1 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Kate McCullough on Cinematography
15 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Cinematographer Kate McCullough.
With the IFTA Film & Drama Awards nominations announced, we continue to shine a spotlight on 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.

We spoke with DoP Kate McCullough, who has been nominated in the Best Cinematography category for her work on Tom Sullivan’s Cine4 Famine Epic, Arracht. Irish Cinematographers have become highly respected both in Ireland and internationally for their rich and diverse catalogue of screen work, and McCullough has been a DoP garnering well-deserved attention from the industry following her transition into drama in recent years.  

"I am delighted to have worked on a project that celebrates the tenacity of the Irish people during the Famine, and pays tribute to this vital part of our collective history," said McCullough when speaking about her IFTA nomination. "From the get-go, in the face of the Atlantic winds, everyone throughout the production put their back into it, and made a film I am very proud to have worked on. Thanks to IFTA for recognising Arracht and the talented crew involved." 

Aside from Arracht, which leads the IFTA nominations (11), McCullough's other recent projects Blood (2019), and I, Dolours (2018) have both been nominated for Best Drama and Best Feature Documentary.

Separate to working on these projects, Kate featured as DoP on six episodes of Element Pictures’ internationally acclaimed drama Normal People, which aired earlier this summer, and her previous work includes Emer Reynold’s News & Documentary Emmy-winning documentary, The Farthest (2017) for which she was nominated for Outstanding Lighting Direction and Scenic Design.

What attracted you to work on recent projects such as Arracht, Blood, and I, Dolours?

“I need to be able to identify with the script in some way, whether it’s a character or situation. That way I can express something authentic through the image. E.g. with Arracht it was the utter devastation of a life and how Coleman found strength in an unsuspecting young girl.”

Dónall Ó Héalaí in Arracht.

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

“It really depends on the project. Ultimately, it’s about identifying the tone of the film, the texture of it, the rhythm, and finding a language. Once you get an anchor on that things start to fall into place.”

“With Arracht, it was about spending time in the locations, in the weather, and the seasons of the west of Ireland. Time of year was critical as the landscape was almost another character in the story and the lives of our characters were dictated by the weather systems. Right from the start, Tom (Sullivan) and I decided we wanted to shoot in Autumn to take advantage of the duller, less vibrant green, to emphasise the sense that the land was diseased, weakened in some way. I love shooting at that time of the year as it allows us to shoot dusk and dawn within the same shoot day.”

Blood was driven by the idea of getting to the truth. I was intrigued by the constant questioning, revealing of things by the protagonist Cat, as her perception of a situation was constantly in flux; like layers of an onion. Who should she trust? I wanted to bring a strong element of light and dark with certain characters to allow the audience to consider and reconsider whether they should be trusted. The camera should be moving with our protagonist in the relentless search to reveal things.”

I, Dolours was about inviting the audience to consider how fundamentalism can evolve in an individual, a community when there is exclusion. It was important to present Price first and foremost as human. These reconstructions needed to feel authentic to the period and to complement the archival interview.”

Adrian Dunbar and Carolina Main in Blood: Season One.

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

“Finding a place where communication flows. Each director is different. I like to listen to them and gauge the approach to working from this. It's important to try and access a director's thoughts, the ideas behind the words, and the subtext of a scene.

“If I have a strong opinion on how we should shoot a scene I’ll certainly voice it. It’s an ongoing conversation, a negotiation really. Sometimes when we begin we will have opposing ideas but somewhere in there there’s a meeting point and you come out with a much stronger, more integrated approach. I like using photography, paintings, clips from films to communicate an idea. I particularly love the early stages of figuring out the language for a film/series.”

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

Arracht: “Arracht was hugely ambitious for what resources we had to hand. Dónal Ó Héalaí went to enormous lengths to play his character and this really set the ambition for the film. There was a strong commitment from the crew to make it work despite all the difficulties. There were storms and tides and sea forecasts to juggle.

“We were working with the wonderful Saise Ní Chuinn who plays the young girl in the film so there was a lot to do to get the schedule working to accommodate child hours. There was this slightly surreal moment when we were out on a boat with a young boy to shoot the dream sequence. The sun came out, the water was incredibly calm almost oily and I was able to shoot it almost like it was day for night, and then right on cue, a bird flew through the frame low to the surface. It just felt like everything aligned, synthesised through the lens.”

Blood: “It was a big learning curve for me on this, how to manage a team, how to communicate with other departments, how to negotiate. Up until this point, I had mainly shot documentaries generally with small crews so there was a lot to glean. Bizarrely, the sun shone for most of the 11wks so it was the first time I was able to plan lighting according to the sun and even use the sun as a key. This was a treat as I love using mirrors.”

I, Dolours: “Shooting in Armagh Women’s prison was hugely evocative and influential in setting the tone. I often find shooting in a strong location on a period piece hugely inspirational in how you might approach a scene. There are texture and layers on the walls, time ingrained. There were certainly complications to shoot there but it led to a very particular look in that section of the film.”

Lorna Larkin in I, Dolours.

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

“I think my very first paid job was a short film within a series of short films centered on Ulysses with Dearbhla Walsh. I really didn’t know what I was doing but Dearbhla was kind enough to entertain my antics. My first love was documentary and after I shot His and Hers (alongside Michael Lavelle).

“I spent almost 10 years travelling and shooting documentaries. What a fantastic way to learn about the world and the human condition. However, the industry is quick to put people in categories so it took me a while to break through into drama. Since about two years ago I’ve been focusing on drama.”

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?

“I always like shooting with intent. Shooting something just for the sake of it is not my bag. There has been a rash of anamorphic shooting. I don’t understand when someone says oh shooting 1:1.39 is always cinematic.

“There are so many layers to make something cinematic. Or the assumption that shooting on super 8mm is immediately a memory. I think we as cinematographers should always be considering all the tools at our disposal, mixing and matching and pushing the boundaries of the image.”

What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most?

“There’s too many, this is a selection. Steve McQueen, Werner Herzog, Bradford Young, Lukasz Zal, Andre Turpin, Celine Sciamma, Robert Elswit, Michael Haneke.”

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

“Robbie Ryan.”

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

“It can be hard to get perspective on your work and people can be shy with their criticism. I find it hard to watch a film I’ve just finished. It can take a year or two to actually see what it is you’ve made. However, I’ve learned it is helpful to watch them pretty soon after they are finished as the inner dialogue can be helpful to reflect on what did and didn't work.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“I’ve been shooting a documentary with Ken Wardrop on the pandemic. It’s been a great excuse to have a look around and experience the surreality of it all. It’s also brought me right back to where I started just over 10 years ago, a director, a camera, a boom, and off we go!”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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