Dr Karen Doyle

A Tiny Spark is an award-winning documentary which follows both the story of three people who have had a stroke and the scientists leading research in this area at NUI Galway.

Director Niamh Heery tells us the story behind the film.


The idea for A Tiny Spark came about when we were talking about submitting to Science on Screen, the Galway Film Centre/ CÚRAM scheme that eventually funded it. Our producer Caroline Kealy had attended an information session and had been really interested in the work that Dr Karen Doyle was doing in the area of stroke. Her and her team are collecting the actual blood clots that caused strokes from thousands of patients all over the world and analysing what is inside them. It is quite a tangible, visual thing they are doing, which when it comes to making a film about science is a definite plus. When we visited the lab in NUI Galway we were struck by the arrangements of the clots that were laid out on slides. To me each one almost had character. Some red, some pink, some skinny, some frighteningly large. And when they were magnified by 2000x these tiny little things began to look almost like vast deserts and valleys. 

I started researching stroke survivors’ experiences and found a number of incredibly scary and dramatic descriptions of what happened to people when they had a stroke. It’s such an indescribable thing that the people who had experienced it spoke about it in almost visually abstract ways. Initially,  I wanted my partner, Animator and 3D Artist Eric Dolan to work on explanatory visuals for the film, illustrating how strokes affect various parts of the brain. But after hearing the patients describe a stroke like that we decided to expand the animation and use it to show this surreal thing as the patients described it. So for instance when one participant spoke about ‘being lost in time’, Eric animated that dark, helpless feeling. We see calendar pages flying about just out of reach, a hospital bed where the sun and moon rise and fall repeatedly on a frightened patient. I was keen to incorporate the clot imagery into the animation, so we textured the animation backgrounds with magnified blood clots. The clots are literally a part of the visual story the whole way through. The animations took about seven weeks and a mix of 2D and 3D animation techniques were used. 

I also spoke to our DOP, Kevin Minogue, early on about how to approach the key moment when a stroke happened. In each contributor’s story, these moments are etched forever into their minds in sharp detail so I wanted to try and recreate this. We shot on RED, which allowed us to shoot a good range of slow motion with a decent sized frame. Kevin told me about ‘lens whacking’, the practice of just holding the lens barely in place as you move the camera, letting light crack and flood into the body in intervals. It replicated pain, headaches and disorientation in a really nice way, so after some tests we used this approach when filming the three ‘stroke moment’ reconstructions.

The interviews are the backbone of the documentary. When interviewing the scientists, I took a very sequential approach, making sure that they told me in plain language exactly what the project was, step by step. Once we had that we could talk about how exciting the project was in terms of the results and how they could inform real, life-changing medicine.

Each stroke survivor interview was very different and had to be taken at its own pace. It is such a life-altering, painful thing to happen to a person and their family. I was keen to get to that real emotional place but also to explore how it had made them stronger and changed their perspective on big-life questions. 

When coming to name the film, I remembered how one of our participant’s doctors had described her strokes as ‘sparking off inside the brain.’ This tiny bunch of cells, a blood clot, is ready at any moment to fire and create massive change inside a person. When thinking about the journey our participants are on, it also made sense. They have such strength and perseverance in understanding that recovery is about tiny victories every day towards a better life. And going back to the research – it’s the spark and ingenuity of this small lab in Galway that could one day lead major change for millions of patients around the globe. As Dante said, ‘From a tiny spark, a mighty flame can grow.’


A Tiny Spark screened on RTÉ One on World Stroke Day, Tuesday 29 October 2019 and is on the RTÉ Player for the next month



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