March 9, 2015

5 Female Directors of Photography Talk About the Role of the Cinematographer

While cinematography tends to be a boys club, there are plenty of talented female Directors of Photography. We've got snippets of knowledge from five of the best female cinematographers working today, including Ellen Kuras (He Got Game, Blow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Reed Morano (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins), Mandy Walker (AustraliaTracks), Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, Taxi to the Dark Side, West of Memphis), and Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Sound of My Voice).

Ellen Kuras (via Local 600 ICG):

I think cinematography will have a better future than most people expect. When you think about what makes the magic happen in movies, a lot of it has to do with the look of the film. I think anybody who is just pointing and shooting will find it hard to create that magic. It takes experience and understanding and knowledge to think about things that don’t have anything to do with pointing and shooting…like blocking and moving the camera so that the image says something more than just documenting the action. Making a film requires a lot more than just following a certain storyline, the words on the page and how the actors say their lines. A lot of it has to do with the visual nuances and the environment that’s created in the film. I’d tell the students they need the desire to try new things knowing that mistakes are going to happen. Sometimes a mistake will be the best part of a film. You can’t be afraid to try different things.

Reed Morano (via Indiewire):

I joke around sometimes and say that the DP is like a shrink for the director, but there's some truth in there. I want my directors to feel that they can completely rely on me once the shoot begins and that I’m in their brain - almost an extension of their brain. It's my duty is to make everybody feel secure, from producers to directors to actors. Especially the actors - if I don't make the actors feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera, it's possible they're not going to be able to give their best performance. As a DP, I've found that my most invaluable skills besides lighting and using my eye are problem solving, diplomacy and being a great communicator.

Mandy Walker on determining the look of a film (via AFI Blog):

It really varies depending on the relationship I have with a director. I feel I have to be open and adaptive to this. I would never go into a project and dictate to a director: “this is how the movie should look”. Some directors come to me with a very clear idea of their references or vision, which I then interpret into a visual language. It is my job to figure out how I can achieve the director’s vision cinematically, in collaboration with the director then the art department and costume department.

Then there are those directors who come to you with a clear idea of what they want to say in the film, but not a very strong cinematic vision. This process involves searching for and trying out different ideas and reference materials that might appeal to their style of story telling. I will glean [from] art galleries, photography and art books, and other movies to find influential images or scenes that I feel resonate with the story, emotions, and journey of the characters in our film. Depending on the project, this collection of references will vary from one or two key elements to a comprehensive list.

For other directors it’s about how we approach shooting the locations we’ve chosen. For example, with Lantana Ray Lawrence wanted to use natural available light as much as possible to capture the atmosphere of particular locations. He did not want the actors to feel restricted so we used the minimum amount of equipment and lighting. In some interior scenes, it was just the actors and a camera in the room. For a cinematographer, this wasn’t easy as I couldn’t control the light. I always shoot tests before we start a main shoot just to make sure that our ideas work.

Maryse Alberti talking about The Wrestler (via Moving Image Source)

I like to use a minimal amount of equipment. If it was a $25 million movie, there would have been many more lights and reflectors. I basically had a little handheld light and a white card. Darren was interested that I could do a movie like Velvet Goldmine, which was all about style, and I could really light, but also do a documentary, which I could light with very few tools. So applying that, I could really light a sequence if I had to, like the strip club. But the exteriors, I was not afraid to go with minimal lighting. In the supermarket, or the autograph signing, I just changed a few bulbs. That comes from the world of documentary. Sometimes you're in a place and you say, it looks good, you just have to change a bulb there, or turn something off there, and that's it, we're ready.

Rachel Morrison on the DP's job being a balance of artist and technician (via Kodak):

I think if you go too far to one side or the other, it ends up inhibiting your job. I try to control as much optically in-camera as I can, not relying on post-effects, which is almost an old school philosophy at this point. But getting completely caught up in the technical suddenly makes you a mathematician, not an artist. It’s a delicate balance between getting close to what you want but not taking out the poetry or the dance with the actors by being married to waveform monitors and vectorscopes.

There are plenty more, so feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.     

Your Comment

20 Comments

This is all excellently valuable opinion, for sure! I am often puzzled about the seeming gender bias in DP-ing, especially since I know so many excellent female Stills Photographers, but I tend to think women just might not be as interested in it maybe? Either way, thanks for sharing these valuable insights!

March 9, 2015 at 10:03AM

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Aaron Castillo
Director/DP/Graphic Designer/Animator/Musician
117

Great article - good to see more women become DPs - variation is much needed. The other biggest issue I see is in camera department, it's all mostly Caucasian. I just worked with a African-American 1st ac - and I remember thinking that never had I ever worked with an African-American AC or cam op in my 10 years in the industry. Not once, if I remember correctly.

The film industry needs more diversity - it's funny how everyone talks about how "liberal" Hollywood is, but when it comes down to it, it's still a conservative club. And most directors are white males. And most come from upper middle class or higher backgrounds and from film schools, which cost over 30k a year to go to!

It needs to change. Hopefully the democratization of film leads to this. I really hope so. The more voices heard, the more change can happen.

March 9, 2015 at 10:22AM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
873

Agreed!

March 10, 2015 at 11:15AM

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Reah Chiu
Assistant Director
84

"The film industry needs more diversity - it's funny how everyone talks about how "liberal" Hollywood is, but when it comes down to it, it's still a conservative club. And most directors are white males. And most come from upper middle class or higher backgrounds and from film schools, which cost over 30k a year to go to!"

HELL yes! Nail's head done been smashed.

April 23, 2015 at 9:17PM

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Tyring to become an african american cinematographer is not easy. My friend was not lying when he said you can only do film if yo mommy and daddy got money.

