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So you want to work in the Irish Film Industry

So you want to work in the Irish Film Industry

You may not know it, but the Irish film industry is in pretty good health. A recent Irish Times story told of “record levels of foreign direct investment” for 2012 as numerous productions chose Ireland as a location; that’s roughly €118million, an increase of 30% on the previous year, thanks to 19 feature films and a number of TV series such as The Vikings.

Recent home-grown hits like What Richard Did and The Guard must compete with international productions to make a real profit, but Irish film (and especially animation) has been punching above its weight for some time now.

It’s also a good time to be a self-financed or independent filmmaker, with digital equipment cheaper than ever and some ultra-low-budget features like 8.5 Hours and Charlie Casanova found their way into some multiplexes (albeit to very mixed audience reception, but that’s another story).

Both Ballyfermot and Dun Laoghaire have churned out hugely successful graduates, but success usually comes as a result of about graft, creativity and salesmanship.

We talked to a number of successful Irish people who work in the film industry, both here and abroad – a special effects rendering supervisor, a director, a screenwriter and a documentarian. Each of our interviewees talked about their day-to-day work and how they made it in the industry – mostly by working independently, working on their craft and playing the long game.

Interview 1: The Special Effects Veteran

Barry Kane, originally from Meath, has worked in the visual effects (or VFX) industry for nearly a decade, having worked on films such as Prometheus, Troy, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’s currently working on Iron Man 3.

What were your favourite subjects in school?
I took a strong interest in computing, science and engineering subjects even when I was in national school. All the way to third level I focused a considerable amount of my energy in those areas.

What did you study in third level?
BSc in Computer Science and Software Engineering at Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland. In the later years of the degree I focused on computer graphics technology and computer systems architecture with my final year dissertation on Pixar’s Photo-Realistic RenderMan and how it is utilised to create the imagery on very complex animation and VFX projects.

One of the things I also learned in third level was that I enjoy leading the efforts of a project and directing the team involved. In a leadership role where I can see the global view of what needs to be achieved I found quite early on that I could greatly help in delivering results consistently. This has become a major part of what I now do in my career as half of my job involves the leadership of people on complex VFX projects.

Are there other courses or books you'd recommend?
These days there are a plethora of courses, books and websites out there but for someone looking to a strong degree in this field Bournemouth University in the UK has one of the best courses out there. They have options to focus equally in both the technical and artistic areas of VFX with good career outreach and guidance programs.

What's your full title, and how long were you working until you reached this position?
Rendering Supervisor is the title I have held at two studios now after around seven years in the industry. The first major steps I took in “working without a net” were at Sony Pictures Imageworks when I helped lead efforts to build a structured workflow for shader development.

What does your day-to-day involve?
Typically we start the day with an informal catch-up on the results of the work from the previous day. As most studios use the overnight and weekend hours to catch up on the compute cycles required to render images for the shots we are producing we typically review those images and any associated technical problems they have presented.

At certain times of the day, sometimes more than once, the most senior supervisor (typically the Visual Effects Supervisor) will come to the various teams; review the work in progress and any feedback from the film’s director on the current work we have already shown. This is one of the key stages in the day when we learn about what is required next both aesthetically and technically.

Depending on the time of year and/or the requirements of the upcoming projects, we usually have regular meetings or open discussions on what we will need next in terms of technology and how we will achieve it.

In between all of that there is everything from solving the technical lighting, shading and rendering problems of the moment to discussions on everything from current world news/affairs to where we will all go out for a party next... Even when we are very busy in VFX working long hours we still have fun!

What do you like most about your job?
When a VFX show is working well it can be the greatest feeling to start each day excited about what you will be doing that day. Solving complex problems with ever-advancing technology is something I truly enjoy, as VFX technology never stands still. The process of bringing a team together on a project that is both challenging and interesting is always something to be proud of.

Over the years I have had the honour of meeting the likes of Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Robert Zemeckis in a professional/working capacity not forgetting numerous Oscar winning and historically important individuals who have greatly influenced the film industry over the past 40 years.

