Irish-born Robbie Ryan, who was a budding cinematographer from the age of 14 and graduated from Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology has had a colourful and multi-faceted career that spans commercials, music videos, experimental video, drama and various genres of feature films. He has built up a hugely impressive list of visually exciting credits including Brick Lane, The Scouting Book For Boys, Isolation, The Summit, and the acclaimed C4 television drama, I Am Slave, which was nominated for a BAFTA in 2011. It was, however, his much-acclaimed partnership with the Scottish arthouse film director Andrea Arnold that helped Ryan sharpen up his creative focus and find a place in the cinematographers’ hall of fame.
Ryan first got together with Arnold on her 2003 award-winning short Wasp and has since been a firm right hand on her three features, Red Road, Fish Tank and, most recently, Wuthering Heights. Since returning from the wilds of Yorkshire where Wuthering Heights was shot, Ryan became the latest addition to the Ken Loach ‘family’, following in the footsteps of great cameramen like Chris Menges and Barry Ackroyd, to shoot the veteran filmmaker’s feature The Angel’s Share in 2012.
Loach’s more observational style, often with a long lens – “witnessing life without being intrusive, the camera is not there, really,” as Ryan describes – could hardly be more different from Arnold’s. “Hers is all about being on top of the person, walking about with them. The camera is definitely a character in her film.” Arnold’s films – Red Road in particular – have very little dialogue in them so they rely on Ryan’s breathtaking visuals, such as the observations of nature or urban landscape with a focus on symbolism. Another strong feature of Arnold’s films is “no jumping ahead of the action”; in other words, the camera allows the audience to understand what they are watching instead of the all too common overexposure of what is happening in the story.
2013 has seen Ryan return to native Ireland to stand behind the camera of his most mainstream feature to date, Stephen Frears’ Philomena starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.
Robbie Ryan moved to England when he couldn’t get the kind of work he wanted in his native Ireland and made a point of trying to shoot as many drama shorts as he could take on because he was far more interested in the cinema than the commercials’ side of things. Just as he moved quickly between various forms of camera as a teenager, so he’d offer any aspiring cinematographer the same advice.
“Nowadays you can just grab a DSLR or even your iPhone and make imagery. It’s a question of getting your eye to a camera. That’s where you learn about composition, by shooting the world around you. It doesn’t have to be lit in any special way; there’s always natural light. If you can create an interest in the everyday world around you, then you’re probably going in the right direction.”