Behind the Scenes with... award-winning Irish cinematographer Kate McCullough
DOP on critically acclaimed Irish docs It's Not Yet Dark and The Farthest reveals what it's like behind the camera
Behind the Scenes: We meet key Irish and Ireland-based talent working behind the scenes in the TV, film, radio, theatre, and music industries. This week we're chatting to Kate McCullough, the award winning Irish DOP on projects including His & Hers, The Farthest, and most recently, It's Not Yet Dark.
For those unfamiliar with what exactly a Director of Photography does, how would you explain it?
"Some of the confusion lies in the fact that most directors get their photo taken on set sitting beside the camera...that’s normally my seat! As DOP, I am responsible for establishing the visual language, in collaboration with the director, to best tell the story of the film. I make decisions on camera and lighting equipment and, depending on the size of the project, I will have a team of people from 0-10 in the camera/lighting department, working with me to help execute the vision."
What is the relationship between director and DOP?
"Like any relationship, it is a dance. You have to find a way together of understanding each other. Hopefully, this is laid down during in the prep period before a shoot, and if the dance is a good one, that will withstand the inevitable stresses and strains that will arise during the shoot. It s really important relationship which lasts until the very completion of the film, including colour-grading, special effects etc in the post-production phase."
Can the relationship be difficult?
"Indeed it can. But when it works, it can be thrilling."
Why did you choose this career?
"As a teenager, I had thought about art college, and then a little later, the solitary aspect of painting or making fine art, stopped appealing to me. I wanted to collaborate creatively with like minded people, and work visually. I applied to Dun Laoghaire, and from early on, it was clear that behind the camera was my natural habitat."
How did you get a start in the industry after you graduated?
"After DL, I did a couple of short films, and from there went to The Polish Film School in Lodz for a few years. When I came back to Ireland, I worked on my first feature with my Dun Laoghaire classmate Ken Wardrop, on His & Hers. That was a great start!"
What does your job involve on a daily basis during pre-production, production, and beyond?
"Lots of problem solving throughout each phase! Decision making, negotiating assessing, calculating, then some more assessing, thinking laterally, talking, listening, looking and interpreting."
What are the main challenges/frustrations you encounter as a DOP?
"Time is the biggest enemy on set. There is never enough time to do what you want to do. As someone recently said to me, 'your preparation before you roll the camera is never complete, it’s just interrupted'. The Irish weather is a particular challenge for the DOP. The human eye can cope with the changes of light and shadow. The camera, however, while a brilliant innovation, is far less adaptable and so my job is to adjust the camera and lighting to render what the eye sees."
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
"It is a perfect alchemy of creativity and practicality. It allows a precision of communication that I can’t find anywhere else in normal life. Behind the lens is where I am most comfortable and articulate. I also get to work with and meet great people."
Do you work solely in Ireland?
"No. I go wherever the work takes me. I’ve worked on some great projects in the US, Gambia, South America, Russia and Ireland."
Is there a lot of competition for work in Ireland?
"There is competition but the cinematographers pool is very small."
Is it a male dominated profession?
"It is almost 100% male domination! There are only a handful of female DOPs in Ireland. There is an organisation, Women in Film, here who are doing lots to try and change that imbalance. The Irish Film Board are also working towards a better representation of women working in the industry. There is a lot of room for improvement and it will take time.R
Most recently you worked on It's Not Yet Dark - a documentary about the life of husband, father, and filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice who has MND and filmed his movie My Name is Emily using eye-gaze technology - can you tell us about that experience?
"Working alongside Simon was humbling. We had fun recreating sections of his book, and as a communicator, he has mastered an economy of language that is second to none. He managed to get his message across and do it with humour. It was also very special to spend time with the people closest to Simon, and Ruth, his wife. Living with MND imposes an exceptional way of life, for better and for worse."
The final film evolved into something quite different from the initial plan. Director Frankie Fenton had planned to shadow Simon as he filmed My Name is Emily but Simon handed over 10 years worth of home video and it became much more personal and expansive - how was that process for you?
"Working on a documentary always demands that you can move and respond to the ever changing parameters of the story and its characters. Real life is messy. At times, this can be a real challenge, but it’s always about grasping the bigger picture, and telling the story you want to tell."
Also, The Farthest - a documentary which tells the tale of the amazing Voyager spacecraft and its Golden Record - was phenomenally well received - what was it like to work on?
"It was truly a great adventure on planet earth. We met incredibly passionate people who, though edging towards the latter part of their careers, still maintained the ebullience and curiosity of children as though seeing things for the first time!"
Are tight budgets a help creatively, or a hindrance?
"Mainly, a tight budget is a hindrance more than a help. It does force you to find solutions but for the most part it will compromise the film, and corners often get cut. Having the right equipment and a really good crew lays down a strong foundation for a good film."
Do you prefer documentary or fiction?
"That is a hard question, one I've been doing a lot of thinking about for the last few years. I have learned a huge amount about filmmaking, and life, working on documentary for the past 10 years. I have had the privilege of meeting some inspirational and fascinating people who have given of their deepest selves for the art of documentary making. The unpredictability of people's lives however means that, from my perspective as a DOP, most often I can’t craft and connect each frame together, as is more possible in a piece of drama with a script. Shooting fiction, I get a special thrill out of recreating scenes from life. It’s a bit like when you are a child and you play out worlds and roles from the labyrinth of your imagination. In an ideal world, I would do a little of both."
What advice would you give to anyone who would like to carve a career as a DOP? "Stop. Look. Listen. As the youngest in the family, I think I developed my perch of looking and listening early on. Its the most important tool. Everything else can follow."
It's Not Yet Dark is in cinemas now.