• PJ Dillon - Irelands busiest cinematographer?

    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 hes 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 Dillons 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. In 2006 and 2007 I would have shot 32a and The Kings quite closely together, he told me. What is unique this time is that its the first time Ive directed a feature.

    Rewind (pictured) was made with a tiny budget of 250,000 as part of the Irish Film Boards sadly defunct Catalyst scheme. For my money its much better than a slew of more expensive Irish films. Shot by Ken Byrne in a moody palette that makes a virtue of Irelands perennial greyness , its 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, Dillons 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. I still havent 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. Its about lenses, filtering and exposure, he said. Until fairly recently, you couldnt put film lenses on video cameras. Thats made all the difference but its still not film.

    Getting to work with 35mm is rare these days because of the cost, according to PJ. You see a script and try and figure the best stylist approach. But oftentimes on the budgets Im working on, you dont have that luxury. Its unfortunate but its 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 thats available.

    Red might not be his first choice but hes 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 youd 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. Hes not impressed by the argument that a new breed of video camera liberates crews from having to depend on artificial intervention. People will tell you, especially producers, than you can shoot at 2000 ASA and you dont need lights. I dont accept that argument at all. Unless you are going with a particular aesthetic, most things lit with natural light dont look that great. As a cinematographer you are trying to accentuate or control the natural light, modifying it for something more aesthetically pleasing, he said.

    There are certain films that have embraced the idea of only using natural light, but honestly, its not my aesthetic. Im much more traditional. That said, Im 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.
    The Runway is a good example. He worked closely with director Ian Power, adopting a flexible work ethos to using light that was available. We 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.

    What about the intimacy of video? Dont smaller cameras change the dynamic of film-making in a good way? Portability has certainly changed the creative potential of what you can do but thats 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.
    This is Dillons favourite era of film (me too) though he still gets great pleasure from watching what his contemporaries are up to. In Ireland hes a big fan of Lenny Abrahams work (Garage, shown last night on RTE), while internationally he singles out Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) for a special mention. My tastes are catholic with small c, he said. On the one hand I really enjoy Hollywood action films, but I also like the more considered films you get from European film-makers.

    Read Ian Campbells movie-making blog at www.iwanttomakeafilm.com
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Jason Butler's Avatar
      Jason Butler -
      Good interview Ian and congrats on the award for your short.
    1. RGI's Avatar
      RGI -
      Cheers Jason and the same to you for getting the IFB first draft fund.

      Have read some threads about the process on the site but look forward to you writing some more about it. I've had one application rejected to date - with enough positive comments to prompt me to rewrite and try again.

      I get the impression they want an outline that's so thorough that the only thing missing is the dialogue! Fair enough I suppose...
    1. Frank Kelly's Avatar
      Frank Kelly -
      Watched The Runway last week, really enjoyed it, very sweet story. Looked gorgeous! Will you shoot my next film PJ
    1. Roaning's Avatar
      Roaning -
      PJ Dillon came to DkIT for 3 weeks to assist us students in preparing for our thesis films and I have to say he was absolutely amazing. The things I learnt from him were just beyond anything. He gave such insight into cinematography, taught me so much and showed so many tips and tricks, I was just in awe.

      He's very talented and it was a joy to have him working with us. His passion for cinematography was also unreal.

      I also learnt that a missing lens cap isn't the end of the world, he has lost practically all of his, haha.
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