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 (Australia, Tracks), Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, Taxi to the Dark Side, West of Memphis), and Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Sound of My Voice).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.