22 February 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Q&A with Peter Robertson – DOP of ‘Charlie’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’
11 Feb 2015 : Seán Brosnan
Peter Robertson was responsible for shooting the 80's set RTÉ political drama 'Charlie'
A two-time IFTA winner for ‘Waterways’ and ‘Song for a Raggy Boy’ – Peter Robertson (who is currently working on upcoming Channel 4 period drama ‘Indian Summers’) talks to IFTN about his work on ‘Charlie’ and on ‘Peaky Blinders’ as well as taking us through his beginnings shooting documentaries.

IFTN: Tell us about your work on ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Charlie’.

Peter Robertson:‘Charlie’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’ were very different shows. They shared a similarity in so much as they were both shot on Arri Alexa with different lens sets. On ‘Charlie’ we used Cooke S4's and on ‘Peaky's’ we used Panavision Primo's. The Cooke's have a slightly softer warmer look which is what we wanted to create that 80's feel for ‘Charlie’. The challenge with ‘Charlie’ was to create mood in the government offices which were all sets and quite large rooms with big windows. I wanted to keep the lighting as naturalistic as possible in so much as daylight scenes would be lit from the windows and night scenes would appear to be light from practical sources. With the windows in shot you had to watch the balance between them and the actors faces so that you could get enough from the windows without them completely blowing out.’

‘In ‘Peaky's’ it was completely different in this regard as contrast was king and the more you blew out the windows the better. So that you could not have enough flare or blooming coming from the windows. This was not my choice as I came onto the show late and it was very much part of the design in that there was nothing outside the windows so they had to be blown out. The sets on ‘Peaky Blinders’ were however a joy to light as they were mostly dark with heavy wood that would just soak up the light and really help you create a moody dark palette. ‘Peaky's’ was also shot with two cameras running all the time sometimes in opposing directions......this is always a challenge from a lighting perspective but one which I enjoy . The actors love it as they are on all the time and it is the way Colm McCarthy likes to work . We have done three shows together now – ‘Ripper Street’, ‘Endeavour’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’ and I am really pleased with the results on all of them.’

What training/education did you receive to become a cinematographer?

‘I have not really had a lot of training. I got into the business by doing an ANCO (before FAS) in Video Production in Carr Communications in the early 1980's. The course was in all aspects of production Directing, Producing, Camerawork Editing and Sound. I was fortunate as I had a seasonal business running at the time that enabled me to do this as I was just married with a child on the way. My employment prospects would have been better as an astronaut rather than a cameraman in Ireland at that time! I was also fortunate that most people on the course wanted to be Directors or Producers so I ended up shooting and editing a lot of my own and others material which was a huge learning curve at the time. We were shooting mostly corporate videos for the likes of Digital computers and semi-state bodies. After the course, Carr's offered me a position as a freelance cameraman. Barry Kelly - one of the first cameraman to go freelance from RTE - gave me a lot of help and encouragement when I was starting out as well as putting work my way that he could not do.’

What was your first job in the industry?

‘My very first paying job was a corporate training video for Digital computers in Galway. My first taste of drama was an AIDS awareness film for the Dept of Health directed by Cathal Black which really sewed the seed as to where I wanted to go with my career. Along with jobs for Carr’s I started getting news jobs for Anner and Windmill covering the north for both BBC and ITV. Then came sports, corporates, magazine programmes and documentaries. The most notable being Waterways EMDEE productions (Mike Murphy's company) for RTE. I attended a workshop at the Rockport Film School in Maine which I found to be really liberating. It was only for a week but you were working with other emerging DOP's from all over the world and there was a great sense of comradeship and cross pollination of ideas without competition.’

What do you enjoy most about being a DOP? And what do you consider the greatest challenges?

‘What I enjoy most about being a cinematographer - apart from making pictures look good - is the collaboration between people to achieve that end. The most important relationship being with the director and getting inside their head to find their vision of what you are realising together. Some directors have a very definite vision and with others you have to dig a little deeper. That is the most satisfying feeling when you realise their vision.’

