Niamh Heery, Director of ‘A Tiny Spark’

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



‘A Tiny Spark’ World Premiere in Galway



CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research in Medical Devices based at NUI Galway and Galway Film Centre’s 2018 ‘Science on Screen’ documentary, A Tiny Spark will have its world premiere at Pálás Cinema in Galway on Saturday, 1 December at 1pm.

Directed by Niamh Heery and produced by Caroline Kealy of Swansong Films, A Tiny Spark examines the effect of cerebrovascular illness and stroke on people’s lives and specifically looks at research into the blood clots that cause stroke. With a mixture of dramatic first person accounts and beautiful animation sequences highlighting the functions of the various parts of the brain, A Tiny Spark is a film about science’s ability to affect real change for human life.

A Tiny Spark focuses on stroke and cerebrovascular research being led by Neuroscientist, Dr Karen Doyle from CÚRAM and Galway Neuroscience Centre in NUI Galway, which involves analysis of removed blood clots to see what information they may yield. This is the first study of its kind in the world and is an international collaborative study between NUI Galway, hospital partners in Beaumont Hospital and throughout Europe, and the Mayo Clinic in the US. The research is carried out in partnership with Cerenovus.

This documentary highlights the groundbreaking research being carried out by Dr Doyle and her research team at NUI Galway. For the first time ever they are analysing thousands of stroke-causing blood clots collected from patients around the world. These little bundles of cells could carry a wealth of information, which could point to big improvements to people’s lives by improving stroke prevention and treatment. In the film we meet three incredibly brave stroke survivors who show us that it is sometimes the little things that people miss in life after a stroke, or the small victories during recovery that mean so much.

Contributors to the documentary feature individuals who have had a stroke: Rebecca Slattery from Limerick who had a stroke shortly after she turned 30 and became a new Mum; Trevor Neville from Limerick, a father of two who had a stroke aged 31; and Helen Liddy from Clare who suffered a stroke aged 63 in 2016. Dr John Thornton, Consultant Neuroradiologist, Beaumont Hospital, and Helena Heffernan, Stroke Group Coordinator, Irish Heart Foundation also feature in the documentary.

Professor Abhay Pandit, Scientific Director of CÚRAM at NUI Galway, said: “This year’s film will focus on stroke and clot research which is yet another area of research which will have a significant impact on audiences all over the country. These stories, narrated through our Science on Screen documentaries, show the real challenges that people face when living with chronic illness but also how we are trying to address them here at CÚRAM, to improve quality of life for all.”

Galway Film Centre Manager, Alan Duggan, said: “The Science on Screen commission scheme shows the real human side of the application of science. We are delighted to continue working with CÚRAM on this scheme and we will be supporting Niamh, Caroline and the filmmaking team in bringing ‘A Tiny Spark’ to the screen this year.”

The 2018 ReelLife Science primary school winning videos will be screened before the world premiere of A Tiny Spark, followed by a Q&A with Dr Karen Doyle and her research team, and with documentary producer, Caroline Kealy and director, Niamh Heery.

To book free tickets for the world premiere on Saturday, 1 December at Pálás Cinema, Spanish Arch, Galway, visit:


The Science on Screen scheme has been running since 2016 and has awarded €35,000 each to three previous documentaries on topics such as Parkinson’s disease (Feats of Modest Valour), tendon injury (Mending Legends) and diabetes (Bittersweet: The Rise of Diabetes). The films have reached audiences of over half a million people and have received success at festivals internationally. Full details on all previous Science on Screen films can be found here: and