Kate McCullough: filming the light
Kate McCollough was born in Ireland and from a very young age she was attracted to film cameras. Since then she has never stopped trying to capture the power of light. Before finishing her studies at The National Film School of Lodz in Poland, Kate McCollough was already shooting the Irish blockbuster “His and Hers”. The film won the World Cinematography Award in Documentary at Sundance in 2010.
From then on, many of her productions have been the subject of awards and recognition. In 2018, he received The Golden Frog for Best Cinematography on a Docudrama “I Dolours” at Camerimage. During the same year, Kate McCollough has been nominated to an EMMY Award for her cinematography labour on “The Farthest”. Recently and concerning to the same film, she was nominated for the IMAGO award 2019. Her film, “Normal People” has been nominated during 2020.
Kate McCollough is a cinematographer specializing in television programming, and we are now living another golden age of television programming. Cinematographic photography in television is improving and refreshing visual languages, as well as renewing stories with an ambitious goal of exploring the image possibilities that emerge from the script and pass through the camera. And she has much to say about TV series.
When and how did you realize that cinematography existed when you were young? Has that part of cinema caught your attention since then or did that feeling evolve during your life?
I was always attracted to image making as a kid, painting and then later as a teenager with photography. When I got interested in films my eye was drawn to composition mainly, I was not so aware of light. Understanding the power of light followed along with the idea of moving the camera. Since going to college I have become much more aware of the cinematography community and its potential. It’s a continually evolving thing, discovering new cinematographers, new techniques, new equipment and sometimes digging up old tricks too.
Is it the purpose of a cinematographer to find the perfect shot? Is there a perfect shot?
What you want to communicate to the audience in that moment will dictate where the camera should be, the ideal position for that moment. Of course there are times when you feel like you have captured the perfect moment but this is a synthesis of the performance, the cinematography, the production design, costume and all departments coming together to achieve this. It’s a delicate balancing for these to all work in unison.
What’s your vision of the profession? What’s your goal when you get involved in a project?
My focus is always to serve the story and to collaborate with a Director to develop the appropriate visual language.
How is Kate McCullough on set? How do you like to get involved in filming?
I’m generally calm, I like to work on a quiet and respectful set. I get very mono focused towards my work. I like to shoot with purpose and rigour.
Generally, DoPs are influenced by cinema cinematographers. After all, that’s part of their film education. Anyway, we live in times where we find brilliant creativity in TV series and VOD platforms. Has a television cinematographer influenced you? Can you recall a particular TV series that caught your attention?
What Marcell Rev brought to “Euphoria” was incredibly fresh, dynamic and although it was loud at times it was always anchored into the emotional journey of the characters. Jacob Ihres choices on “Chernobyl” brought a real weight and sense of the audience as witness to this traumatic material.
What’s, in your opinion, the most challenging part of your job?
Is there room for creativity in current cinematography in TV series? Do you think there are ways to be innovative when approaching, for example, an intimate scene from a cinematographic perspective?
Sure, I wouldn’t be in this business if I felt I could not express myself in some way through my cinematography. It’s central to my curiosity and passion for filmmaking. There are opportunities for innovation but you have to be clever when to use them. For me they should not draw attention to themselves for the wrong reason, then the story is just serving the technology as opposed to the reverse. There has to be an honest motivation for the approach, anchored by the script. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes it comes through testing and of course sometimes it evolves on set.
The look of TV series has evolved dramatically over the past decades. When did you first think that your work in cinema and documentaries could have a relevant role on the small screen?
The small screen is no longer the small screen. And the big screen is being watched on the small screen. The two worlds are cross pollinating. It’s an exciting time. I’ve spent many years shooting documentaries and for tv and cinema and my recent segway into fiction came in the form of a TV series so I’m certainly grateful for that.
You’ve been linked to documentaries throughout your entire career, but then you switched to television. What part of your non-fiction experience did you bring to the series you have worked on?
I think a sense of economy is learnt from documentary shooting. I’ve carried this over with crew and equipment needs. Do we really need this? Is it serving the story? You tend to develop a keen sense of coverage with cinema verite shooting too. Also I found that I’ve learnt to keep my eyes open to what’s happening with the actors particularly the spaces between dialogue.
‘Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope’ has a really naturalistic feel, similar to what we find in ‘Normal People’, but ‘Blood’ has a really ‘cinematic’ touch. What style do you feel more comfortable with?
I’m happy to explore many different approaches, again it comes down to what the story asks for, what’s the accent or tone of the piece. Trying to find a specific look for each new project presents its own challenges and so ultimately it leads to very satisfying work.
You worked together with Suzie Lavelle on ‘Normal People’. How was the experience? Did you define the style of the show together?
Suzie in collaboration with Lenny Abrahamson established the look for the series. It was fundamentally rooted in naturalism, a small footprint with crew and equipment, giving the actors agency and a safe space to perform. I shot Eps7-12 which dealt with slightly darker themes so it was exciting to be able to develop and build the look, taking it a little darker and a little further while keeping within the look of the overall series.
What was the camera + lenses choice?
We shot on the Alexa mini with K35’s and I brought in some master primes to flesh out the gaps in focal lengths. It was my first time to work with Hettie MacDonald so it was important I had that flexibility there.
What was the biggest challenge of this TV series?
Trying to convey the seasons and sense of time passing while shooting in the summer! Shooting Dublin for Sweden but thankfully we got to shoot Italy for Italy.
Do you consider a ‘techy’ cinematographer?
I like discovering technology when I’m trying to problem solve a particular technical challenge. I’m not interested in it solely for technology’s sake.
What’s your favourite camera right now?
Sony Venice, I’m very excited about the use of Full frame right now. It’s a whole other way of framing, looking at the world, the proximity to the character, the sense of 3D it brings to your subject. And the tethering system opens up so many possibilities with the camera in that modular mode. And of course its super sensitive.
What gadgets cannot be missing from your kit?
Sun path, Astera tubes, bongo ties! It really depends on the requirements of the gig.
What’s your view on industry standards such as 4K or HDR? Do you think HDR should be a creative option rather than a must in almost all VOD productions?
I think HDR is an incredible tool for cinematographers. I can’t see why we would not want it to become available right across all platforms. It’s a very significant step in the development of technology available to us, allowing for more choice in terms of exposure and lighting and ultimately more control. HDR shooting and posting is something I would very much like to explore further.
What would you ask of technology manufacturers? What’s the solution that you’re wishing exists?
Easy rig for more of a variety of bodies.
What’s next for you? Do you plan to continue betting on VOD platforms / TV series?
I completed another feature under the Cine 4 scheme( Arracht Irelands submission for Oscar consideration 2021 was funded under the same initiative). I’m certainly interested in leading the look of a series. I’ve met for a couple of new projects and we’ll see where the next adventure takes me.