Paul McGrath reveals life on the job as a news cameraman.
Sometimes fate has a way of creeping up on you – and for Paul McGrath fate came knocking when he moved to Sydney to follow his rock ‘n’ roll dreams and took a job at the Education Department’s Correspondence School. This was in the days when the internet was just a babe in arms and classes weren’t downloaded but were videoed and sent out as tapes to teachers and students. “They actually had a three camera studio and they offered to teach me how to use the equipment – and being teachers they were very generous with their knowledge,” recalls Paul.
At the time McGrath saw his job filming these lectures as a way to gain free studio time after hours. So while the correspondence school trained him by day in the use of camera and studio equipment, Paul noodled away by night on his guitar. Today Paul still spends time playing around the traps but his love for music is matched by a love for filming. Over the years he’s shot everything from serious news for the likes of CNN and the BBC to lifestyle shows and dramas… “The dreams of travel with music were quickly eclipsed by travelling the world with the camerawork,” laughs Paul. His hairiest experience to date – shooting 50 metres down at Bikini Atoll monitoring the effects of radiation upon the wrecks of Japanese subs and US warships. Back in the early days of his career things were simpler and filmmaking was more about love and gaining experience: “Originally I started working for some people for free getting more practical experience. Then I went freelance and piece by piece I started buying my equipment. The first thing I bought was a battery charger… I didn’t even have a camera – or a battery… but that’s how I started.”
Initially Paul spent much of his time shooting TV and high end corporate work before graduating to more serious pieces. His first freelance documentary job was filming in Lebanon during the occupation of Beirut. “It was a very beautiful place – but not without risk. I took it ‘cause I was young and it seemed like an adventure,” he chuckles. “That key job opened up so many doors for me as it gave me credibility. People heard I did that and then I got more international news work.”
Having seen filmmaking from both the commercial and documentary side, Paul admits there is an added responsibility when it comes to shooting news and documentary. “There is a lot more responsibility with news as it has to be factual. And places you shoot where it may be corrupt – people will lie to you – so you have to be very careful to capture the facts and not manipulate the story. If you put something out that’s not right – it doesn’t go away. With corporate work or dramas – you’ve got your message, you know what you have to get across – with news you need to shoot it and let the people watching interpret the facts.” Back to his most challenging shoot, at Bikini Atoll: “I’m telling this story now and shaking my head about doing it,” says Paul. “We had to dive 50 metres down into aircraft carriers that were fully decked out – as the experiment was to see the effects of a nuclear explosion on an active fleet. So you’re diving through gun turrets and into the bridge…On more than one of those dives I ran completely out of air and had to buddy dive. “I remember I went into the bridge of the Japanese ship commanded by Admiral Yamomoto (whose famous line Tora Tora Tora! launched the attack on Pearl Harbour) and feeling a sense of history and the enormity of what we were filming here -as we were one of the first crews to explore this wreck because it took 50 years for the radiation levels to be safe enough… The flipside of course is, what a bizarre thing to do to such a beautiful place. The Bikinians were totally displaced and they still can’t live there today.”
According to Paul on a shoot like that, preparation is key. “You really have to think of all the problems that could go wrong and have a Plan B or C – and you really have to deliver as the costs for sending you there can be huge. “Preparation is key for any shoot – if your lens isn’t clean or your battery isn’t charged… Are you doing audio – do you have spare cable? You always have to look at the details. Especially when you walk into a location – it helps if you look at all your options.”
Meanwhile he marvels at the advances of all the new HD technology. “The new cameras are quite exciting – from being able to stick a USB in and being able to give the director a low res copy – or you can wirelessly send vision to a laptop and the producer can say ‘good take bad take’ and send it back wirelessly to the camera. It’s amazing.”