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An Interview With – DOP Ciarán Tanham

Resources_DOP_142 - Ciaran TanhamCiarán Tanham has been working in the Television and Film Industry both in Ireland and abroad for over 25 years. He has been nominated for three Irish Television and Film awards and is the president of the Irish Society of Cinematographers (ISC). Here he talks to Steven Galvin about the role of the DOP, his recent project, A Kiss for Jed, and the state of Irish cinematography.

How would you define the role of the DOP?

The DOP really is responsible for the whole look of the film along with the production designer and, of course, the director. It really is a committee affair. I would have an order of priority in that it is script first; actors would be second; directors third; and DOP fourth – sometimes the production designers fourth. Ultimately you’re responsible for the look and the whole visual feel of the film. Some directors are very technical and they know exactly what they want. Other directors won’t know certain technical stuff at all so they rely on you to get a certain look and feel.

Can you tell us how you first got into cinematography?

I started in RTÉ ­– well, I suppose before that. After school, I was always interested in photography, always at a camera. Was shooting little movies – doing all that by myself as a young guy. Looked into a viewfinder and always wanted to live in there; not out here… I just started doing short movies. After a while I joined RTÉ and ended up in the film camera department and that was my way into the business really.

So you had no real formal training…

No. There was no real formal training when I was doing it in the beginning. It was nothing like it is today. It was good to know a bit about photography but there was no formal college or courses that you could take to move into the business with. People would start as a clapper-loader or some trainee and work their way into it, or join a union and put the graft in, and you’d make a name for yourself that way.

I know you’ve worked on a variety of formats – does the format affect your work?

Well of course it’s film versus digital. I would have worked on a lot of film – and it does affect your work. Digitally we are there now. Years ago we weren’t. It was hard to make it work. There was a whole learning curve that had to happen again in producing the end product but now I think we’re well up to speed digitally in the film business. Personally, I’m very comfortable with it now. Before, I would have always chosen film. Basically for a DOP it’s all about latitude and having the best available in the grade. It was the case that film always had the greatest latitude; whereas now digital has arrived there – it has now got the latitude that film has.

Could you explain ‘latitude’ for me.

What it means is from the brightest area of a picture to the darkest area. Film was able to see into both; it could handle both ends of the extreme quite well. Digital was never able to do that – the brights were too bright or the darks were too dark. But now it has the same depth or ‘latitude’ as we call it as film. Digital allows us to get all the information in that you want to; you have the choice now of having it – with early digital it wasn’t really a choice. If a guy in a white shirt is walking down in a dark night it was one or the other you’d expose for. Now it can handle both extremes – and that’s the evolution of the digital chip – it has now become more like a film; it responds more like film now.

Let’s talk a bit about A Kiss for Jed. Mark O’Halloran plays a cameraman in the film…

Mark OHalloran in A Kiss for Jed

Mark OHalloran in A Kiss for Jed

Yeah, we had to teach him how to hold a camera and how to look right with it. And when they asked me to do the movie and I read the script I said, ‘do you want me to act in it or shoot it?’ because it was about a washed-up documentary cameraman who’s frustrated and was teaching in a college and his days were over… so I had to clear that one up, that it wasn’t about me!

We were out in New York for 6 weeks but we only did 4 weeks’ shooting. So it was done in a real quick guerilla style. We were shooting on the hip, sometimes with a permit, sometimes without – just trying to make it happen quite quickly. Working within the law there of course… But it was guerilla and sometimes you can be more creative when you’re like that; where you have to kind of make it happen, with rubber bands and strings and things. Sometimes when you have a big budget there’s no excuse and the creativity can go out of it a bit.

You are the president of the Irish Society of Cinematographers, could you tell us a little bit about your role and the function of the society itself.

The guys in the business have talked about setting up an ISC for a long time. So we got together and decided we’d do it and we wanted to do it right. It took a little while to happen but eventually we set it up and I was duly asked to be president for the first year, which I am.

But the point of it really is for DOPs to have a voice when it comes to certain issues. It’s not a political organization; it’s non union. It’s a club really. There’s 18 guys who qualify for membership – there’s a certain criteria which we based on the British society – we met with them and asked advice. You have to be nominated for a minimum of 3 IFTAs; you have to have shot and screened 3 cinema features; not short films but full-length, or have shot 3 full-length, one-off dramas – not like a series. I’m doing Raw this year – nothing like that. Stand-alone dramas. So the criteria is high enough. That’s it really – it’s a talking shop for DOPs to compare notes.

Which is a great thing. Talking about that, we’re seeing a lot of successful Irish DOPs out there working on big international productions. Can you attribute this to anything in particular?

I don’t know what it is but it does slip by quietly. There was The Avengers – a massive film with an Irish DOP, Seamus McGarvey, and it’s an amazing piece of work. He’s all over it. And he’s such an unassuming, quiet man and yet some film stars would be in and it’d be the red carpet at the IFTAs but what Seamus has done is 10 times that in his career. Brendan Galvin, same thing. Robbie Ryan – amazing work on Wuthering Heights. They are at the top of their field. These guys are the Gabriel Byrnes and Liam Neesons but they don’t get that kind of recognition. Maybe the ISC can help promote that get them recognition for what they do.

If I could finish off asking what advice you’d have for someone who sees themselves in a few years perhaps getting into the business.

I’d say get yourself out there. Get in touch with DOPs, get in touch with the ISC and say, ‘can I come out with you’. Make the connections on set with the right people. A degree is important. But for cinematography I think it’s either something you have or you haven’t. So meet up with DOPs, go out on sets, ask for advice. Get in touch with the ISC. We always encourage trainees out on the set. There is a system where the trainee is always a part of the shoot.
The full interview first appeared in Issue 142 of Film Ireland Magazine.