ Cinematographer

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Photo Source: Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios

On the first season of Amazon’s “Carnival Row,” Chris Seager was brought in to serve as the director of photography for two episodes. As the season neared its end, Seager was brought back to facilitate re-shoots that would more cohesively implement the creative team’s vision of how the show would appear on screen, a challenge that can increase on projects like “Carnival Row” with multiple directors and DPs across a single season. 

Speaking with Backstage, Seager addressed the importance of fun in collaborative creative work, why he tries not to work with the same people on every job, and how today’s technology allows for more artistic experimentation than ever before. 

What does a director of photography do?
In a sense, my role is really to be in charge of the look of the piece, to interpret what the director wants visually. When I join a project, I sit down with the director and go from page one of the script in detail. [We] spend time discussing the emotions of the characters and where they are in the story, who’s important on page one and should the camera be with that person? All these things come into visualizing the story. 

I collaborate first and foremost with the director and then, secondly and equally important, the production designer. Production designers, DPs, and directors effectively create the main look of the show and the production designer is a massively important person in that role because I get information from him or her and we have long conversations about shape, color, windows, where we get light into rooms or do we want to light into rooms or are they dark? Do we want enclosed sets or open sets? What I love about my job is that I’m part of a team and we bounce off each other with ideas. 

How did you become a director of photography? 
At school, I was interested in photography and art. My art teacher encouraged me to do more photography and I ended up going to art school in Guildford [in England]. I studied photography but at the end of the corridor of the photographic department was the film and TV department, and they just seemed to be having more fun. So I joined the film and television department. From there I joined the BBC as a trainee. I was with them for about 10 years, and then I went freelance.  

What does a day in the life of a DP look like?
In prep, I’m sitting down with the director and the production designer, talking about the size of the set. We look at locations—the location department will take us to various locations so we can get an idea of which ones we like for a particular scene. For example, if we’re doing a ballroom scene, a big dance or something, you look at different ballrooms or decide if you want to build it on the stage.  Then you talk about color, the height of the walls, do we have a ceiling, how it’s lit—chandeliers or candles—all those things. We have discussions about “why candles?” Do we want electricity? Was electricity invented then or should we have oil lamps? 

Then we start talking to visual effects because they might want to add things to the scene that are going to be too expensive to make, like the view out a window. So we put greenscreen outside windows and get visual effects involved. Then I involve my gaffer, he and I light the show. We’re a team and I teach him and he instructs me and we keep together, then we rig the lights. 

Once production starts, you come in on day one—usually an 8 a.m. start. The camera crew has already brought in lenses, dollies, and all the paraphernalia you need to film. We rehearse with the actors, who are typically already in makeup and wardrobe—sometimes since five or six in the morning. When rehearsal is finished, I talk with the director, my camera operator, and art director about what the shot is gonna be, continuity, decide what shots we’re gonna do first and we start laying track if it’s a tracking shot, start to light it and finalize lighting. Then, 30 to 40 minutes later, we start shooting. 

I try to be involved in post-production as much as I can because it’s important that I push the whole look through, the look we discussed from the start. Sometimes the timing doesn’t work out—I’m already on another project—and it’s easier to do on a film because you have much more control over the digital dailies, you’re the only DP doing it. On a series, it could be two or three DPs (sometimes even four or five).  

Do you still seek out jobs yourself or are people approaching you with work?
It’s a bit of each, actually. For “Carnival Row,” Andy Goddard, [director of episodes five and six], we’ve worked together on four films together. And he phoned me and said he’d been offered “Carnival Row,” and would I like to come join him and I said, “yes please.” We’ve worked together quite a few times so we get on well, push each other and have fun doing it. The job is hard work but at the same time, you’ve got to enjoy it, you’ve got to enjoy the people you work with. 

For example, Andy Goddard and myself, we work very closely together but we have a shorthand. That’s the advantage of working with somebody you’ve worked with before. We have the freedom to talk with each other, to push each other because we’re friends, first and foremost, and we know we can actually challenge each other and it’s not confrontational—it’s supportive and creative. A lot of crews see Andy and I working together and say, “you guys work so closely together, you must love each other.”

[That said,] I don’t like working with the same person over time—I think I need to work with other directors to get stimulation from other people and be pushed by other people. If you get complacent, you’re not doing your best work. To work with new directors is stimulating, it’s inspirational because you’re getting some of their ideas and they will equally push you and want to get more out of you and you want to get more out of them and then you can go back to the director you worked with on a project before that with some new ideas and you have a freshness… Each director has their own idiosyncrasies, which is fun to work with. Sometimes it’s tricky and sometimes it’s fun. 

What do you look for when hiring your crew?
In my early days, I used to have my own crew: my own key grip, my own gaffer, two or three [people] in each department that I could choose if [one was] busy doing something else. These days, there are a lot of talented people around and the fun for me is working with new people. On “Carnival Row,” there [was] nobody I knew at all. I looked through some resumes for [camera] operators, took advice from the production manager, the producers who were saying “these people were available, we’ve worked with them before and they’re good.” You meet them, chat, then pick your crew.

I try and get the best out of [my crew], allow them some freedom, allow them to be inventive so they feel they’re very much a part of [a production] and their influence is there to see. You encourage people to be creative but at the same time, you have control if they need [it]. If a shot isn’t the type of shot you want, you kind of explain, “emotionally, the shot should be this,” and so they get the idea of what we’re trying to get. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers?
Today with phones, you can just go off and make your own films. Anybody who is interested in filmmaking, whether cinematography or anything, just get some people together, write some scripts and make lots of shorts. Show them to people, get people to look at them and give their opinions, then go back and redo them or just keep making shorts. The technology is there. It’s accessible. 

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I’ve spent a lot of time working with different DPs and you get inspiration from them. I get inspiration from films; I get inspiration from paintings and photography and from life. I’m still making mistakes, which is lovely. I’m being paid to make mistakes. That’s how you learn, how you progress, how you get better. 

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!