Ian Campbell talks to award-winning director of photography PJ Dillon about the difference between film and video.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Irish film will know the name of Irish cinematographer PJ Dillon. In February he won the best cinematography gong at the Irish Film and Television Awards, the second time heís bagged the top prize in three years.
This time it was for The Runway, a movie still on general release in Irish cinemas. The week before it came out Dillonís directorial debut, Rewind, was also showing in selected cinemas. Having his name attached to two consecutive movies competing with standard Hollywood fare at the local multiplex is no mean achievement for an Irish filmmaker. I presumed it must be a high watermark in his career but PJ has been here before. ďIn 2006 and 2007 I would have shot 32a and The Kings quite closely together,Ē he told me. ďWhat is unique this time is that itís the first time Iíve directed a feature.Ē
Rewind (pictured) was made with a tiny budget of Ä250,000 as part of the Irish Film Boardís sadly defunct Catalyst scheme. For my money itís much better than a slew of more expensive Irish films. Shot by Ken Byrne in a moody palette that makes a virtue of Irelandís perennial greyness , itís a taught thriller with a strong central performance from Amy Huberman as the happily married mum with a dodgy past that comes back to haunt her. By comparison, Dillonís camerawork in The Runway is beautifully evocative with elaborately lit set-pieces that are the best thing about the film.
Both were shot on Red but Dillon makes no bones about his medium of choice. ďI still havenít seen anything as good as 35mm film. I do like Red but a lot of films made with it look digital and you have to work hard to make it look filmic. Itís about lenses, filtering and exposure,Ē he said. ďUntil fairly recently, you couldnít put film lenses on video cameras. Thatís made all the difference but itís still not film.Ē
Getting to work with 35mm is rare these days because of the cost, according to PJ. ďYou see a script and try and figure the best stylist approach. But oftentimes on the budgets Iím working on, you donít have that luxury. Itís unfortunate but itís pretty much dictated by the economics. I shot some pickups for a movie last week on 35mm and it just reminded me how the dynamic range is still superior to anything else thatís available.Ē
Red might not be his first choice but heís a fine exponent of what it can do. Compare the different treatments of two of the films he shot around the same time, My Brothers and The Runway. The first is subdued and gritty; the second has the warm glow of nostalgia. As youíd expect from such an in-demand professional, serving the story is a pre-requisite with PJ.
All his films demonstrate a meticulous use of light. Heís not impressed by the argument that a new breed of video camera liberates crews from having to depend on artificial intervention. ďPeople will tell you, especially producers, than you can shoot at 2000 ASA and you donít need lights. I donít accept that argument at all. Unless you are going with a particular aesthetic, most things lit with natural light donít look that great. As a cinematographer you are trying to accentuate or control the natural light, modifying it for something more aesthetically pleasing,Ē he said.
ďThere are certain films that have embraced the idea of only using natural light, but honestly, itís not my aesthetic. Iím much more traditional. That said, Iím not talking about going on location with huge amounts of hardware, but I do try and control light and make it work better than it would naturally.Ē
The Runway is a good example. He worked closely with director Ian Power, adopting a flexible work ethos to using light that was available. ďWe tried use all the natural light that was available and would construct scenes around it. We would go from shooting one scene to another if the light was right. That helped the aesthetics of the movie enormously.Ē
What about the intimacy of video? Donít smaller cameras change the dynamic of film-making in a good way? ďPortability has certainly changed the creative potential of what you can do but thatís not just video. Since the advent of cinema, cameras have been getting smaller. In the Fifties studio cameras were huge and it was the introduction of lighter and smaller cameras that that changed cinema and led to the new wave of American films in the Seventies.Ē
This is Dillonís favourite era of film (me too) though he still gets great pleasure from watching what his contemporaries are up to. In Ireland heís a big fan of Lenny Abrahamís work (Garage, shown last night on RTE), while internationally he singles out Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) for a special mention. ďMy tastes are catholic with small Ďcí,Ē he said. ďOn the one hand I really enjoy Hollywood action films, but I also like the more considered films you get from European film-makers.Ē
Read Ian Campbellís movie-making blog at www.iwanttomakeafilm.com