6 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Peter Robertson on Cinematography
26 Jun 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Cinematographer Peter Robertson
With the IFTA Awards Viewing Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

Irish Cinematography is going through something of a golden age, which can be seen through the rich and diverse catalogue of screen work from our talented crew, both in Ireland and internationally. We spoke with two-time IFTA winning Cinematographer Peter Robertson who enjoyed a prolific period prior to COVID, working across three international projects: Vikings, Nightflyers, and The Stranger. A veteran cinematographer, Robertson’s previous credits include Aisling Walsh’s Son for a Raggy Boy (2003); Damien O’Donnell’s Inside I’m Dancing (2004); Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage (2007); as well as the BBC drama, Line of Duty (2016); Netflix drama, Black Mirror (2017); and Sky One comedy, Moone Boy (2015).

What attracted you to these roles? (The Stranger, Nightflyers, and Vikings)

“Vikings was a step up for me as regards the size of the show....... so I had no hesitation in going for it. My 1st day of filming was on the River Boyne. The unit base was down beside Slane Castle. I remember on the drive down seeing the sheer size of the unit base and thinking, ‘How am I going to manage this?’ In fact, it was not a problem. Vikings is a huge show but it is such a well-oiled machine that it almost runs itself. Every Department is so on top of what they do that as long as I am also well-prepared everything just works. It was an aspiration of mine to work on a show that size so it was great that the opportunity came my way and that it worked out so well.

“When Nightflyers came along I had been shooting Vikings for almost 3 years. It was a completely different genre and after such a long stint on Vikings, it was a breath of fresh air. It also gave me a chance to reconnect with MJ Bassett whose 1st film, 'Wilderness' I had shot 10 years previously. 

“The Stranger was directed by a previous collaborator Daniel O'Hara who I had worked with on 'Inspector George Gently’. We had gelled well together then and I really looked forward to reconnecting with him as we had a good working relationship.”

What was your approach to making these projects, and where did you take inspiration from during the process?

“I came to Vikings mid-way through the show. So a visual style had very much been established. I ran with this and added my own personal touches. Vikings differed from previous productions in so much as I was used to working with 2 cameras... Vikings could have 3 or sometimes more which considerably added to the mix.”

What is your general style of working with directors and creating a visual strategy?

“I consider the most important part of a Cinematographer's job is to get inside the head of the Director and to take inspiration and direction from them. Hopefully, they will have some visual references which they can share whether they are films, photographs or paintings. This would be my starting point with whoever I work with and from there we develop a distinctive style.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during production?

“Without a doubt, my favourite moment onset is after the talking is done and the camera starts to roll.”

What was your first paid role as a DoP, and how has your work evolved over the years?

“My first paid role as a cameraman was a Corporate Video (1986) for Digital Computers in Galway. Lighting was more about illumination. My first feature (1996) was 'Bogwoman'. My formative years were spent shooting video: Corporates, news, sports magazine programmes, music videos, and then moving on to shoot documentaries on 16mm and Commercials. So I had a good and varied early career before I started filming drama.

“These early experiences really stood to me as you had to make things work with very little equipment and learn to be creative. Like other things in life, lighting is evolving and changing all the time. In the last few years, there has been a big shift to LED fixtures and this is only going to increase and develop as time goes on. My early experience with the video format really helped me in the transition from film to digital as the early digital cameras had similar limitations to video cameras... So in a way, I was prepared.”

What do you think of the current state of cinematography in independent and mainstream cinema? Are there trends you’re excited about or that you like/dislike?

“In my opinion Cinematography is in a good place now.  Story is everything so now it's easier to get your story made. When I started you needed to hire expensive equipment and personnel to work that equipment. Now you could shoot a film on your phone. This I find liberating and great for aspiring filmmakers. I think Cinematography currently is developing well in the digital domain. Cameras are constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of exposure and image quality allowing Cinematographers to do the same.”

What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most? 

“There are many Cinematographers that have influenced me, but I admire Roger Deakins for his consistent un-intrusive filming, and this has impressed me most.”

What other Irish cinematographers have you been most impressed by in recent times?

“It is a golden age for Irish cinematographers. Seamus Mc Garvey is working at the very top levels along with John Conroy, PJ Dillon, Cathal Waters, Suzie Lavelle, and Owen Mc Polin.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had been a part of...?

“In its original guise, 'Black 47' was called 'The Ranger ' a script that PJ Dillon wrote and was going to direct. I harboured a desire to shoot it as I thought the script was great. Alas, it was not to be.”

We often are our own worst critics.  What is your approach to self-criticism and inward reflection?

“Honesty is my approach to self-criticism and inward reflection. To really look at something that you've filmed and assess whether it really works with the story and the Director's vision. There are always things that you could've done better but that is all part of the learning process.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring cinematographers?

“The best advice is to listen to your Director and really get to know what they have in mind for the look of the piece. From my own point of view, it is not to over complicate the lighting set up........sometimes one light will do.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“I have been surviving the lockdown by keeping fit, yoga and some gentle jogging; walking the dog; some basic cooking; catching up with some Films and TV shows.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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