June 7, 2015 at 10:51PM

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No, I definitely don't think women aren't as interested, but I think for many there is a certain fear of it - mostly of how much tech there is to learn (this is from my experience talking to other women) - And let's face it, much of the equipment has become lighter and easier to use which is helping to open the door to more female cinematographers. Many are also intimidated by the boys club that already starts in university - not that women are being intentionally excluded, but people work with those they are the most comfortable with and for most, working with people of the opposite sex (especially when you're young) is terrifying. I think this probably holds true for many of the older Dps as well. I think too, the reason why many women don't pursue cinematography is because it's still (mostly) thought of as a man's job, which is why I think (and it seems from your comment that you do as well) that article like these are wonderful and inspiring. Fortunately things are changing and many more creative visions will enter world of film!

April 28, 2015 at 2:24PM

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Nyssa Gluck
Student - Aspiring Cinematographer
74

Emmanuel Lubezki, my favorite!! But these girls are amazing aswell, im currently making my way to become a DP, and I believe in all the words these women say, especially the "I think cinematography will have a better future than most people expect. When you think about what makes the magic happen in movies, a lot of it has to do with the look of the film. I think anybody who is just pointing and shooting will find it hard to create that magic. It takes experience and understanding and knowledge to think about things that don’t have anything to do with pointing and shooting"

March 9, 2015 at 12:21PM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1308

What a great article! Oh and we are definitely interested. The business still have some barriers to break for women, especially in technical fields. The fact the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar only happened in this last decade says how much further we need to go, though strides have been made. I sit in the front row as an AD and my director is female also. Sometimes we have a female TD fill in and I sit in awareness and awe in a room full of men. The dream is that some day it will be so common that I wouldn't think twice about the gender of the person sitting next to me.

March 9, 2015 at 12:28PM

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Reah Chiu
Assistant Director
84

And so many men commenting on this site want to say women aren't interested...

March 9, 2015 at 3:29PM

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Kory Gasser
Filmmaker
272

I usually don't comment on No Film School, but this article was great. I am really getting into cinematography and hope to work in that field a lot more later on. Any advice on how to practice cinematography with only a 300 dollar camera and about 4 desk lamps?

March 9, 2015 at 6:36PM

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Ilya Matyushin
YouTuber & Filmmaker, Freelance Filmmaker
85

Yes... Turn them on and shoot, shoot, shoot!

March 10, 2015 at 11:05AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
662

"I try to control as much optically in-camera as I can, not relying on post-effects, which is almost an old school philosophy at this point."

This quote is deserving of its own article of exploration.

The idea of a DP relying on post raises yellow flags to me.
Sure, the awareness of CG compositing needs are another thing.

March 10, 2015 at 5:01PM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
1077

Think i should go Share this with My Wife Now.... Funny i asked her last night if she'd want to DP and she said she could see herself doing it... this should serve as some inspiration

March 10, 2015 at 6:48PM

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Wentworth Kelly
Director of Photography/Editor/Colorist/Composer
1433

It's fantastic to read an article about Female DPs that isn't just questioning "So, your a girl - tell us about that" issue, and simply addresses these DPs film making approach. The less we get caught up on gender and the more we focus on the creativity and the talent of a DP (be them Male or Female) the better.

March 11, 2015 at 5:54AM

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Eve Hazelton
Director of Photography / Editor
74

Ari Wegner is another amazing Australian DOP doing some really beautiful work.
And of course Sandi Sissel has been doing great things for female DOP's since the 80's. I've only talked with her and never worked together on set, but her finished products are outstanding!

March 11, 2015 at 7:53PM

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Leuke
84

Female DPs are really underrated and it's good to read something about them. There is one Female DP which I really admire these days. That is Natasha Braier (The Rover, XXY). She is also assigned to do the cinematography on Nicolas Winding Refn's new film 'The Neon Demon'. Can't wait to see what she does in it!

March 13, 2015 at 10:49AM

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Dani Iglesias
Writer/Director
81

It definitely is rare. For me, who is an African American woman--it's even more rare. So posts like these are a breath of fresh air. And the tips that these ladies give are great insight. I enjoyed Rachel Morrison's advice. I do feel I get caught up in the technical side a lot. >_<;;;

March 16, 2015 at 1:57PM

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"I think if you go too far to one side or the other, it ends up inhibiting your job. I try to control as much optically in-camera as I can, not relying on post-effects, which is almost an old school philosophy at this point. But getting completely caught up in the technical suddenly makes you a mathematician, not an artist. It’s a delicate balance between getting close to what you want but not taking out the poetry or the dance with the actors by being married to waveform monitors and vectorscopes."

Most GOLDEN of these artists' quotes. Great post and thanks for this, guys.

April 23, 2015 at 9:01PM

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I'm a middle-aged lady who's just gone back to school. Finally I'm living my dream of studying film and video production, with an eye toward becoming DP. This article was pretty inspiring! I'd love to see more about women who make films. :)

April 28, 2015 at 10:46AM

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L.Rowan McKnight
Film student
94

Thank you for posting this. We need more women working on film sets. This makes me really happy.

April 28, 2015 at 2:32PM

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Grace Pisula
Director of Photography
47

this article should be named cute chicks with cameras on shoulders ))))
very nice!
D

April 29, 2015 at 3:59AM

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Hey! Thanks for the article!! the main brands/industries about technology for cinematography should consider the idea of getting and involving more women. I personally know a good number of boys working as brand ambassadors for Canon, Rode, Sony, etc, but not one girl.

June 9, 2015 at 3:56PM

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Anna Stocco
Camera Operator, assistant, editor
81