Recently working on Prometheus I truly enjoyed the experience of watching the web world react to what was being shown and discussed on Facebook, Youtube and other blog sites. Seeing the anticipation by so many people for that film and being involved in what they would eventually see was an amazing feeling.

And what do you like least?
In a phrase; “industry instability”. The VFX industry is beginning to shift more and more to a factory/service mentality as the value of VFX work on a cost basis reduces. As with all niche service industries which have expanded to be much more common-place the content creators continue to look for the best rates they can get. This has led to entire film projects being moved from one area to another around the world as local governments offer up more aggressive tax relief and incentives. The individual VFX companies have also had to respond to this competitiveness internally within the industry with salaries in some regions like London and Vancouver not being very competitive relative to the cost of living in those regions.

The knock-on result for VFX artists and technical directors is equated to a “digital nomad” who year by year drifts from one part of the world to another to keep working without solid roots anywhere. In the younger years it works out ok and can typically be a great experience to work in fascinating cities around the world. But once you involve relocating or being a long way from family and other real-life things it can start getting very stressful.

What advice would you have for people who want to get into the VFX industry?
On the education front like many other industries the degree will only take you so far. The key thing is to stay up to date with the latest technology and as I say to junior members of my team having a “competitive advantage”; having that special knowledge or skill-set which makes you much more desirable than anyone else when it comes to getting your first or next job.

Another key thing is to not generalise in roles when you are applying to a bigger company. Recruiters are usually looking for a key class of role to fill and someone who can animate, light and composite can scare them off as they may not be sure how good you are at just one of those things. If you start at a smaller company generalising can be helpful to better understand what you may be best at if at university you did not find the key area of focus.

But in summary try and focus on a key role or at most 2 roles if they are closely related like modelling and texturing or lighting and look development.

For the technical people out there it is very important to apply your programming skills to the tools that are used in the industry as early as possible. Even if it means sending an awkward email to Autodesk, Pixar or The Foundry to get documentation or even a trial version of certain software this could make all the difference to your first career steps.

The VFX industry is going through a number of critical changes at the moment which are the results of the expansion of the industry over the past 10 years from a niche of hundreds of people to a much larger industry of thousands.

For someone looking to step into VFX for a less technically orientated role such as animation or lighting work they need to be aware that for many people out there now, the road to success or relative financial stability is much longer now compared to when I started over 10 years ago.

If you get through all of those steps and find the right direction for yourself, VFX can be fantastically rewarding especially when you work on a film which you know you will look back on years later and still be very proud of.


Interview 2: The Director

Paddy Breathnach is one of Ireland’s best-loved filmmakers. His debut, Ailsa, won numerous awards and two of his subsequent works – I Went Down and Man about Dog – topped the Irish box office. He started his career working with legendary nature documentarian Eamon de Butléir and has also directed Blow Dry (for Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax) and the cult horror movie, Shrooms.

How did you get started?
The first film I made was a short film. I basically paid for that myself. I had worked for the documentary filmmaker Eamon de Butléar for maybe six or nine months of the year. The work was intensive so I didn’t have time to spend money. I put that money into my first film, which was about seven grand at the time.

My first feature film was called Ailsa. We had a German broadcaster, the Film Board and RTE and a little bit of tax money. It was early in the Film Board’s career and it’s probably the model you’d need now – broadcasters, the Film Board and tax money. That’s the most common one.

You won some prizes for Ailsa, right?
Yes. Ailsa won a Best New Director in San Sebastian. It was a money prize, but quite significant – 400,000 ECUs at the time, which was the forerunner for the Euro. But you had to put the money into your next film. Ed Guiney produced and the prize was split between producer and director. Ed put his half into Gerry Stembridge’s film Guiltrip and I put mine into I Went Down. And that was the start of that.

