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Advice from Behind the Camera – Piers McGrail

PiersPiers McGrail is an Irish born cinematographer who has worked on features, shorts, music videos, and commercials in countries around the world. He was the Director of Photography for the features Kelly + Victor, Out of Here and The Canal, and won the best cinematography award at the Fastnet Film Festival 2012 for Claire Dix’s short, Downpour. He owns a Red Epic and has used most formats including Alexa, Canon and film.

What are your top tips for aspiring cinematographers?

It might sound obvious but work with good directors and work with people you like. Take a lot of stills and get some set experience so you have an idea how crews function.

Get a subscription to American Cinematographer magazine – it’s an invaluable resource for learning about techniques new and old. They have articles on every type of shoot, from big budget blockbusters to tiny budget indie dramas – it’s great to get an idea of how other DPs work.

I would also highly recommend that any aspiring DP learn about grading. There is so much room for manipulation in post these days that it’s crucial for a DP to know what’s possible in order to protect their intended result. To me the best way to do this is to grade your own work at first, get an idea of what you like so that in future you can explain that to a colourist. Oh, and when you are grading – just do it by eye. Don’t get caught up in the technicalities of waveforms etc.

What are personal attributes that make for a good cinematographer, and how do you foster them?

A good cinematographer is also a good director. I’m always trying to tell the story in the most effective way possible, with the means available. Having a base level of technical knowledge is useful, but it’s equally important to be spontaneously creative. You come across so many obstacles throughout a shoot and it helps to be able to solve them quickly.

How would you describe the relationship between a director and cinematographer?

When it works best it is two people who fully understand each other. There will always be differences of opinion, but they are both there to protect the story. It’s quite a strong friendship really.

What sort of things do you study and consider when watching a film?

It’s hard not to be aware of the cinematography, unless the story is really engrossing. If I’m watching a film as a reference for something I’m shooting, I would probably try and get an idea of the style – things like what kind of focal lengths they use, what the camera movement is like. I’m often recommended films by directors and it’s a great way to open up discussions about style etc.

You’ve worked with a variety of formats including film, which do you prefer and what are the different considerations for shooting with film or digitally?

It’s a typical DP answer but it does depend on the project. Having said that, the vast majority of what I’ve been shooting in recent years has been digital. I think here in Ireland it is especially tricky to shoot film as there are no labs here, so digital has really taken over. I think film can offer more surprises (good and bad!), but in terms of image quality digital is getting to a really good place. Bottom line, there have been many poorly photographed films on both formats and many beautiful ones too. If shooting digitally provides more money for production design etc then it’s hard to argue against that. If a script came along that I felt would really benefit from the discipline and texture of film, then I would push for it, but I suspect that most things I shoot will be digital from now on.

What are you top tips for shooting music videos?

Music videos are usually all about attracting attention with very little money. You learn how to make a lot out of very little, and that’s an important lesson in filmmaking. It can work well to go against trend. So if everyone is shooting handheld, shoot on a tripod. If everyone is shooting on a 5D, shoot on 16mm, or even VHS.

How would you describe the current film scene in Ireland, and do you have any advice for any aspiring filmmakers looking to succeed here?

I think it’s a really exciting time here. The quantity and quality of Irish film has really improved in recent years. However, I do think it’s crucial not to categorise films by country. A good Irish film is just a good film – where it’s made should be inconsequential. I would recommend film school as a place to meet other filmmakers, but either way it’s best to just make stuff and learn as you go.

How did you get started in the industry and what made you decide to pursue cinematography?

To go right back – it probably kicked off when I first shot some stills with my Dad’s Nikon back when I was around twelve. They turned out ok, good enough to keep me interested in photography. During school I made some really terrible films with my friends but had a lot of fun in the process.

I guess the big step was doing work experience on a film in transition year. It was this terrible romantic comedy called Laws of Attraction, a big-budget American shoot with a huge crew. I floated around and helped out whichever department needed it. I was a trainee AD for a while, but I veered towards the camera department for some reason. That was the shoot that sold me on working in the film industry. It was like a circus – a strange mix of people in a dark room making stuff up. I made a lot of friends that I still work with every now and then.

After school I did four years of Film & Tv at IADT. I went in wanting to direct but some of the shorts I shot turned out well so I ended up veering in that direction. Film school was a great place to make mistakes and learn the basics. It was also a great way to form working relationships, and many of the directors I work with now are friends from college.

Following college I continued to make shorts with directors from the class, and I also made a huge amount of music videos. It was great practical experience. After building up my reel I managed to start shooting a few commercials and eventually I got a break shooting my first feature in 2011, Kelly + Victor. I was lucky to work with people who kept employing me!

Who or what do you cite as your major inspiration (they do not have to directly relate to film)?

It changes but I’m a big fan of a photographer called Todd Hido, he makes these beautifully natural yet very striking images. Then there are so many brilliant cinematographers out there – I won’t list them all but I’m constantly impressed by what I see. Like most filmmakers I’m a big Kubrick fan, and I like pretty much everything made in the 70s – Hal Ashby, Alan J. Pakula in particular. It was a great time for film!

What is the best advice you can give aspiring filmmakers?

Enjoy yourselves!