What It’s Like to Be a Female DP for Network TV [Interview]
Alison Kelly gives us a peek into her rarified world, and how we can get there.
From SkyPanels on gimbals to pointing an Angenieux 24-290 at Eva Longoria, shooting for television can be a pretty sweet deal. At least it has been for Alison Kelly, who just shot ABC’s Grand Hotel and sat down to speak with us from the set of Disney’s Diary of a Female President.
Starting off like every other Tom, Dick, and Harriet: At the bottom
Kelly didn’t start off with any contacts to anyone on a network show. In fact, having grown up in the Midwest, Kelly was as removed from the film industry as you get. She hadn’t even heard there was a job called cinematographer until the end of school. But when she first heard about the field, it was electric. “A light bulb went off in my head, ‘That's what I need to do!’” she described.
How’d she get here? Working her way up, one rank at a time. She started out as an animation assistant, back when animation was still on film. Then she worked at a repair shop fixing cameras. Eventually, she got into the camera union in New York and started as a loader. From there, she finally got into the camera department pulling focus. But once she got to pulling focus, she got stuck.
“There were fewer opportunities for women to move up,” she described to No Film School. So, she decided to go to AFI, and the shake-up proved the last necessary step to get her into her dream job of DP. “It was good for me,” explained Kelly about going back to school to break in, “but I'm a firm believer that you can learn just as much in the field.”
What is changing about the film industry right now
Alison Kelly had a sit down meeting with Eva Longoria and showrunner Brian Tanen about coming on to Grand Hotel. Having been working in the industry for many years, this kind of meeting is a fresh new development.
Kelly: I think it's getting people with different mindsets in big positions of power, and in the hiring positions. I've had interviews in the past where the people just didn't believe that women could run a whole crew. They were like "Can you really boss around all those men?" The mindset is changing because there are people out there doing it, but also because of people like Eva Longoria. She has really made it a passion for populating the cast and the crew with people of color and women, and I do think that helps.
Coming up with a new look to an existing story
The Spanish Gran Hotel was set in the 1800s and in Spain and garnered a big following for its romantic turn-of-the-century style. How did Kelly deal with this American reboot? She paid homage to the building as through-line, while going big with colors.
Kelly: The common thread is that the hotel itself is such a big character in both shows. When I came on, they had shot the pilot already, but we got into very deep, creative conversations about how to use the architecture, both to frame the story and to shoot through stuff. The production designer, Steve Saklad, is such a wonderful collaborator. He and his team worked with me and my team in prep to make sure that every set had foreground elements that were moveable that we could put in front of the camera. Walls came out. We were always thinking about how to get the camera in cool places to keep including the hotel. And we did try to keep that element of mystery. The time period obviously is different, and Miami brought a lot of "poppier" colors, and just that really signature Miami daylight.
Part of prep, also, is just figuring out how to get daylight into those sets and have it feel nuanced. We could have a scene at noon, or have a scene at dawn, or have a hurricane. It was good and challenging to do all that work on stage.
Why Kelly Put SkyPanels on Gimbals, and other tricks of the trade
When we asked Kelly what one of the toughest challenges was on Grand Hotel, she explained that it was creating Miami light on a stage in Los Angeles.
Kelly: There's a lobby set based on the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, and at either end, we have these big day exterior sets, too. For me, one of the trickiest things is making a believable day exterior on the stage. We have this outdoor café where several scenes take place. We had a whole brainstorming session about, how we were going to make it work? We really needed to feel like you were in the Miami sun. But it wasn't very big of a set!
So what we did was, we made this very controllable, ambient daylight. We had these softboxes. There were some bigger ones that were, I think, 8x12 and then some 4x4 ones at different spots. And those were on gimbals so that we could angle them to change the modeling of the ambient sunlight. They had ARRI SkyPanels with 60s inside. They are very color controllable. They're LED lights, so we could really change the nuance of stuff. We could adjust if we wanted it a little cooler for a dusk theme or to have subtle gradations. We actually used them for the hurricane as well, because you can add movements to them. And then we ring that whole set with P12, and we had 120K that were trussed on motors so we could change the angle of the sunlight and move those around. We could sort of slide them to either end of the truss.
The trick of the whole thing, I think, was that in the day exterior scenes, we had these white and yellow umbrellas. We could put up these umbrellas and move around on the patio so that, strategically, you could have our hero actors in a pretty ambient shade, but that the rest of the patio or other areas could feel like there was harsh daylight on it. It really was successful to the point where the A camera operator came up to me this last week, because we're working on a new show now, and he was like, "I was watching [Grand Hotel] with my wife and I was trying to remember, because we thought it was on location, it looked so real!" It was so funny because he was the one who operated the A camera. And he had forgotten that we were on a stage! It was a successful strategy.
It helps to have wind. We had a good special effects department. Much to the chagrin of the sound department, although they were good about it, we would have enough wind so that the actor's hair and clothes moved a little bit.
Cameras and lenses that the big girls are using
If you shoot a top-of-the-line show, you get to use top-of-the-line gear.
Kelly: We used ARRI AMIRA’s with Master Prime, and they were great because the colors were really true. The lenses were really crisp. It just all worked for that Miami look. The AMIRA’s just do beautiful things with rolling off highlights. That was a real asset because part of what makes daylight on a stage believable is to get the highlights hot enough so it feels like it's almost losing detail – but not quite. But enough so it’s outside the safe range. The AMIRA sensor is kind when you are working with that!
The other advantage we had was that we were able to do a lot of long-lens work on set. We used Angenieux 24-290, and those were great because we could live at a 180 or 200mm on some of those scenes. It just let everything fall off and be beautiful in the background.
How to cope with the nonstop pace of an ABC show
Sure, most film sets are moving as fast as they can. But the difference when shooting a show at this level is that you are moving so fast, you have to start half-way dialed in, as Kelly explains.
Kelly: The beauty of shooting on a stage, and in sets that are as well-planned out with the art department as this one, is that we were able to do a lot of multi-camera. It was a single-camera show, but a lot of it had three cameras with long lenses. There was space, and we could get the lighting back far enough that instead of having things five or six feet from the cast, we would have a massive 20x30 book light halfway across the room. People could move in the space. It all felt natural and we could shoot from different angles at the same time.
As far as how to sum up a day, it's basically a little bit nonstop. We had a lot of ensemble teams that were six, seven, eight characters in a scene, moving around. Everybody has dialogue in different areas, so we had walk-and-talk through the lobby where they stop and talk to someone and then they go and talk to someone else.
I would say that the most important thing was doing a really solid prep. That let us rig the sets in a way that once we were in motion on the day, our lighting changes were quite quick. The pace of the day doesn't really ever let you start cold anywhere. Everything has to be half-way dialed in, and then bring in the floor work. It’s also important to have a really good shorthand with the camera crew, and having nice camera operators who can work together. Some of those hotel rooms are really tiny, and we would have three different cameras. So everyone got to know each other really well!
Advice on breaking in: Shadow someone and don’t give up
Kelly: It's all about persistence. You have to have your eyes on the dream and trying to get there. It's great if you can shadow someone or otherwise work on sets. I learned so much as a camera assistant in New York because I got to work with these DPs that were really big-budget pictures and TV shows, and I learned stuff that I would never have learned in the indie world. But then you also learn really important lessons in the indie world about being resourceful, working on the fly, and keeping an optimistic attitude about how to keep going. I think that the best advice I've ever gotten is just to trust your gut, and try to pick people to work with that you like and that respect. Then you can create an environment that you're happy working in, and hopefully, the opportunity finds you.
Thank you, Alison!