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PJ Dillon on Cinematography
22 Jul 2020 : News Desk
With the IFTA Awards 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.

We spoke to veteran Cinematographer PJ Dillon, whose most recent projects include AMC’s Into the Badlands and The Alienist, which earned him an Emmy Award nomination for Cinematography for a Limited Series/Movie in 2018. This year, Dillon was also nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award for The Rook.

Dillon is an enormously successful and experienced cinematographer boasting major television credits such as Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Altered Carbon. Along with Emmy, ASC and BSC nominations, he has won three IFTA Awards for cinematography for his work on BBC series Ripper Street, Ian Power’s cork-set the Runaway (2010) starring Oscar Nominee Demián Bichir, and Irish coming-of-age drama 32A (2009).

In addition to his experience as a cinematographer, Dillon has also worked as a director and writer, scripting and directing the thriller Rewind (2010) starring Amy Huberman, Allen Leech and Owen McDonnell, and conceiving the idea and co-writing the original feature script for the 2018 famine epic Black '47 alongside Pierce Ryan.

What attracted you to working on Into The Badlands and The Alienist?

“I was sent the scripts for The Alienist and I liked them. I also like shooting period work so those were the initial attractions. I subsequently went to Budapest to meet Jakob Verbruggen and Chris Symes (the director and producer) once I'd met with them - and seen the scale and ambition of the project - it was an easy decision to come on board.

“With Into The Badlands, I really like working with the producer, Karen Richards and I had never really shot martial arts before so I figured it'd be fun to do a couple of episodes.”

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

“The Alienist is set in New York in 1898, what's called 'the belle époque' or 'the gilded age' - There is a very rich archive of photography and written material about the style of the period so that proved invaluable in terms of research for the 'look', but the greatest inspiration came from American impressionist and pre-impressionist paintings from the time. The work of artists like Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Paul Cornoyer and John Henry Twachtman, their particular colour palettes and tonality gave me some inkling of how they perceived their surroundings and that heavily influenced my own colour choices in shooting and grading. For example, Whistler's 'Nocturne' series of paintings, especially the 'Nocturnes in Black and Gold' were the inspiration for the colours we used for our night work. 

“Into The Badlands was a slightly different situation in that the show already had a set look by the time I came in to do a couple of episodes. It was really just about trying to stay within the parameters that had been set by the previous DPs. I thought Owen McPolin in particular had done some incredible work in creating that.”

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

“It changes depending on the director and how they like to work. Some are very hands-on in terms of creating a visual strategy, others less so. My role is to support the director's vision and where possible to offer up ideas or strategies that can bolster that, and hopefully develop it in some way. Strategies evolve, especially once shooting starts, and a large part of my job at that point, is to protect the initial vision while having the flexibility to adapt as things develop.”

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

“My first paid role was probably on a documentary or corporate video project, my first paid drama job was on a low-budget feature in the US called 'Something Sweet' - We shot it in New Hampshire on 35mm in 2000. The entire camera crew was Irish and it was really exciting, we had a blast. Looking at it now I can see all the flaws in my work at that time but I'm still very proud of it. I think my work is constantly evolving, I hope it is. I learn something on every job I shoot - on every scene probably - the experiences shape how I approach things, oftentimes it can be a mistake of one degree or another that prompts reflection and a change of strategy for the next time a similar situation arises.” 

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? 

“It's incredibly strong. The advent of digital, and the immediacy that brings, has made the cinematographer's job much easier in the last few years and has enabled a degree of subtlety in lighting and exposure that only the bravest would've attempted in the past. There is so much good stuff out there I'm constantly being awe-struck. There are trends I like and those I'm not so keen on but what always impresses me is the standard of execution when a job is well photographed - A particular stylistic choice may not suit my personal taste but if the concept is well executed I'm usually impressed.”

What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most?

“Freddie Young, Storaro, Darius Khondji, Jordan Cronenweth, Gordon Willis, John Alcott, Chris Doyle, Roger Deakins, the list goes on...” 

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

“It’s a golden age for Irish cinematographers at the moment, I can’t namecheck them all but the work John Conroy, Piers McGrail and Suzie Lavelle are producing is really outstanding.” 

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

“I'm a great admirer of Lenny Abrahamson's work so I would've been happy to be involved with any of his films. I nearly did get to shoot on one of them a while back, we spoke about it but it didn't work out for schedule reasons. I still regret that.”

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

“I think self-criticism and self-doubt are a part of any artist's process. Without them it would be very difficult to develop and grow, so my view is that they are necessary evils that have to be endured. My general reaction is to try to look for the positives in those moments and use the negative experience as a spur towards finding practical solutions to improve the situation.”  

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

“Nobody is right all of the time. Myself included!"

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

"I try to write when I get time - I conceived the idea and Pierce Ryan and I co-wrote the original feature script for what eventually became 'Black '47' - but in the last few years it's been difficult to attempt very much because of other commitments. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to get back to the keyboard for the first time in a while, so I've been doing a bit of work on a couple of ideas.” 

Click here to read more of our interview series.

“A decade of very minimal wins and huge frustrations” Writer-director Tony Kelly discusses The Hurler: A Campion’s Tale
IFTA Creative Minds & Wellbeing Day: In Conversation with Deepak Chopra and Panel Discussion
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