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Making the Cut



Making the Cut...Des Whelan, Camera Operator on WW2 Drama ‘Fury’
11 Dec 2014 : Seán Brosnan
Des Whelan is an Irish camera operator with international credits including ‘Thor: The Dark World’, ‘A Good Day To Die Hard’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and Irish credits including ‘Veronica Guerin’ and ‘Into The West’, amongst many, many others.

He has most recently worked on WW2 drama ‘Fury’, starring Brad Pitt. IFTN caught up with Whelan on a rare day off to talk about his career.

Tell us about your work on ‘Fury’ and any other current projects.

‘For ‘Fury’, we shot on real working WW2 Sherman Tanks, which transmit a huge amount of vibration as they travel. So we had to find a platform from which the camera could move from shot to shot efficiently, while still allowing us some control over the amount of vibration generated. After a lot of testing with various combinations of Stabilized Remote Heads and Cranes on our ‘Process’ tank, we settled on the 20’ Hydrascope with the Scorpio Stabilized Head. Our Key Grip, Kevin Fraser, also built rigs to connect the Crane arm to the body of the Tank, so we could find the shot and lock it off. We didn’t want to eliminate the vibration completely as it would look too much like Green Screen so we needed some way to be able to ‘dial’ it in, or out. The stabilized Scorpio head gave us the best results. The camera spent most of the time on the Crane, either on the 20’ or 43’ Hydrascope, giving us total versatility and freedom to move without having to lay huge amounts of Dolly Track in some very difficult terrain and awful weather conditions.’

‘We shot on Film using Panavision Platinum Cameras with Anamorphic Lenses. Our DOP Roman Vasyanov came up with some clever LED lighting rigs for shooting inside the Tank set, giving him the ability to shoot with more than one camera and allowing him to turn around very quickly. Roman wanted a very classic look to the picture. It was a very hard picture to work on. It was cold, wet, muddy and very loud, 50 and 20 caliber guns make a lot of noise and we had lots of them. As most of the effects were practical, the director David Ayers wanted it to be as realistic as possible, so resetting the charges and flames was complicated and involved a large SFX crew. There is some enhancement with Visual Effects, but its looks so much better when it’s real.’

‘Recently I finished working with Tim Burton on a picture called ‘Big Eyes’ due for release on Christmas Day 2014, a very different Picture from ‘Fury’. It tells the story of the artist Margaret Keane, who was a very commercially successful painter in the United States during the 60’s and 70’s. Stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. I am currently booked to work together again with Tim in February 2015.’

What training/education did you receive to become a Camera Operator?

‘There is really only one way, I believe, to become a Camera Operator and that’s to work your way up through the ranks of the Camera Dept. It’s not only about ‘operating’ the camera. You have to comprehensively understand what problems your crew are going to come up against and how best to solve them. How to relate to directors and DOP’s in order to be able to help them execute the shot. Working with actors, to be understanding and be aware of their needs. You learn all these skills observing good Camera Operators and DOP’s at work, when you work with them as an Assistant. Bringing to bear all that experience as you progress, as you watch them solve problems and see how they communicate with other departments, how they behave on the floor and manage their crew.’

‘The Camera Operator has a very central position, the Camera is the focal point and it is the most important single piece of equipment on the set. It’s the conduit for everyone’s work and effort in bringing the story to the screen. There is no substitute for experience; there is no book on Camera Operating. I’m still learning.’

What was your first job in the industry?

‘I started working with Gunther Wulff in his animation studio at Ardmore Studios in 1973 as a Rostrum Cameraman; I loved it there, a great experience, and a great apprenticeship. Gunther was a clever man and a great teacher. I worked there for three years and then went freelance as a Camera Trainee. Worked my way through the Camera grades, Clapper/Loader (2nd AC), then Focus (1st AC) and started Operating in 1988 on a TV Mini Series called ‘Troubles’. It was getting busy in Ireland and Michael D Higgins’s new Tax Break for Film Production, the first in Europe I believe, was just around the corner, which would kick-start a huge surge in Production. Unions were strong at that time and agreement between them and Producers were strongly in favour of hiring local crews, so it was possible to get a break and advance, especially when it got busy.’

What do you enjoy most about being a Camera Operator? And what do you consider the greatest challenges?

‘Film production is a very collaborative venture; teamwork is at its centre. Being a Camera Operator allows you to be involved at that very centre. It comes with a unique responsibility, the flow of information, what’s in the frame, what the Camera ‘sees’. Passing on to other Departments the information they need to know with regard to the shot and help with solving common problems. Knowing from experience what going to work and what won’t and try to anticipate what might be needed 3/4 shots from now, so Camera and Grips can be prepared. I have worked with some fantastic crews over the years, sometimes the same crew for ten years or more and there is no feeling like being around professionals who know their job and love doing it.’

‘The basic job of course, is to tell a story; so total comprehension of the script is therefore essential. Being mindful of what the director is looking for and when invited, offer ideas. Working closely with the DOP to relate the story through images and execute every shot efficiently and gracefully.’

Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use.

‘I like to operate with a Geared Head. It makes for smoother control of the camera, no physical force required, therefore subtler and more eloquent. I also like to use the Technocrane or the Hyrdascope, often the camera stays on the crane and I operate using a Remote Head, talking to the Grips and Camera Assistants via a headset. We use the crane like a dolly and in the hands of an experienced crew it can save a lot of time. No need to lay elaborate dance floors or Track, you can adjust the camera position during the shot as the action changes, so the actors can be given a little more flexibility with regard to marks. It also allows the director or DOP more opportunities to change the shot without a major reset. The crane is mounted on its’ own small self-levelling vehicle and came access almost any location.’

‘Panavision innovated an Electronic eyepiece for me so I can look through a real eyepiece at my desk whether its’ Film or Digital. The advantage for me is that I don’t need to have a black out on the monitor to block reflections and I’m not distracted by peripheral activities. As I mentioned before, Film is still being used and looks like it will be around for a while yet, thankfully. Shooting on Film is better because there is better floor discipline and more respect for that moment when the camera turns over. A smaller crew, with better-defined roles and less cables! The Association Of Camera Operators (ACO) was formed in London four years ago to promote the craft of the Camera Operator. It serves as a forum for discussion and the sharing of technical information. It has a mainly European-based membership of experienced Camera Operators. We organize for Operators to give Q&A’s on the productions they have worked on to Student groups and Colleges. Our Website www.theaco.net is worth visiting for advice.’

What filmmaker/cinematographer has influenced you?

‘I’ve been very lucky to have worked with lots of great DOP’s, many of them have become life-long friends. Every production brings with its’ own challenges and difficulties. You’re constantly picking up ideas and tricks from every DOP you work with and hopefully bring them to bear on other productions. I have also been so very lucky to have worked with many wonderful directors, whose work I’m very proud to have been a part of. I still get a smile watching a director at work, I have such respect for their talent.’

- What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?

‘I’m not sure how you define an Irish movie, but I have worked on many of them, lots of them I’m very proud of. I still get a lot of reaction when people see ‘My Left Foot’ or ‘In the Name Of The Father’ on my CV. It was a very exciting time working with Jim, he really captured people’s imagination, and he did cut a big path to the Oscars. I also loved Pat O’ Connor’s ‘Dancing At Lughnasa’, a beautifully shot piece of poetic Cinema. I really love Neil Jordan’s ‘The Butcher Boy’ - I would like to have worked on that.’

What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?

‘I didn’t really imagine that you could get a job in the movies in Ireland, I mean, it wasn’t exactly on the career guidance list of job prospects in my school or any school or college in Dublin in 1973. It’s very different now of course. I was very happy in Animation until I was dispatched to bring a specialized lens to the Set of ‘Barry Lyndon’ which was being shot in Ireland. It was my first time on a live action big movie set and I was awe struck and realized that this is what I wanted to do…whatever that was! It was like another planet, I didn’t want to return to Earth.’

What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?

‘The main difference between working on an Irish Production and an International (Hollywood) Production is, of course…money! No surprise there - bigger budgets allow more time and resources to be deployed. The bigger scale of production absorbs more skilled personnel, equipment and infrastructure, which in turn attracts investment, which in turn attracts more crew and talent. Certainly, bigger budgets come with bigger pressures to get it right. I fear, because of reduced budgets and the lack of investment that we don’t have the choice or range of equipment that is available elsewhere and so restricts exposure to the skills needed to use them on an everyday basic. So if ever needed we will have to import the skills and equipment required. Perhaps we also need to get the Government to look at the tax break, to help attract a bigger slice of Feature Production.’

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into cinematography?

‘There are so many colleges offering Film Production courses these days. I’m not sure that the industry can absorb everyone who graduates from the various courses. It will come down in the end to ability and talent and no small measure of luck, no matter what path you take to becoming a DOP, or any other job. Tenacity is very important. As Woody Allen says, ‘80 percent of success is just showing up’. Not many students ever express a desire to be Camera Assistants or Camera Operators, or Grips. Most want to go straight to directing or lighting when they step out of the college gates. On balance I think Film Colleges are a good thing, but coupled with the knowledge that there is no substitute for real work experience. It’s not really practical or desirable for the head of the Camera department to be the least experienced or knowledgeable member of the crew. But you have to start somewhere.’

‘I would suggest that, if you get the chance, to watch other DOP’s at work. Be aware of what you want the camera to reveal to your audience and what you want to hide from them, why one angle or lens choice is better that another. Think about what image tells the story better or conveys the emotion. Try not to just copy others, find your own reasons and ideas. Look and read about the work of your favourite directors and DOP’s and study how they shot it. Get a job on a Film, even as a Trainee, don’t assume anything, look and listen, ask questions and try not to get eaten…’

‘Fury’, starring Brad Pitt and Shia LeBeouf, is showing in Irish cinemas now.




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