Then and Now – A Perspective on Film-Making in Ireland

A Kalem Production shoot in Ireland, early 1900s

On Saturday 13 August 1910, three passengers disembarked from the White Star Line’s steamer Baltic at what was then called Queenstown, now Cobh in County Cork, with a device that had been revolutionising how people viewed the world: the cinematograph or cine-camera. The arrival of the three-person film crew from Kalem, the New York-based film production company, was the beginning of a trend to use Ireland as a film-making location and use Irish stories that would interest the burgeoning middle class Irish in America.

Between 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the film-makers returned each summer to shoot films in the south-west of the country, particularly the area around Cork and Killarney, in County Kerry, making these scenic locations the authentic cinematographic image of Ireland  shown to mass audiences around the world.

A hundred years on and the introduction of tax breaks attracted major production companies and stars to our shores and, according to some publicity material, the number of those employed in the industry rose  from 1,000 six or seven years ago, to well over 6,000 people and the sector is valued at over €557.3 million, representing 0.3% of GDP.

We are told that Ireland is also achieving critical mass of film-making talent to match the kind of influence – disproportionate to its small size – that it has always enjoyed in the fields of literature and theatre. As of 2010, Ireland can boast more than a dozen directors and writers with significant and growing international reputations. A decade ago Ireland had only two indigenous filmmakers that anyone had heard of: Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan.

But the prominent figures in Irish literature and theatre were few. Similarly in the world of film. Film-making is an itinerant business, with long fallow periods. Those best known internationally include The Quiet Man (1952) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that business picked up. With few exceptions, many of the films produced in this small country are made on a shoestring, while on the fringes of the business, another story has emerged: the proliferation of film schools and film school graduates that has grown up in Ireland on the back of an industry that has so few career opportunities, and is still in its infancy.

While there are efforts to attract more foreign investment, to expand studio facilities and create even better tax breaks to grow the Irish Film industry, it will take time. Meanwhile, the promises, advertised by film schools, of ‘a myriad of courses in Directing, Production Design, Editing, Animation, Model-building, Make-up and Special effects’ that offer prospective students ‘a dizzying array of options’ has filled lecture halls to capacity but seems at odds with the reality. We are churning out hundreds of film graduates, only a small percentage of whom will ever pursue a career in film-making.

Having facilitated dozens of internships, I have seen a trend develop – like that in Los Angeles – where virtually every other waiter, taxi driver and cleaner is a film school graduate, ‘has a script’ or ‘a great story’. They stalk film stars or harangue producers’ offices hoping for a break.  Over twenty-plus years, I have seen less than a handful of the interns make it. Two are now producing and directing on the other side of the Atlantic and a few have found work in television production. One, now a screenwriter, producer and director, learned his craft the old-fashioned way – working at everything and anything in various departments and on-set, while reading books and whatever else he could get his hands on about film-making. A sizeable number are working in various low-paid jobs, or have left to take up any sort of work abroad, trying to pay back loans, wondering where their future lies. Some have returned to college to study something more sustainable, their dream of making films abandoned.

In 1979, I discovered how films were made through sorting out the office of a film director, for whom I had just become ‘the new PA’. Over the next eleven years I was the ‘first contact’ between the outside – the public and the stars – and my boss. I read mounds of scripts, mostly unsolicited, that tumbled from the postman’s van each day. I transcribed the scripts written by my employer and absorbed the minutiae of the film-making process within the atmosphere of an exclusive production office. This new environment rekindled my interest in writing and led me to a creative writing course at a city university.

A year later, behind another desk, located at a film studio, I began to learn the nuts and bolts of film-making from a different perspective – ‘below the line’. I eventually graced my first film set, as a trainee technical assistant, in 1992 and, complete with baseball cap and walkie-talkie, I joined the circus that was then the norm: large departments with hundreds of crew, high profile actors, convoys of trucks, electrical generators and several cameras, horse-boxes and catering vans, travelling from location to location. Like most of the people with whom I worked, I learned the old-fashioned way – from the ground up.

On set, early 1990s

A lull in features had descended after the making of John Boorman’s Excalibur in 1980, Jim Sheridan’s Into the West and In the Name of the Father in 1992. The baseball cap and walkie-talkie were swapped for the glad rags for the Dublin premieres and in 1994 when Mel Gibson’s production company took Braveheart to Ireland, the golden years took off.


With other crew members on the set of Braveheart.

Filming of Braveheart sustained the industry for the best part of a year and was quickly followed by Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Popular television series such as The Tudors and Vikings, has ensured a modicum of rolling activity, but the huge departments, employing large crews and the massive convoys have thinned out. Cameras are smaller and more compact, lighting equipment has also reduced in size and much of the effects can be achieved with the aid of sophisticated editing software.

Jim S
With Director, Jim Sheridan, early 1990s – baseball cap and walkie-talkie swapped for the glad rags.

