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Fiona Graham on Cinematography
09 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Fiona Graham
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.

We spoke to Cinematographer Fiona Graham, about her latest project Heyday – the Mic Christopher Story. Originally working in continuity for several years, Fiona has worked across a spectrum of roles within the industry, including script supervision (Mad Mary) Assistant camera (Maze) and focus pulling (Red Rock). As well as the acting editor and DoP on Heyday: The Mic Christopher Story, Fiona produced the documentary alongside Alan Leonard under their production company Single Cell Films

Heyday: The Mic Christopher Story is a heartfelt story that charts the life of singer-songwriter Mic Christopher, told through the eyes of those whose lives he touched including Oscar-winner Glen Hansard, Actor/writer Sharon Horgan, Mike Scott of The Waterboys, Bronagh Gallagher, Josh Ritter, Lisa Hannigan, Colm Mac Con Iomaire and many more. 

What attracted you to the Heyday project?

“It was definitely the story that attracted me to the project. It's rare that you come across a story that’s so inspiring, uplifting and sad at the same time. I didn't even think twice about it, I knew it was a project I wanted to work on and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.”

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

“As with any project prep is key. You need to have a good battle plan or its just not going to work, you can always adapt and change the plan as needed but just shoot it as see is never a good approach, you need to know your end goal. I like to have my colour template, lighting style and shooting style locked in before any shoot that way if the plan needs to be changed you have a clear idea of the options open to you. During the shoot, I watched a lot of docs examining story structure and shooting styles, one that really stood out to me was 'Searching for Sugarman'.”

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

“I don't know if you could call it a style but there is a structure to working with other people, it's a process. When working with any director your sole job is to give them their vision on camera so the first thing to do is listen. Creating the visual template is the easy part discovering what someone else sees in their head is difficult. But once you have an idea and a few visual aids the rest is just tweaking till you get it right.”

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

“The set was always very calm and upbeat. We had a small crew of three or four people for each interview and for the wrap arounds myself and the director Alan Leonard went out by ourselves with the drone or just one camera to capture the shots. Sometimes we would only do one or two shots in a day because the light we needed was so specific and we only had an hour to get the shot. It was a very relaxed shoot. After each day, I'd take the cards home to back up the footage and watch it back.

My favourite moments were sitting at my computer watching the footage back for the first time and seeing that something we tried worked or during the edit seeing that it was all coming together and it was going to be really special.”  

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 think independent cinematographers have never had it better. Cameras and lighting equipment have never been more accessible and in the right hands even the smallest camera can produce beautiful images. Whether the work is there is a different story, I think Cinematographers are going to have to expand their job descriptions and take a bigger hand in generating their own work because there is a lot of Cinematographers out there and the competition is fierce.”

“Things that get me excited at the moment are colour science and 3d LUT design. I like designing a look for a director, choosing the right colour space and being able to show them close to a finished product on the monitor as we shoot. I also love shooting with drones and gimbals, the technology is advancing so quickly and opening up a whole world of possibilities.”

What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most? 

“Well there’s always the obvious ones, Robert Richardson has probably influenced me the most in terms of Cinematography but I only found out he had shot a lot of my favourite films retroactively. In terms of filmmaking seeing Jim Sheridan’s films as a kid opened my eyes to the fact that you could make films in Ireland about Irish topics, Robert Rodriguez’s book ‘Rebel Without a Crew’ which showed me you could do things by yourself and people like Eleanor Bowman showed me that it was possible for women to make careers in camera dept. I think she may have been the first woman I saw with a camera on her shoulder.”

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

“In terms of Irish Cinematographers there are so many to choose from, I like Eleanor Bowman and Kate McCullough’s work. Ciaran Tanham and Declan Emerson who both taught me a lot during my time on ‘Red Rock’, what they did with the time and budget they had was incredible. Cathal Watters, Suzie Lavelle, Eimear Ennis Graham, Piers McGrail all have been producing great work over the last few years. There’s really too many to name.”

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

“There’s a lot of Irish productions I would have loved to have been part of but I get excited about new ideas and getting to shoot things in general. There’s been a number of TV dramas shot here lately I would have loved to have been given the opportunity to shoot. Anything that’s a period piece or in the historical of fantasy genre I really want to shoot.”

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

“Oh I question everything I shoot, I will nitpick it to death. I think this may be the first film I've shot that I was almost completely happy with. But you can't carry the negative aspect of it with you, you have to learn from it and mould that lesson into your future work. So while I do question my work I try to question it in a way that will benefit me in the future. If I didn't like something or if something didn't work: Why didn't it work; what could I have done in that situation to change it; and what can I do to prevent it being a problem on other shoots?”

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

“Listen more then you talk, communication is key in our industry and the project should always have a bigger ego then you.  

And always have a spare change of clothes in your car.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“Lockdown has definitely been tough trying not to talk to the furniture but I've tried to keep my mind busy working on a couple of pitches for different projects. I think I've around six ready to go and as always, I’m playing with cameras. I was able to do some drone shots around the city which was fun but hopefully things will get going again soon. We'll have to adapt but it'll get going again.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.





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