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Advice from the Director’s Chair – Bob Gallagher

bobBob Gallagher is an Irish director and cinematographer who has worked on a number of short film and music videos.

What are your top tips for aspiring directors?

Avoid working on projects you’re not passionate about. It will always show. Any project you do will absorb a lot of your time and energy, so the best way to prioritize is by gauging what will actually be satisfying to you to work on. It took me a while to cop on to this.

Writing your own material, or at least collaborating with good writers, is a smart move because it gives you a sense of investment in what you are doing, and it means you won’t be short of projects to push towards production. You could be waiting a long time for someone to offer you a script to direct.

Always consider yourself to be an aspiring director. Perpetual aspiration is a healthy attitude to have. I don’t think an artist should ever feel that they’ve arrived at some plateau or conclusion. There’s always something to aspire to.

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

Communication is the most vital, and probably an aspect of it that I would still have the most difficulty with. You can have an idea very crystallised in your head but the difficulty can be to articulate that for other people. It really is important because whether it’s relating something to members of the crew or to cast you need to feel that you’re being clear with everyone and that your aims for the project are coming across. It’s a hugely collaborative process and having it run smoothly is very dependent on good lines of communication within the creative team.

The best way to foster this is to be extremely prepared. Different people like to communicate about ideas in their own ways so it’s good to have yourself covered for different eventualities. Sometimes a conversation will do it, sometimes I’ve used visual references to articulate an idea that I’ve had trouble explaining. Sometimes a piece of music might articulate an emotional pitch with the most clarity. I would say prepare as much material as possible to help communicate tone, style, pacing etc. By preparing well in advance you give yourself time to make sure you’ve expressed an idea clearly, that it’s been understood and that the people you’re collaborating with are working with the same results in mind.

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

I used to get very hung up on details, particularly with regards to visuals and style, but now I think I’m more inclined to study how someone crafts a tone and how information can be relayed to the audience with subtlety. Pacing is an important part of the craft that can only be learned by observing good examples. The information on screen is important, but how you release and deliver that information is key to satisfying an audience.

You’ve had experience with both cinematography and directing. Which do you prefer and how would you describe the relationship between the two?

Because I mostly direct and shoot my own work I don’t make much of a distinction between the two. What the camera is doing and how it establishes the tone and catches the performances informs the direction as much as the direction informs the cinematography. You’re combining the look, the performances, the mood, staging and movement to generate a particular tone or feeling for an audience to respond to. I would tend to think of scenarios in quite a fully formed way and the look is a big part of that, it always made sense to me to oversee photography and staging as a singular process. Part of it might come down to budget constraints, especially on music videos where I would direct, light and operate, but over time it has just become a comfortable and instinctive way for me to work.

Having said that, working with good collaborators in the camera and lighting department takes a lot of pressure off on set and frees you up to spend more time working with actors or performers. I’m definitely interested in working with other DOPs in the future. Having that outside influence might push me in directions that I am not used to and generate more interesting visual ideas to explore.

What failures or mistakes from yourself or others have you been able to learn from?

I’ve had plenty of both! You don’t learn as much from things that you carry off successfully as you do from the things that fall short. By nature failure promotes development, unless you dwell on the mistakes, which isn’t good to do. I used to dwell a lot. Now I like to acknowledge mistakes when they happen and then move on swiftly. You can always atone for them in your next piece of work but you can’t change what is already done.

In the past I am definitely guilty of being too rigid with my own ideas and not being open to input from other people. The toughest balance to achieve is maintaining a consistent vision for a project while also being open to new ideas and the whim of the moment. It really comes down to trusting your intuition.

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

My work so far has been quite small scale, usually working with small crews of friends, so I haven’t had much necessity to engage with the larger film infrastructure here. By all accounts the scene would appear to be in good health but I think it is good to look at all art in a global context. The audience/artist relationship is no longer subject to geographical limitations in the way they might previously have been.

I think it is good for filmmakers here to explore Irish themes and Irish subject matter but also to engage with the global community and be free to explore universal themes.

The increase of independent Irish features being made is definitely reassuring to me as someone working towards that goal. Having more Irish output and offering audiences more choice and variety can only be a good thing

How did you get started in the industry?

I studied photography and film but what got me started was being on sets, initially following around a friend of mine and asking her what different bits of kit were called and what they were for. You pick up a lot of little tricks by watching other people on crews work. You also get to see what doesn’t work on sets and you experience people’s bad habits. It is all very constructive. It is good to be a fly on the wall for a little while and then bring that knowledge back to your own work.

Who or what do you cite as your major inspiration (film related or not)?

It revolves constantly. I think 90’s music videos had a huge impact on me growing up, and in generating an interest in visuals and relating that to music.

Friends put me onto different films and filmmakers all of the time. I only very recently discovered Harmony Korine and that had a big effect on me in terms of approaching a piece of work with a different thought process. I also have a lot of respect at the moment for Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen as people who have established cinematic styles for themselves, but in a way that facilitates interesting development and exploration. They don’t feel at all limited.

It’s good to appreciate different creative mindsets and approaches from other crafts. I have close friends who have been every bit as influential to me as more well-known filmmakers or artists have. It’s good to have ideas and inspiration coming at you from all angles, and to be free to move through phases and interests as they grab you.

In terms of contemporary music video MIA is a big inspiration. Her entire media output is crafted with a great artistic mindset and integrity, and a playfulness too. Part of the challenge now is incorporating an awareness of new channels of distribution into your work, and that’s something she seems to have a brilliant understanding of.

What is the best advice you can give aspiring filmmakers?

Make films, or videos. Don’t wait for permission or funding or the exact right set of circumstances. Those things may never align just right and it is a shame to wait if you have that creative impulse. The tools are more readily available than ever. Communication with the audience is so direct that you can, to some degree, get whatever you make seen quite easily and get feedback. Getting comfortable with showing people your work is important to any artistic development.

I don’t necessarily recommend formal education. I went to college and it helped in some ways but damaged me creatively in other ways. What I gained from it was access to resources and a community of other filmmakers. I think it is possible to access those things by other means though, through short terms courses, online communities, or working on sets. On the other hand, if you’re uncertain of what area you’re interested in going into in film college can be a good way of testing that and allowing yourself the time to see what works for you.