It is 12 years since filmmaker Gerard Stratton came aboard Belfast-based Triplevision Productions, one of Northern Ireland’s leading independent purveyors of television content. His has been a varied, fascinating career so far, one that has taken him to destinations near and far, allowing him to train his eye on a host of compelling subjects.
Indeed, as his current collaboration with local dance development company DU Dance proves, there is much satisfaction to be found in even the most challenging of circumstances.
Stratton remembers starting out in the early '90s. He admits that while studying for his media degree at Ulster University in Coleraine, he was ‘much more interested in the technical elements of filmmaking than the theory of it.’
A dearth of equipment for hands-on experimentation meant that he gained his first serious training through the City & Guilds’s Springvale Learning programme. A de facto apprenticeship with Northern Visions TV followed thereafter, before employment as a soundman, and later a camera operator, for Brendan Byrne’s Hotshot Films came his way.
It was here, in 2003, that Stratton directed Frontline, a 12-part series for the BBC that chronicled the lives of those in Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. ‘It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever made, to be honest.’
A year later, he helped shoot Rising Tide, a profile of deep-sea trawlers that granted him ‘immense’ experiences — witnessing the Northern Lights being one highlight — ‘that you couldn’t pay for’. Following this up with the like of Derry City Beat and Lobby Lives (both for the BBC) earned him something of a reputation in the local sector. ‘I sort of became known as the ops-doc guy rather than the artistic-shot guy.’
Stratton and Triplevision partner Eamonn Devlin are presently engaged in a two-year cycle of producing documentaries on behalf Stephen Nolan’s Third Street Studios. At the moment, they are pulling together a film about the so-called Maguire Seven, the Irish family wrongly convicted for offences in connection with the Guildford bombings of 1974. This, he suggests, is ‘a harrowing, sobering and frightening film about how a family could just be taken and scapegoated.’
In truth, however, the intense detail required to complete such a project has led him to view the aforementioned work alongside DU Dance as his ‘relaxing time.'
Their association goes back to 2012. Stratton helmed a series of shorts focusing on DU Dance’s efforts to connect people through dance. Back to the Wall, which was made at the end of 2013 and featured participants from east and south Belfast, saw acclaimed choreographer Royston Maldoom exploring the ways in which walls and barriers impact communities and individuals, both young and old.
Stratton contrasts these with the material he produces elsewhere: ‘What keeps me sane is doing the kind of work I’m doing with DU Dance. With those types of projects you’re not tied into things like appeasing the broadcaster and the budget. There is a micro version of that but it’s not as stringent. You can be given free will and see where it takes you.’
This sense of freedom, Stratton believes, allows him to be ‘more artistic. There’s not a conglomerate of people coming into an edit and saying they don’t want this or don’t want that. It’s yours and you put it on the screen.’
According to DU Dance’s artistic director, Mags Byrne, the enduring relationship has been a positive one:
‘We have been lucky enough to work with Triplevision on a number of dance and film projects, most recently Who Do You See which is part of our ongoing work we are doing together involving young carers,’ she says.
‘Not only are they highly professional and the quality of their work superb, they are fantastic to work with. They are respectful, have a social conscience and are really lovely people. That matters a lot when your cast involves vulnerable people.’
The piece referenced above, Who Do You See, is the first of six films accompanying the Building Bridges scheme undertaken by DU Dance and Barnardo’s, with funding from Children in Need. The scheme seeks to build connections between marginalised groups — young carers in this case — and foster their integration into wider society.
Premiere of DU Dance and Triplevision's film about young carers
It constitutes a significant evolution in the Triplevision story, with Stratton describing the ‘palpable electricity in the air’ during one recent screening and the admission by one parent that her child’s life had been transformed by engaging with the programme.
He believes that youngsters looking to follow a path similar to his own face fewer logistical obstacles than before.
‘When I was starting out, you did not have access to any cameras. You certainly did not have access to an edit suite. You didn’t have access to anything — it was just too expensive,’ he recalls. ‘Even now, the high-end equipment is a fraction of what it would have cost back in those days. We used to have to beg, borrow and barter to make a film.'
‘You can’t not make a film now if you want to be a filmmaker,’ Stratton adds, pointing out that those with any designs on what is often a precarious career certainly have no excuse from a practical standpoint. ‘It’s all there for you. You’ve got an audience and the technical aspect. You just need to bring the story to it.’
On the other hand, he offers one basic but important tip for the next generation: stand out. Having secured his first NVTV gig with no little ‘brashness’, Stratton believes that even something as straightforward as a phone call represents a real and competitive advantage.
‘E-mails get lost,’ he says. ‘I think young people have lost the ability to phone.’
At Triplevision, there exists little tolerance for such timidity.
‘We’re on a real drive to tell people, when they come in here, “We want to see you on the phone.” We can teach you how to use a camera but if people come with those little primary skills, we’re happy.’
Do that, he concludes, ‘and you’ve already stood out.’
This article was originally commissioned as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed this year around creative industries careers and skills. For more articles you may have missed click here.
By Matthew Coyle