The internationally acclaimed Irish lighting cameraman Seamus Deasy talks to Michael McDonagh about his life behind the film camera
It was good to take a trip into Soho to speak to the acclaimed award winning Irish lighting cameraman Seamus Deasy. He had been in India for three months filming a period feature film and was now over here in Soho at Technicolor to grade the film footage.
You may not have heard of Seamus but for sure you will almost certainly have seen the results of his skill with lighting and film cameras, either in the cinema or on your TV screens.
Hollywood movie director John Boorman, who lived for many years in Ireland, says Seamus is always his first choice as cameraman and they worked together on Brendan Gleeson-Jon Voight Irish gangster movie about Martin Cahill, The General.
I also worked with Seamus, on and off, for over thirty years on many music promos you may have seen on TV, or on DVD or VHS, for Foster and Allen, all the early Daniel O’Donnell videos, Rose Marie, Michael English, Joe Longthorne and Judy Collins in America.
For UK television Seamus filmed the BBC series Monarch of the Glen and also some of the popular ITV crime drama series Vera. And yet one of his most memorable tasks was filming Pope John Paul ll’s arrival in Ireland in 1979.
“I remember once being interviewed by The Kerryman about my career and the career of Brendan, my brother, who is a sound recordist.
“My grandmother, who is from Kerry, was furious that we had never told The Kerryman first that we had brought the Pope to Ireland. We were on the Jumbo coming from Rome that was bringing the Pope, John Paul II, to Dublin for his big visit and they chose one camera crew to go on the plane for RTE and then our shots would be syndicated from there to all the other media.
“There was an upstairs.We were getting ready at the foot of the stairs when suddenly the Pope appeared at the top of the stairs, so I started filming his feet.
“When he came down, we were the only crew and he did not actually speak to us, but he looked over and acknowledged us and I think he was amused.”
With such a variety of jobs which did he like doing most?
“I’ve always loved being with the small tight crews on documentaries. When we do feature films or big TV dramas we have crews of 120 or 150 people and there are trucks and, with lights everywhere. When I am there I miss doing documentaries – but I love doing both.”
When you started working it was all done on film that had to be processed through the labs and now it has all gone digital. Didn’t you buy a new Arriflex film camera, which cost several thousand pounds, just as everything switched to digital? How did you feel about that?
“I had film cameras for a long, long time and still have them… but the last time I used my film camera was eight years ago.
“Now it is almost all on digital as the quality has improved beyond belief.
“If you remember, you and I did Song For Ireland which was the very first long form video about Irish Music with Brian Murray, The Fureys, Foster & Allen and Phil Coulter.
“It was done at the time of the first sort of crossover from film to digital. We were working out of Windmill Lane in Dublin and they had brought to Ireland the very first Telecine transfer machine in the country, so we could take the film negative from the camera and transfer it to digital then edit it digitally to get a final graded cut.
“Windmill was quite advanced at that time. Until then you shot on film, the film was processed then you cut it on film on a Steenbeck edit table, then they made a final print and that was what was projected or screened.
“It was a slow process and as there were no labs in Ireland it all had to be sent by courier to England to be processed there, but all that changed.
You are also acclaimed Hollywood director John Boorman’s first choice of cameraman:
“Like I said I have had a charmed life as I have been all over the world filming documentaries and seen a lot and met great people but quite late in life I got involved with drama, both TV and feature films and I did my first feature film with John Boorman in the early nineties, called I Dreamt I Woke Up.
Then we did another one, Two Nudes Bathing, then in 1997 we did The General, and for that I got the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Award nomination and was runner up in the National Film Critics Award… but It was runner up to Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Green Line.
At one time the it was a real Irish family affair as the Deasys crew included Seamus’s brother Brendan on sound, his son Shane pulling focus and his daughter Orla as clapper loader. Do you still work with Brendan?
“I do, but we have recently got out of sync with our diaries as Brendan is now working on a major TV series and Shane is on Vikings and has been for the last six seasons.”
You have seen so many changes to the technology of making movies, and people are now shooting films on iPhones. What do you make of that?
“The quality of iPhones is just incredible and is probably better than quality we were shooting on with professional cameras back then thirty years ago, but there is still something nice about film.
“The last film I did was called Triage, with Colin Farrell, which I shot on 35mm film and I still have not ruled out the possibility of doing one more film on film.
“My most recent film Swords and Sceptres was shot in India and I’m working here on the postproduction at the moment, was shot on digital. Digital cameras now almost have the same latitude as the film cameras we were used to years ago.
It used to be that when filming pop promos that if you were filming a candlelit dinner or a log fire you would get that terrible flare or halo effect, is that still true?
“Well you could not point the early digital cameras at a candle as it burned the chip but now you can point a digital camera at the sun.
“But if you go back to the negatives of all the stuff that we did together and scanned it now at 4K it would still be better than anything shot on HD digital.”
Seamus Deasy is such an acclaimed and skilled cameraman, and a remarkably self-effacing, calm person to work with. He has been in demand for many, many years. Does he have any plans to retire?
“I’m not going to retire at least I’m not going to retire as long as people keep asking me to work.