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On Tuesday, March 27, Panavision once again hosted the “Cinematographer’s Choice” screening series, which is dedicated to a film chosen by a cinematographer that inspired his work. The full house consisted of students from USC, UCLA, AFI, Cal State Northridge, LMU and Chapman University, as well as friends and colleagues. Seamus McGarvey, who was in town timing the recently released “The Avengers,” was eager to screen “A Matter of Life & Death,” shot by Jack Cardiff and co-directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Seamus explained that Jack was a friend of his and used to stay with him during the Edinburgh Film Festival. “I would spend all this time with Jack, intently trying to absorb his words,” said Seamus.

“The artistic influences of Jack Cardiff’s photography, and the collaboration between cinematography and production design in this film, was amazing,” said Seamus. Jack, who would regale Seamus with stories about pictures he had shot, had told him that the writer, Pressburger, was famous for promoting collaboration within the script. Jack described “A Matter of Life & Death,” released in 1946, as “gaudy, yet mad; it let the imagination run wild.”

Seamus McGarvey, ASC with Jack Cardiff

Seamus gave a little insight into why this was his film choice. “The first shot of David Nivens’ POV, through to the shot when he washes up on the beach, that was the 1st day of photography, and it was also the day the war ended.” Jack had explained that because they were embarking on a project on such a monumental day, there was a great sense of hope among the cast and crew.

“The thing about Jack is that he knew about art,” said Seamus. “Believe it or not, he was an even better painter than he was a cinematographer. As students and filmmakers, we are surrounded by visual effects, bombarded by it. In fact, I’m working on one of the biggest visual effects pictures right now, ‘The Avengers.’ I think visual effects are wonderful; it’s lovely to see special effects used for a world that only the filmmakers have imagined. But with this film in particular, a film about the justice of life and love, it is exciting for me as a filmmaker to see the communication between the writer, director and musician woven into the mise en scene. When filmmakers collaborate like this; it connects people to the birth of cinema.”

Jack Cardiff was only 31 years old when he shot this film, “and what talent shines from this artist!” said Seamus. “I get goose bumps thinking about the scene when color is first introduced into the film. The use of color is both psychological and poetic, which is a mark of a deft filmmaker. He is just so at ease with the way he mixes color.”

Seamus believes that Jack was fearless and threw caution to the wind when it came to cinematography. “Someone like Jack Cardiff pushed the envelope photographically, and created a cinematic magic that will affect people throughout time. I saw this film 30 years ago and it still affects me the same as when I first saw it.”

The first time Seamus saw this film it was on a black and white television, so when he screened it at the National Film Theatre, he was completely surprised by the introduction of color.  “I love it for its grand gestures and its tiny microcosm as well…the single tear that is shed, the universe that is created, the epic and the micro, which is really an allegory of life.”

The title of the movie, “A Matter of Life & Death” was changed to “Stairway to Heaven” for distribution in the US, because the studio felt they couldn’t sell a movie with ‘death’ in the title, Seamus explained. “If you notice, the godhead looks like a character from a Robert Palmer video, which was very forward-thinking at the time.”

Although the film is black and white and color, there was an issue with shooting black and white stock, as it is thinner. Because of that, a process was developed called “dye-monochrome” which allowed black and white stock to be shot through the Technicolor camera. “It was a hugely complicated process to get the proper dye, but one of my favorite artists, William Eggleston, also used this dye-monochrome process and they were able to make beautiful color prints off it.” It was a very big technical challenge at the time; production was delayed for nine months on the shoot because the Technicolor camera was being use for the war, in service. When the war ended, they were able to get the camera. Seamus recalled that Jack said it was a lovely feeling when they finally started the film, but because the camera was so big, any camera movement they made was like towing a house. The camera now resides in the foyer of Technicolor London. 

Asked if he had ever tried to recreate some of the tricks Jack Cardiff taught him, Seamus admitted he had, but it didn’t always work out. “When I was shooting ‘The Hours,’ we did a close-up of Julianne Moore, similar to the first image you see of Kim Hunter, when her forehead is in shadow and her lips highlighted. It worked. But with Meryl Streep, I created this hard shadow, and it was so extreme that she didn’t like it, so we had to reshoot. You’ve got to try things, although I probably shouldn’t have tried that with Meryl Streep…I have used his ideas a lot more in commercials, sad to say, where you can be more extreme.”

Addressing the students, Seamus remarked, “The thing about Jack is that the center of his heart and being was art. I think if we can remember that, we will continue to be inspired by art. Remember not to be swayed by producers, or by studios. Sometimes the sway of money takes away the sway of art. This film is such an inspiration. It’s a rare film that comes along and lasts as long as this one.”

Asked about his work on “The Avengers,” and how long prep time was, Seamus answered, “I was brought on quite early with ‘Avengers,’ six months early, in fact. But even though I was there, I had less input. A lot of that is due to pre-visualization, which is teaching people to storyboard prior to shooting.” He explained what the experience of shooting such a big picture was like, for him. “Every day, when I would drive onto the set, I would start to get really nervous about being in charge of such a huge amount of production, until I got to where I needed to be. Then, I found my inner sanctum of serenity, where you don’t think about it, you just do what you have to do. At the center of any project, there is always a calm.” As for his favorite movies he has shot? “’The War Zone,’ which Tim Roth directed and we shot anamorphic, was a very heavy film and because of that, I shot in hues of green and oxidized copper. We had a small number of lights, small crew; it was a 4-1/2 week shoot.” Seamus also said he liked parts of “Atonement,” and “The Hours.” “With each film, even a bad film, you can have a good time doing it,” he added.

After the screening, as the film print was being wheeled out of the theatre, Seamus called after the projectionist, asking if he could just look at – and smell – the print. “Ahh, there is nothing like it,” he admitted.