Conor studied photography in Dublin at Dun Laoghaire College of Art & Design graduating in 1992 with a distinction in commercial photography. In 1997 he moved to London. His work has featured in the Association of Photographers Awards and been used in several award winning campaigns for amongst others Guinness, Coca-Cola, Costa and The Royal Navy. In 2007 he was invited to show his fine art photography as an Emerging Irish Artist in the Boyle Arts Festival in Ireland. Conor lives and works in South London with his wife Michelle, and their Elegantly Papered collection of 20,000 fashion magazines.
You are a photographer by trade and In The Deep Shade is your first feature. What were the biggest challenges you faced by transitioning from the still to the moving image?
As a stills photographer of single static images when you come to edit for the first time you realise how brief an image lasts on the screen. Even with a stylized, long cut it’s quite temporary. I don’t think you even realise this the first time you start to film, but the first experience of editing is brutal. No matter how good an image or setup is, it last only a few seconds. Fortunately I had been making short films for a few years before attempting a longer feature. My initial plans were to make a creative piece based on vignettes and to look at the form and pattern in that. I did have underlying themes but I did not have the potentially intimidating situation of making a feature out of a real situation. I allowed room for interpretation and that made it much easier to take the first steps.
You have also worked on this film as a one-man band not only by doing the sound as well as filming but also by editing the footage. Which of these aspects did you enjoy the most and which one did you find the most difficult to learn?
I enjoyed it all. The editing was fun in the later stages as I was crafting a film from edited scenes and making it work as a finished piece.
I had some experience of all of these disciplines separately but the sound recording was my biggest concern at the beginning. I had enough experience to know that you cannot fix or replace badly recorded sound. My initial plans for the film were to have overlapping voices on top of image montages so that relieved the pressure a little. For my first interviews I also used more than one recorder, set in a different position as a back up but I very quickly worked out a live documentary approach that utilized two separate recorders running at the same time to allow for surprises.
Sound recording is very hard for most people to grasp and there is no substitution for practical experience when recording because often what is recorded sounds nothing like the imaginary sound in your head. I have recorded music in the past and I am fascinated by the acoustics of recorded sound so I had a head start. The biggest revelation you will ever experience with sound is when you first put headphones on and listen to a room with a directional microphone. The world transforms, what you thought you knew about the sound of reality is turned on its head when it is filtered through the dynamics of a microphone. That’s when learning to record begins. I viewed it as a creative part of a film about musicians and I even had a gut feeling for some experiments that I wanted to do with the sound design. My favourite ‘sound scene’ in the film was the bird feeder where I wanted to get a staccato rhythm that took on a life of its own before you are even aware of what is happening. That was cut to a beat inside my head, a discordant harmony, if that’s not an oxymoron! And I had an idea of that texture before I ever recorded the scene. It was something I wanted to try and had an opportunity to use the idea in that scene.
Filming a band live on stage is considerably harder than it could seem at first. One needs to be very familiar with their material in order to know where to point the camera at any given moment while still being very aware of everything that goes on around them at the same time. Did you ever plan any shots in advance and go through some of the songs with the band before hand or was everything improvised on the night of the gigs so to speak?
No plans or rehearsals at all but I did get to know parts of the set over the few dates that I was filming. But I had two advantages. I knew their music very well and I also play guitar so I have experience of playing with musicians. Even though I have virtually no musical ability of any merit I was familiar with the rhythms of rock music and able to blend in with the timings and flow. Anticipation is vital when it comes to live photography and filming. I have been a street photographer for over 20 years so I have some experience of anticipating how people move in space. The secret is to arrive at the moment of the event in order to capture it as it happens and have a chance to make an interesting composition. It is also important not to force things and to allow spontaneity. If someone moved quickly out of my frame when I wasn’t expecting it I learnt not to chase it but to drift towards it and allow an opportunity for the subject to reappear. You can never make a perfect shape in a chaotic moment but you can trace around it and soften the edges a little.
You have known Glen Hansard and the band for a few years now. You also went on tour with them as a photographer in the Far East a few years back. One may assume that this might have made your job easier, but was it really so or were you ever betrayed by the sense of familiarity you may have experienced at times to the point where you missed a few crucial scenes and shots?
It was definitely an advantage that every member of the band and the crew knew me. It meant that I could hypnotise them and let them become jaded by my presence. You very quickly become invisible if that is your intention. I don’t think it would have been so easy if I had to gain their trust at the beginning. I don’t believe I ever missed anything because I was hanging out because if anything when you are filming fly on the wall, real footage you cannot stop easily. Something can happen at any moment that is interesting, it need not be dramatic. I found that I had to switch off and relax at times in order to preserve energy and concentration but I was carrying the camera all day every day. Conversations were not always possible as I was staying back from the centre of things. There was enough going on with so many people about that it was quite easy to blend in. Bands are crowded situations especially on tour.
I have seen some of the original footage before your final edit, and I am thinking specifically to a beautiful short sea view clip. Why did you choose to turn the whole film in black and white?
