Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi shares advice on making 'bold' decisions to build your career.
We all make our own journeys as filmmakers. Some of us start off in entry-level positions learning from mentors around us. Others grab gear and figure it out for themselves. There are those who catapult their careers using social media. And others are fortunate enough to stumble into a big break. No matter the route you find yourself taking, we can all learn from each other. We all share a creative drive to make something we're passionate about.
"If you don’t put your work out there, no one will know what you’re capable of."
Native Oakland, California DP Katelin Arizmendi's exploration behind the camera began with her as a camera assistant before jumping up to full-time cinematographer, working on indie films, music videos and high-end commercials for clients including Kodak, BMW, Levi's and dozens of others. Arizmendi's visually magnetic artistry produces alluring storytelling that will no doubt have her seeing feature film work regularly in her path. We sat down with the DP to hear what steps she took.
No Film School: What made you get behind the camera in the first place?
Katelin Arizmendi: I was always making films with my brothers and neighborhood friends growing up. My older brother was into direction and was a huge movie fanatic. He got me into it, and by the time I got to grad school and started learning all the technical side of cinematography and began shooting film, it really drew me into cinematography.
NFS: What were some of the growing pains going from camera assistant to full-time cinematographer?
Arizmendi: I feel one of the toughest things about transitioning from a camera assistant to a full-time cinematographer is having people see you in a new light. It helped tremendously for me to relocate from San Francisco where I was mostly camera assisting to Los Angeles because I could start fresh, and anyone that I met, I would tell them I was a DP. Even if I wasn’t shooting much, I only wanted to be known as a cinematographer.
NFS: How has starting off on the ground level so to speak helped you?
Arizmendi: One benefit of being an AC is being able to observe lighting techniques and take mental notes, but once you’re lighting your own set, it sometimes feels like all of that knowledge goes out the window. There's so much problem solving to be done and new situations with limitations and only through experience can you really start to feel confident. That’s why it’s important to shoot as much as you can in the beginning, even if you bury the end product.
NFS: After reading a script, what’s a good approach to a director’s meeting?
Arizmendi: Sometimes I find that after reading a script, it’s really hard to figure out how the director is going to visualize it. There can be an OK script, but you can elevate it [by] the way you’re shooting it or the casting or your key departments. It’s important not to pass on something that you didn’t connect with right away. I try now to have at least a Skype meeting with the director whenever possible.
It’s important to engage their experience level—if they have done narrative before, if they are a technical director. I’ll also gauge how collaborative they will be. Then ask about who they’re thinking of casting, the production design and the shooting style as well to see if they want to make bold decisions.
"You build trust and shouldn’t be afraid to speak your mind. The trust is the biggest thing."
NFS: Do you let them do most of the talking?
Arizmendi: I’ll usually ask them first. Ask them what they imagine. You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and you want to see if it will be a good collaboration or not. You should hopefully be on the same page with what you’re saying. Hopefully, you both take the script and see it in the same way. When that happens, it is a real confirmation that it’s going to be a good project.
NFS: You’ve worked with the same directors across different mediums. Any advice on the change in landscape?
Arizmendi: Every experience is going to be different, especially going from commercial to narrative. For me, it was about the collaboration. I worked with a director on a bunch of commercials, then we did a 45-minute film. She was very prepared and we had full creative control. You build trust and shouldn’t be afraid to speak your mind. The trust is the biggest thing.
NFS: Any tips on adjusting a budget in a cinematographer’s favor?
Arizmendi: I am never afraid to ask for favors. It tends to happen a good amount even when you are shooting a commercial. It never quite feels like the budget is so great [that] you have everything you ever need unless you push for it. I don’t think of myself as a DP that excessively over-lights or needs everything on the truck. It’s important to be particular about what you need on your list before going into production.
NFS: Do you think it’s OK to for cinematographers to consider lowering their rate for a project?
Arizmendi: It really depends on the project. If it were a passion project at a super small rate and I needed the right tools, I’d consider forfeiting my rate to get them. It’s usually worth it because the end result is the most important thing.
NFS: How can a rising cinematographer choose the right projects?
Arizmendi: This is the never-ending cycle that I always go through, but it’s what keeps the industry exciting for me. I know it’s the same for many people. I’ve been quite picky about the work I did this last year, but it takes a lot to get to that point. The creative/script, the director, production company, the shooting format are all the most significant things I look for.
NFS: …and budget?
Arizmendi: It is important for passion projects to know if you can get the right tools/crew you want. The rate comes after those things. However, you have to find a balance. I recently did a non-profit film that I believe in strongly. After, I’m shooting a commercial rather than another low-budget/ creative because there needs to be balance and one needs to be smart about finances. That doesn’t mean I’ll shoot any commercial that falls into my lap.
Without those creative low-budget jobs early in your career, you can start to lose inspiration. It’s always tough to say no to a job to someone you know personally, but I think honesty is important. There’s time when I don’t want to admit to someone that I don’t like the script, but in the past when I’ve told a director I can’t connect to the material, they’ve been thankful for my honesty.
NFS: What kind of relationships should up and coming cinematographers try to make?
Arizmendi: Making connections early on with rental houses is extremely helpful. Panavision has been undeniably one of the most supportive companies I’ve had in my career. Since the first low-budget short film I rented through them, they believe in making a long-lasting relationship with the DP and they always have my back when they can.
Kodak has also been amazing. The projects I’ve shot film on are usually the creative low-budget type. So I’m always emailing Kodak asking them for discounts. At times, I feel like I’ve used up all my favor requests, but they always come back trying to help out. I’m super grateful for this kind of support.
