Growing up, Sean Carswell was heavily influenced by his military family. His father and grandfather were both in the British Royal Air Force, and his other grandfather was from New Zealand’s famous 28th Maori Battalion of WWII. Even his uncles are in the special forces. It was only natural that he too wanted to step into the line of duty, and dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. However, that dream came to an abrupt and tragic end when he failed his medical exam. At the time it was crippling, and instead he took the first job he was offered, working for a small creative company. Little did he know that is what would really change the course of his life.
“It was a small husband and wife corporate company, but fortunately, my mentor was an ex-Vietnam combat cameraman and Staff-Sergeant. He literally drilled the idea of being a professional into me and of course all his war stories were riveting. The idea of heroically helicoptering in to cover war stories was massively romantic to me as a 17-year-old with a military background. I never considered any other aspect of film and TV other than newsgathering, as I really couldn’t visualize myself, a small-town boy from rural New Zealand, getting any further into the industry than that,” says Carswell.
Now, as an internationally sought-after Director of Photography, Carswell no longer looks back at failing that medical exam as a dream ending, but instead, the beginning of a new dream. He has been a part of dozens of successful films and television series, from the recent hit Baewatch: Parental Guidance to Toy Stories, and many in between.
One of Carswell’s longest standing professional relationships is with the iconic British television presenter James May, best known for the worldwide phenomenon Top Gear. They began working together back in 2006 on Oz and James’ Great Wine Adventure, and have since shot countless other projects, including ManLab and Cars of The People. One of their more recent projects premiered in January, James May: Our Man in Japan, where May and his crew set out to travel land, sea, and air to explore everything that Japan has to offer.
“I would have to say that every episode has a different feel. Because we react to the subject matter and switch our storytelling approach on the spot, the series doesn’t get boring to watch. The style is dynamic, so it becomes serious when it needs to be but otherwise it isn’t tied down. We’ve been through a long period of ‘format’ style shows and I think audiences are ready for something different,” says Carswell.
Carswell brings a wide range of skills to the set that make him a one-of-a-kind DP. He can operate cranes, fly drones, rig mini-cams, work without direction, light a drama set, manage a multi camera shoot, as well as run and gun. Such skills allow him to switch direction and style on the spot. Working closely with May and Director Tom Whitter, Carswell can do anything and everything they ask of him without much thought, making him the ideal person for the job. For Our Man in Japan, Carswell was responsible for rigging all the in-car sequences, the tracking shots, the drone work and of course all the lighting and principal camerawork. Carswell, May, and Whitter have been working together for so long, there is an ease to their trio that allows for creativity to flow. They all trust each other, and Carswell loves that because of this, he can follow his instincts and really allow the story to flow naturally, something that is important for a docuseries, as you never know where it will take you.
“I’m really lucky working with Tom and James because after so much time together any one of us can go off in a random direction and we all seem to instinctively ‘follow the story’. I guess it comes from Tom and James both being journalists and reporters and my experience newsgathering all those years ago. Sometimes editorial content is far bigger than visual signature but we really work hard to find the middle ground,” says Carswell. “We have an audience that is very sophisticated and loves our complete disdain for the 4th wall. Things go wrong constantly on shoots and we embrace that and make it part of the journey. There’s no deceit in our shows, if things fail, they fail, we don’t pretend otherwise but you have to be adept at this kind of storytelling because it can get old quickly.”
James May: Our Man in Japan was released around the world on January 3rd, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video. It received high praise from both fans and critics, and Carswell could not be happier to have played such an important role in the series’ success
“It’s been hugely gratifying to be part of something that’s been so well received. We’re a team that’s spent many years working away and getting varying degrees of recognition so to come together and get the acclaim we’ve got is both humbling and satisfying,” he says.
Carswell, May, and Whitter are teaming up once again on May’s newest production, James May: Our Man in Scandinavia, which has yet to start filming. Be sure to be on the lookout when it drops.