Anna O’Carroll is a Lens-based visual artist who lives in New York. She went to the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire (IADT) and has worked on low-budget indie features, high-budget TV shows, short films and various commercials. “Every job is very different, which is probably why I love this industry so much,” she says. At the moment she is working on a web mini-series.
When did you leave Ireland, and why?
I came to New York on the J1 graduate visa in 2015 about a year after graduating from university in Dublin. Spending time living and working abroad was always something that interested me as my brother, father and mother had all done so at some point in their lives.
I always had a strong connection to New York. Both my father and grandfather spent some time working here in their 20s, so it seemed like something I was supposed to do. I grew up watching a lot of old rom-coms with my mum that were all somehow set in New York, so I always had this romantic and nostalgic connection with it.
I came to New York a few times for summer holidays with my folks when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I was 22 that I got to experience New York properly on my own. I came over for a holiday while I was still in college.
I'll never forget getting off the bus in Manhattan, and being hit with all the sights and sounds of the city. There was this palpable energy that I just fell in love with.
I told myself that I was going to come back here to live, even if only for a short while. Three years later - to the day - I arrived back, with a bigger suitcase and a boatload of stubborn ambition.
Did you study in Ireland? Where?
I studied film and television production at the National Film School in IADT. It was a four year programme and fairly hands on. Film School is always a bit of a hot point of discussion in the film and tv industry. There are so many incredible filmmakers that never set foot inside a classroom and honestly, depending on the role you want, you don't really need to. However, there is something to be said for surrounding yourself with other artsy film nerds while watching some really obscure early cinema on a Tuesday morning. It's a pretty great way to meet, learn from and work with some incredible people.
I learned a lot in my time there, most notably that I really didn’t want to be a director after all. It was here that I really connected with cameras and lighting so I went on to major in cinematography.
What are you doing now?
My first job in New York was at a camera equipment rental company in Chelsea. Most of the other staff were film school grads, so it was a great way to connect with other filmmakers and visual artists. I had been working freelance in Ireland for years before moving over so starting to build a network of contacts from scratch again was daunting, especially when you don't really know many people in a new city. Thankfully, I had a few numbers for friends-of-friends who had already made the jump across the pond.
You are a Lens Based Visual Artist. What is that?
In addition to working as a cinematographer, camera operator and a camera assistant, I also do a lot of still photography. Essentially, it is using any sort of lens-based device to tell a visual story.
My mum is a visual artist, with painting primarily being her medium, so growing up I always had so many cool things to experiment with. I was always drawn to cameras and gadgets, and when I was a kid I picked up this old film camera she had lying around. She always encouraged me to play and learn, so that’s pretty much what I did - and still do! I grew up in the era when digital was starting to take over from film, and there was so much debate and resistance to change in the visual arts community. In some ways there still is. Although digital has surpassed expectations of the nay-sayers and continues to improve year on year, I still really believe there is a place for film - both motion picture and still photography.
I still shoot film and always carry a camera with me. In addition to my trusty Canon A1-E I’ve been using this really old Olympus camera from the 1980s recently, which I love because it’s just this really simple point and shoot thing. Great for snapping quick shots and street photography.
I think film has this beautifully imperfect quality to it, an unpredictable nature, and a sort of nostalgic feel, which is great to play with. I also love that the magic comes from working in the darkroom and seeing what you’ve shot days, weeks, or even months later. The whole process is an art itself and needs to be preserved. I’m so glad that so many artists dug in their heels back then and maintained their darkrooms when business slowed down or dried up. Film was never dead, but it’s great that so many people have come back to it. Even Kodak are reopening some of their motion picture film labs to meet with demand.
How did you get interested in film and television?
Theatre and the arts in general were always sort of a staple in my household. Both my parents were heavily involved in theatre growing up and with my mum being an artist herself, I was fortunate enough to be taken to art galleries and theatre productions all over. The world of art and creating art was just something that came second nature to me so when I told my parents that I wanted to go to film school, I was met with nothing but encouragement.
I loved watching films with my family when I was younger and there were quite a few that I watched over and over until the taped VHS bootleg’d from TV had warped.
All through film school, I continued to collaborate with my classmates, and then through a friend from my class, I landed a gig as a production assistant on a TV show. Things snow-balled pretty quick until I found myself working as a camera assistant on TV3’s Red Rock.
I know it's so cliché to call New York a melting pot, but it is honestly the most diverse city
What did you work on in Ireland?
I got to work on some great shows for RTÉ like The Fear, Lords and Ladles, Holding out for a Hero, and some stuff for TG4 too. I landed a camera trainee gig on John Carney's Sing Street shortly after graduating. From there, I started working as a second assistant camera on Red Rock, for TV3.
What have you worked on in the US?
My very first shoot was on this low-budget, independently financed feature film. The whole crew were living in a motel for the duration of the month long shoot. I think I had been in New York a wet week before being whisked away to the middle of nowhere, not knowing a soul. I've worked on all sorts of projects, from comedy show tapings, to video for a fashion photoshoot, from hidden camera stings for MTV to TV shows for Show Time. I was part of a really cool project for General Electric, where they projected a short loop about a number of incredible women in Science into Grand Central Station.
