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Ruairí O'Brien – DOP Of ‘The Fall’
05 Nov 2014 : Sean Brosnan
After working on television shows such as ‘Moone Boy’, ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Corp+Anam’ and garnering an IFTA nomination for his work in the film ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’, ‘The Fall’ came knocking for DOP Ruairí O'Brien.

‘The Fall’, the IFTA-winning Belfast-set drama starring Jamie Dornan as a serial killer and Gillian Anderson as the cop attempting to hunt him down, returns to RTÉ One for a second season on Sunday, November 9th. IFTN catches up with the DOP of the acclaimed drama - about his work on the show as well as filling us in on his latest short ‘Cutting Grass’ (which he co-wrote and co-directed) screening this month at festivals in Cork and Foyle.

IFTN: After stints on heavy, crime-thriller dramas such as ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Father and Son’, was ‘The Fall’ an easy career transition for you? How did you land the job?

Ruairí O'Brien: I was recommended for the job by Stephen Wright who is Head Of Drama in BBC Northern Ireland and he was Executive Producer on ‘Murphy’s Law’, ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ and ‘Line Of Duty’ which I had worked on in the past. I met the director of the first series - Jakob Verbruggen – and we got on well and he offered me the job.

‘The Fall’ has a dark and distinct look and tone, with the visuals aptly building the tension and sometimes telling a tale all on their own. How did you achieve this?

What’s interesting about ‘The Fall’ is that there’s very sparse dialogue in it. If you read the script there are always a number of scenes without dialogue in it at all which in TV drama is unusual. TV drama is normally driven by dialogue whereas ‘The Fall’ is driven more by imagery and by silent action. The tone all came out in the script, it was all there on the page. So Jakob had a few references and styles in mind, all very disparate references such as Korean horror movies and all kind of things. And then with the second series, Allen Cubitt (creator and writer) who had written the whole thing also took over directing but we had a place to start from so we refined what we did in the first series and I think the second series is stronger for it. Even though this was Allen’s first time directing, he had a very good idea of what he wanted visually.

That realm of sparse dialogue and telling the story through imagery must be exciting and challenging work for a DOP….

Absolutely. What I always look for is a strong script. If you have a good script, whether its very dialogue driven or not – once the story is good that’s the most important thing. This happens to have a very strong story with a unique voice to it but it also has the advantage of being an innately visual piece. And Allen Cubitt was very determined to keep the visual quality up. Very often, visuals are sacrificed to make sure something is filmed correctly or in time but this was not the case here. So, that’s a real gift for a cameraman to be constantly working with visual language with people who understand its importance.

Tell us about the equipment you use?

Our camera was the Arri Alexa. I chose Cooke S4 lenses. We did test other lenses, the Zeiss Ultra Primes which I had enjoyed using in the first series of 'Moone Boy'. In the end I went with the Cooke lenses as I liked how they flatter the actors. I don't really use filters except to affect the exposure. I was keen to make Gillian look as good as possible and explored using filtration but in the end we decided to do it in post. I worked with our colourist Jet Omoshebi to create a digital diffusion based on our filter tests.

Did you know when you took the post - or even have an inkling - about how big of a show ‘The Fall’ would become?

When you read a script, you really never know how good something will be, whether it will capture the public’s attention or not. So, you may be working on something you think is great and it might sink without a trace, and then you might be working on something you think is terrible and people can love it – absolutely no way of predicting. If you knew that, you’d have the formula for success!

You have recently taken the director chair yourself (along with John Kennedy) with the short film ‘Cutting Grass’ –which you also co-wrote. ‘Cutting Grass’ is definitely an intriguing short, one that could have twisted and turned in a million directions but took a route I bet no audience member will expect. This culminates in the audience being hit hard with a lot of questions in just 12 minutes of film. Could you tell us about the short?

Well it started when I was talking to a producer about a short film about six years ago. He said he had been offered lots of scripts but he wanted to see something he had never read before and he said ‘if it’s original, I will do it’. So, I started thinking about someone who is marginalised in society but is not at all represented – I don’t want to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen the film but the character played by John Hannah kind of represents someone who is not seen very much on a cinema screen and the short went from there. I originally wrote the short for my father to play the part (the late Niall O’Brien) but he passed away a few years ago and we shelved the project. Then, in 2012, I was working with John Hannah and I just thought ‘he could do it, he could play the part’. Myself and John Kennedy, my co-director, revived the project and got Laura McNicholas involved as producer. A tough thing about getting the film made was delivery of the film was due for May of this year and I was shooting ‘The Fall’ at the same time so I had to shoot that in Belfast during the week and then go up to Dublin to shoot this short at the weekends for five or six weeks in a row so it meant over 30 days in a row without a day off shooting in two cities!

So, what’s next for you then? Writing? Directing? Cinematography? Or all of the above?

I love being a cameraman! I think part of the reason I like taking the odd directing job is because it ultimately helps me help the directors. People joke about it but I think everyone in film should do a ‘job-swap day’ where everyone turns up and does someone else’s job so the cameraman does the make-up and the make-up artist records the sound and the sound guy does the catering while the caterer does focus pulling! It would be chaos but it’d be great for everyone to understand each other’s roles on set. So, for me, directing shorts is really good when it comes to empathizing with directors and actors. So, coming up then I have just finished shooting ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ for BBC directed by Jed Mercurio (‘Line of Duty’). After that, I have a clear schedule so I normally use these times to shoot music videos or commercials so hopefully a few of those jobs will come in! Or perhaps a short or something. I just love shooting.

‘The Fall’ returns this Sunday, November 9th at 10.30pm on RTÉ One (after the season finale of Love/Hate) . It also airs on BBC Two on Thursday, 13th November

You can view the trailer here:

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