Things snowballed after that, right?
They did. I Went Down struck a cord here and it was sold internationally and created interest in it. Ailsa did too – it wasn’t a commercial film, but there was interest in it. I’d heard afterwards, and I wish I knew at the time but Miramax were close to buying it, not because the film was commercial, but because they wanted a relationship with myself and the producer Ed. They probably knew that they could’ve bought it cheaply!

But I Went Down went beyond that. It was distributed and shown quite widely.

Going back – what was your background before working with de Butléir. Did you study film formally?
No. I did an arts degree in philosophy and politics in UCD. And then after that I went on a work placement, an organisation called Manpower. I think they were a precursor to Fás – something similar. They’d give a nominal amount, probably like Job Bridge, where at the time they’d give twenty quid a week and you’d choose your own placement. Mine was with an animator named Günter Wolf. Günter was the bohemian man of real generous spirit. If you had any talent or interest he’d encourage it. Because of the nature of his job, making animated commercials, there was a bit of camera work, production management, set building, there were numerous skills that he and I did exclusively. That was very exciting. You could throw yourself into something and get responsibility that pushed me forward a lot.

The director Robert Rodriguez said that if you’re creative, you’re born creative, but if you’re not technically adept, you’re dependent on other people until you learn those things. Would you agree with that?
I’ve always known enough to get by and am probably not interested enough to master something. For instance, I did a documentary recently and I shot a lot of it myself. Within a limitation it worked out really well and suited the project. But yet I know that a good DP [director of photography] can do things I can’t do because they’ve mastered their craft. So it’s good to have a sense of it and do enough to exercise your ideas and mind and language, in terms of expressing what you like and how you like it done. So even if you have, for example, a DP, the conversations you’d have with them is a better conversation. They feel challenged because you have an interest in that area. It’s important to know, but at the same time, I don’t think you have to be a master.

The issue of being born creative?
Maybe some people are born more creative than others, but a lot of creativity depends on the environment you’re in and whether it’s explored. A lot of people I know, even creative ones, may be touching the tip of the iceberg regarding that potential. I don’t think a lot of education pushes creativity; the absence of people being encouraged to express an idea or engage in process rather than solution. I worked on things that were awful, but I learned from the process.

Why was it awful?
It was awful because of that decision at that moment, or I didn’t make a choice I should have. That’s something for filmmakers that’s quite tough because it’s become like you’re not given many chances. I was lucky with Ailsa in that it was well received, but also if I’d made it ten years later, it mightn’t have had a chance. I’m very conscious that I was lucky and that others didn’t get a chance to make a second film to show that they’ve learned from the first one.

What does your day to day entail?
It’s an interesting question because you have to learn to manage your day to day. If I’m directing, whether it’s a commercial, feature or documentary, the needs of the production dictate your day. You’re driving and responding to a machine that’s already moving. On a feature your day is very long, a ten or 11 hour day. You finish, you come back and watch rushes from the previous day. You could get up at 6 and get to bed at 12. That could be 6 days on the trot for 6 or 8 weeks. So it’s pretty intensive. And then post production ahs a different intensity. It’s got more freedom, but you have X-amount of time to make it work, and if it’s not working in that time, you won’t get more resources to make it work. You’re watching something take shape – like looking at a baking cake, if it’s not rising, that’s happening now!

When you’re not shooting it’s a very different situation. There isn’t the social framework of working for a company, so you have to make sure that the world that you’re in has enough social outlets and particularly for me: I like to interact and socialise and that’s often where ideas come from, so you have to engineer that. It could be that there’s reading involved with scripts and books, there’s writing in terms of proposals, and then if you write scripts as well, which I do, that has its own issues. Some writers are disciplined but I’m not in that regard. That’s a very particular thing – do you write for three hours and take a break? How do you manage your time?

Interview 3: The Documentary Filmmaker

Ross Whitaker is a documentarian who has covered everything from sport to current affairs to human interest to Jedward (who frankly are in a category of their own). His work has been shown on the big screen, RTE, Setanta and beyond and he’s probably best known for Saviours, Bye Bye Now and When Ali Came to Ireland. Ross also works as commissioning editor for Film Ireland.

