29 November 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
     
Owen McPolin on Cinematography
06 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Cinematographer Owen McPolin
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 four-time IFTA nominated Cinematographer Owen McPolin who worked on a host of high-quality international television projects prior to the COVID lockdown, such as History Channel’s Vikings (Season 6), AMC’s Into The Badlands, and SYFY’s Deadly Class.

With a career spanning over 20 years, McPolin previous credits include Ian Fitzgibbon’s Spin The Bottle (2003), BBC’s Golden Globe-nominated Little Dorrit (2008), When Harvey Met Bob (2010), Doctor Who (2011), Mr. Selfridge (2013), BBC crime thriller Whitechapel (2013), Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2015), and BBC’s Ripper Street (2016).

What attracted you to these projects? (Deadly Class, Vikings S6, and Into the Badlands)

“Variety is the spice of life, I suppose. All of these projects had such different challenges: Middle Age Battles in the mud and slime, Martial Arts; hand to hand wire work fights, and a bunch of reprobates graduating from a School for Assassins, all fall into very different kinds of project fit that bill, don’t you think?”

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

“Anywhere I could get it, really. With Vikings, I was following on from PJ Dillon who had created a startling and original look for the show, which I was keen to discover and build on. The further development of the storylines brought the characters to different worlds and that give the opportunity to try different things from time to time.

“Badlands was an entirely different and novel world where martial arts played out in a fictional dystopian world was created from scratch. It was initially shot in Louisiana for the first season but when its production moved to Ireland, we had the chance to build on the initial look crafted by the First Season’s DoP, Shane Hurlbut. It was hugely exciting to work on and work alongside a full-time Chinese fight unit led by Master Dede; one of the foremost martial art fight co-ordinators in the world.

Deadly Class was a Graphic Novel sent in 1980’s San Francisco and so that job couldn’t have been be any more different from the others and as such getting the chance to vary the work so much is the most satisfying of all.”

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

“I always take their lead. They are charged with the responsibility to realise their idea and I am a subordinate collaborator to their process. I’ll do my very best to get what’s in their head onto the screen and apply every trick in the book to tell that story for them.”

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

“Wrap. Hah! No, really. The process is unmercifully difficult sometimes, but significantly it’s always exciting to be in the midst of human activity. Unlike any other profession I know, this enterprise, from the first germ of an idea to its eventual viewing by the audience, almost always involves groups of people collaborating to get the thing onto screen. It’s fraught, tiring, teeth-clinchingly frustrating but when it works and you’ve communicated the idea or excited someone or moved them, then the payoff is worth it. Isn’t it? Oh God, I hope it is because I’m too old to learn another profession.”

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

“First paid gig, excluding those paid for by booze and fags, was for Áine O’Connor, who directed a one hour Irish Language Movie called ‘Draoícht’ for TG4’s first night of Broadcast in 1996. It was written by and featured Gabriel Byrne, produced by Gerry McColgan and commissioned by Anne McCabe. I really hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing and I was frequently saved from disaster by the wonderful gaffer Noel Cullen and his crew. How has my work evolved? I hope I’ve learned a few things and got better. I’m not sure though…”

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?

“Mainstream cinema will always be expressed in the business of commercial cinema and it’s never changed in that way. Mid-budget Independent Cinema has sadly declined a lot in levels of production and this is a shame since this is where many young filmmakers once cut their teeth, made their mistakes, and learned how to communicate what they wanted to say.

“Now that’s eroded but the age of the Streamers is here and the battle for dominance with the acquisition of content is the name of the game. Filmmakers of all stripes have rushed to deliver for this demand and it has created an entirely new strand of production that has never been there before. So I’m delighted this is happening for all sorts of reasons, mostly selfishly since it’s given me a chance to work on jobs of scale and uniqueness I’d never had a glimmer of hope of working on in the past.”

What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most? 

“As a kid, I watched a huge amount of movies, mostly American fare, in the old Cinemadrome in Tralee where I grew up. There was black and white Sunday afternoon Matinees on RTE of course, which was fine but the Love of the Movies was mostly engendered by my Dad who was a secret film nut: the first film he brought me to was ‘Close Encounters’. I was five. It blew my little mind (not much has changed in the intervening years regarding my mind); watching a mother ship rotate like that on a screen that big made my jaw hang and saucers of my eyes.

“I watched a lot of entertaining rubbish on a top-loading VHS Ferguson VideoStar Player-owned by Frank the Chipper who lived across the road; we mostly binged on pirated shlock horrors like ‘Halloween’ and ‘Carrie’ way before we should be watching them mind, and then I made a few pals in my teens with the common goal of making small idiotic but immensely fun films that tried to be a lot like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Krull’. What were we thinking? So I never really had an early appreciation of cinematographers per se but I knew they were there behind the camera and so I got more familiar with that cohort as I grew up.

When I got hold of some old second-hand copies of American Cinematographer and AC Handbook that I became more aware of cinematic techniques and those people responsible for applying the art. So it was only when I left school and went off to third-level did I zone in on a few such as the great Gregg Toland and masters such as Doug Slocombe, Allen Daviau, Dean Cundney, Owen Roizman, and Nestor Almendros. There are lots more but that’s another story.”

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

“We have, I think, a disproportionate amount of Cinematographic Talent behind camera today. I think Robbie Ryan, PJ Dillon, John Conroy have all shown how gifted they are but in relation to the newer arrivals I think Suzie Lavelle, Kate McCullough, Piers McGrail, and Tom Comerford have shown just amazing ability and have put my inconsistent efforts to shame- bloody talented bunch, fiendishly brilliant competition,  Gawdammitt!”

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

“There’s a fantastic film John Huston made in here in 1974 with Paul Newman called ‘The Mackintosh Man’. I would have given my left arm to have been part of that; working with the caliber of those guys, but hey, I was only four so they probably would have only given me a trainee position or a walk on crying toddler part.”

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

“I never do it. Never.  Absolutely never. No. Nope. Won’t. Not. Ever. Niet. Well maybe sometimes…a tiny bit…well…em….I dunno, maybe a small…eh, a lot…em….Aaaaggggghhh!”

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

“Relax; question everything, deep down only your own opinion matters. You’ll know if it stinks. Most of all enjoy it.”

How have you channeled your creativity during lockdown?

“I’ve got three young children, three under four and well, that’s where it goes. But once we get them down to bed I have been catching up on a lot of movies I’ve missed out on over the past number of years, ‘Portrait of A Woman on Fire’, ‘So Long My Son’, ‘Mother’ (the one by Bong Joon-Ho), PT Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ & ‘The Master’ and re-watched a lot of older stuff  I’ve either watched before or wanted to again: Capra’s ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’, DeNiro Classic ‘Midnight Run’, Burt Lancaster’s last one: ‘Atlantic City,’ and a few others like ‘The Anderson Tapes’, ‘Fat City’ and ‘Putney Swope’. A mad cornucopia, I know.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.





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