Camera DepartmentInterviews with Industry

Ollie Downey Cinematographer of Philip K Dick adaptation ‘Electric Dreams’ and more

Ollie Downey is a director of photography based in London. He is known for his work on the highly successful TV series Electric Dreams alongside Fresh Meat, Harlots , Vera and more. Ollie has also worked on feature films and a wide range of commercials for brands such as Honda , Tesco and Barclays.

How did you get involved?

I’d always been interested in photography and grew up watching Hitchcock films with my grandfather – it was the combination of those two elements really. Then I fell into camera assisting after university.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I’ve got two. The people that make up the industry, that spirit behind the scenes. Crew are a special, hardy breed. The other is those rare moments when everything aligns, all of the months of hard work put in by all of the departments come together in one shot, and it becomes greater than the some of its parts. The catalyst is usually something unexpected. It can be something as simple as the tilt of an actresses head, fog rolling into town or sun breaking through the clouds at exactly the right moment. Those happy accidents.

What has been your biggest hurdle?

Probably getting a first drama credit. Producers want to know that you can deliver and if you haven’t got that credit you really need someone to go out on a limb for you.

What does your day to day routine look like?

When filming (which is most of time) it’s up early (by 6am) and off to work. Breakfast with the crew, catch up with the Director and AD then go go go until you arrive home 12 (at best) hours later. It’s pretty relentless but brilliantly challenging. Prep and Grades are the most civilised periods but it’s often tough to make a grade (you’re usually onto the next project by then).

What are your most enjoyable projects?

Looking back, Low Budget Music Promos at the beginning were great – you weren’t afraid to make mistakes so you could experiment freely and you’re working with your pals. More recently Harlots was a lot of fun, great cast, incredible costumes designed by Edward K Gibbon, wonderful make up and wigs by Jacquetta Levon, candlelight and just so much texture. I think projects become more and more enjoyable with experience, you feel more confident to try things, you’re working with your team and often with directors that have become close friends.

Any regrets?

No regrets. You’re sometimes disappointed to not win a job but I think often something better or at least better suited to you comes along.

What is your favourite Medium?

I think Drama, the industry over here is in brilliant health at present, there are so many interesting projects being made and there is so much more visual ambition than there used to be.

What is your favourite film?

Too many, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

What makes a film stand out?
Story really, I’m not sure cinematography should stand out. I really admire Harry Saviedes work, his belief that you shouldn’t be aware of the lighting. On the whole I’m not a big fan of shafts of light through windows and punchy moonlight and all that showy stuff that can distract from the story.

Film or digital?

I appreciate both. I grew up assisting on film and I think that it instills a brilliant discipline which is being lost. But I love shooting digitally, knowing exactly what you’re getting, and I don’t miss nervous calls to the Lab at 6am because you are worried about a shot from the previous days rushes.

Interview continues below

What would your career advice to the younger generation be?

At the beginning get on set anyway you can. I assisted for years – half the battle later is being calm and confident on set. Put the hours in, get there early, and most importantly – be nice. And shoot as much as possible – it’s the only way to learn. There are no excuses any more – you can shoot a short on your phone. And whatever you are shooting prep prep prep, really think about every creative decision you make. Think about why you are doing things a certain way or with a certain tool. And take stills in your free time – preferably on film.

What are your top tips?

You need to get to the photographic truth of whatever you are shooting. Read the script over and over til you alight on what makes it special. Then work out how you can embody that visually. Don’t get bogged down in equipment – you don’t need anamorphic lenses or a crane. It won’t make the cinematography better. Oh and when things go wrong (as they often do), hold your nerve. You don’t win the next job when things are going well. It’s when things go wrong. If the location is flooded, or the genie boom didn’t turn up, embrace it. Don’t moan, tell the producers not to worry, smile and come up with a solution. Embrace the challenge.


(Images: Still from Electric Dreams and Electric Dreams poster courtesy of Channel 4 )