Tell me a bit about your background and what you’re working on at the moment…

I’ve just finished three documentaries which I’ve been working for about six months; One for RTE1, one for RTE2 one for Setanta. One was about Ali, two were about gambling – one in which I followed a poker player for six months, and another looking at Irish people’s affinity with risks and gambling. Another I’m working on is about a disabled athlete taking on adventure challenges; Mark Pollack who lives in Dublin. We’re going to Norway to film training in the snow!

What was your favourite subject in school?

Back in school my favourites were geography and English. I always liked writing essays which feeds into storytelling. Geography… maybe because of the travel I do.

What did you study in third level?

Originally I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was warned off doing certain things, I did BESS in Trinity. I thought at least it was varied. The bits that I liked the most were in political science. Later I did film in UCD. That was a way of opening my mind to the history of film and what can be done and cementing my love for it and what I wanted to.

There was a film production component, which has expanded since then. You find yourself watching a lot of films and reading lots of books. If after that you still want to work in it, it’s time well spent. Learning about narrative and filmmakers embeds itself in your subconscious. You do think back about things you’ve watched or been told along the way.

What courses would you recommend?

The IFTAs came out recently and it’s pretty clear that Dun Laoghaire national film school has a very strong course because they had an amazing percentage of nominees. Something like 25 nominees had studied there. Ballyfermot grads know what they’re doing. DIT Aungier St stands out. Do courses where you get practical work. Nothing compares with doing things. You’re better off doing 10 things that aren’t good and an 11th good thing than nothing at all. In Ireland we feel scrutiny because we have such a small community who’ll see what you’ve done. Courses give you a chance to make mistakes in a safe environment. When you leave, you’ll have a better idea of your voice and what works for you.

What’s a good way to get started and get your name recognised outside of formal education?

I would have strong feelings about that. The tools for making films are cheap. People have made films using their phones. And there are lots of cameras out there. If you meet the right people you might be able to get your hands on one for free. Compared to drama, documentaries have small crews. My first two films were made with two people. It helped us develop skills that we could apply for getting gainful employment, when I was trying to get jobs as assistant producer and such. For anyone who wants to make films, do it. The skills you gain can be valuable. You can find yourself working on a TV series and they’re short of a director – if they think you have the experience from going and doing it yourself you might get that gig. Just get out there and do it. It’s important.

Regarding competitions – there are a lot of script competitions and years can pass entering them. If you have a great script, go and make it. If you make a film you’ve got something to show for it. Maybe someone could see a short and see that you have talent it’s important to have something to show.

What do you most like about your job?

I love it. The fact that we get to do different things because it’s project based work. You work on it for a few months, then something else. You never get tired of what you’re doing. Apply yourself to one project and you can throw a lot of energy into it. I’ve worked on Prime Time and on something with Jedward. I enjoy that variety – the different challenges.

Another privilege is meeting amazing people. Extraordinary people giving us access to our lives.

What do you like least about your job?

The hardest part is that as an independent film or TV producer you have to go looking for funding and finding money to make it. You can put a lot of energy into that, whereas you want to put the energy into making the TV or film. It’s important, but I like it the least. However I want so much to make the projects that I’m happy to look for the funding. If you want to get the funding, you have to do the work to get it.

I assume you have a very varied working week?

Yeah. Very different. Every day tends to be different. I used to work on production and you’d work to a schedule where you’d have research, production, then edit and you’d have a structure. I could be filming one day, editing another, meetings, then prep, then edit. Research is a combination of office work and meeting people. Production is exhausting. The edit is where it comes together – hard but gratifying if it’s working out.

One other thing I’d say is play the long game. Over the course of your career you’ll make many films. At the start of your career you want a big break – something breaking into film festivals and winning awards and making your name. But think of your work as taking place over a long period of time and can be viewed as a body of work. If you do good work, you will be recognised, even if it doesn’t happen in the first instance.


