Cathal Watters it the incredible DP behind the latest series of hit BBC show Peaky Blinders – here he talks to Mandy News about how he got started, the kit he uses and more.
Cathal, please tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the industry.
I was born in Dublin and grew up in Meath, half an hour outside of Dublin. I live in Dublin now. My brother, who is ten years older, was a press photographer for local newspapers. When I was growing up he converted the shed into a dark room. I grew up with a dark room and the smell of chemicals out back, so I was interested in that. When I was twelve years old, I bought a camera with my first pay, so I was taking photographs. Then, when I was in school, I used to develop my own photographs. My interest in photography stemmed from there.
After that, I studied Theatre and Drama in Trinity College, Dublin. My thesis was about violence and its effect in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I shot a short film for my thesis, so it was all kind of film based. I remember, there was one point when I was young, I saw a camera man at a St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin. I saw a guy up in this crane, we were all down here looking at the parade and I saw this guy with a camera and I thought, “I want to be that guy. He has the best view! I don’t want to be on the ground, I want to be up there.” So, I think all of these fed into this interest in photography and doing something different.
Straight after college, I basically went around looking for camera positions in newsrooms. There was a small TV station starting up here in Ireland called TG4 and I started shooting news for them. I went out not having a clue but quickly learned. In actual fact, they didn’t let me shoot initially; I was editing for about three months and then I got a camera. Those three months of editing were amazing because I was shooting and editing myself for different news packages. I would have to edit my own work, which was amazing because I saw all the mistakes I was making and that definitely informed me in shooting.
I shot news for maybe three years on and off. I was doing little bits and pieces of documentary, and then I got a call to make a documentary series in 2000. I’ve been doing documentary for many years, all working for Irish TV stations. That’s been brilliant. I’ve done documentary in Iceland, New Zealand, all over America, all over Europe, Africa… Fantastic. A lot of the time it would just be me and a sound person going out with minimal equipment and that would be it.
To be honest, in 2008 there was a global downturn in the industry, and I wanted to make a move so I went out and bought a RED camera because it was the cheapest camera I could buy that I could get better images with. I went over to London and did a course on RED cameras and after that I bought a RED camera.
What was the name of the course you studied in London?
It was just a day course with VMI. It was “Introduction to RED.” That was only in 2009. I remember coming back from the course being afraid of doing anything that was so big and bulky. Nothing to do with VMI, but I actually came away from the course thinking I wasn’t going to get a camera. Then I ended up buying a camera. I wanted to progress, to do something different.
Because I had the gear, people would ask me to do their short film or their music video…It was brilliant, I could do my documentaries, get them to pay for everything and then I’d do other creative stuff for free. That went on for years. It still goes on. I’d never stop that because it’s great to meet people that way and to do different things. I think when people get you to do things they’re not paying you for, you get much more say in it as well.
Since then, I’ve always had gear. I bought an LX, I bought RED DRAGON… So I’ve gone up that way.
Do you have a kit of choice?
I love the Alexa Mini, because it’s small form and handheld is very easy with it. So I like that form factor. I don’t like the idea that you’ve got things sticking out of it and everything. I think it was made for gimbals, but then became very popular. It’s just a brick and you kind of have to make it into something that is usable, pretty much the same as the RED cameras.
These camera manufacturers, it would be lovely if they listened to camera men! It’s crazy. You have to add on bits and pieces to make it work for you. I love the images from them but practically, the form factor is lacking. I owned a large size Alexa and the form factor of that is much nicer. But camera choices are so good now— if you’re at the stage of an Alexa Mini or a RED DRAGON, they’re so good that it doesn’t really matter. I know that sounds terrible and maybe I should have a massive preference, but I think it depends on the project. I’m more interested in the glass that you put in front of it. I use a lot of filters as well.
