The renowned colourist whose 25-year career spans celluloid to digital discusses the art of manipulating and enhancing images for TV.
Published 09 May 2012.
Words by Quentin Falk
Nothing used to annoy Aidan Farrell as much, nor perhaps motivate him more, than being confronted with a pre-determined visual ‘look’.
“I used to hate that expression – the Documentary ‘look, or the Period Drama ’look’,” explains the pioneering colourist. “That was especially true in the case of period drama where everything had to be sepia or brown. It really annoyed me and I wanted to kick in the television. It’s something I’ve always wanted to change.”
Schooled in the experimental world of music promos and commercials, first in his native Ireland then London, where he later helped found post-house The Farm, Dublin-born Farrell has endlessly tried to push visual boundaries in film and, most notably, television.
From documentaries like The Human Body, The Planets, This is Modern Art and 100 Per Cent White to top dramas such as The Devil’s Whore, Wallander, Boy A, The Shadow Line and Downton Abbey, variety has been very deliberately the slice of his working life.
He explains his craft – “a true art form” – in this way: “From a young age, I never cared much about whether things were ‘technically’ right. It’s always been about looking good and feeling right. For me there’s really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with this.
“If the actor, actress or subject appears flawless in the frame within the most appropriate and interesting surroundings that I can achieve, creating the most atmospheric mood and texture for the narrative and script – only then have I done my job correctly.”
It all began much more humbly back in Ireland with a father who gave him a camera when he was seven, then a future brother-in-law who, as a young trainee in the camera department at RTE, let the even younger Farrell use some of the company’s sophisticated kit and discarded film stock. Most significantly, the great animator Don Bluth offered Farrell a job at his new studio in Dublin where the Disney veteran was embarking on a series of his own major cartoon features.
“While I was passionate about photography, and film generally, I was never a great artist, certainly never good enough – not that I really wanted it anyway – to be an animator. However, Don asked me to join the camera department and I ended up loving it. With all that attention to detail, my four years working in the animation industry was probably the best education and training I could ever have got anywhere.”
Farrell also credits Bluth with instilling in him an enviable work ethic. “He’d be in at 6am every morning and go home at God knows what time every night. If you’re happy and creative then the clock isn’t an issue. He instilled that in us.”
Often using a bespoke mixture of different glass, filters, Vaseline, tin foil and even the odd sweet wrapper as part of his secret armoury, Farrell been brilliantly and inventively manipulating and enhancing imagery in a 25-year career spanning celluloid and now, predominantly, digital.
“Because it’s pretty much all digital technology these days, everyone’s working from, effectively, the same tool set. I would urge newcomers now who haven’t grown up in my sort of art and film background, just to try and be less technical about it.
“Don’t be afraid to get your backside whipped, and don’t feel let down if someone rejects what you’re trying to do, because if you don’t try it’ll never be seen. Even if your stuff is rejected nine times out of ten, there’s always that one time it might be accepted.
“I was inspired by photographers like Nan Goldin, Bill Brandt, Martin Parr, Mario Testino and David LaChapelle, then working with great directors and cinematographers from documentaries right through to drama – often the same filmmakers. We’d not just talk about the film itself, but scenes within it, and even about different film stocks. It was a real collaboration.
“Now, it’s usually just about: ‘Shall we shoot on the Red camera or the Alexa camera?’.” In some ways that’s rather sad, but I don’t beat myself up about it. Instead I’m thinking, ‘What can I recreate here?’ They are actually amazing cameras, and my thought is to make them look as different as possible on every job I do. Unless you tackle and try, you will just get repetition – which I hate.”
In addition to his award-winning work, Farrell also cites productions like Blackpool, Hustle, Teachers, Mo, Jekyll and Messiah as well as the Pawlikowski movie, Last Resort, not to mention various Omnibus and Bookmark arts features, as among the most enjoyable he’s tackled down the years.
Asked to name specific sequences that have proved especially tough or of which he’s proudest, he’d bracket Wallander, The Devil’s Whore and, unsurprisingly, Downton Abbey, as a trio that have proved pleasantly challenging.
“Wallander was the first series shot on the Red camera. It was at the tail end of the BBC saying no more to 16mm, but being worried about going digital although still telling us to do so. I really loved the look we got; unique for its time. Likewise, The Devil’s Whore. It was like a painting. We basically made the whole image black and white then brought the colours back in. Same again with Downton Abbey; the fact it wasn’t traditionally graded made it very different at the time.”
Farrell, who says he’d like to think that he’s helped open “a gateway for a lot of colourists,” is clear-headed about his job and the high expectations of today’s ever more visually literate, mass channel, internet-friendly audience.
“The hardest thing for me over the years has been to constantly change my style; to always strive for a unique look if possible on whatever show I was doing. I’ve been like a dog with a bone. If I believe in it, I will fight for it.”