NFS: How important is it to build creative partnerships with colorists early on in a career?
Arizmendi: It’s been really beneficial because grading is so important and you want someone who will heighten what you’ve put in the camera, not take away from it. You need to have the same taste and trust in each other. It’s also great to have a colorist who can build LUTs for you to put in the camera when you don’t have a proper DIT. I feel as though I used to over-color some of my previous work and now I like when you don’t really notice a grade. It shouldn’t distract from the image.
NFS: How has technology changed your behavior as a cinematographer?
Arizmendi: LED lighting is something I’ve benefited most from. It’s so easy to be able to dial in color temp and intensity with your gaffer using a dimmer board or iPad. The size, weight and low wattage are also incredible.
When it comes to lenses, they are everything. And I feel as though I’m still finding new favorites, or circling through phases of loving vintage glass, to loving a nice sharp image. When I shoot digital, my tendency is often to shoot with older glass that has character. When I shoot on film, I prefer sharp lenses like master primes because I like pushing film and shooting wide open in low light. Old glass can fall apart really easily on film.
"When I shoot on film, I prefer sharp lenses like master primes because I like pushing film and shooting wide open in low light."
NFS: What are your experiences with shooting styles so far?
Arizmendi: I’m not the biggest fan of anamorphic. It feels right for commercial and music video work sometimes but I prefer spherical for narrative. I prefer the way close-ups of peoples’ faces look with spherical glass and it’s easier to push them to the far edges of the frame without being distorted. I’m also a fan of headroom so there’s lots of room to play with when shooting 16:9.
NFS: Any glass we should consider for our own creative work?
Arizmendi: Every project has its own set of needs, but a few of my favorite lenses are Panavision Ultra Speeds, Leica Summilux, Kowa Cine Prominar (spherical), Panavision E and C series and Panavision Primos.
NFS: Have there been any projects that have opened more doors for you?
Arizmendi: For a while, I felt like I was never known for one project. It was an accumulation of work that gave me exposure, not one specific piece. Then I shot a commercial for Valvoline with vintage cars, motorcycles, low riders, and race cars. It’s my strongest commercial so far and I’ve had a lot of people bring up that specific spot. I think what made it special was that the director Salomon Ligthelm and I had never done sleek car commercial work before. I hadn’t done any car work actually. So our approach to it was that we wanted rough, very energetic handheld, mixed with composed lock-offs. There’s a few surreal lighting moments in it that almost bring a bit of fashion vibe to it. We also shot a bunch of 16mm that adds to the gritty approach. I know that specific spot has helped open doors for me to more car commercials. I’m hoping the first feature I shot this year is well received and I see more feature scripts that push boundaries and try to be unique.
"We hadn’t done any car work before. So our approach to it was that we wanted rough, very energetic handheld, mixed with composed lock-offs."
NFS: How important is finding representation as a cinematographer?
Arizmendi: I remember when I first moved to New York from Los Angeles in 2014, I was fixated on the urge to get an agent. I felt ready in my career and it felt like the next step. What I learned quickly is that agents don’t like when you approach them. They want to already know who you are, and you also want them to be knocking at your door so that in some ways, you have the upper hand and can choose the right one.
NFS: Do you have any early agent stories you can share?
Arizmendi: A few months after I moved to Los Angeles, I had a producer send an agent in LA an email with my work. I ended up meeting with them and felt quite intimidated right away. She kindly told me to keep doing what I’m doing, but that I’m not ready to be signed with them. A few months went by and I got an email from a different agency. We had a 45-minute phone call that night and I signed with them immediately.
NFS: What made you say yes to the agency?
Arizmendi: We clicked personality-wise [and] creatively, and they were willing to give me the chance other agents didn’t. Two weeks later, another agent from the agency who denied me sent me an email saying how much she loved my work and wanted to meet with me. It almost felt like I just needed one company to take a chance with me, then the rest would eventually follow.
"To me, an agent is someone who guides you, gives you advice, connects you with people in the industry, manages your schedule and is your biggest cheerleader."
NFS: Any advice on how to pick one?
Arizmendi: When choosing an agent, I think it’s more about who you vibe with, who’s on their roster and the type of work their DPs do. They should get the right kind of work for you creatively and not push you to do work just for the money. To me, an agent is someone who guides you, gives you advice, connects you with people in the industry, manages your schedule and is your biggest cheerleader. I don’t rely on my agent to get me work, but I do think it’s important that they’re constantly checking in with you to make sure you’re happy with where you’re at and having discussions on how you can keep moving forward.
NFS: Do you think being active on social media increases your exposure?
Arizmendi: I can’t stress how important it is to put your work out there—through your website, through social media, Vimeo, etc. It’s very daunting at the beginning because you’re just starting and unsure about your work. It takes a lot to be able to know your own value. However, if you don’t put your work out there, no one will know what you’re capable of.
Ever since I got out of film school, I’ve been actively putting my work on the internet. Even when it was just photography or when I was shooting my own short fashion films and music videos. I’ve always put a heavy emphasis on my reel and would spend painful hours editing it to make it as cool as it could be. I think every DP needs to do their own networking and overall just make great work and the work will come to you.
NFS: Have you invited others to view your reel before publishing it?
Arizmendi: It’s smart to pass your reel around to other people before you release it and see what they think because it’s so subjective. A shot that you may think is really cool may not be something other people respond to well. I heard from a director once that when he’s looking at DP's websites or reels, even if 99% of their projects are impressive, he can’t get past seeing one project that he thinks isn’t up to par. It ruins everything for him. I was really impacted by that, so even now I am very selective about what I put on my website. Quality over quantity.