Interview 4: The Screenwriter

Jamie Hannigan is a multi-award-winning scriptwriter, author and filmmaker. He currently has three feature film scripts in various stages of development.

What were your favourite subjects in school?

English and art.

You studied journalism in third level, right?

Yes. I wanted to do something writing related and especially this course in Dun Laoghaire. Ninety percent of Irish filmmakers who studied in Ireland studied in DL or London Film School. The [Leaving Cert] points went up by 100 when I wanted to do it, and journalism was an option that I thought would be interesting and it was. It was good at teaching a certain type of technical writing and writing to deadline. It puts strict rules that – if I’d gone into fiction writing from 18 years old – would have gone against me.

I kept writing fiction throughout my teenage and college years. If I’d been doing that as coursework I may not have enjoyed it as much.

What do you think was your first break?

I think it would’ve been Filmbase, the Short Script Award. For a couple of years I’d been writing a lot of short scripts for various other people and myself. I’d had experiences where people were directing short screenplays I’d written and I thought that I’d love to give it a shot. I’d been applying for years for this Filmbase award and in 2005 I was shortlisted, but I was travelling and I couldn’t go to the interview. But the following year I had two screenplays shortlisted. One was shortlisted and made into a film by someone else, and another was one I chose to direct.

Could you name them?

The Filmbase Award in 2006, one short was turned into a film called In This Way. And I finished making that and was shortlisted for two short film awards. One, which I directed, was called The Beekeeper’s Son. That did quite well. It got into the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. That’s one of the film festivals recognised by the Irish Film Board, which meant that they gave money to blow it up to a print, 35mm. That brought me to the attention of the Film Board. Off the back of that I was shortlisted for the Signatures Short Film Award, which is a much bigger budget. The Film Board Award was €10,000 and the Irish Film Board Signature Scheme is the one formerly known as the Short Cuts Scheme. I got shortlisted and I won. It was called 2.5 Billion. Through the process of working on that I got a good working relationship with Andrew Meehan on the Film Board. He asked if I was interested in writing and directing. I was a little tired of directing at that stage and wanted to go back to writing. I’d been writing scripts for some time.

So I assume you’d recommend screenwriting competitions like this?

Yes. Definitely. The Filmbase one is a good one for writers because they’re purely for writing. They run them in Dublin, the Cork Film Centre, the Galway Film Centre, and there’s other regional ones. Look into your regional county – it should have one. Entrants are shortlisted on the basis of screenplay alone. Your script should be no longer than about 15 pages, ideally around the 10 page mark. The money may sound like a lot but when you get into the nuts and blots of renting equipment and so on, it runs out quite quickly. Once your shortlisted, either you’re directing it yourself of you’re bringing a producer on board.

You should be making your own films before you go near [these competitions], either in college or off your own bat. I was using digital technology; home editing and I had no formal training. I just did a bit of video production in journalism, but they discouraged you from learning the ins and outs of video and filming equipment. They instead encouraged learning about content. I was interested in both content and the nuts and bolts of how films are made.

Apart from Dun Laoghaire, are there any other courses you’d recommend?

Bearing in mind that I didn’t do any of them… DL is the obvious one. A lot of my friends went to London Film School, which is a big deal. They were people who had done say, a year in DL, and then the degree somewhere else. I’ve heard good things about the film course in DL. I heard the screenwriting masters there is pretty good. I know people who’ve done it and done well out of it, but for each of them there’d be maybe ten more I’d never heard of.

The main thing is to be writing all the time. You should be reading screenplays, short stories, novels, watching films, and writing constantly. The only practice you get is by doing it; and the only experience you get is by watching other people’s work.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

Probably that I can work at my own pace, work on my own. That’s also the worst thing about my job! People will say that non-screenwriting such as novel-writing is much more solitary. A screenplay is a blueprint, like you’re an architect. You’re designing something to be used by technicians and artists later on. You create the blueprint and directors and costume, set, production designers design it, and then actors interpret it… this is if you’re not directing it yourself. You end up having to deal with producers who have their own notes on things that might need changing. You might agree or disagree with these notes, make some changes and then discover those things [you liked] were wrong, or that you’ve wasted two months going the wrong way. That can be frustrating, but it’s part of the job.

