24 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTA Q&A Series 2023: Piers McGrail on Cinematography
26 Apr 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Piers McGrail
To mark the 20th anniversary of the IFTA awards, we are showcasing 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 collaboration; what inspires them; and what recent work in the industry they most admire.

Irish Cinematographers have become highly respected both in Ireland and internationally for their rich and diverse catalogue of screen work. 

We spoke with three-time IFTA nominated Cinematographer Piers McGrail. In 2019 he worked on three of Ireland’s largest projects that year: Ordinary Love, Never Grow Old, and Calm With Horses. McGrail’s previous credits include Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley’s debut feature film Without Name, Junita Wilson’s Tomato Red, Gerard Barrett’s Glassland, as well as the BBC miniseries Little Women.

This year, McGrail is nominated for Best Cinematography for his work on It Is In All Of Us, directed by Antonia Campbell-Hughes.

IFTN: IFTA celebrates 20 years this year. How does this significant milestone reflect the growth and strengthening of the Irish film industry over the past two decades?
“I think the industry has changed significantly across these two decades. I have been working for about twelve of those years, and even within that time it has become far more confident and much busier.”

IFTN: What was your approach to making this film, and where did you take inspiration from during the process?
PIERS: “I had worked with Antonia previously and I think she enjoys finding a new language for each film. We discussed things quite abstractly and then tried to relate those abstract themes back into the film through location choices and set design, and all the other technical decisions. For me, the inspiration always comes from the script, the actors and obviously the director. I feel like it’s important to remain true to the story rather than being too seduced by the wider environment.”
IFTN: Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during production?

PIERS: “We shot in Donegal with a very small crew, so there was a strong sense of teamwork. Everyone contributed greatly, I think that there was a really nice atmosphere because of that, despite shooting at the height of the Covid restrictions. 

“I particularly enjoyed a scene that takes place at a bonfire, with one of the kids dancing. It was one of those scenes that required a lot of meetings during prep, the practicalities of doing the fire, the location, etc. In the end it was very simple, we mostly lit it using practical fire and the performances were great.”

IFTN: What was your first paid role as a DoP, and how has your approach to the work evolved over the years?
PIERS: “I have no idea which job I first got paid on, but early on I used to do a lot of work with a very talented group of friends that did music videos, shorts and some commercials. So even as a very inexperienced DoP I was able to make some money and stick with it. In terms of the approach, I don’t think it has changed all that much. I try not to rely too heavily on experience to avoid repeating myself.”

IFTN: What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most?
PIERS: “I’m a bit of a traditionalist so I’m frequently drawn to Scorcese, PTA, Hitchcock, Lean, Friedkin, Pollack, Pakula, Roeg, Carpenter, Wenders (I think Paris/Texas is one of the great cinematographer/director collaborations). More recently I’ve also really enjoyed the imagery in Adam Curtis’ documentaries. For me, it often comes down to timing though, the right film on the right screen at the right time in your life. I think those are the ones that influence you.”

IFTN: What Irish cinematographers have you been most impressed by recently?
PIERS: “It’s hard to single someone out because there is such talent across the board, and I have seen a lot of great work lately. That said, I would definitely highlight Kate McCullough’s great work on The Quiet Girl.”

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

PIERS: “Again, I don’t think I can single out one film as there has been some really great work in recent years, but I do think Lorcan Finnegan, Aoife McCardle and Donal Foreman consistently do very original work.”

IFTN: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring cinematographers?
PIERS: “I always liked the Deakins story (from an interview) about how he lit that famous shot of the train approaching in Jesse James. He had a bunch of lights on cranes to light the whole space and one lamp rigged to the front of the train. The big lights were briefly switched off and he realised that the shot was much stronger without them, and all he needed to use was that one light on the train. In itself I think that’s a really good lesson in making bold choices and embracing spontaneity on set, but he also had some additional practical advice: instead of turning the big lights off, he just panned them towards the unit base, so the producers didn’t realise that the expensive lamps were not being used!”

The 20th anniversary of the IFTA Awards Ceremony will take place on Sunday, May 7th.

Bloomsday Film Fest: Director Martin Turk and Line Producer Jeremiah Cullinane discuss Kino Volta
Actors Hannah and Emily Dargan discuss The Watched
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