Are women well represented in the industry?
Things are definitely improving, but there is still a long way to go. There has been an uptick in female directors, but they still only make up 33 per cent of the top grossing films this year. This number drops when it comes to cinematographers, where 16 per cent of them were female. Still too low, but way up from 3 per cent the previous year. Women still generally get "type-cast" into production, hair and make-up, costume and art department roles, but in the past few years I've encountered so many more women in the camera department, as well as G+E (sparks and grips at home) than ever before. It's absolutely brilliant to see.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some incredible male filmmakers, but there is still a sense of excitement that women are now commanding more above-the-line roles than ever before.
I think a female director, writer, cinematographer, and camera operator, sees things from another perspective that a man just can’t because they operate in a society that caters to men. Isn’t that what film and television is all about anyway - telling stories from new and different perspectives? There are a growing number of organisations being set up to give women chances that they may not have got in the past.
How might having women behind the camera make a difference?
I think more women having a platform to share their stories, their experiences, and their perspectives is going to be huge for the industry. I'm excited by the stories that we're going to see across our screens at home and in the cinema in the coming years. I really think that cinema and storytelling in a visual medium is going to be a huge bridge in showing people that other people that don't look like them are dealing with the same struggles as they are. Cinema has the ability to transcend so many kinds of borders and divisions, to bring people together. It can inform and educate the masses about things they might not have learned in school, or heard about on the news.
There is also that saying: “if you don’t see it, you can’t be it”. A portion of the problem is sheer representation, so the more strong female filmmakers we have, the more strong female characters we can write, and the more strong female role models we can put out into the world. The shift is happening, it just takes time, perseverance and strength in numbers. A lot has changed in the film industry with regard to the treatment of women on set, both in front of and behind the camera. There is still a lot more to do, but I think it’s only going to get better for the younger generation of female filmmakers that are coming up the ranks now, breaking glass ceilings left right and centre.
How is he film industry changing?
Changes are happening at an exponential rate. It's a lot easier to put a camera in someone's hand who may have never had an opportunity or a voice before. People are shooting whole feature films on iPhones and while there will always be superhero blockbusters with multi-million dollar budgets, there are also so many more stories emerging from people that really didn't have voices or representations before.
Even how people consume film and tv shows has changed, with more and more people watching films at home or on their morning commute. More and more high-spec TV shows have blasted onto our screen since House of Cards showed up in 2013, and it looks like these streaming-service-meets-production-companies aren’t going to be slowing down with their content any time soon.
Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?
Absolutely. Even in the simplest act of living and working in a completely different environment to the one I grew up in has afforded me huge opportunities for career development and personal growth.
I think there is a lot of hesitation about giving young people chances to prove themselves in work environments in Ireland. As much as we grumble and moan about things, we tend to be big fans of the status quo and fear change. The mentality here is very different. You’ve got an idea for a thing? Great, go do it. You want to do something to push boundaries? Jump at it.
What is it like living in New York?
Expensive! But it's all relative. Intense. Trying. Exhausting. Humbling. Exciting. New York is very different to any other US city I've visited. People from here are really proud to be from here and people that have moved here talk about the years they've spent here like badges of honour. New York is a grind. It's dirtier and grittier than most people expect before arriving. It may sound bizarre, but the sense of community is huge here, especially in a city as densely populated. I know it's so cliché to call New York a melting pot, but it is honestly the most diverse city with people flocking from all over the world to "make it" here. With so many different cultures, colours and creeds in one spot, it's a bit like getting to travel the world with a subway card.
Nothing can prepare you for moving to a different continent on your own, but the Irish contingent here certainly helps. I had no idea that there were quite so many other Irish people in New York. Certainly not as blatant as the Italian students that migrate to Dublin every summer, but you’ll find an accent behind most bars you stumble into here. I haven’t met an Irish man or woman I didn’t immediately bond with. The community here stays true to their roots, looking out for each other and offering a helping hand when needed. I know that they say the Irish built New York, but it seems to me that we keep her tickin’ over too.
Are there any other Irish people in your work circles?
While its very true that you can’t walk down the street in New York without hearing an Irish accent along the way, there is a pretty small Irish community in the arts in New York, which is smaller again when you whittle it down to film and tv crew people. Although there are only a handful of us, it doesn’t mean we’re quiet in any way. There are a few trailblazers here doing great things for the arts community. Every single Irish person I’ve encountered here, either in my industry or outside of it, seem to just be excelling at whatever it is they’re doing, which is absolutely great to see.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I actually really miss the banter … sadly, its unparalleled!
I’ve worked with some incredible people here, many of whom will be very much friends for life, but it’s like a whole level of humour just doesn’t land. I know we all speak English, but sometimes it feels like we’re speaking a different language entirely.
It’s been hard living and working abroad at a time when so many of my friends are getting married and having kids of their own, so it would be nice to be around more for events like that or even be a shorter flight away, but they all understand.