‘The greatest challenges are lighting practical locations that are precious about what you do. On ‘Peaky's’ we had to shoot three days in Chatsworth House (Duke of Devonshires home). We had at least two minders everywhere we went in case we put something where we shouldn’t. In one room there were 10 very large windows (all north facing which was good as it took the sun out of the equation). We were shooting a long dialogue scene between Cillian and Charlotte and it had to look good. There was no way to light through the windows even if I wanted to because of access. So I decided to go for a muted daylight scene and kept the windows cool which gave the interior practical’s a warmer more romantic feel. I think with the modern digital cameras using minimal lighting and cleaver use of existing locations in conjunction with practical light you can achieve great results.’

Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use.

‘My typical working day would start at 8am and finish at 7pm with one hour for lunch. This varies depending on night work which could be broken into a split day or as a night shoot…becoming more unusual now because of budgets. I remember working on Michael Collins (2nd Camera/Steadicam) and we did a week of nights which were 12 hour days with one hour for lunch. We were zombies! The equipment we use now is radically different from 10 years ago. When I started out in the 80's shooting corporate videos I dreamt of shooting film. Luckily I was able to achieve that dream as there are no surprises nowadays.....what you see is what you get. There was a certain magic about shooting film, hearing it, feeling it ....... it was such a beautifully simple process. Now once it hits the chip I have no idea what goes on!’

What filmmaker/cinematographer has influenced you?

‘Nestor Almendros would be someone that had a huge impact on me. I remember seeing ‘Days of Heaven’ in the cinema well before I had ever started in this business and was struck by how beautiful it was. As I discovered more about cinematography I discovered why. They shot everything at magic hour either early morning or late evening.....what a choice to make. I also admired his early career where he had very little resources in Cuba and they would plan their interiors as to where the sun was during the day. Having worked with Chris Menges twice on ‘Michael Collins’ and ‘The Boxer’ he would be someone that I also took inspiration from. He was also from a documentary background and I admired his uncluttered approach to lighting which I have tried to bring to my own work.’

What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?

‘The Irish TV show that I would have really loved to have worked on was 'Murphy's Australia' which Seamus Deasy shot. At the time it just seemed so exotic and adventurous and I remember wishing I could do something like that.’

What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?

‘I grew up with ‘B and W’ in the 60's. I remember the signal came from Black Mountain in Belfast. The first show I was mad about was ‘The Lone Ranger’ which was on 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. ‘Rawhide’ was also a big favourite and ‘Dr Who’, ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘Get Smart’, ‘The Rockford Files’ and ‘I Claudius’ to name but a few. As regards to features - ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was a huge experience and I ended up seeing it at least four times between different sets of friends .....I never got tired of watching it even at that young age.’

What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?

‘There is very little difference between working on an Irish or International production. It’s easier to an extent at home as I now know most of the people that I'm going to be working with here. However the film business is the film business and no matter where you do it the basic parameters are the same. You block the scene with the directors light it and shoot it ........easy! Of course it’s not and the benefits of an exotic location can diminish after you sweated your guts out in 90 degree heat while being bitten by mozzies at the same time! Even that has its rewards, while shooting 'Indian Summers' in Malaysia last year the heat and bugs were extreme but the rewards with stunning locations more than paid off photographically.’

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into cinematography?

‘There are two ways into the business and that is to enter the camera department as a trainee, attach yourself to an established Clapper Loader and move up through the department that way ..... so trainee, loader, focus puller then camera operator or DOP. The advantage of this route is that you are always working with other DOP's and you can learn from observing them at work.’

‘The other route is probably more risky but it’s the one I ended up taking - in so much as I was always shooting, even if what I was shooting was corporate videos I was always in control and learning as I went along. I do not regret a moment and apart from working at something that I love I have been lucky enough during my documentary phase to go to parts of the world that I would never have thought of going to.’

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