So does that mean that your day to day is a combination of writing and meetings?

It depends on how limited the deadline is. From my experience, you’d have an idea, and you will write it out in some short of shorter form – a short story, a one-page synopsis, a 15-page treatment. You’re still trying to get the tone, not the meaning or detail yet. You could have a rough idea that you then describe to someone in a café or a pub and they might respond to it, especially if you’re a producer. There are several things that the bones have been fleshed out by describing it to someone in a bar! In the spur of the moment I’ll start making up stuff and fleshing it out and then will walk away thinking “I have an idea in there somewhere!”

Are there any books on writing or screenwriting you recommend?

I have a director friend who reads those [screenwriting books] religiously and he says that they’re 99% garbage. But there’s one percent buried in them that’s a useful thing to take away. When I was younger I read a “teach your self screenwriting” book. It described the three-act structure and said “look at Witness, look at Chinatown” and there are character points and character arcs and so on. But one of the most interesting things it said was how to build up a character. It said to ask yourself questions about the character: What did their parents do? Where did they grow up? What’s their favourite food? What would they do if they were in a car crash? All of these things. I found that it’s a useful way to build characters. I used to be all about plot, and that helped with character. As I got older, if got easier to sway between plot and character and create story, which is the synthesis of the two.

Robert McKee’s story is half really annoying because it has lots of Venn diagrams and weird structural diagrams which take up page space. But he had something he would bang on about, saying that stories had to be “meaningful”. And if you just take that one sentence, the book is worthwhile.

I think the best screenwriting advice is to read screenplays. It’s very useful. I try to read The Black List. US producers make this informal list of the best unproduced screenplays they’ve read in the past year.

Some of those became well known films, right?

Yes. Source Code was one, as was Lars and the Real Girl. Some of them, the finished film go nowhere. If you dig around online, you will find a folder with all of the Black List scripts. It’s a lot easier to get your hands on various screenplays these days, now that they’re all tend to be on pdf files. 

I think reading scripts is a great teacher. Chinatown. The Usual Suspects. Walter Hill is a great stylist in terms of screenplays. They’re like heightened poems! They would be what I’d recommend.

How hard is it to make a living at what you do?

Quite difficult. I was working part-time for all the time I was writing and directing short films. Now that I’m focussed more on writing features it’s easier for me because I find the hardest thing about filmmaking is a lot of technical stuff, but also a lot of politics; delegating, making people dance without having them know you’re doing it. The solitude of screenwriting appeals to me in that respect.

It was only in the last year that I quit the part time job I had for the previous 5 years or so. If I had gone straight into screenwriting and stuck to it, I might have been able to quit my job sooner. The joke I have is that I went into script writing for the money! Be patient and put the hours in and be prepared to read and write an awful lot. And don’t flog the same dead horse – if you’ve got a script that nobody seems to like, write a second script. By all means keep trying to flog the first, but be sure to write something else.

What are you working on right now?

I have three screenplays in various stages of development. One of them is hoping to shoot in about a year. That’s gone through two and half drafts. I’m doing the next pass on that soon. The other is a script I completed that I co-wrote. We won a competition for it, called Untitled. It’s run through the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. It’s a pitching competition where you shortlist a one page synopsis based on a theme. In our case it was 1916. One the basis of that they picked five proposals, and then you have to do a five minute pitch in front of a live audience and a panel of judges! Then you answer questions for ten minutes. We won that and the prize was the Film Board’s first draft loan - €12000 for a writer, or €16,000 for two. It’s broken down in how they allot it out. It’s a loan, essentially. The production company who buys your script repay this on the first day of shooting. It’s how I’ve been able to make a living. Going straight to a production company is tricky. There’s a lot less money around.

The third is Cycle which is in development with Samson Films. They’re in the process of looking for a director.


Joe Griffen