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An Interview with Robbie Ryan

Photograph: Bifa/Dan Rowley/Shutterstock

Robbie Ryan is an Academy Award nominated cinematographer. He has worked extensively as a cinematographer, shooting feature films, commercials, music videos and short films. Having previously shot Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and The Meyerowitz Stories, he is also a frequent collaborator with Andrea Arnold, having filmed Wasp, Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights, and American Honey, and with Ken Loach shooting I, Daniel Blake, The Angels’ Share, Jimmy’s Hall, and Sorry We Missed You. In addition to this Robbie’s credits include, The Favourite, Brick Lane, Ginger & Rosa, Philomena, Catch Me Daddy, and the upcoming The Roads Not Taken. I spoke with Robbie about working with directors associated with British Social Realism, collaborating with Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach, his work with Noah Baumbach, and his most challenging shot to complete.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I always wanted to be making films. My cousins and friends and I made super 8 short films when we were teenagers so I got the bug from that. I then went to film school where I met like-minded people and I found I liked filming with the camera and operating was something I was drawn to. So that led me onto shooting and then over the years I became a cinematographer, but operating was a big first step for me.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

I get asked this question a lot and my answer changes to the different time I’m asked.

Right now I’m watching a lot of Ingmar Bergman’s films, so his cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist are high on my list of inspiration right now. But that is a lot to do with directors as collaborators that bring the cinematographer onto another level and to an extent vice versa.

I love to watch a relationship between director and cinematographer … when they work well together amazing results happen!

You often work with directors associated with British social realism. Do you prefer working within this genre?

I don’t look to shoot that as a genre per se…but I love shooting handheld and sometimes that is pigeon holed as social realism. I’m equally happy shooting on a dolly and tracking around. I think for me, I like stories and whatever way that story gets told is fine by me, but as I said handheld is a style I’m very fond of as it is very intuitive and quick and the energy can really be exciting to storytelling.

You frequently collaborate with Andrea Arnold. How did the opportunity come about?

I met Andrea to talk about shooting her short film Wasp, which I got to shoot and we have collaborated on lots of films since. We got along well and I really am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with her on her films as they are so immersive visually and she is such a great director and trusts that I can find the images in her head.

Could you tell me more about the experience shooting Fish Tank? Were there any other realist films that inspired the style of the film?

Fish Tank was my 3rd film working with Andrea and we had a good shorthand in what style to shoot. It was a bit like Wasp, as the camera was free to film the character of Mia and follow here closely in all the situations she encountered. The power of Fish Tank is in her character and the story Andrea creates for her world.

I think because we had been filming a bit together at this stage we didn’t really refer to any other films as such, but we did discover 4 x 3 aspect ratio on Fish Tank which was a big discovery for us and informed a lot of the films we have done together since.

You also frequently collaborate with Ken Loach. What's the process like working with him?

Working with Ken is a very different approach stylistically to Andrea’s films. Ken has a unique vision as to how he sees the world he wants to film. We are a team of technicians who Ken brings together to realise his and Paul Laverty, his writer, vision of telling the story. The big fundamental difference between both directors is that Andrea’s films are more handheld whereas Ken’s films are shot primarily on a tripod and longer lenses.

You've recently worked with Noah Baumbach on The Meyerowitz Stories and then again on Marriage Story. How did you prepare for Marriage Story? Did you draw up a rigid shot list, or did you shoot in the moment?

Noah has a distinct style of filming also. He likes to prepare a shot-list and conceive a way of shooting before we are on the set, but that isn’t to say that he isn’t open to changing shots in the moment. However with his scripts there are definitive cutting points that lead onto the next scene and mostly these are planned to the cut, which is important to prepare for.

Can you think of a shot throughout your career that you are particularly proud of?

Off the top of my head and seeing as we are talking about Fish Tank … one of my favourite shots from that film is the shot when Mia escapes from the travellers camp and runs as fast as she can … so the camera was in a pick-up truck and we were able to travel as fast as she could run. There’s a real sense of escape and freedom to this shot and I like it a lot because what is in her head at that moment is achieved visually.

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