I’ve shot four feature films on xiQ super speeds. I bought a set of super speeds a year and a half ago. I shoot a lot on them— they’re really small and they’re brilliant for handheld work. You can carry a full set in one hand and the camera in the other. I like the idea of putting old glass on these super sharp sensors, I think it gives them a much more pleasing image than using the sharper lenses. But again, it’s all what the story demands and what the picture is.
Was documentary filmmaking something that you gravitated towards naturally because of your news background and did you have a standard camera for that?
I think, for years, I shot on a Digi Beta: one lens, nice form factor, that was it. Then I moved from a Digi Beta onto a RED ONE. I had long since stopped shooting news, I had only done that for about three years. At the moment, if I shoot documentaries at all on the RED DRAGON, I tend to use Nikon zooms on that. To be honest, I just don’t like them, it’s impractical to use big heavy zooms on the RED DRAGON.
I mainly shoot drama now. About 90% drama, 5% documentary and 5% other projects. When I went and travelled the world and did loads of documentaries all over the place, that would have been a Digi Beta. I used the RED ONE a lot for documentary, when I got it in 2009, then onto a RED EPIC then RED DRAGON. I haven’t shot a documentary on an Alexa.
Do you prefer documentary or drama?
Now, I much prefer drama. I was always going into documentary with a view to going into drama. I always wanted to do drama but I guess I wanted to be shooting rather than going down the camera assistant route. Maybe, in some ways I kind of regret not going down that route. I haven’t seen loads of amazing lighting stuff and massive set ups and I regret not having seen them.
Shooting drama is intimidating because you’ve got ultimate control, depending on the project, but I love the idea of making something, as opposed to reacting. In documentary work, you’re trying not to be there whereas in film work you’re very much there, before anybody else, and you’re trying to create something.
Before we move on to a bit more drama— what was your first photography camera?
Pentax P7. I bought it for a hundred pounds. I developed photographs from that. I would never call myself a stills photographer, but I always loved it.
How did you get the job on Peaky Blinders? How did it feel coming on board a show that already had a defined style?
I had worked with this year’s director David Caffrey on a show called Love/Hate in Ireland before. I’d only done a couple of weeks as second camera and a couple of commercials with him, so I hadn’t done a whole lot of work with David, but we got on very well and we thought the same way about visuals, so he was the one who put my name in the hat.
In terms of Peaky Blinders, it’s a very defined look. When I saw it first, George Steel had gone and broken the mould. This was something absolutely new, something different. Not only visually either. He used modern day music with period visuals. It was modern day camera work on a period show, and you completely bought it.
It’s a very dramatic show, you don’t have to make excuses to make it look good. It should look good, it should look dramatic. I was very daunted by the idea of shooting this show. I had a meeting with the execs when I eventually got it and they said, “Do whatever you like.” But I knew there would be death threats and I’d have a block around my ankles very quickly if I did anything other than do Peaky Blinders.
We used to always say, “Are we in the Peaky world? Is this Peaky?” To have that idea of having a look on the show is just an amazing thing. It’s a testament to the cinematographers beforehand. I didn’t want to mess it up, I just wanted to get to the end and not get fired for doing something silly.
Did you talk to any of the DOPs who worked on the previous series?
No, I didn’t. I could see their work. I could see what they did. I went in and I took stills from anything I liked from the previous series or anything I disliked. I had hundreds and hundreds of stills from the show and I could see different styles from year to year. It’s very apparent once you take a fine tooth comb to it.
So then I began to think, "what can I bring to the table? What can I do? What do I like?" I hope I’ve done something different to it. I tried to introduce a bit of colour. I moved the camera when I felt I should move the camera to suit the story… I always try to be true to the story no matter what. I’m not saying the others weren’t – of course they were – but it’s from my point of view, so I hope this series will be a different slant but still within the Peaky theme.
Did you have your own camera team that you took with you onto Peaky Blinders?
No. I do have my own camera team. I thought I could bring over people that I worked with all the time, but I felt that the team that was on it the previous year might like to get a callback, because they obviously did an amazing job. So I contacted the producer from the year previous, Simon Maloney, and I talked to him about every single person on the crew from last year. Then, I had a Skype call with everybody from the crew last year.
