Avengers Interview with Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey

Moving from his dark room in Armagh to the $300m Avengers Assemble has been a very natural journey for award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Paul Byrne gives him his close-up.

Having begun his career as a stills photographer before enrolling in film school at the University of Westminster in London, Seamus McGarvey has picked up many an award – and fan – over the last two decades.
From his early short films and documentaries – picking up a Royal Television Society Cinematography Award nomination for the 1995 short Skin and a Turner Prize nomination with Sam Taylor-Wood’s Atlantic in 1998 – through his work on pop videos for the likes of U2, The Rolling Stones, McCartney and PJ Harvey, inevitably, McGarvey found himself on Hollywood’s radar.

Making his big-screen debut with Michael Winterbottom’s Butterfly Kiss (1995), McGarvey went on to garner accolades and awards for such movies as High Fidelity (2000), The Hours (2002), Along Came Polly (2004) and Atonement (2007).
And now, along comes Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon’s $300m spectacular that, against many, many odds, has proven to be a winner with everyone from hardcore Marvel fans to even those pretty girls who wouldn’t normally have any time for such nonsense.

When I met up with McGarvey earlier this week in Dublin, he was on a short visit home from LA, where he’s now based…

PAUL BYRNE: Given how much post-production went into Avengers Assemble, I’m guessing you never knew what you really had until the final edit…
SEAMUS MCGARVEY: There was a significant amount of green screen, obviously, but the way Joss likes to work is quite visceral actually, in a real sense. So, contrary to what you might think about a movie of this type, there was actually a lot of in-camera stuff. Obviously, the closing symphonic finale was created largely on computers, but for the most part, we were shooting much of the film in-camera. Which is surprising on a movie of this scale.

With the likes of Roger Deakins teaming up with Pixar and DreamWorks Animation of late, even animation has caught on to the beauty of cinematography and especially the gritty beauty of the 1970s, when the sun was suddenly allowed to shine into the lens. Was there a look here you had to coordinate with those computer geeks?
Absolutely. I worked very close with the visual effects supervisor, and there are indeed new schools of thought in visual effects. The one thing Joss wanted to promote was the real sense of immersion in the film. You’re right to say that we introduced flares and crash zooms and focus pulls that were built into the visual effects. Despite the extraordinary amounts of money spent on these things, they literally tried to rough it up a bit, in order to give you a sense that it’s grabbed, or observed, on the streets. That documentary feel…

It used to be Super 8 provided instant nostalgia and supposed reality; now, thanks to YouTube and beyond, it’s handheld. Has that been liberating as a cinematographer, or petrifying?
All these little clues and triggers are delivered not just through cinematography but sound, the score and others, and what we wanted here was a balance between the big spectacle – which we shot with our big cameras, with tracking shots and cranes, helicopter work, etc – but we also used quite a lot of Canon 5D Mark 2s, little stills cameras that were either carried by stuntmen or extras, or we’d put them right in the centre of explosions. Areas that you wouldn’t dare put a normal film camera in, because they’d just get destroyed. Luckily we didn’t destroy any of these cameras, and it gives you a different experience of the drama. It’s integral though; it gives the audience a sense of really being inside these events.

So, the ever-expanding language of photography, and filmmaking, has been liberating then? Thanks to ever-more powerful mobile phones, we’re all cameramen now…
It feels totally liberating. We shot The Avengers Assemble on digital, and for me, I’ve always shot on celluloid and film, on big cameras. This we shot on an Arri Alexa camera, and it was liberating in the sense that you could use different formats. We shot Canon 5D, we shot film as well, for slow-motion work. There was just no law to it, really; you can do just whatever you like. I think digital cinema has come to a new… not plateau, but a new phase of excellence, which allows us to fuse different media.

