So from Dublin to this BAFTA special award – run us through your journey?
Well, I was educated and I worked in Ireland for a long time. I lived there and then went to London in 1991. Initially I suppose I’ve always been involved in filmmaking and music in Dublin and my passion was always photography and making music.
When I went to London it was fantastic. There was a huge amount of music promos being made. A massive amount. So to be able to take my passion for music and photography and work in media and film promos was a fantastic opportunity. Literally, once I started doing a few music promos, it just sort of snowballed. The whole working day consisted of, for many years, commercials and music videos. So it was a great time and it was also a great time to be really innovative.
There was just so much opportunity there as a colourist especially. I was really encouraged - sort of even pushed and pressurized - to try new things. So I was sort of there at the right time trying new things and pushing the boundaries and basically the hardest thing of my job, a lot of times, was the pressure on me to create a new look each time.
So I suppose you arrived in London during the Britpop-era when there was a lot of creative videos being made – and a lot of people watching them?
Exactly, it was a case of being there at the perfect time and in the perfect place. You also had like-minded individuals around in the film side - from cinematographers and directors - to myself. As well as doing all the Blur videos and Oasis videos and Suede, there were bands like Elastica and Garbage and Pulp. There was a huge energy and as each video we did was creatively different. So you had visually strong looking videos, then there was strong narrative videos like Pulp and for example Blur always went for. I remember doing ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’ and thinking ‘that looked very, very grungy and dirty looking’ so it was an amazing time and basically at that time it was sort of, I wouldn’t say a free for all, but there was a licence there for me. Essentially I was asked or I was being pushed into to trying anything out.
So it was a very exciting time for a colourist?
From a grading point of view and an editing point of view it was the beginning of a new technology era but also you were right in the middle of the Britpop music scene so it was very, very exciting because you were doing all these videos during the week and then on Sunday morning they had a TV show on ITV called ‘The Chart Show’ and it was really amazing. Most of my work was on it.
How did you make the move from music videos to TV drama?
Well, what happened was a lot of the producers, directors and cinematographers that were working on the promos, they sort of started to move into documentaries and a lot of them went into TV drama and features. So I sort moved with them. The promos and commercials I did always generally had a look on it. With the TV side, I felt there was room for improvement and so I started doing these documentaries and got into dramas.
I found that all of the tricks of the trade and all the specs and the look - that I’d spent hours and hours trying to come up with in the music and commercial – I could quite easily bring into the documentary and drama side. Again the same thing happened, it kind of snowballed.
Can you describe for the lay person what a colourist does?
Basically there’s two parts to it. When I’m working on a film there is different but obviously everything’s changed. Generally everything is HD sourced now, shot on HD of some sort rather than film.
In the film days it was really fantastic because I had two separate grading tools, I had the main edit suite-type hardware on the front end and then likewise I had the Telecine machine. Traditional graders in London, when I went over there, basically they’d work with the cinematographer and the director. And the cinematographer would say ‘make that a little bit darker try this try that’. Most of the graders in town came from technical background. They were runners then they were operating assistants and then they went on to become a colourist. I came in from a completely different background where I’d been making films from the time when I was a kid, and I’d been into photography from when I was a kid. I’d been in bands. So I always came at it from the art side.
So, when I arrived in London, I sort of came in from a completely different background to almost every other grader in town. I found it quite easy to be honest I knew what I felt looked good. Anyone can learn the technical side of things. I wasn’t really interested in the technicalities like a lot of graders were. I was also quite young and they were quite older than me and they were always talking in the technical, whereas I’d sort of go on the look of a picture or photograph. It was like I spoke a different language. And likewise the DOP’s and cinematographers, because I’d grown up with cameras and knew a lot about cameras, and I’d shot stuff I could speak their language rather than speak the kind of cine language so I didn’t blow them away with any post-production nonsense. I spoke in photographic terms I sort of knew. I was quite comfortable talking from an artistic side rather than a technical side so I think that would have been one of the reasons for my success. The other thing that I did which was quite interesting, when I saw a Telecine machine I said ‘well you’ve got reel-spinning machine where you put the film up it goes through a lens and it goes through a line and a mirror and essentially it gets scanned into the grading room’. So I’ve got a whole load of tools in the grading room to manipulate the image, but I thought well I’ve got this Telecine machine and I’ve got this massive lens so it was almost like I was treating it as a second camera or a second opportunity. The cinematographers filmed the image, but I can manipulate that image before it gets into the grading room and started building a whole armory of filters, things traditional cameras have. Things like white Pro-mists; black Pro-mists. I then began to collect a whole load of glass, such as ripple glass, shower glass, stained glass... you name it. What I’d do then is I’d put that on the front of the lens before it got into the grading suite, so essentially what you’re doing is adding a texture
As I was doing more and more of this, I was thinking this is amazing because in the technical world everyone on the front end has the same piece of kit and they do a lot of the same thing. And the operators and colourists can do different things. But working from a Telecine point of view - from the actual machine - no one can recreate what the other person is doing because it’s an organic visual effect. You know you can put a sweet wrapper in front of it and no one will know what kind of sweet wrapper you’re using. It’s completely unique to the scenario. So I started putting Vaseline and then I started using Kit Kat wrappers. I remember doing a U2 video with Kevin Godley on ‘Stuck in a Moment’.