During slow times, I found work outside the industry.  A three-year window allowed me to return to study in a completely unrelated discipline and by the end of the decade, my association with the film business had waned. In 1999, I was back in the real world, working nine-to-five and gathering further education credits at weekends. Since then, my involvement has been sporadic, working mostly from home, writing scripts for three documentaries, popping to the office occasionally to assist with editing.

Mike and Imelda edited for FB
In editing with film graduate, Mike, one of my favourite workmates.

Now and then, I receive emails from former interns requesting references as they make their way up the film-making ladder or transfer to other employment fields.

In the summer of this year, the latest graduates from the National Film School (NFS) at IADT showcased their final year productions to the public and to industry professionals. The films included genres from drama, documentary, horror and one children’s television show concept, which are all currently doing the rounds of festivals including Cannes and the Berlin Film Festivals.

Last year, production activity for independent film, television drama and the animation sector increased to €195 million – the highest production activity levels on record for the third year running. Earlier this year, the Irish Film Board said it was committed to growing the talent base for the Irish film industry, stating that it is important for the sustainability of a strong film industry. However, there needs to be more collaboration between the Irish Film Board and the colleges to ensure that the Irish talent developed here stays here.

In the past, students embarked on film-making courses to gain access to equipment. With that no longer being the case, the benefits of going to film school need to be more fully explored. If students are drawn towards arts and media, an education in film will help them decide where their strengths lie. It will also give them opportunities to attend industry events and panels at a selection of Irish film festivals and visit European film markets at the the high end of the festival circuit, where they can meet industry professionals from around the world and to see the film marketplace in action. But gaining insight into how a crew fits together and the importance of each crew member’s role is of less significance in today’s world. Primary school children are making movies, acquiring this knowledge from an early age.

Many years ago, the head of a department, with years in the business behind him, remarked that ‘kids would be going out with a camera to shoot a film, sticking it up on their computer and inviting their friends round to watch it at the weekend’. It is happening. Modern technology has become so compact and so cheap that anybody can pick up a camera – even a phone – and shoot some footage, anyone can use a simple editing programme on their laptop and anybody can upload a video to YouTube. Film school students are in competition with amateur film-makers from all walks of life who are marketing their efforts everywhere, busily filling the internet with computer-generated and no-budget live-action shorts, hoping to be noticed.

Over a hundred years ago, three people with one camera disembarked from a steamship at Cobh and made films in Ireland that screened to mass audiences around the world. Have we come full circle?


5 thoughts on “Then and Now – A Perspective on Film-Making in Ireland

  1. Perhaps we’ve come full circle, Imelda, I’m not sure we’ve learned anything! Speaking as someone close to a large number of people working in film today, it seems the education may be what has to change, rather than the treatment of graduates. A great many people working on the more practical side of film such as in the art department, sound and lighting, would say that the only proper way to learn is through doing, as your friend did – by working in it, and there certainly seems to be plenty of work around right now, especially when massive scale productions such as Penny Dreadful are in town. There are ample opportunities for people to cut their teeth on commercials too rather than leaping straight into features. Aspiring Scorceses might not be too keen, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally agree, Tara. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    These thoughts/questions were inspired by a number of things, specifically seeing primary school children making their own little movies and the ease and sense of fun with which they did. Watching so much material uploaded onto YouTube begged the question, why bother going to college? A handful of people – or just one person – can do so much these days.

    Unfortunately, there aren’t enough features or TV productions like Penny Dreadful to absorb the number of graduates pouring out of the colleges each year, so indeed, many of them will have to cut their teeth on commercials – if they’re lucky!

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Ardmore and watched dozens of productions come and go: the buzz, the car parks full to brimming, the sets go up and come down, followed by months – even years – of quiet, the place all but abandoned. In the quiet times, production managers and crews with experience: camera people, lighting technicians, sound operators – and maybe a handful of props, construction people and F/X technicians – might be fortunate enough to be hired on something shooting overseas; the rest found work on building sites, tinkered with cars or painted houses to make a living, or drew the dole – until the next film/TV production/commercial. That was the norm. I was so surprised when film schools sprung up and I wondered why. Where would they go to find work? With few exceptions, many of them have had to find work in McDonalds, in supermarket chains or in hardware stores and my heart went out to them.

    On the other hand, I have met a slightly older generation, working successfully in the business, with no formal film education, who have perhaps started life in the bowels of television or elsewhere. These people are now out there with vans or a jeeps loaded with state-of-the-art ‘gear’, shooting everything from football games to fashion events, both at home and overseas. These guys don’t appear on any of the industry crew or company ‘listings’, but they are always busy.

    And then there are those who have by-passed college by following their fathers into the business.

    I’m not sure how it will all pan out. Maybe there’s a heap of stats waiting out there – for you!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Imelda what about this new ‘Hollywood’ style movie studios coming to Dublin this year that’s been covered in the media recently, do you think it might make a difference or will it be jobs for Hollywood/ US crews?


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