Like many a cinema-goer, I’m not a big fan of 3D. With Avengers Assemble, the 3D was done in post-production – are you instinctively drawn to shooting in 2D?
Yes. I’m not a fan of 3D at all – until I saw The Avengers Assemble. And now, I was just so blown away by the use of 3D here; it’s a gentle use of it. We backed off for most of the film, using it only occasionally – a spear coming out of the screen, stuff like that; Loki’s sceptre – but where it really, really works is in the final phase, the third act of the film, where you suddenly get this expansion of everything. So, I think it works if you treat it in a symphonic way, literally, and use it in a clever way. And Joss is very good with music, and for me, 3D has a musical aspect to it. So, if you think about it in those terms, and not just use it as whizz-bang for spectacle, it works. Because audiences get very tired of it, and your eyes get very sore.
We thought about real 3D – native 3D, as it’s known – at the start, and we shot a little scene with Stellan Skarsgard and Sam Jackson. And Sam and Stellan were just like, ‘If we’re doing this movie in this way’ – it was taking so long – ‘we’re out of here’. And so was the director. And frankly, so was I. I don’t think we need an impression of reality when we shoot films. You want something that’s through a gauze; the 2D world, the cinematic graphic world, is peculiar, and somehow it works. Persistent of vision… all these things that are unique to the vision of cinema, and I don’t think they should be messed with really. But 3D cinema can work, when it’s intelligently used. Particularly in post, when you can attenuate it; it’s not baked in – you can change the depth of something in editing, with post-produced dimensionalisation.

I’m delighted for Joss Whedon, scoring his first bona fide big-screen hit after years of cult love, and finally becoming money in Hollywood’s eyes. His script was, the cast were telling me, something to behold – was it all there for you too? Would that iconic shot of all eight Avengers standing together for the first time have been all there early on?
That shot of the Avengers, all ready to take on the world together, finally…

Mark Ruffalo in his silly motion-capture pyjamas, standing on a box for height, trying to come across as the Hulk whilst probably looking more like Christy Brown…
Yeah, the poor man, he looked ridiculous, in this spandex suit and with spots all over his face. I was talking to him the other night, and it really, really worked. The ignoble scenario that he put himself in, it was not flattering, but what works with Hulk’s performance, what defines it from the other Hulk movies, is that the compositors were able to use his actual performance, and map that into the Hulk. So, there’s something that you can see in his eyes, his facial movements, his gestures, and that makes it not a cartoon. It makes it true and real, and it really works.

People are moved by the quiet moments here, which is a hell of a trick to pull off in a $300m comic-book action blockbuster.
I hope they make a Hulk movie with Mark. He’s wonderful in the role.

Given how important putting this big jigsaw was for Marvel, were you able to put your mark on it?
I like to put my ego on the back-burner when I do any film. If you lather a film with your own personality, photographic or otherwise, it will mask the true meaning. Film is a very collaborative effect, and that’s what’s interesting about it. Joss is a really strong director, but he is very keen on collaboration, and he depends upon people – his production designer, his visual effects supervisor, and his producers. Marvel is an incredibly collaborative studio; they trust the people they hire. But they do have a say, and I’ve never met producers who are more creative in their approach. They understand the Marvel universe, and there were constant debates about where the direction the movie was taking. The film evolved on the fly, a lot of the time. We started the film with just a slither of a script. It was really just a template.

This is back in February of last year, in Albuquerque. Joss has said the biggest challenge was getting the cast to stop giggling. Was the 6-month shoot a walk in the park or a journey into the heart of darkness?
It was absolutely not a walk in the park. I don’t know where he got that notion that we were giggling all the time, but…

Maybe he wanted to spin it for the press…
It was a really, really hard shoot – filmmaking isn’t easy. But it was very demanding, and enjoyable at the same time. The atmosphere was great on set – don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying it was a nightmare – but it was a really tough shoot. But, I like that, because it forges something. It comes like a crucible almost.

Grace under pressure. Some of the greatest art comes out of the darkest places…
Yeah, it’s true.

Given the success that you’ve had behind the camera, you must be tempted to direct.
No, I’m not a director. I just don’t feel the need. I love what I’m doing, and it’s what I feel most comfortable with. I’m not bored with this job yet. Maybe if I ever got restless, I might feel the need to move on to something else.

Starting out, did you always plan on getting involved in film? Or is this all just some terrible misunderstanding?
You know, I’ve always loved photography. Photography is absolutely the essence for me, stills photography. I sort of don’t see a difference between what I do now and what I was doing in my wee dark room in Armagh. It’s all kind of converged, and it’s interesting to see how the cameras are moving towards that now…

Avengers Assemble is out now