I remember I wanted to get this white light effect and I remember getting this tinfoil from a Kit Kat wrapper, which I used quite a lot. Godley and myself would be shimmering this sort of tinfoil, Kit Kat wrapper, which has got a reflective surface on it, putting it in front of the lens. The sky was shining through and so you got this beautiful white light that you can never recreate technically
A lot of my success has been down to doing things on-spec like that. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t work, it’s all trial and error. But the beauty of it was that you didn’t mind if it didn’t work as long as you tried it. There was so many things like that, I used to drive the engineers crazy they’d be like what have you done. I used to bleach film, I remember I tried it once or twice myself then I started getting my assistant to do it because I wasn’t going to get bleach all over my clothes!
What you do is you run bleach along the negative and then you scrape it with a cloth, and once it’s projected then you get this sort of really weird animated image where the bleach is stronger than the others so basically it takes all the coating off the negative. But obviously, because you’re doing it sporadically through the film, it looks amazing. All these effects that you can’t do digitally they’ll never look as good as when you do them organically.
Can you tell us about starting out in Ireland?
As a child I was always into photography that was my thing I had a camera when I was a kid and I started I remember my brother-in-law, Paul, he was going out with my sister at the time. He was a few years older than me Paul was quite like-minded in that he had the same sort of hobbies and passions as I had and he was always a few years older than me and I remember he brought in this Super 8 camera and I’d never seen one, it was like an awakening for me, this amazing camera that I’d never seen before in my life. And to see Super 8 projected, that is the beauty of film because it’s got such soul to it that video will never have. I remember Paul and myself making things together.
I went to Drimnagh Castle CBS and that school had the only sort of castle left in Ireland that had a moat around it, and I think it’s been restored, but it had a draw-bridge and a moat and all that and I remember being 15 and doing a 20-minute documentary on the castle. I won the Bank of Ireland video award best newcomer and that’s was my first break. A the same time I was playing in bands and I was taking photographs. I started getting really into printing and building up a photographic portfolio and then I did a year in Ballyfermot which was the first or second year of the course in the Senior College doing media there, then I went to the college of Marketing & Design to do a media course with graphics and filmmaking.
It was one of the first communications courses at the time, and I got a break from Don Bluth. I was in the camera department there and I came in on the end of ‘American Tail’ the first film I worked on for him was the ‘Land Before Time’ and the ‘All Dogs to Heaven’ and then ‘Rockadoodle’. I worked there for four years and it was an awakening and amazing education because there’s such a huge difference in animation in that the attention to detail is so precise you end up taking everything into consideration so I do feel, from a visual sense, my training in trying to create depth and texture and lights and shade in an image has definitely come from my years of working there. If anything it’s given me a whole lot of patience. He was amazing I really would recommend any young student that’s trying to get into TV or film to at least spend a year or so working in an animation environment.
Then I went to Windmill for a couple of years and off to London so it’s been sort of a good journey for me. I’ve never thought I’d end up being a colourist but I’ve always tried everything out I’ve been on willing to learn is as many areas as possible I just seem to have good eye and a good visual sense and the great thing about being a colourist is I don’t have to get cold.
Is there a piece of work that you’re most proud of?
Over the last few years I think from a drama point of view I’m very proud of a series called ‘The Devil’s Whore’ it was on Channel 4, and I’m very proud of ‘Wallander’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ as well.
Were you surprised to get the BAFTA Award?
Of course I was, I’m really taken aback by it, I really am proud of the achievement. Over the years I’ve won an Emmy in 2001, I’ve won three RTS Awards so I have rewarded over the years from the industry, but to have BAFTA recognise the craft that I’ve done and not just for me but I hopefully have opened up a lot avenues for other colourists.
What I was battling over the years in TV and drama is that there’s a licence for directors to tell a story but not to make it look visually good and interesting. So a lot of times I was trying to make it visually interesting and sometimes you’d be knocked back and told that’s too much for an audience. But in this day in age, with everyone having 200 channels in their hands, we’re a very visually literate nation, I think it’s now my responsibility as a colourist to impress the viewer. For me, as long as I try keep some visual integrity and I’m working with the scripts rather than against the script everything I do helps the viewer in understanding what’s going on in the story and in the narrative then I think I’ve done my job correctly.
What advice would you give to someone who wants be a colourist?
Constantly be aware of the visual surroundings, the problem with the internet sometimes is that you have amazing access to a lot of information but sometimes you don’t see the information in its right and proper surroundings. For example my biggest inspiration has been books on art and photography books especially like Martin Parr and Nan Golding, a very good photographer. From the music video side photographer like David LaChappelle and Mario Testino, because they’re very into beauty and making the subject look amazingly gorgeous in the frame, so I’d say I think the problem is nowadays that there’s a slight laziness on behalf of everyone in a way that instead of going through a book or watching a DVD you just try and access two minutes of it on the internet and think ‘Oh I’ve got an MA in that now’. Constantly be aware of styles of what’s in fashion.