'Mad Max: Fury Road' Cinematographer Recounts the High-Octane Shoot

BTS Mad Max JOHN SEALE - H 2015
Jasin Boland

BTS Mad Max JOHN SEALE - H 2015

To create the striking look of Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller, 70, rang up an old friend — Aussie cinematographer John Seale, 73, who won an Oscar in 1997 for a very different desert-set film, The English Patient.

With an enthusiastic laugh, Seale tells The Hollywood Reporter that he didn’t need much convincing to take on the postapocalyptic thriller. “It was Mad Max and it was George Miller; it had to be exciting,” Seale said. “I worked with George on Lorenzo’s Oil and he made that an exciting picture. He's a very interesting director, and we got on well. It didn’t take me long, as he says, to come out of retirement to make the film.”

And so the duo went to work to make what is arguably the most visually dazzling action film of the year. “George’s initial instinct was to not go with the standard look of a postapocalyptic film, i.e. very desaturated blues, grays, the ‘life of the planet is coming to an end and it’s miserable’ look. He didn’t want to follow that pattern, which I liked a lot,” Seale says. “He went for a scorched look, a dried-out look but with color. George wanted to increase the grain, which I loved. It had its own look.”

The high-octane "road war" was shot in the deserts of Namibia, across multiple units for 120 days. It was lensed primarily with ARRI Alexa Plus and compact Alexa M digital cameras, plus various still cameras for crash cams, including Canon 5Ds and Blackmagic models.

“All the cameras were on the move: Steadicam, handheld, bungee work on the rigs. We knew George was going to cut the film very fast, so a lot of shots were quite short. George was very adamant about that. He really knew what we were going to do,” Seale said, noting that everything was meticulously storyboarded and choreographed — it was "pretty well gospel."

The Edge system was heavily relied upon to put the camera in the action. “The Edge cam is a crane on top of a very powerful vehicle so it can accelerate quickly and the crane can be operated from inside the car by a crane operator." Seale explained. "It could go up and down and swing around 360 degrees; it’s got an extension of about 20 ft. and the camera is on the end of stabilized remote head that’s operated by a camera operate inside the car. So the camera could go right up to the window and get a close up of say Furiosa (Charlize Theron) driving and pull back and around and down to a full wide shot."

"The crane could also get the action on the top of the tanker and still be able to see the other vehicle in the backgrounds. And tracking with it at 80 kilometers an hour gave us a very awesome result," he added. “It was used to shoot 95 percent of the action unit’s material — amazing stuff and very safely.” 

For the thrilling stunts, Seale related that they shot as much as possible in camera. “The visual effects helped enhance our frames, rather than create them. All of the stunts are live-action stunts (not CG stunt doubles). They are real cars and amazing stunts, but done very safely,” Seale said.

In particular, that meant a lot of greenscreen work. "In the shots with actors, the trucks are not moving at all. It's created by the backgrounds (which were separately shot on location) moving by virtue of greenscreen," Seale explained. "Anything with Max (Tom Hardy) hanging down on the truck or swinging around on the pole — the trucks aren’t moving, so we were able to shot it very safely, and the VFX made everything move. We also used massive wind machines, dust machines, to give the feeling that they were doing 80 kilometers an hour — anything we could think of it give the audience the feeling that they were actually moving.

"Visual effects also enhanced the skies; they put some clouds in and made it a little more dramatic," he added.

And if Miller asked Seale to do another Mad Max, would he sign up? "I enjoy his amazingly bold attitude toward his film," Seale responded. "Who knows when another film might be done, firstly. And who knows how my retirement will be going. But I certainly I enjoy working with George enough to be tempted."