Black and white is beautiful. It’s a romantic, self consciously arty film so it seemed honest to make it B+W. I was happy to telegraph the intention of trying to make it beautiful. It is also ideal for abstraction. Composition and form are elements that I always try to make as strong as possible and having the abstraction of B+W helps this. The final reason was also quite practical. Most of the scenarios we were filming in had ugly colour. There were mixed fluorescent lighting conditions and orange tungsten lights mixed with odd light sources so all of the off stage footage was always going to benefit from being in B+W.
You have also experimented with different cameras mixing and matching high and low definition. Was that a stylistic choice or was this borne out of necessity?
I used a few different cameras out of necessity. In the beginning I was thinking that I might use the interviews as voiceover for the entire film and I actually used a lower resolution DV camera for the main interviews with a higher resolution as the cut away, (cut aways are when you film the subject from a different angle to vary the editing). My main camera is a Canon 5D which shoots spectacular HD footage in low light but the version I used while filming would not film for more than 8 minutes without stopping. It’s a design flaw in that model so that’s why I used it as a secondary interview camera. I changed that very quickly as its footage was so good.
Much later on I was filming a year later and the band were playing a special gig for the celebration of For The Birds 10th anniversary and I had no need for more live footage but I decided to film anyway and I used a small Canon pocket camera, to cover the edits, locked off at the sound desk. That gig turned out to be an incredible performance and the footage was so strong that I ended up using it. At that stage I was so used to filming on my own that the camera work was one contentious shot for each song. I only used the lower resolution footage occasionally to cover mistakes. It had a nice raw feel overall and the film had a very deliberate lo-fi aesthetic in a lot of places so I was happy to run with the flaws and to use them as virtues. If you try and disguise details that you are not happy with it can be much worse, I prefer to embrace the mistakes and to try and mesh them into the tapestry. Because each shot or edit is relatively brief, the overall texture is more important than any one image and I was thinking about the bigger picture so to speak.
Where I find your film most effective is in the small and intimate moments and details detailing life on the periphery and off the road. It must’ve been a hard act to balance to keep the fans happy.
The fans were not a consideration. That sounds harsh but I was confident that by attempting to make and follow the internal logic of the films narratives it would also work for any fan because the band was an interesting subject to begin with. At no point did I add a detail to please a potential audience of fans. However it was nice to notice that some scenes and performances that stayed in were possibly going to be something that would interest a fan. If I wanted to make a film pleasing fans there are hours of footage we could have used but I think that film would have been of limited interest beyond the first viewing. I tried to look for details of a story about creative people who work together. My audience was always a stranger who had no knowledge of the Frames or anyone in the film. I always imagined my potential audience to be a random viewer who likes music and creativity and has turned on the TV late at night and is intrigued by what they see and hear. The goal was to make a beautiful art film. It just so happens that the average Frames fan likes the same aesthetics so we knew that we were not straying too far away from their interest. It wasn’t a risk to take a stance and to make a film that did not set out to please fans. It sounds disrespectful to the fans of the band who are so very supportive but I think we all felt that the fans would want us to do that to begin with.
You have captured the Frames at a very particular time in the band’s life. They come across as very supportive of each other and yet there must’ve been some fraught moments. Did you ever feel you were “gate crushing the party” at any particular moment?
Not really, no. I was lucky in that the 20th anniversary was a fun tour for them. They were exhausted after 3 years touring in support of the Swell Season and Oscar success but they were re-energized playing as The Frames again so I caught them at a good time. By the end of the tour I did see them running on very low batteries but it was all good-natured. A more cynical and opportunistic out and out documentary filmmaker might have enjoyed milking that cliché but I had my own agenda that explored the relationships of a healthy band of creative’s. I could have explored a few other paths but I think a 4-hour epic would not have been a fun viewing experience! At the end of the day it is supposed to be entertainment. The band make emotional music straight from the heart but they do it with music that, I believe is beautiful at times and that has its own pleasing aesthetic. We embrace music for its warmth. Taking a darker path into the materiel would have been a contrivance because it wasn’t really there.
One of the things that strikes me about your photographs of Glen Hansard, and I am thinking specifically to the ones you took for The Swell Season is his piercing gaze. He comes across as a very intense bloke and possibly quite difficult to photograph. What has your experience been with him?
I have found The Frames to be a very creative and supportive group. They are as a whole down to earth and when you spend any time at all in their company you come to realise that support for each other and for any collaborators or friends is something that is integral to them as a whole. Every one of them is intense in their own way. Glen gets the focus as the main songwriter and the front man but his intensity is really just a different version of any other member of the group.
There was point in time when I was photographing them when we clicked because I was honest with them and didn’t allow them to lose their concentration so any intensity that you see in the photographs is possibly enhanced through editing and the choice of images. Glen certainly has a precise focus when being photographed and as a musician or a subject in front of a camera he is very present in the moment.
Finally, do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
I have a few short films I am working on and one that may end up as a longer narrative drama. It came from a short film that I am developing as a script. For now I am still working closely with the film because I am one of the producers as well as my new photography work created in the last two years but not exhibited so I’m taking a breather before thinking about any new film work later in the year.