Seamus McGarvey Chooses Sphero Lenses to Bring the Big Top to the Big Screen in The Greatest Showman

Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC earned his second Oscar® nomination in 2013, for Anna Karenina, in which he and director Joe Wright took an overtly theatrical approach to Tolstoy’s classic novel. Theatricality is also a strong element in McGarvey’s most recent assignment, The Greatest Showman, but this time the milieu is the circus. Hugh Jackman plays the visionary P.T. Barnum in a musical biography that portrays the founding of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the latter half of the 19th century – an event that some call the birth of modern show business. The director was Michael Gracey, and the cast also includes Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya. The film has already garnered three Golden Globe nominations – Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy; Best Actor – Musical or Comedy, and Best Original Song.

Shot in New York City, The Greatest Showman features plenty of epic spectacle, extensive and elaborate song and dance numbers, and kinetic camera movement. But the story starts with a more intimate portrait of Barnum, a unique character who was also a politician and an ambitious businessman. The need for a format that could perform in both scenarios was on McGarvey’s mind as he made his equipment decisions. For the all-important choice of lenses, he went with Panavision Sphero 65s.

“At first, as the story is set up, we would keep things more structured and static – innocent, I suppose,” says McGarvey, “knowing we were going to progress to a more carnivalesque, vaudevillian approach. We played a lot in close, and when the shift comes, we also ramp up from a more diminished color palette to a more saturated look.”

McGarvey felt the Spheros were right for The Greatest Showman because they have more personality to them. “They have beautiful aberrations that I love,” he says. “They’re not quirky like a set of vintage lenses, but they have distinct attributes. We were making a period film, and the Spheros don’t have the scientific feel that I’ve experienced with large format. I love how the skin tone reads, and there was a certain amount of falloff at the edges which was perfect. They just felt period.”

Very light filtration with Tiffen Glimmerglass bloomed the highlights, helping to sell tungsten filaments as pre-electric gas and flame sources.

“Also, as we were shooting 2.40, I could get edge to edge without cropping in any way, which you have to with other systems,” says McGarvey.

Prior to the shoot, first AC Bobby Mancuso visited Panavision Woodland Hills to work with lens guru Dan Sasaki on fine-tuning the Spheros to work optimally with the large-format camera. “I love listening to Dan talk about the properties of the lenses, and how science melds with art in such a brilliant way,” says McGarvey. “He speaks so poetically about optics and physics. It’s beautiful to see his eyes light up as he describes a particular lens and its effect on the image.

“For my feature and drama work, I’ve always been very loyal to Panavision,” he says. “For this film, we needed a format and lenses that give a sense of scale, as well as good portraiture, displaying both scenarios at their best. I couldn’t be happier with the Spheros.”

Since The Greatest Showman, McGarvey has made The Widow with director Neil Jordan, and he is currently prepping Bad Times at the El Royale with director Drew Goddard. Production on that film will begin in early January in Vancouver, and McGarvey plans to shoot on film in the 35mm anamorphic format using Panavision C Series lenses, once again with Dan Sasaki’s help.

The Greatest Showman is set to be released on December 20 – ironically, about seven months after the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus permanently closed its doors.