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Making The Cut: Career Advice From Director Of Photography Suzie Lavelle
07 Dec 2012 : By Dylan Newe
Suzie Lavelle at work on set
In what is generally regarded to be an industry profession dominated by men, Suzie Lavelle has fought her way to become one of Ireland’s most promising directors of photography. In 2010, she became the first female winner of the Director of Photography IFTA for her work on Conor Horgan’s ‘One Hundred Mornings’ and has since been nominated a second time for Rebecca Daly’s ‘The Other Side of Sleep’.

Lavelle has shown daring and versatility in her short career, from shooting a post-apocalyptic Ireland (One Hundred Mornings) to the gritty inner city of Dublin (Pyjama Girls) to Matt Smith’s tardis on ‘Doctor Who’, and her latest work on Channel 4’s new series ‘My Mad Fat Diary’. In this week’s Making the Cut segment she talks about why she always prefers to be first on set, who her favourite cinematographer is, and how shooting night scenes drive her crazy!

Generally, as a director of photography my day begins… early! On shooting days I’m usually up at about 5.30am or 6am and get to the set about 45 minutes before call time, spend breakfast reading through the scenes for the day and talking to the director about ideas and coverage we have planned. Then I always try to get to the shooting set a little bit early before everyone arrives to get a little time by myself because it gets so full of people and equipment, so if you can get five minutes before that it’s such a valuable time to look at light and how you’re going to use the space that day during the scene. I really enjoy that time, I find it really inspiring just to have the set to myself. Then the actors come in and we block the scene, and that’s where myself and the director work out the coverage for the day, and plan the shots for the day we’re going to do together.

Sometimes your most interesting ideas come from just sitting back and just watching all those elements and watching the scene play out together "

The last couple of months I’ve been doing a lot of TV stuff like ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Silent Witness’ and so much of it is about thinking on your feet, so you could go in with a plan, but because the first time you have the actors and all the elements in the space is that morning when you’re going to shoot the scene, sometimes your most interesting ideas come from just sitting back and just watching all those elements and watching the scene play out together.

The pace at which they work as a long-running series, they’re still happy for you to bring in ideas and concepts about how it’s set to work but the crew have already been working on the job for say six or nine months previously so it’s incredibly efficient. Nothing is new, they’ve been in other locations before you’ve come in, it’s just a very smooth running machine.

The most common misconception people have about my job is… it’s only just about camera and lighting. I think lots of people think it is. But it’s so much more, about working and managing your crew, being able to articulate your ideas. People think it’s all technical also, when it’s really a split. It’s really a 50 per cent creative and 50 per cent technical job. It’s also so much about being adaptable too.

The practical tips I would give to somebody trying to break into the industry as a director of photography would be... regardless of what you’re doing, whether you’re assisting a camera crew or in film school, just shoot as much as possible and enjoy yourself as much as possible. No matter how big or small the job is, just strive to do your best work on it.
Suzie gets to work on set

Also be as flexible as you can in the early days. Certain conditions of filming such as night exteriors are tricky as you just don’t get to practice that much and you need a lot of resources. I would say if you’re starting out, to make relationships with the hire houses, the lighting and camera houses and often if they have equipment just sitting on the shelf they’ll let you come in, get a camera out and have a play with it. Develop a relationship with a post house as well, you can shoot tests and bring them into a grading situation which can be really useful.

In terms of resources and people being able to shoot it is great to be able to have things like the Canon 5D and smaller cameras because at the end of the day it is the storytelling really and it shouldn’t really matter what camera it’s on as long as the story is told in an interesting way.

The greatest help and influences in my career have been from.… people that I’ve worked with and made films with. The directors that have let me shoot their feature films like Conor Horgan (One Hundred Mornings) and Rebecca Daly (The Other Side of Sleep), directors that I have ongoing collaborations with, the ones that I’ve worked with again and again. Because with them you can develop and enhance ideas and find a language that makes it really easy to communicate on set.

But also all the crews that have worked with me, because when you’re starting out you’re asking people to work for free and long hours and you literally couldn’t produce work for your showreel without those people. So they’ve been really important as well. And of course, all the teachers I’ve had. I really find filmmaking such a collaborative medium that you need all the elements to get a chance at it.

I really love my job and I can’t think of anything bad about it. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world "

The best thing about my job is... that it’s always exciting and always varied. You get to meet such a big range of people and you get to go to all sorts of places and situations, and you have really unique experiences. Realising a director’s vision, getting a script and working with the director on how you’re going to realise it and then seeing it at the cinema, if it all works can be really exciting. I really love my job and I can’t think of anything bad about it. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world.

Websites you should surf/books you should read/camera work you should watch for inspiration… American Cinematographer Magazine is brilliant, it’s all quite high-end stuff but it’s really interesting to read and really helpful. A lot of it is quite familiar, especially if you’ve seen the films recently at the cinema, it’s quite accessible. A couple of other websites I’d recommend, Roger Deakins has a forum on his website www.rogerdeakins.com that you can go on and join and ask him any questions you have, for student and filmmakers. It’s brilliant. Another one that I find really useful is www.cinematography.comwhich is the same thing, you can put a question about anything onto it and people will help you.

My favourite cinematographer would be Harris Savides who recently passed away earlier in the year. He was just really interesting, he worked with a lot of underexposure and he was quite a brave cinematographer. He shot a lot of Gus Van Sant films and worked with David Fincher, just a really interesting cinematographer.

Click below for previous 'Making the Cut' interviews:

Nathan Nugent: 'What Richard Did' Editor

Louise Kiely: 'What Richard Did' Casting Director

Mark Geraghty: 'Ripper Street' Production Designer

Ronan Hill: 'Game of Thrones Sound Recordist

IFTA Q&A Series: Damien Lynch on Sound Design
IFTA Q&A Series: Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson on Writing
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