Probably one of the most sought after DoP’s in Ireland at the minute, we chat to 2015 IFTA nominee Piers McGrail on how he got into the industry.
Graduating from IADT just eight years ago, McGrail worked his way up from shorts and music videos and was eventually thrown into the feature film deep-end with the BAFTA-winning ‘Kelly+Victor’ in 2011. He has continued to be in demand ever since with 2015 proving his most fruitful year to date with three features hitting cinemas – ‘Let Us Prey’, ‘The Canal’ and ‘Glassland’ – with the latter project earning him his first IFTA nomination.
2016 looks just as busy with Lorcan Finnegan’s ‘Without Name’ and Juanita Wilson’s ‘Tomato Red’ in the pipeline. Here, McGrail tells us of his beginnings, lets us in on sage advice he has received and dispenses some sage advice of his own.
IFTN: Firstly, tell us a little about Juanita Wilson’s ‘Tomato Red’?
Piers McGrail: ‘This is a feature that I shot in Canada last year with Juanita Wilson. It’s adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell [who wrote Winter’s Bone]. We had a terrific cast and incredible locations, so it was a really nice one to shoot. We were in a tiny town about four hours north of Vancouver, and contrary to what you might expect the landscape there was dusty, desert-like, surrounded by these dramatic hills. It’s the kind of place where it’s hard to find a boring shot, so a real luxury for a cinematographer! We’re in the middle of grading it at the moment, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. Nathan Nugent did a great job on the edit, and Donal O’Kane is doing very nice work with the grade.’
What training/education did you receive to become a DoP?
‘I’m sure I had no idea what a cinematographer was when I was younger, but I did enjoy stills photography - I took a lot of photos with my dad’s old Nikon. During transition year I ended up doing work experience on a big-budget American film that was shooting over here, called Laws of Attraction. I jumped between whichever department would have me, but I loved the whole process - the huge scale of it all, the socialising. As a sixteen year old it was all very exciting, and I was absolutely sold on a career in film.’
‘I did the film degree course at IADT about eight years ago. It was great to be amongst really driven filmmakers. There were actually a few of us living together in one house, and we were making films constantly, within college but also on our own time - whenever we could get the equipment. It was just before digital started to really take over, so as a cinematographer it’s nice to have started off shooting on film.’
And what was your first job in the industry?
‘After college I continued to work with friends from the course. We were shooting loads of low-budget music videos, the occasional short film. Some of my friends formed a commercial production company called Tidal, and I did a lot of work with them - finally, and very gratefully, making a living! In 2011 I had a really lucky break when I got the chance to shoot my first feature – ‘Kelly + Victor’. It was quite far into pre-production and they were looking for a DP on short notice. The Irish co-producer, Andrew Freedman, put me forward and I managed to get the job. The film went on to win a BAFTA so it was very rewarding in the end.’
What was the best piece of advice you have been given in the industry?
‘I actually just read this the other day, in relation to lighting - ‘If in doubt, turn it off’. It’s sage advice!’
And what advice would you give?
‘Giving advice - that's a tough one. I don’t know if I know enough to be dispensing advice! I do think it’s important to work on the best possible films - which might seem like a no-brainer, but it can be easy to be reject a film just because the budget is too small, or the schedule seems impossible. But I would always pick the quality of the script and the director involved over any other factors. In the end of the day, those are the films that get seen.’
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