I brought on everybody that had shot it last year. I wasn’t hiring some people and not hiring others or whatever. If you work on a show, you’ve got a bit of ownership and that is definitely apparent in Peaky as well. I was delighted. I got the experience of everybody. They knew what they were getting into. They knew what it was. That was incredible.
To have Phil Brooks as the gaffer, who had worked on it the previous year, that was brilliant. I got Chris Hutchinson, the Steadicam operator on the second series, back for this one and he was just brilliant. It helped me out in the sense that I had a team who had already done this. I obviously had to change some things, because it was my way of shooting but it was great to have people who had done it before.
There is a definite buzz around the show. Is that something you are aware of?
I’m nervous as hell— absolutely nervous. I don’t know whether I did a good job. I think everybody’s happy and David is happy and all of that, but it’s strange because when I started I had no idea it was as big as it was. It’s like a cultural phenomenon. It’s definitely touched on something.
Perhaps in these days of revolution in television, where the budgets and the stars and the stories of TV can get so big now, I think it’s one of the first ones that we’ve had over here in Britain. It’s one of the first kind of heavyweight TV series compared to Game of Thrones and the others they have in America.
It competes with big budget shows, but this is not big budget. It is not. We were doing seven, eight, nine pages a day. We were doing a lot of scenes. We didn’t have the time to shoot things that you would hope to. But we were working with such a calibre of actors— that helps so much, actors who have played the part for the last four years. It lends you time; it doesn’t take time for them to get into character or get the part or whatever it is.
It is not a big budget show, but it does compete with the big budget shows on that.
Do you have a favourite style or an example of a particular film that you hold up as being an amazing and different style of cinematography?
I’m terrible. I don’t follow anybody in particular. I look at loads of films and I take little bits from every single film. Seamus McGarvey, another Irish DOP who did Avengers and Atonement, does stunning stuff. I love his work. I think it’s incredible.
But I hate the idea of me having a style. I want to have millions of different styles that I tap into depending on the project. I think it’s very important that you’re able to tell whatever story with whatever it is you have to hand. All I’m looking to do is try and tell the story with what I have, which is lighting, movement, and composition.
Somebody said to me years ago, “I don’t want to get that guy because he just wants to shoot his show reel.” That was really interesting. I’m out there shooting a story not a show reel. It’s not to say I don’t want to shoot something that’s beautiful or something that’s worthy of a show reel.
In Peaky, we tried to stay true to the story. Going into Peaky, I wrote a visual bible for myself, with different things that I wanted to ensure so that, at the end of the day, I could look back and say, “Have I done this?” I was trying to give myself rules that I would try and adhere to. If I broke the rules, I would have to check myself. Because I had those rules down, I would hope that there’s a style that comes out.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming cinematographers?
It’s two things. You want it to be consistent and to have intent. To my mind, the most important thing in shooting is that a film is consistent. If it looks raggedy, then it has to be consistently raggedy. And I cannot watch a film, even if it looks beautiful, if there’s no intent. If it’s a beautiful shot for the sake of a beautiful shot, there’s no intent behind the shot, so what’s the point?
I look at all these YouTube clips, which I think is an amazing resource, listening to all of these top DPs talking. They say that if their cinematography isn’t noticed in the film, they’ve done their job well. Well, that’s the epitome of it all. If your cinematography isn’t noticed, you’ve done an amazing job, because you’ve been true to the story.
Consistency and intent, those are the two things. By writing a visual bible, you can try to get consistency into it and the intent will be there because you’ve written rules to adhere to.
In the "kit" section, the lens kit should be "Zeiss Super Speeds". I was wondering what xiQ was... :P
Great article. I'm not a fan of REDs. Alexa's are of course fantastic but very expensive. I own Black Magics which are a cheaper version of Alexas without the very high end bit rate
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