An Interview with DP Ruairí O'Brien
Ruairí O'Brien is a cinematographer known for his work on Dating Amber, The Fall, Five Minutes of Heaven, The Winter Lake, and Line of Duty. I spoke with Ruairí about training as a cinematographer, initial conversations about Dating Amber, shooting The Winter Lake, and his advice for aspiring cinematographers.
Where did you train as a cinematographer? Are you a member of a cinematographic society?
I was a secondary school failure. I wound up getting myself into film school in Dublin in the Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design. I built my career there initially. I’m a member of the Irish Society of Cinematographers.
Who are your DP heroes/inspirations?
It’s not the big names, but the people I’ve learned from, such as James Mather and Brendan Galvin. They were local and so that was really inspiring and I always looked up to them. The big names were Janusz Kaminski, Robert Richardson, and Roger Deakins, who are all exceptional.
How did you first meet director David Freyne?
I shot a short film for David back in 2009. We hadn’t really seen each other for years and he sent me over the script. I just loved it and I really wanted to do it. We met up for a chat and then low and behold, after a few weeks I was on the show. It was an absolute joy from start to finish.
What were your initial conversations with David about the look of Dating Amber?
Mostly design conversations more than writing and photography, such as colour and what colours to go for. David had a few photographers he liked the look of. There’s a photographer called Lisa Sarfati and he really liked her work. I was thinking along the lines of Anton Corbijn and his colour work. We sort of met somewhere in the middle. We looked at a lot of 90s TV and photography and the colours in there. We wanted quite a low-fi feel to the whole thing. I always liked the idea of things that feel hand-made, as opposed to precision made which is what Hollywood tends to go for.
Which camera did you shoot on?
We shot on the Alexa Mini which I love because for handheld work it’s absolutely perfect.
Would you say that’s your preferred camera of choice?
Yes, absolutely. I love it. The world has changed with the Mini LF which is a bit larger and heavier, but in terms of just having it on the shoulder the Alexa Mini is way ahead of the rest.
Can you be flexible with camera choice when it comes to shooting a film or a series?
The people who are paying for the shows generally have their stipulations and the current thing is that everything has to be 4K, especially with Netflix or Amazon. Most people will tell you that that’s completely unnecessary as human vision is only about 1.5K. That can tie your hands. But there are lots of cameras available and pretty much all of them are good. It’s just what your preference is. There are no bad cameras.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot in Dating Amber, and why?
Because we shot in summer we had a real issue with trying to shoot at night because we ran into overtime issues. We had a scene where the two main characters walk along a country road and there’s two and a half pages of dialogue. We had only an hour to shoot it which is really, really tricky. We also had a scene where the two main characters go into the city and find the rainbow flag outside a gay bar. It’s sort of a big reveal for them. When we went to shoot it, it was pride week and everywhere had rainbow flags outside. It’s great times have changed, but suddenly, it was a real challenge to frame out the things that weren’t supposed to be there. There was nothing that was technically too difficult, but the enemy was always time. You can do anything if you have the time.
Is there a shot that you are most proud of?
I really love any intimate work where you feel you are close to the characters and the audience connect with them. There is a scene where Amber says we are breaking up and Eddie is deeply hurt by her. I feel that we captured that really well. More than the technical things, is when you make the emotional connection. I’m really proud of that. There’s also a scene when they enter the gay bar and there is a performer on stage. We did it all on one handheld shot and technically I’m really pleased with that. I think the audience don’t really feel the work that has gone into it. It feels like a very simple thing to watch, but actually it was a lot of thinking to make it work and make it simple. Anything where you can hide your craft to me is the most rewarding.
Was The Winter Lake shot during the pandemic?
We shot that in the spring of 2019. It was great, but tough. The only day it didn’t rain was the day it snowed, to give you an idea of what it was like. It was pretty cold and miserable. The budget was very tight and so it was quite a challenging film to make. I think we got there and most of it works.
Were there many challenges with the locations?
A lot if it was just the time issue and trying to get the camera, crew and all of the equipment to a given place and back out of that place in time. You just lose so much time dragging everything through the mud. The film was funded by a block of four or five counties in Ireland and all the perfect locations were just outside of that region, so there was an awful lot of negotiating. We had to film 80% of it in that region and that then became 75%. We tried to talk with particular County, Leitrim into paying into the fund because if they became contributors then we could film there. Energy gets spent on things that are not actually making the film. The locations were a gift and the main house was terrific. It was this derelict farmhouse. We could do what we wanted with it. It was pretty amazing that way.
What was your approach to lighting the film? Did you rely a lot on natural light?
We tried to make it feel as natural as possible. Again, because we were on such a tight budget we couldn’t afford some pretty straight forward tools which you would use. Lighting through windows would become difficult in some locations because you couldn’t get the lights high enough. The idea was to go for as naturalistic a feel as possible. There are few kind of dream like moments which we shot underwater and in black and white. They feel completely surreal, but apart from that we wanted to enhance naturalism, so we were always aiming for that. We wanted to feel quite grounded and credible.
Do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers?
Shoot everything. No matter how bad it seems. The worse the experience then the more you tend to learn. If you are on a film and everything goes wrong, you catch frost bite and all that, and then you definitely come away learning things. Don’t be too fussy or too proud because along the way you meet people and part of your career is building a network.
What are you watching/reading?
I’m reading a pile of scripts, none of which have been too exciting and Moby Dick which is great fun. I’m watching a few things. I watched The Beatles documentary, Get Back, which is riveting. Also the show Landscapers, shot by Erik Wilson. Great fun. I just saw The French Dispatch and Liquorice Pizza which were both inspiring. That’s where we are right now.