CAMERAMAN John Seale is packing up his gear for the thousandth time since he started in the business. But this time around, the shoot he's heading for is much more personal.
You could say that Seale was born into the business. Type his name into your search engine and the name that pops up is likely to be his father's (another cinematographer named John Seale, an Aussie, is unrelated). John Seale Sr. started out shooting medical operations but eventually ended up in Vancouver and in the movies, when there wasn't much of an industry in the west. He was a cinematographer for the CBC until 1979, and freelanced for 20 years after that, well into his 70s.
At age seven or eight, young John used to hang out on set in Gibsons, while his dad shot the iconic Canadian show The Beachcombers.
"You'd get the tourists up there, and the whole town would lock up and watch it: it was a huge event." After some time on his own working in the oil fields and on a pipeline, John joined his dad for a couple of years, shooting commercials, working on documentaries, and picking up the skills of the trade.
Seale went out on his own and started knocking on doors, offering commercial packages where he did all the labour, from storyboarding and lighting to shooting and editing. He joined the union and specialized as a focus puller and a camera assistant on such varied projects as Macgyver, Millennium, Smallville, Dead Like Me, Rat Race, Smokin' Aces, I Love You Beth Cooper and several of the Final Destination films, to name a few.
The industry is full of stories, and Seale likes to tell the one about legendary actor Tony Curtis, and a wardrobe issue that nearly snuffed out Bounty Hunters II: Hardball. "Tony was playing a gangster and part of his deal was he could pick his own outfit," says John. Curtis, he says, was a pleasure to work with but showed up in a suit "that fit him 30 years ago" and was too tight. Nobody would budge, so after a break the opposing gangster came back and said of Curtis' character: "and after I friggin' kill that guy, I'm going to kill his tailor". A few new lines and the problem was solved, Hollywood-style.
Seale came full circle when he filmed episodes of The Beachcombers, just as his father had done. "We would shoot on the water all day, with young, fresh, eager crews, and you could water-ski home from work . it was amazing." But his favourite experience occurred when he was shooting a feature film and his father joined him on set. "Dad hadn't touched a camera in years and the producers let him operate the shot, while I pulled focus for him," he says. "That's a great memory . I still get choked up."
Seale and his wife Suzanne have been married for almost 20 years. The film industry is responsible for "a lot of collateral damage in marriages," he says, pointing to his own parents, whose union didn't make it through the business. For example, Seale worked on popular TV show Millennium for three years, spending 10 months of the year working from Monday at 7 a.m. until late Friday/Saturday morning when the sun came up. "Saturday was basically a sleep day, so I saw my wife just on Sundays," he says. After the glamour wears off, the reality of the business shines through. "These young guys are gung ho but I tell them you've got to have the business in a perspective where it works for you and you don't work for it."
In the meantime Suzanne built a solid business in Nature's Creations on Lower Lonsdale, becoming passionate about natural skincare."It's been a good anchor point for our marriage."
But these days the couple shares a new passion, which brings us back to that suitcase. In 2004 Seale heard a friend speak about his hard childhood in Africa and it struck a chord. The couple put on a fundraiser, got film industry input, and sent containers back full of bikes, clothing, and computers.
They raised enough money to drill a well for an orphanage in Burkina Faso, and to finance half of a school. "That well is watering Muslims and Christians alike," notes Seale, who says that he and Suzanne were forever changed by their trip.
Their upcoming project targets at-risk children in the slums of Agdao, in the Philippines. The couple has committed to feeding 100 children a hot meal once a day for a year, to build a school to educate and rehabilitate children too often forced into the sex trade, and to foster independence through farming micro-businesses. The need could not be more urgent: flooding killed more people just last week, in an area still devastated by the December 2012 typhoon that killed more than 1,100 people.
The couple has put their money where their mouths are: they sold their 4,000 sq. ft home in Lions Bay in order to go into the field full time. "We gave away everything we weren't using," and much of the profits from Suzanne's store have gone directly to the project. They will personally match $30,000 in donations for the feeding program.
"We all have to try and make a difference," says Seale. "You don't see a hearse pulling a U-haul: people aren't going to be talking about all your stuff at your funeral."
Every dime in donations to the Kids of Hope charity is accounted for, says Seale, who is paying for his own flight with the team absorbing their own administration fees. "We're small enough that people can talk to us and see what we're doing," Seale also plans to write a blog on the website (kidsofhope.ca).
And he's taking that trusty camera along, to document their experiences and the foundation's progress. "I'm very grateful for the film industry. You get to meet some great actors; people feed you, you get top-notch treatment," he says. "But going to Africa and the Philippines and helping to save some lives. it's humbling and just so rewarding."
"I know that we can't solve it, that you can't save everybody. But try to imagine that it's your kid: we want to save them one at a time."
To donate or make enquiries about Kids Of Hope, go to kidsofhope.ca