16 Jun 2013

Stephen Murphy

Award winning cinematographer Stephen Murphy, who worked on the brilliant 'Coward', was awesome enough to answer some questions and get this interview section rolling, so behold...

Can you tell us your breaking-in story?

In brief...Originally I wanted to be a Prosthetic Make up artist so I studied make up at a college in Ireland for 2 years. As part of that course we were taught basic black and white 35mm photography, developing and printing so that we'd have an understanding of how photography would affect our work as make up artists. This was my first exposure to any sort of professional photography and it fascinated me. That quickly led to my discovery of Cinematography and from there I was hooked. After college I took a 6 week film production course that was being run at the main film studio in Ireland and made the decision to switch career paths. I got my union ticket as a Camera trainee and began working up the ladder of the camera department hoping to one day work as a Cinematographer.

How did you get involved in 'Coward'?

I was involved with Coward from the very beginning, when the Director, David Roddham, began to show me early drafts of the script that he had been developing based on a newspaper article he had read. I had known David for a number of years, we had worked together when I was a camera operator and Dave was working as an SFX technician, and I had photographed his first short film "Fifth Street" so we already had a good working relationship.

How long did you work on the project?

On and off I worked on the project for over a year, which is a little unusual for a Cinematographer on a short film, but in this case because I was also one of the Executive Producers I had some extra involvement above and beyond what my responsibilities would usually be. 

In terms of my work as a Cinematographer I would have had several meetings with Dave and the Producers in the months leading up to the shoot, then I would have begun prepping in earnest about a month before the shoot, followed by approx 10 days main unit and a day of pick ups. I spent about 2 days doing the DI and I'd also consult on the VFX shots as they were being finalised, which involved another couple of days as my schedule allowed.

How was the film funded?

The shoot was entirely privately financed by several people including the director and producers.

In relation to this shoot, what was difficult, different and what are you most proud of?

The main difficulty I had was the location and the weather both of which made shooting conditions incredibly difficult, the most difficult I've encountered in my 16 years in the business. A large part of the story was how horrendous the weather conditions that these kids encountered were and the effect it had on their spirit. To convey that on screen we effectively had to recreate some of these same conditions. That meant working in 2-3 feet of freezing water, sodden liquefied mud and brutal freezing cold. We shot in January in the UK just north of London and it was a particularly cold winter so by the end of the shoot we all had an inkling of what these soldiers must have had to endure. How these guys survived there under combat conditions amazes me.

Photographically the challenge was to be able to move the amount of equipment we needed, in terms of lighting and grip gear, from one point to another across the massive set to maintain photographic continuity, and keep pace with the shooting schedule. The mud and water made this incredibly difficult but thanks to our terrific camera, grip and electric crew we managed to overcome all the obstacles the weather could throw at us.

Visually we were trying to shoot in a style that is being used less and less in modern cinema, by shooting sustained wide masters with carefully chosen coverage, rather then the current trend of handheld, fast cut scenes with an overuse of closeups. I'm a strong believer in the power of a close up, but if you over use it, it loses that power and the audience looses any sense of geography because they can't see the characters connected to their environment. Most of the shots in this movie are shot using either a 35mm or a 50mm Anamorphic lens which really allows us to fill the frame both with the characters and the sets, which then allows us to use longer takes with less coverage, which in turn allows us to edit in camera and influence the pace of the film. The thing I'm most proud of is that almost every review or comment we receive about the project singles out this classical visual style and everyone seems to respond extremely well to it. It makes me wish more Hollywood movies would return to using it!

Reflecting on the end product, is there anything you would change?

There are always things I'd change about every project I do but on the whole I'm quite pleased with how it turned out and I'm very proud of the work we did on this. It was an immense challenge both for myself and the crew but I think we pulled it off well for the most part.

Whats a typical day-in-the-life for a cinematographer then?

That depends on whether its a working day or not. A typical shooting day involves getting on set usually a half hour before call, which for me would usually mean 7.30am. Over breakfast I go over the days work with the Director and 1st AD, then at 8am the Director will rehearse the first scene with the cast, then show the rehearsal to me. We'll work out the blocking together and figure out how we're going to shoot the scene, then I'll be given the set to light and setup the camera. That seen could then take anything from 2 hours to 2 days to shoot and then we start the process all over again on the next scene. 

Typically we work 10 hours on camera, with an hour for lunch so that's an 11 hour day plus there might be an hour or two of overtime on top of that depending on the shoot. Locations can typically be quite far outside the city so it may take up to 90 mins to get to set on a bad day so the days can be quite long. If you're on a drama or an indie feature its not uncommon to work 6 day weeks. The last few years I've spent working abroad quite a bit in both Europe and the US so there are some perks to that but the downside is you're away from your family for extended periods of time.

A typical non shooting day usually involves doing everything you can to try and chase down the next project! That could mean taking meetings with Directors, reading scripts, updating your website with recent work and so on. Unfortunately some years there are a lot more non shooting days then shooting, but that's just part of being a freelance Cinematographer.  

Your career highlights and your darkest hour?

I've been fortunate to work with some fantastic Cinematographers and Directors as I worked my way up the ladder so that's always a highlight but I'd have to say that getting to work briefly with the late Harris Savides ASC when I was a Steadicam Operator was something I'll always cherish as he was a personal hero of mine.

My darkest hour is usually one of those days when you haven't been working for months and months and you wonder why you've joined this business but then, usually just as you're about to run out of money,  the phone will ring and you'll find yourself back on a set shooting something beautiful and you'll think why would I want to do anything else.

Whats the most common mistake you see other cinematographers make?  

The standard of Cinematography in Cinema and on TV is incredibly high right now so I can't say I see many mistakes that other Cinematographers are making. I see my mistakes all the time but everyone else seems to produce great work.

Finally, can you tell us a little bit about your next project?

I've just finished shooting a fantastic music promo for Cass Lowe's single "Birthmark", directed by Daryl Atkins at Sudden Black. It's a return to a more narrative style of music video, which I love, and visually it's a cross between the work of Photographer Gregory Crewdson and director Wes Anderson's work. I shot again in the Anamorphic format this time on an Arri Alexa Plus using Panavision C-series lenses, and the results are fantastic. You'll be able to see the video online here very soon.

I've been quite fortunate to work with quite a few younger directors over the past couple of years including shooting "The Formorian" for Aideen McCarthy and "Mrs. Peppercorn's Magical Reading Room" for Mike Le Han. It takes time but all of these guys and girls have now got their first features in development so along with Dave Roddhams Feature next year I should hopefully have a busy couple of years ahead!

Check out Stephen's website here

13 Jun 2013


Am hoping to introduce an interview section to the blog. Still working out the dynamics so watch this space.